Korea: The Tyranny of Titles is a very brief and concise read about Korea’s former system of titular penis flexing in the corporate world, followed by the system’s fragmentation during the Asian Financial Crisis, and then its chaotic aftermath.
A Confucian society since antiquity, Korea has traditionally placed an intense emphasis on seniority under its “HoBong System” of seniority-based promotions and pay. When one joins a company out of school, his title is “SaWon”, which means “employee”. After 3-5 years, a promotion to assistant manager is expected – and a raucous party with friends to celebrate the occasion. After another 4 years one becomes a manager, and another party follows. Within the ranks themselves there are subtle differences in pay and prestige again based on seniority.
For decades this system served Korea well, and then came the system’s (apparent) death knell: the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s. One result of the crisis was soul searching in corporate Korea. While the culture did not change overnight, Korean companies decided to change, adopting the western “salary system”, in which one’s remuneration and title is based not on seniority, but on job description, competence and, most importantly, job performance.
The first hagwon where I worked was very strict on titles. Everyone had a title and would take offense or at least say something if a title were left off someone’s name. Where I work now, the titles have been abbreviated by the Korean teachers, while I’ve totally given up on them all together.
In a corporate context, many companies are finding this obsession with titling to stifle the free flow of communication. While junior colleagues can speak to senior colleagues, often the senior colleague has to be the one to initiate the contact. In some organizations it is taboo to speak with anybody senior to your boss. Much depends on the size and culture of the organization, but often senior managers – particularly those from the west – find the situation highly frustrating.
In the parlance of my hometown, where truck size stands for penis size, the guy with the biggest truck is boss. So don’t ask him probing questions about his suspension lift unless you’re a boss yourself.
Attempts to resolve title psychology have been mixed. Some companies have abolished titles outright, committing themselves to the sole use of English titles, and also to not address people by title internally. Perhaps the most well known recent case of this is SK Telecom, which adopted what it calls the “manager” system in 2007. Under this system, everyone’s title has the word manager. The rationale is that even though many are not “managing” other people, they are “managing” their work. While new entrants to the company are happy with this arrangement, some veterans in the company have expressed dismay at this state of affairs.
Hahaha, that’s title inflation: it’s like giving everyone a gold star no matter how much they suck. On the other hand, I’m sure it’s useful for picking up ladies who don’t realize that the title is virtually meaningless at SK Telecom.
On title upgrades:
The old title system has many implications for corporate leaders. First, Koreans often want a better title when they change jobs – although some may accept a lesser title if the organization they are moving to is much larger or deemed as more prestigious than their current employer. Then again, some Koreans insist on a better title irrespective of the size of the organization they are joining. In many cases titling can be a deal breaker. At more senior levels, some companies reserve the title “JeonMu” for executives in their fifties, but often forty-somethings demand this title before they will join a firm.
Titles are linked to these guys’ livelihoods in far more ways than just penile status flexing. Neutering titles can be a way for higher-ups to stifle promotions and thus keep wages down, while at the same time granting execs broader plausible deniability for hoarding top spots. That’s a very subversive way to usher in neo-liberal economic practices, the kind of practices that have increased efficiency in the U.S., though to the detriment of wages and income equality.