Inside One of South Korea’s So-Called Global Firms

Opinion

"Seoul dusk 2" by Patriotmissile at Wikipedia
From Wikipedia

I have been the sole foreign employee at a vaunted South Korean technology firm for about 15 months. Given my company’s fame, people often want to know what that’s like and at times the simplest answer I can give them is this: It’s been as fascinating as it’s been frustrating.

My experience has been rewarding in many ways — professionally, personally as well as educationally. From hearing about ancient Korean myths over galbi and somaek at company hoesik (after-work drinking parties) to learning Korean slang, songs, and idioms and, generally, what work culture is really like outside of an office K drama… these are things I never could have been privy to as an English teacher or even as an employee alongside other expat colleagues at a multinational South Korean company.

However, despite the time I’ve spent at the company, despite the amount that I’ve learned there, I remain an outsider. What’s become clear to me is that although many Korean companies say they want to play globally, they have not yet created cultures that welcome global employees or global engagement.

Let me explain.

The interesting thing about my company, and what drew me in, was its reputation as one of South Korea’s most progressive companies. It’s known for eschewing traditional hierarchy and taking pride in open communication.

During my one-on-one interview with the CEO — all in English — I was not asked questions traditional of job interviews here. I was not asked about my blood type, my interest in marriage, or my family’s professional background. He told me that he did not expect me to learn Korean, that he considered my lack of Korean skills a plus. I was not presented with a job description or a title, or a list of responsibilities. I asked for some. He said I would be part of the Communications team and what I would be doing was, his single word: “writing”.

My work experience prior to English teaching in South Korea was in public relations, working at a New York agency with clients in industries related to that of my present job. In college I had done copywriting and content creation internships in New York. I had never worked in a global company before, but I was assured that this company too, was newly global. “It’s uncertain how it will continue”, I was told in the interview, “but it’s one of our priorities. And that’s in part why we’re hiring you”.

As soon as I started the job, it, nevertheless, became clear that my presence at this “global” company made my South Korean colleagues feel a mixture of puzzlement and discomfort.

I was met with “Why exactly are you here?” countless times and even a “I thought you worked for that embassy in our building, I didn’t think you could work here”.

I began to learn the true status of my company’s global efforts. Some indicators were incredibly obvious: In the time I’ve been at the company we’ve launched around 10 new services. One of those was released globally in English and the rest have been released for the South Korean market. For that one service in English, I, along with my team, thought up several promotional ideas and researched U.S. marketing agencies for its release. Those ideas were, however, shortly turned down for unclear reasons. The single global service was released without any promotion; needless to say, it has not gained garnered any interest among overseas users.

Other indicators were a bit subtler. My team partner and I would constantly uncover swaths of text on our company’s website or on other official online pages such as YouTube that were written in English independently, ridden with Konglish and typos, sometimes mixed in with written Korean. We’d be given videos for the “global release” in which the first screencap was entirely in Korean. Sometimes an entire translation will only be half reflected or two thirds reflected. It’s policy that English has to come through my team so that it can be reviewed. But time and time again that policy is ignored.

Recently, after I had been at the company for over a year, a senior-level man asked me to have coffee with him outside the office. I wondered why he was asking me to coffee outside the office when we have an on-campus café, but went anyway. There he asked me questions about the American market, kids in their 20s and teens, about their smartphone habits. The questions were vague. He was working on some kind of test project. He said he would let me know more as the project developed, but I didn’t hear from him again.

I have been brought into this company as the sole foreigner, ostensibly to help it become more than a successful South Korean company with a sizeable share of the domestic market. But perhaps due to my age and level of experience, I am never kept in the loop of what is happening with global efforts. I am never reached out to or consulted. After a very short time at the company, I have become disinterested in a future that I do not seem to be a part of.

A lot of ink is devoted to analyzing South Korean work culture, much of it pointing out its pitfalls. Whatever its merits or disadvantages, South Korean work culture is difficult to adjust to — for outsiders like me, as well as young people starting out in it. Though my company aims to be progressive and has nominally eradicated hierarchical structures, deference based on age and gender persists. Our binge-drinking culture is tamer than at some of our peers, but remains an integral part of fitting in.

The culture of my company is also largely inflexible in terms of work-life balance. Even that conservative behemoth Samsung recently announced a trial of flexible hours, yet my company has turned down the employee-backed suggestion twice. The national practice of what K-biz blogger The Sawon describes as “mandatory and pointless overtime” endures in spite of attempts by several HR departments, mine included, to undo it.

Though these norms are difficult to accept, the challenge of language is the hardest, the one most difficult to negotiate on a day-to-day basis. I can relate to the unnamed author of the Wall Street Journal’s “Office Outsider” series. She, like I, was hired under the premise that she didn’t need Korean for her position, a premise that was quickly shattered when she started her job.

“My lack of Korean mastery definitely hinders my ability to function at work. This is frustrating because the company knew the extent of my ability when hiring me, and my bosses now think they can remedy the situation simply by nagging me to study more”.

I almost envy her situation, given that she received a modicum of Korean training in the mandatory newbie boot camp she attended for new employees. No language training has been offered to me and my requests for assistance (a formal tutor, a supplement for Korean lessons, flexible work hours to attend classes which are mostly offered during daytime) have been repeatedly turned down.

Without Korean skills in a South Korean company, even one that sees itself as global and reiterates the unimportance of learning the language, I cannot read internal company communication, participate in online training in privacy and sexual harassment, engage in company-wide meetings, or conduct peer evaluations. In other words, I am effectively a non-employee who cannot do what employees are supposed to do, a foreign mascot on payroll there for the show.

If South Korean firms truly want to hire foreigners in the aspiration to be global, the “Office Outsider” column prescribes a suggestion I support:

“Decide exactly what type of skills and experience are necessary for the job, rather than simply hiring a foreigner for the sake of having a foreigner on the payroll”.

But it’s my wishful thinking that this suggestion will become reality any time soon, given how foreigners in general are expected to subsist in ostensibly global South Korea: It’s fine that you’re here, it looks good for us to have you here, look after yourself to the best of your ability, try not to disrupt the flow, and enjoy your temporary stay in our country.

Caroline Hall is the pseudonym of the sole foreign employee at a South Korean technology firm whose headquarters are located in the Seoul Metropolitan Area.