South Korea’s Rigid Work Culture Trickles Down to Young Startups

Business

Just as he was thinking of heading home for the day from his job at a South Korean startup, Marco Kwak’s manager called him over to his desk. He asked Kwak whether he saw other people working and whether he still wanted to go home even after that.

Kwak said the manager scolded him for not having passion for the company, and told him to sit at his desk for an hour even if he had no work.

Kwak said he was “dumbfounded.” “I didn’t know he would say such things. I told him that I think desk-warming is meaningless as it does not translate into productivity,” Kwak told Korea Exposé. “But I felt uncomfortable for a week.”

South Korea’s work culture is notorious for its rigid hierarchy, demand for obedience and loyalty, and work hours which sometimes lead employees to gwarosa — death by overworking.

Many firms in the country’s thriving startup sector promise a more open, horizontal culture with a better work-life balance. But there is evidence that old habits die hard, and the harsh, old ways of organizing workplaces are prevalent at startups too.

The motto of Kwak’s former employer is “creating the world where people can enjoy their work,” according to its official website. In some ways, the company seemed like a typical startup. Employees were allowed to wear shorts to work and everyone called each other by self-made English nicknames. (In most South Korean workplaces, colleagues usually address each other using hierarchical job titles.) And the company had recently received three billion won ($2.77 million) funding from Altos Ventures which also invested in big South Korean startups such as Coupang and Memebox.

Ironically, Kwak, who had come to the startup sector after fleeing a normal corporate job, found few real cultural differences. He said all three South Korean startups he worked for prized the notions of sacrifice and hierarchy. (Kwak didn’t want the names of the companies to be used for this article because of the small startup pool in South Korea.)

Beneath the surface, old dogmas ruled.

 

South Korea’s Infamous Work Culture

Stories like Kwak’s are so common that they have been used as the basis for television shows. Misaeng, a popular TV drama in 2014, was lauded for its vivid portrayal of the conservative Korean corporate culture — frequent overtime, the office hierarchy, verbal and even physical abuse, sexual harassment and workplace bullying.

That same year, Cho Hyun-ah, a.k.a. Heather Cho, the daughter of Korean Air Chairman Cho Yang-ho, became a national embarrassment after ordering a plane at the JFK International Airport in New York City back to the gate. The reason? She was offended that she had been served macadamia nuts in a bag instead of in a bowl, and wanted to offload the chief flight attendant whom she blamed for the lapse. Cho was Korean Air’s vice president at that time.

Eric Surdej, former president of LG Electronics France, detailed the grueling experiences at his company in a book titled “Ils sont fous, ces coréens!” (translated as “They are crazy, those Koreans!”) “I realized through my experience that South Korea, despite being economically open, was — on a societal, corporate, and familial level — accustomed to a certain irresistible force: command and obedience.”

At LG, hierarchical job titles determined where to sit during the company dinner, according to Surdej. The executives were told that they must not sit, get up or eat first before the vice chairman who was visiting the France office. He worked on Saturday and had to play golf on Sunday for the purpose of networking. He said he even saw one of his Korean colleagues throw a chair at another colleague.

The process of inculcating loyalty and obedience begins as soon as workers are recruited. At many South Korean conglomerates known as chaebol, the new entry-level hires fresh out of university quickly learn that it takes more than excellent Excel skills and university degrees to succeed.

Samsung, South Korea’s biggest chaebol, got into trouble in 2007 after a leaked video of its new recruits’ orientation showed employees engaging in a mass game. It prompted one YouTube user to comment, “Is Samsung benchmarking North Korea?”

 

(The company stopped holding such events and announced in 2016 that it was starting a “cultural reform” that would make the conglomerate more like a startup.)

Then there is POSCO — the fifth-largest steel-producer in the world — which sends their cub employees to a “Marine boot camp.” New associates go through guerilla-style training, landing fall training, rappelling and obstacles jumping. They are also required to do army-style marches in the wee hours of the morning according to a company blog post.

When Korea Exposé contacted POSCO to ask about its work culture, a PR team member said tersely, “I feel like your article is meant to dis our company.” (He also asked that his name be withheld.)

He claimed POSCO started the Marine boot camp for new recruits only in 2016. However, a quick Google search reveals that the Marine boot camp has been an ongoing tradition for the steel giant, with various local media running photos of it as early as in 2011.

And the buck doesn’t stop there. According to the same company blog, the orientation for new hires also involves reading the biography of the POSCO founder, making a newspaper about the history of the company and learning about Confucianism and Toegye Lee Hwang, a 16th-century Korean scholar of Confucianism.

 

Trickle-down Effect

Multiple sources in South Korea’s booming startup industry told Korea Exposé that toxic work culture more commonly associated with conglomerates has been trickling down to the humble offices of startups in South Korea.

