I was recently contacted by a reporter from the Korea Herald with questions for a future article about the issues foreigners face working in Korea. Here's our Q&A:
1. What you would be the most serious work issue you have encountered personally, or has been highlighted by someone else that has come to you, in connection with working in Korea?
The most common issue is probably non-payment of wages by institutes to their teachers. It's likely not a frequent occurence, but it does happen and I get contacted from time-to-time by folks needing interpreting or translation for such issues.
I've been lucky in that I've faced very few serious work issues myself. The hardest time for me was when I first got started in my position at LG International many years ago; it was a challenge to figure out what the company was expecting of me. This is probably a common problem in positions filled by foreigners since those positions are generally ad hoc hirings done outside of an established system and processes, so sometimes the Korean company doesn't even know what they want from their foreign staff.
We've interviewed some executives working in Korean companies on Korea Business Central and it's interesting to see that even those in C-level positions faced similar confusion over expectations, as well as cultural and language differences. Here are links to the interviews:
2. Have you found that Korean hierarchy is a big challenge for foreigners working here? Is there room for give and take, or is assimilation (as far as possible) the only real option?
Foreigners exist outside the traditional Korean hierarchy so I'm not sure the hierarchy is all that challenging for us per se. Perhaps the most challenging part is just coming to terms with the fact that one is not going to move up the hierarchy in whatever Korean company one is in. Even if it were possible, how many non-Koreans would want to put in the effort and time (not to mention low salaries) to succeed long-term in a Korean company?
3. Are there services you feel are lacking for foreigners with work issues in Korea?
Not really. The Korean government seems to be making big efforts to help foreign job holders. I'm sure plenty of things happen anyway, but those are probably related to language, cultural and personal challenges, rather than a lack of services.
4. What would be the biggest mistake foreigners make when coming to work here and in their everyday work life?
Foreigners who want to work or are working in a Korean workplace must understand Korean business culture and without that background, they are sure to cause offense, look silly and get frustrated. On Korea Business Central we offer a Korea Business Culture Fundamentals Specialization in our KBC Professional Certification Program which is helping many foreigners get the skills to avoid mistakes and be successful both in the workplace and in their everyday work lives. Here's a link to the overview page for that - http://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/page/certification. Here is our current list of graduates too - http://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/page/kbc-professional-certification-program-graduates. I'd be glad to put you in touch with any of these graduates (as well a couple we've added in the last week that I haven't updated to the site yet).
5. Are there aspects of the visa system that need looking at so as not to put foreigners who are mistreated at work in a position where they have no choice but to put up with it or quit (and leave the country)?
I suppose it's not an accident that the government offers limited visa options. We get members on KBC asking about this all the time (for example: http://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/forum/topics/running-an-online-business-from-korea-what-are-my-visa-options).
What is means is that those who make the investment by passing the points system (or put down roots by marrying a local) get many work advantages.
I'm sure if you look for them, you can find plenty of foreigners who think they've been mistreated in their workplaces, and some probably have. That's unfortunate, but I'm sure it's not on the government's agenda to change the visa situation just for them since doing so would encourage other behaviors they don't want (such as working on the side without a formal job).
6. What meaningful steps would improve the work environment for foreigners here and see Korean companies gain?
It's frustrating to see the failures of foreigners working in Korea. Now that companies like LG have gotten rid of all of their expat executives and with high-profile overseas investors leaving Songdo under a cloud of suspicion, it's certainly not portraying for Korea the image they'd like others to see.
This discussion on just how hard it is for Koreans to work and live in Korea got quite a bit of commentary from the Korea Business Central membership a couple years ago: