I have lived and worked in Korea for over 10 years. I have worked with Korean startups, Korean big corporations, and even for the Korean government. I’ve made a lot of memories, mistakes, successes, and most importantly friends. Now I feel comfortable sharing some of my experiences and offering some tips for foreigners looking to work for a company in Korea. This mainly applies to foreigners but can also apply to Koreans and Korean Americans. Foreigners working in Korea can get away with many things that Koreans can’t. With myself being a Korean American, I did not get the full treatment of an average Korean worker but also was not looked at as a complete foreigner. However, most of these unwritten rules will apply to anyone working in Korea. These rules for working in Korea are solely based on my experiences and of course, don’t apply to all Korean companies. 

10 Unwritten Rules Foreigners Should Know Before Working in Korea

1. Don’t be even a minute late to work 

Many foreigners will notice that when they arrive to work, your Korean colleagues are already there working. For Koreans, the earlier they show up to work the better it looks to the company. For a foreigner, it is ok to come on time, but the minute you are late, it will be noticed. Don’t be surprised if someone tells your superior that you were “late”. Or a colleague will casually mention they need something from you to someone in the office…

” has anyone seen Amy? I need to get some documents…”

Knowing full well that they are not in the office.

Not being late is a given for many companies in Korea. You are not only expected to arrive on time but at least 10 minutes early. If by chance you are late, you should make it up by staying longer after work. For every minute, multiply by 10, so if you are late 5 minutes, stay 50 minutes longer to make up for it. Remember, just because you show up early does not mean you will get paid overtime or bonus pay. It is all about showing your company that you are putting the company first. 

2. Stay at least an hour longer after work 

Being late a few minutes is one thing…but don’t ever think about leaving on time. If you leave on time you will most likely be the only one leaving the office. There will be this awkward goodbye as your other colleagues watch you leave. There is this funny staring contest at many companies in Korea to see which worker will leave first to set the stage for others to leave. Nobody wants to be that first person. This is why staying at least an hour is pretty much the industry standard in Korea…but many will notice other workers staying until midnight or beyond on certain nights. It got so bad recently that a few years back the Korean government had to step in and force Korean workers to go home.

This does not apply to foreigners coming to Korea to teach English. It is perfectly acceptable and expected for foreign teachers to leave exactly on time. This mainly applies to non-teaching jobs.

Worker A vs Worker B

I remember interviewing a CEO at a Korean company and his response to this hypothetical question really stuck with me other the years. I asked him to pick between two workers.

  • Worker A is a hard worker and very efficient. They get the job done within their working hours and leaves at 6 pm so they can go home to their family at a reasonable time.
  • Worker B is less efficient and more methodical. They also get the job done but need a few extra hours and usually leave around 9 pm.

Which worker would he prefer? He didn’t even blink before picking B. While a little had to do with the fact that he liked his employees to stay longer at work, he mainly hated the idea of a worker leaving right when their shift was over. He felt that will set an unhealthy standard for other employees. This shocked me but gave me a deeper insight into the mindset of a Korean CEO. 

In my opinion, what this ultimately leads to in the long run is more and more employees being less efficient since they know they need to stay longer anyway. If you can’t finish your work by the end of your working day, it can only mean one of two things.

A) you have too much work or…

B) you are too slow. 

3. Never question your superiors 

This will be something many foreigners in Korea will notice during team meetings. A team leader, head supervisor, or even the CEO will be speaking about a concept/strategy. The rest of the employees are sitting there silent or nodding their heads in approval. Once that person leaves the room, the team members speak amongst themselves asking each other how on earth they are going to achieve what the superior asked. You would think they should have brought this to the attention of the superior during the meeting right?

WRONG!

Never question your superior at a Korean company. That is a huge no-no even if you are in the right. There is a reason why the exchange of ideas doesn’t happen during team meetings in Korea. Most don’t want to question any ideas brought up by the team leader. Also don’t even think about pulling your superior aside and letting them know WHY a particular idea won’t work. Superiors in Korea don’t want to be called out and will remember you for doing so. 

So what do you do?

You and your team will try the strategy fully knowing it will not work. Once it doesn’t work and the superior criticizes the team, the only response the team gives is that they will try better next time. Now, this can be effective if the superior has great ideas…however, in most cases, many of their ideas are not fully thought out and planned. Many are impulsive and tend to lead to time wasted. 

I know what many are thinking. Why not ignore the strategy of the superior and come up with something better and present it to your superior at the end?

That won’t work.

Many times the superior has his or her superior they need to report to. This strategy would have already been presented to their superior before it was shared with the team. They need to show the result of this particular strategy. If they bring another strategy, whether or not it was successful is not the issue, the issue is that it was not approved. Not having approval, but was still carried out is a huge no-no in a Korean company and might end up in disciplinary action. You do what you are told, no matter how illogical you might think it is.

4. Don’t be shocked if most colleagues won’t speak English

Korea EnglishKorean companies speak Korean during work, makes perfect sense. Therefore it is hard to gauge just how much English a colleague understands. There are many stories online of foreigners working for Korean companies who feel alone and have no one to socialize with. While Koreans study hard many are just not confident enough to speak English openly. Even tho in most cases their English is decent.

Growing up in America many of my relatives would get ridiculed if they couldn’t speak English well. “Can…I…order…large….”

“Hey! This is America… we speak English here….!”

In Korea, it is the complete opposite. If a foreigner tries to speak Korean and completely butchers it…

“An young ha say yo…hwa jang shil jew say yo…”

The response will often be very positive. They will praise the foreigner for even attempting Korean and many might even give them encouragement through praise. Many Koreans travel often and I am sure they got a lot of negative reactions from trying to use (practice) their English abroad. So unless they feel 100% confident in their English ability, many will be too shy and scared to speak to you. So don’t take it personally. Therefore, having the ability to speak Korean will be highly beneficial, even if it is at a low level. 

5. Daily reports/evaluations will usually go unread

Korean companies LOVE monthly, weekly, or even daily reports. Those working in Korea might have noticed all the paperwork required. These reports go a long way to gather data on what is being worked on. Many global companies are effective at using these reports to their benefit. However, with the case of foreigners working in a Korean company, this is a complete waste of time. Now, this all depends on how well you know your superior’s English ability. Of course, if their English comprehension is high then, there is a high likelihood that your report will get read. However, in most cases, your higher up will lack English skills. If that is the case then it will not be read. 

Who reads these daily reports?

Now granted, I don’t know if Korean companies review Korean reports but reports written in English from my experience were usually not taken into account. A little has to do with English comprehension but mainly because foreigners represent a small minority in a Korean company. Priority is set for Korean workers so more often than not many reports created by foreigners go unread. 

I had to do many of these reports and started to question whether these reports were being read at all. So as a test I wrote a page-long report detailing exactly what I did during that week. By detailed, I mean…detailed…going to the bathroom, what I ate, and what sites I visited… if anyone read it they would either be confused or ask me to write it again. I submitted and waited….and waited…nothing. From that point on, these reports were seen to me as just a few minutes out of my day to write nonsense. 

6. Superiors or colleagues will try and take credit for your work 

There is always that one colleague that always seems to be giving you their resume. Constantly trying to prove themselves and showcasing their skills/accomplishments. Because of the language barrier, many foreigners will work with Korean co-workers. In Korean companies, it is not a matter of getting tasks completed but more about who should take credit for the compilation of that task. While many foreigners might not care, most Koreans do. They constantly need to show their value for the company every step of the way. Every Korean office environment always has that ONE employee.

If it is your superior there is really nothing you can do. Any accomplishments you achieve, your superior has the power to take it for himself when he presents to HIS superiors. Therefore coming up with a great idea is one thing, but getting credit for that idea is a whole different ball game. 

With colleagues, this could be an issue if you can’t speak Korean. So when your team submits their work to their team lead in Korean, your work could get taken without your knowledge.

The Credit Taker

A great example was when I had to do an important business call with a UK consultant and took meeting minutes which needed to be translated into Korean for the founders to read. I sent the minutes to another team member to translate into Korean. She uploaded the Korean version onto the company Kakao Group. The founders praised her for taking such detailed notes. Now a normal person would mention that actually she just translated and the minutes were done by John. Instead, she thanked them for their praise.

Now since I was in the same group chat I also could have said….” actually I was the one who wrote it, she just translated”…that would have made ME look petty….When I told this story to other employees, they said this kind of thing happens often in other Korean companies as well. 

7. Superiors verbally abusing Korean workers is common

Korean BossForeigners working for Korean companies have said that verbal abuse was the most shocking aspect of Korean work culture. It is common for superiors to verbally abuse employees during meetings and especially behind closed doors….by doors closed I mean the door is closed but the employees can hear EVERYTHING. Maybe that is the point. Being scolded by superiors is a way of working life in Korea. It starts at Korean schools where teachers freely scold their students, the military where soldiers are constantly yelled at, and a culture where it is socially acceptable for elders to scold the younger generation. 

I’ve been fortunate to never have had the horrific experience of a superior verbally abusing me, however, I had stood by while they abused others. I did nothing. Many foreigners might be in the same situation where it seems the verbal abuse crosses the line. Soon they will find out that shocking incident is not isolated. Soon it becomes a common part of working life. This has a very negative effect on the working environment and really brings a lot of tension and stress for upcoming meetings. 

Lasting Regrets

I knew a Korean employee who would constantly get berated by the CEO. Yet he always took it. He would verbally abuse him in front of the whole office and even threaten to fire him if he didn’t keep up with his never-ending barrage of deadlines and demands. Not only did I feel bad for him but I was also ashamed of myself…

This all goes back to the #3 rule on this list…never question authority. Many fear standing up could result in some form of discipline which is probably true. Foreigners will most likely not get verbally abused as many Korean superiors will target Koreans because they understand that they will take it. Many bosses in Korea feel that putting fear into their employees will lead to better results. However, in most cases, fear leads to anger and leads to counterproductivity. Is it worth it to stand up for a Korean employee when they seem content in taking the abuse? That is a tough question but from my experience, I still hold a lot of regret for not standing up for others who couldn’t stand up for themselves. 

8. It takes a long time to get anything done 

Working in KoreaThe bigger the Korean company the longer it takes to get anything done. Companies in Korea are known for their carefulness, planning, and consensus-oriented decision-making by top key members of the company. This results in a long-drawn-out process when making a decision. There is a large number of layers in the Korean office hierarchy. As well as a myriad of bureaucratic rules which add to the time needed to finalize anything. Taking initiative is not looked upon as a positive. It is mainly about following orders and going through the process. 

I don’t question orders, I just follow them

From my experience, no one wants to take credit for a plan, however, they want to take credit for its success. Plans and strategies can either succeed or fail. When it fails, blame needs to go somewhere. Supervisors in Korea are experts in shifting the blame. In most plans, there is a higher chance of failure. So during brainstorming sessions, many are reluctant to give their own ideas in the fear it will lead to failure and ultimately the blame will fall on them. 

This is why many just follow the CEO’s plan/vision. If it fails the blame will not necessarily fall on the employee. Most Korean companies follow this formula. The CEO has a plan, he explains the plan and expects his or her employee to execute the plan. However, a better strategy would be for the CEO to lay out his plan, discuss it amongst the team, and get feedback from the team who are not in fear of voicing their opinion. The CEO then can take in all the feedback before making his or her final decision. This strategy is rarely seen in Korean companies. In most cases, you as an employee will be given an order and it will need to be followed. 

9. Will need to drink to bond with colleagues 

Working in KoreaIt is understandable why Korea has such an intense drinking culture. Working in Korea requires long hours throughout the week and these company dinners are a way for them to unwind. This is also an opportunity to bond with your colleagues and superiors. You will be able to speak more freely during these sessions and can even hash out some differences you might have. Which is why to get the most out of these events, you will need to drink. If you don’t drink, this will pretty much be a waste of time.

In my experience, some of the best ideas and strategies came out of these gatherings because Koreans tend to have more courage once they have some alcohol in them. You will learn that many have their own passions and ideas they are eager to express, but they can’t due to office politics. 

10. Leaving the company will be an act of betrayal 

If you ever decide to leave a Korean company, you will experience a level of ostracism more distressing than harassment from the superiors. From the perspective of the Korean company, they feel betrayed and will feel you don’t believe in the company. Koreans are all about unity and the “team”. Once you announce you will be leaving the company, many of the top members of the company will ignore you. Your colleagues will be kind and give you the farewell you deserve. Many will be envious. However, the founders, directors, etc. will be pressured amongst themselves to distance themselves from you.

You are now an outsider to them.

This makes it very difficult to get recommendation letters or references from them. In Korean office culture, it is more honorable to “go down with the ship” instead of leaving. Leaving is an act of betrayal. However, they will not hesitate to fire an employee if need be.

Advice for Foreigners Looking for Work in Korea

My advice? Work for a startup in Korea or a Korean company with a global mindset instead. Many don’t hold the same Korean office culture. If you can find a foreign CEO the better. Most will value creativity and innovation as they know those are the key to growth. In addition, you will learn a lot as most startups will place loads of responsibility on their employees. Founders and employees work together; having no middle management means you will get things done much quicker. Startups, in general, need to grow fast. If they can’t grow quickly they will go out of business. Therefore CEOs want their employees to show off their skills and experiment with new ideas. The long-term benefits for employees include sharing in the spoils if the company succeeds.