Koreans love to work.  They are addicted to work.  Work is their everything.

Sometimes I feel like it’s impossible to make plans with Koreans because they’re always at work.  They never know when they’ll get out so they can’t commit to seeing you.

I know a lot of Americans think that we’re overworked, and we are. But Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level.

Let me explain.

Most Koreans I know who work for a company work a minimum of 70 hours a week.  Anything less than that would make people think  they’ re just not committed to their job, and that’s a really horrible thing for people to think about you in a country obsessed with work.

So if you’re working 70+ hours a week, you must be getting a lot done, right?  Well, no.  The reason is that while they stay at work a long time, they tend to not have the most productive work habits.  I’m not making this up.  A study found that Koreans were the least productive of all OECD countries.

From how I understand it, a large part of work in Korea is about face.  You have to be there, you have to be available, you have to be a yes-man, you have to stay late, you have to go out with your co-workers- you have to do all these things so people think you care, that you’re dedicated, that you’re loyal, that you’re committed.  What you produce in that time is far less important.  The important thing is that you follow these few specific social norms so everyone believes you’re committed to your job.

Things about Korean work culture that I find peculiar are:

  • You can’t leave until your boss goes home.  Your boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  Your boss’s boss can’t go home until their boss goes home.  This goes all the way up the the CEO.  So if the CEO stays late, EVERYONE else will be there late.  This keeps lots of lower level employees just hanging around the office trying to look busy until they can leave.
  • If your boss wants to go out drinking, you have to go and you have to drink.  Not attending would be extremely rude and not drinking every drink offered to you would also be extremely rude.  People get pissed drunk with their bosses all the time, even if they don’t want to.
  • Consequently, people are often seriously hungover at work.  No one bats an eyelash at this.  People openly admit to being out late drinking, and being hungover.  People will sleep at their desks.  Obviously, productivity is low when you’re hungover.
  • There’s a strict hierarchy and they value the “yes-man” so much that communication suffers.  People will get assignments and agree to do them without asking questions, including basic clarification questions.  No one ever pushes back.  This can result in poor quality work, unnecessary work, and work that misses the mark entirely.
  • Poor time management skills.  I see this in the schools as well.  Someone with authority will ask someone beneath them to do a project with hardly any notice, so it’s rushed.  This can result in poor time management in two ways: 1- leaders do not consider the needs of their staff to do quality work, so, as I mentioned before, the staff has to rush to get it done, and 2- always getting projects at the last minute does not help employees develop time management skills because the focus is always on hurrying, not on being smart about how to use their time to do the project well.
  • No sick leave.  Officially they have sick leave, but in practice you wouldn’t dare use it unless you were deathly ill.  My co-teachers told me the previous principal at my school would accuse teachers of feigning illness to get out of work.  In my teaching orientation I was advised to not use any of my 14 sick days for the year if I wanted to work a second year, as the school would view my using them as me being lazy.  I did use 3, once because I had a fever, once because I had a migraine, and once to go to the doctor to get more migraine medicine.  In addition to being sick, I was really worried about what would happen to me if I used them.  My principal later approached me each time to ask about my health, which at first I thought was really nice, but I later realized it was because he thought my condition must have been critical to warrant taking a day off.
  • Not surprisingly, all of this leads employees to being stressed, overwhelmed, and burnt out.

That said, Koreans seem to wear hard work as a badge of honor.  They like knowing they’re doing everything they can for their company/place of work.  It’s a huge compliment to tell someone they worked hard, even more so than telling them they did a good job.  They work hard and like knowing their effort is recognized.

So that’s what I’ve gathered after being in Korea for about a year.  What other thoughts and experiences do you have?