Some startup employees are terribly overworked — just like their chaebol counterparts. To be fair, working overtime is the norm in South Korea. The country has the second-longest average working hours per person according to the OECD Employment Outlook 2017 report. An average South Korean worked 305 more hours than the average of the organization’s 35 member countries, per year. Mexico was the only country with longer working hours.

Startup employees who talked to Korea Exposé said one of the reasons they chose to work in a startup is to avoid traditional office culture, but they ended up seeing no difference.

A former employee of SOCAR, the largest car-sharing service in South Korea, told Korea Exposé that his contract was basically meaningless. “We come to work, but there is no going home.” He asked for anonymity because of the small size of startup scene in South Korea.

“We went to work around 8:30 am and came home around 10 or 11 pm. I worked on the weekend. We weren’t allowed to use our leaves from June to October– the peak season for the company,” he said. All this would be acceptable if the pay was appropriate, but he claimed that an employee working on a short-term contract received only 1.5 million won ($1,400) per month.

The same employee also alleged that SOCAR has the same boozy hoesik — company night out — culture as big conglomerates. “I think it has reached the level where it’s dangerous. Employees pour soju, which has an alcohol content of 17 to 18 percent, into a big beer cup or even a one-liter water bottle in the restaurant and pressure their subordinates to drink. I’ve seen several people run out the restaurant to throw up.”

We come to work, but there is no going home.

In response to a request for comments, a SOCAR representative told Korea Exposé in an email, “We respect labor standards specified by the law. What you have mentioned is baseless information.”

SOCAR made headlines last month because its employee turnover rate is over 70 percent. But the company representative explained that the number was inflated because it included employees of subcontracting firms tasked with fixed-period jobs, and that those employees are “managed not by SOCAR but by outside firms.” In short, they don’t belong to SOCAR.

But on online platforms where South Korean officers workers anonymously discuss their companies, pictures of SOCAR’s company culture are far from rosy. The former employee of SOCAR provided Korea Exposé with screenshots from BLIND, an “anonymous community app” that allows employees to talk about their companies. One must have a SOCAR email address to comment on the firm.

“There are workplace politics, verbal harassment, invasion of privacy, social media patrolling, and overtime during weekdays and weekends,” wrote a user named NSYS0214. Another user claimed that the company required employees to prioritize work over personal matters — even in the case of a funeral or illness in the family.

At another startup called Frograms, known for its Netflix-like video subscription service WATCHA PLAY, things started well enough. The company had a flexible work-hour system that allowed employees to pick the hours they wanted to work. However, a former employee who spoke to Korea Exposé on condition of anonymity said it was scrapped when profits fell below expectation, and then reintroduced for a few months before being scrapped for good.

“The employee you talked to has a problem. He gave you inaccurate information during the interview,” the high-level manager in charge of Frograms told Korea Exposé in response to questions. He did not want to be named for this article. Still, he admitted that the company reversed the flexible work hour system several times out of the need to serve clients during the day.

For said employee, the problem wasn’t just the change in policy but the way he and his colleagues were informed. “When we gave up the flexible work hour system, my manager told us that the system is suitable for people with a strong sense of responsibility. He said it’s impossible to implement such a system with weaklings like us.”

 

“The startup culture really depends on the founder’s style”

According to a 2017 survey by the Presidential Committee on the Young Generation, 775 out of 1,500 respondents left the startup industry. Top two reasons for leaving the startup industry were low pay on the one hand, and poor working conditions and benefits on the other.

Lim Jungwook, managing director of Startup Alliance Korea, said not all startups are the same. “The startup culture really depends on the founder’s style,” Lim told Korea Exposé. “With all companies, there are good companies, and there are bad companies. Startups are the same.”

But he added, “People usually assume that startup culture automatically means freedom and equality, but I think startup culture is about having the flexibility and strong focus to strive toward a certain goal.”

“Even though the process may be painful and employees have a difficult time, if the startup can head toward the goal and there is sufficient compensation [for workers], there is no problem.”

Marco Kwak, who now works at a startup called StashAway in Singapore, agreed that heavy workload is inevitable at startups, as most startups need to grow fast to be eligible for funding opportunities. However, he says his startup life in Singapore is quite different from the experiences he had in South Korea. “The workload in Singapore is also heavy, but as long as I get my work done in time, people don’t really care how or where I work.”

 

Getting people to speak on the record for this article was tough, especially given the sensitivity of the subject. Unfortunately, even in articles that aren’t so sensitive, expecting and granting anonymity has become a common practice in Korean journalism. Read more on this topic:

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Cover image: Game programmer at work (Sergey Galyonkin via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Juwon is a journalist at Korea Exposé covering all things business. She’s previously worked as a TV producer in Channel News Asia in Singapore and has interned for Bloomberg, AP and Google. Juwon is a proud owner of her dog Noah and a graduate of Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong.