Category: work in a company

Exploring Korean business, language and life from Ansan, Korea

Reflections on the Benefits of Learning Korean to One’s Career in Korea

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Learning Korean is tough; there are no two ways about it. When I first came to Korea, I planned to conquer Korean in two years and then do the same with Chinese and Japanese after that. I figured that would make me something special. However, it didn't take me long to realize that Korean was the only language of the three in which I'd manage to achieve proficiency, and that improving those skills would be a lifelong project. 

I've met other Westerners who have started along this journey but gotten discouraged. Here's a typical question and my answer to it.

Q: Will Korean skills boost my career opportunities in Korea?

A: I would like to say that the answer is a definite "yes"; however, as with many aspects of life in Korea, the answer is nuanced.

It can be a discouraging reality to accept, but your Korean abilities are not going to fast-track you in your career in Korea. In fact, though Korean skills may work in your favor if competing against someone for a job who doesn't know Korean, it is unlikely your Korean will be a crucial factor in the hiring process, no matter what job you apply for.

In general, if you're from an English-speaking country, you'll likely find your best job opportunities in positions that take advantage of your English abilities, and once that happens, your Korean is no longer an asset; in some cases, it's a disadvantage if your prospective employer is concerned you’ll be more focused on learning Korean than on helping your coworkers and/or students improve their English. Your employer is more likely to appreciate your Korean abilities if they didn't hire you for your English, but your Korean still won't be a key factor in the hiring process.

Way back when I taught English, I remember trying to inject Korean into my classes. Students (understandably) hated that. Later, when working in the LG Group as an editor/writer (and later, off-and-on translator), I was given strict instructions NOT to speak Korean in the office. I recall trying to refer an American friend to a position that had opened up in the company and when I mentioned to the director that my friend was fluent in Korean, he flat out told me nobody cared about that. Even now in my Ph.D. studies at Hanyang University, the semi-frequent job offers I get from the university to teach always involve helping the university fulfill the government-mandated requirement for classes taught in English and I often sense disappointment that I'm so focused on doing my coursework in Korean.

Having said that, I can think of some situations where your Korean skills could be helpful. The first would be where you have been hired for your English skills but where your Korean abilities let you understand and participate in office communications. This may make your more effective and fulfilled in your job. But as a foreigner, you won’t be on a career path to which you can apply this effectiveness and so the main benefit is likely to be found in helping you avoid some of the feelings of isolation that you'd encounter otherwise. But plenty of non-Koreans without Korean skills have managed their way through those situations, so it's not absolutely necessary.

You may also find that your Korean skills let you discover roles that wouldn't otherwise have existed. Your ability to leverage these roles would then be the determining factor in where you go from there. For example, being good at Korean can generate a lot of curiosity and if managed strategically may lead to hidden opportunities. I’ve encountered a few of those, such as being appointed Foreign-Investment Advisor to Gyeonggi Province when the Governor was impressed with my Korean. But networking opportunities are not the same as a career path. Besides, English skills are also a point of curiosity with Koreans and this can open doors, too. Thus, being stubborn in using Korean can close some of those English-oriented doors of opportunity, as well.

One more observation…. Even though speaking Korean is not going to make your career, the longer you spend in Korea without learning the language to a certain degree of proficiency, the more of a drag it may be on you, both personally and professionally. One reason is that Koreans may question your commitment to the country and your diligence if you never move beyond English interactions, and this can affect professional perceptions, too. Thus, speaking Korean may not help much, but not speaking Korean may also not be so great. Eventually, those who don’t learn Korean (and many who do!) end up “moving on” and not sticking around.

Speaking Korean often feels like a “brownie point” earner more than a killer resume skill. It’s a career asset if used strategically, but even that's not easy. And social pressure in Korea can provide a compelling excuse NOT to learn Korean.

I would say that if career opportunities are your primary motivation to learn Korean, then it’s not worth the trouble. The Korean learning process must have deeper value for you in personal ways — such as the satisfaction you get from communicating in a difficult language and cultural context — and that requires a special love for Korea.

When Koreans learn English, they can travel the world and meet people from many countries; when we learn Korean, we can… well, we can travel around Korea and meet Koreans. Ultimately, learning Korean is a niche endeavor that narrows (but deepens) your options. 

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

Thrive in a Korean Company: “How can Korea Business Central can help me, as a non-Korean, thrive in a Korean company?”

The following was extracted from a recent interview with me about how to thrive in a Korean company. 


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"How can Korea Business Central can help me, as a non-Korean, thrive in a Korean company?"

"We have loads of resources on Korea Business Central to help you succeed working for a Korean company. I’ve already mentioned the case-study interviews we’ve done with non-Korean professionals and executives who have worked in Korean companies. I’ve also mentioned the opportunity to connect with peer in other Korean work environments.

We’ve got member discussions about a wide range of Korean business-related topics, including employment in a Korean company. You can seek out advice about your specific questions from experts, and if you’re in Korea, Korea Business Central has hosted business networking events and we have information about upcoming opportunities with many other organizations too, too, including some that are online and available from afar.

Furthermore, as an understanding of Korean business culture is a key factor in your success in a Korean business position, KBC has both free and premium resources to equip you for that success. In fact, our KBC Professional Certification Program allows you to learn and become independently certified in the fundamentals of Korean business culture, which is a great way to prepare for your new position."

Visit Korea Business Central for more information on working in a Korean company, including the full video of this interview.


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What’s Wrong with Teaching English in Korea?

A KBC member sent me the following question last week:

Hello Steven,

Thank you for this website.  It's an extremely valuable, interactive and informative place for people like me looking for work in Korea.

I'm 38 Korean American who came to the States when I was 14 (back in 1988).  I served in the U.S. military for 4 years, completed my undergrad in business administration and have been in IT support positions for past 12 years, but mainly in desktop support, network operation center and currently helpdesk.  Not exactly the most sought-after IT positions even in the States these days.  

Based on my limited research, reading many discussions and contents on your site and along with visiting many expat blogs, I'm beginning to appreciate how tight the job market is in Korea and how difficult it can be to achieve and maintain a decent standard of living on a salary man's earning………let alone save enough to buy home (which does not seem to be possible for most).

I've checked out a few job sites such as Indeed, Myjobs.kr and other online job boards.  I got one call back after responding to a tech support job and was told that I'm too old (in a nice way).

My reason for wanting to work in Korea is a personal one:  I met someone.  She lives and works in Seoul.  
My Korean is fluent (even though my writing and typing skill sets are rusty).  

You've been in Korea longer than me.  In your own experience and exposure to fellow expat as well as Korean Americans in ESL industry, do I have a decent chance to find a work teaching English considering my age?

I read one of the forum where [one member] talks about being careful with switching career field just for the sake of finding work in Korea.  It hit home and yet I'm seriously considering doing just that.

My head tells me that I'm about to make a huge career suicide, but honestly, I won't miss leaving my current field.  Coming to Korea isn't about making money or career.  And I doubt that I'll look for long-term work beyond a year at most.  Then again, I have no idea where I will be in another year.  I never thought I would think about working in Korea at the beginning of this year.  

My apology for long email, but I wanted to hear from someone who's been there and done that for over 20 years in Korea.  Please feel free to be as brutal and direct as you need to be.

[KBC member]

The crux of this member's question is whether teaching English in Korea can be a valid stepping stone to other opportunities in Korea. Here's what I replied:

[KBC member] – Thanks for the note.

In the case of the member referenced in your email, he already had a career track, so coming to Korea to teach English would not have moved him forward; it would have put serious question marks on his commitment to his field. But as you mentioned, you aren't particularly attached to your current occupation and so you've got less to lose.

Sure, an English teaching position isn't exactly prestigious, but it is easy to get and will pay the bills. And so if you really want to come to Korea and you haven't found a better option, then why not? 

Good luck!

Steven

Thrive in a Korean Company: “What are a few very important things I must do to get on the fast track for advancement in a Korean company?”

The following was extracted from a recent interview with me about how to thrive in a Korean company. 


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"What are a few very important things I must do to get on the fast track for advancement in a Korean company?"

"The first thing is to be realistic.

"Korean companies don’t hire foreigners for high-level positions except in very rare cases, a few of which we’ve featured on Korea Business Central. If you’re working for an overseas office of a Korean company, you may advance several ranks up, but in most cases, Korean companies dispatch employees from head office to man the highest positions.

The career track and job terms for Korean employees are completely different from those for non-Koreans. If you’re working in Korea as a foreign employee, you’re probably there on a contract basis, meaning that there’s no advancement implied in your position and you continue in the position only as long as your contract is renewed.

