The paper Finns Making Sense of Korean Hierarchy draws from interviews with ten Finnish expats working in Korea, and contains many interesting observations and frustrations they’ve had with ‘power distance’ in the Korean workplace.
On long work hours:
Hierarchy very definitely influences the way employees use their time, because in traditional Korean working culture employees never leave the office before their superior does. As a rule all interviewees were very critical of the 10 to 12 hours of work that Koreans usually put in each day. According to the interviewees the long hours were not about increasing the productivity of work but about pleasing the boss. Often the last hours at work were spent playing computer games and writing emails, but it was important to look as if one was working.
All the time you have to keep thinking about what your superiors think and what they see their subordinates doing. That’s why the employees usually come to work before and leave after their bosses. (Laura.)
When the boss left the office everyone dug out their pillows and started to sleep right there, which is a slightly different attitude than in Finland. You know, it’s the way in Korea, to work as long as your boss is at the office. Most bosses can’t stand employees leaving earlier than them. If the boss works till ten, then everybody works till ten even though there is nothing to do. Equally, if the boss is not there, then people do nothing. (Mikko.)
The length of a person’s working day depends on the length of his boss’s day. If one is unlucky, one’s boss does not have a life beside work, which means that the private lives of employees suffer. In other words, when the boss has power over the time his employees use for work, he decides on how much time they have for life outside of work. According to the interviewees, Finnish bosses were conscious of their power position in the office and did not purposely work over-time, so their employees could leave work after eight hours and go home with a good conscience. According to Laura the Korean employees also liked this policy.
This brings up an interesting debate about what’s polite vs. impolite. When my boss makes us stand in front of elementary schools in the early morning on registration day, genuflecting to parents and their kids, my coworkers think it’s polite for our boss to take us out to lunch as a way to thank us. On the other hand, I think the polite thing to do is to let us go home after that. Given that our workday begins in the afternoon, taking us to a protracted lunch means that we’ll have to spend the entire day from morning to night doing work-related stuff. When wages come in unchanging lump sums rather than by the hour, my desire to spend an extra minute doing anything work-related—even eating lunch—is totally diminished.
More on punctuality and politeness:
Volatility of schedules and the possibility of cancellations seemed to be more the rule than the exception. [...] Many interviewees experienced the quick rescheduling and lack of plans as disturbing. Mika was direct about it and said “it is one of the most aggravating sides, the last-minute changing of things.” To Finns who were accustomed to being precise and punctual, changeable and rescheduled meetings appeared even as impoliteness.
So it’s kind of amazing when I myself thought, before I came here, that respecting the other person means also being on time and sticking to what has been agreed, but here it doesn’t fully apply and I can’t figure out why. (Petri.)
There are all sorts of contradictions. For example, in Korea, blowing your nose at the table makes you a caveman, but chewing with your mouth open and talking with your mouth full makes you just another refined socialite.
On criticism within a hierarchy:
In Finland the interviewees had got used to chatting with their bosses on the same level, so to speak, and also to expressing their doubts or criticisms if necessary. In Korea the same kind of behavior was out of the question, except on a night out drinking when alcohol helped employees to bring up issues. Some of the interviewees were more troubled than others by the restrictions on expressing opinions. Juhani came prepared for the hierarchy of Korean culture and described the status quo as merely “interesting”. In contrast, Eeva thought the situation was very frustrating indeed. [...]
Some people, however, had quite the opposite experience and questioned whether hierarchy really did restrict the expression of opinion. Timo said that he had often been surprised at the outspokenness of Koreans. In a conference he attended, for example, a young woman had strongly criticized a presentation made by the head of the department. Timo noted that even in Finland he would have not expressed his differing opinion so boldly. Timo also talked about a colleague with whom he had a joint project and from whom he needed frequent feedback. Timo was glad about the colleague’s criticism but also puzzled by this directness and wondered whether his own assumptions had mistakenly led him to conclude that Koreans were indirect and shied away from giving criticism.
Looks like Timo ran into a member of the small but vocal minority of Koreans who can’t keep any observation, no matter how snarky or blunt, from vocalization. I have to wonder whether this type of Korean exists more commonly in the Jeolla provinces, which is where many subversives were banished to throughout history. This type of Korean is fun and useful at work when the boss needs a good dose of honesty, but outside the workplace this person should be discarded quickly before his/her acerbic personality turns on you.
On decision making:
According to the Finns’ experiences, decision-making is sometimes even avoided in a Korean work place. If the decision turned out to be a poor one, one’s job might be in jeopardy. In the same way higher level managers rarely admit their mistakes. According to Antero, the fear of losing face can be seen for example in how cooperation partners or negotiators always want to know beforehand the questions to be discussed during a meeting. They will not even agree on a meeting if they do not know exactly what the agenda of the meeting will be. “Then they prepare for the meeting together and decide on the answers but if you happen to ask something else they get confused,” Antero explained.
Given their prearranged nature, these business meetings are more like moments of scripted badassery, which makes more sense of the dramatic boardroom scenes in Korean dramas. They really must be like that, unless someone asks an oddball question.
On monochronic vs. polychronic culture:
The Finns can be seen as representing a monochronic concept of time and Koreans as living in a polychronic culture (Hall 1984). In monochronic cultures people try to proceed according to plans made well beforehand, and to carry out assignments one at a time from start to finish. In polychronic cultures numerous matters are dealt with simultaneously and assignments are put on hold if maintaining connections requires it. [...] However, the line between monochronic and polychronic cultures is vague and South Korea, for example, is occasionally (at least partly) defined as a monochronic culture (Gesteland 1999, 158). The monochronicity of Finns is also not altogether undisputed as Germans, for example, see Finns as being not punctual but very spontaneous[.]
On women and the hierarchy:
Women do not benefit from the hierarchical system and thus are more ready to give it up.
This may very well be true, but from where I stand—at the bottom of a hierarchy dominated by women—it sure doesn’t seem so. Before you assume Korean women will willingly give up a chance to wield some traditional power, try working under one. You may see things differently.