The important thing to remember here is that the experiences and connections you gain during your employment in a Korean company like this can be extremely valuable for you after moving on in your career, and especially when you’re ready to move to a non-Korean or multinational company that does business in Korea."

Visit Korea Business Central for more information on working in a Korean company, including the full video of this interview.

 

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Learn more about the KBC Professional Certification Program to be more successful in your career in Korea.

Thrive in a Korean Company: “Every company in every culture has office politics. Tell me what’s unique about office politics in Korean companies.”

The following was extracted from a recent interview with me about how to thrive in a Korean company. 


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"Every company in every culture has office politics. Tell me what's unique about office politics in Korean companies."

"Because of the top-down orientation of Korean companies, your boss will often be constrained in the ways he can guide you in your work. You often won’t be aware of what’s going on here and Korean organizations are not known for their clear and well-explained communications with non-Korean employees.

This is true whether you’re working for a Korean company overseas or in Korea and the problems are compounded by language and culture.

Try hard to leverage your understanding of Korean business culture to connect with those around you — particularly, those at a higher level — and discuss your frustrations and challenges with those that you build trusting relationships with. You’ll find that Koreans overseas are often homesick and they will appreciate and respect your efforts to do business and communicate with them in their way.

I remember that when I first started working at my position in the LG Group many years ago, I experienced a great deal of uncertainty about how my role was being perceived. It was only after I established a friendship with a general manager in a different department than mine that I was able to make sense of things that had bothered me before and gain a new sense of stability that ended up lasting for nearly five years."

Visit Korea Business Central for more information on working in a Korean company, including the full video of this interview.

 

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Learn more about the KBC Professional Certification Program to be more successful in your career in Korea.

The Korea Herald Quotes Steven Bammel in “Opaque, top-down system leaves some expats bitter”

I was quoted in the following article from the Korea Herald on October 29, 2012.

Opaque, top-down system leaves some expats bitter

Expert says problems more common at SMEs without HR departments

Last year saw the total number of foreign workers in Korea surpass 700,000 for the first time, a consequence of an ever-rising demand for foreign labor. 

For many, Korea offers the chance to earn a living and acquire new skills in an exciting new environment. For others, however, thriving in a work culture often vastly different from their own is a constant struggle.

One skilled worker from India found the rigid, hierarchal company culture at his workplace, one of the country’s biggest semiconductor makers, extremely difficult to deal with.

“It is very top-to-bottom-driven. You are supposed to be the ‘yes man.’ Especially if they (colleagues) are higher up in the rank, you cannot argue with them. If you argue with them, you are considered to be very rude or very inconsiderate,” said the former employee of six years who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

The top-down culture at the chaebol affiliate, described by the former employee as “dictatorial,” asserted itself when he went to make a complaint against his manager for demanding a share of extra earnings the employee had earned for in-company training. Rather than being approached from a neutral standpoint, his complaint was treated with bias by the human resources staffer responsible, he said.

“Instead of being a neutral body, she actually started taking sides with that local person and she actually tried to put me in a bad spot and made it look like I was making up something,” said the former employee.

Frustrated at the handling of his complaint and denied a meeting with his CEO, he attempted to contact the company head directly. But after sending his CEO an email, he found himself called into a meeting of senior human resources staff. 

“That HR person explained very politely that I made a mistake as an expat to write an email directly to the CEO of the company. He said that this is not Korean culture … and that I should be extremely careful with my actions.”

In an email seen by The Korea Herald, an HR staffer at the company told the employee that legal action would be taken unless he stopped calling and emailing about “unreasonable matters.” The email referred to correspondence by the employee on two different dates about his grievances with the company. 

He ran into further problems, he said, when he later began the process of leaving the company after six years there. His boss demanded to know what company he was going to work at before he would cooperate with arranging the paperwork for him to leave. 

Contrary to the former chaebol worker’s experiences, however, Yi Seong-ok of Seoul Global Center said that the majority of problems foreign workers encounter are at small and medium-sized companies.

“The big companies take care of their own issues; also, there are experts to support employees,” said Yi, adding that non-payment of wages and industrial accidents were the most common issues brought to her attention. 

“But at small and medium-sized companies there are no small special programs for employees and no special experts that can help employees.” 

Yi added that many conflicts between employers and foreign employees are primarily failures of communication. 

“In arguments between employers and employees, the bottom line is they cannot communicate. That’s the reason for (many) arguments between employers and employees.” 

Steven Bammel, the creator of Korea Business Central, an information resource and support service for foreigners doing business here, said that non-payment of wages was the most common issue that he came across.

“The most common issue is probably non-payment of wages by institutes to their teachers,” said Bammel. “It’s probably not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen and I get contacted from time to time by folks needing interpreting or translation for such issues.”

Familiarization with the culture, however, goes a long way toward a smooth work life, he added.

“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,” said Bammel. 

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)

Link to original article.

Thrive in a Korean Company: “So, it’s my first day at my new job in a Korean company that just moved into my town. What do I need to know so I don’t ruin my chances the very first day?”

The following was extracted from a recent interview with me about how to thrive in a Korean company. 


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"So, it's my first day at my new job in a Korean company that just moved into my town.  What do I need to know so I don't ruin my chances the very first day?"

"In many cases, managers of local Korean organizations try to adapt to the local culture. But frankly, the results of these efforts are limited and local employees often feel frustrated.

One key reason is the influence of head office, which restricts how much flexible the overseas office can be. For example, Korean companies are very top-down hierarchical, and established plans frequently change. Employees dispatched to run those overseas offices are sometimes switched out with surprisingly little advance warning. All this can be unsettling to a non-Korean employee without access to what’s really going on.

On your first day on the job, and probably for quite awhile after that, you’d be well-advised to watch and learn. You’re going to see some things you don’t understand; maybe a few aspects you don’t like and want to change. Trying to achieve change in the wrong way is likely to cause trouble; you should be looking for resources and a network to help you reach your goals within the existing structure.

Remember that help is only a few clicks away on Korea Business Central, where you can find information and reach out for support, training and advice."

Visit Korea Business Central for more information on working in a Korean company, including the full video of this interview.

 

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An Interview About Issues Faced by Foreigners Working in Korea

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 – https://www.koreabusinesscentral.com/page/certification. Here is our
current list of graduates too –
https://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: 
https://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:

 

Thrive in a Korean Company: “What are some of the biggest Korean companies that are hiring non-Koreans, and for what?”

The following was extracted from a recent interview with me about how to thrive in a Korean company. 


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"What are some of the biggest Korean companies that are hiring non-Koreans, and for what?"

"The Korean economy is dominated by a relatively small number of large business groups, commonly referred to as the chaebol. These include household names like Samsung, Hyundai and LG, as well as smaller business groups and independent companies.

I recently read that nearly a hundred Korean retailers have set up franchise networks overseas, and that is another way in which the Korean business presence is growing throughout the world.

When hiring local talent for overseas branch offices and subsidiaries, Korean companies are looking for people who can help them understand and be effective in the local markets.

On the other hand, there are opportunities to work in Korea for those same and other Korean companies and organizations if you have skills and resources that Korean companies can’t easily source in Korea."

Visit Korea Business Central for more information on working in a Korean company, including the full video of this interview. 

 

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Answers to Questions about Social Gift-Giving and Chit-Chat with Koreans

I received the following questions from a visitor to my website recently. 

"My husband works for a Korean company. We will be accompanying the CEO and his wife (both Korean) to a weekend event; they are relatively new to the USA and this is my first time meeting either of them.

"Would it be "politically correct" for me to give either of them a small gift? Just the wife? Neither?

"In this situation, what would be considered an appropriate gift? Since I think the number seven is considered lucky, perhaps seven small candles or a box of seven nice chocolate?

"And what topics of conversation (should be interesting since I speak no Korean and they speak minimal English) are especially safe? Children/family? Should I bring pictures?"

Here's how I ended up replying to the person who sent the above inquiry:

"Yes, it would be  appropriate for you to give the wife a gift in this situation. You don’t need to get hung up on the number; but chocolates are fine. Something along the lines of clothing and fashion is likely to be better. I'd stay away from any food items that aren't universally enjoyed (such as chocolates) since you'd be surprised what kinds of American foods some Koreans don't care for. (BTW, it isn't exactly a perfect match with your situation but here's a link to my Top Ten Gifts to Give in Korea to Make a Great Impression.)

"In one of the modules, the KBC Business Professional Certification mentions a number of topics you could bring up. Photos are fine, but perhaps don’t overdo it. Children and family are always a good topic and I’m sure they’d like opportunities to tell you about life in Korea and how they're faring in the US, particularly if they’re feeling homesick. Finding out what kinds of challenges the wife is facing in her adjustment to life in the US would be a great opportunity to share suggestions and answer some of her nagging questions."