Dealing with Korean Bosses
By Kevin Smyth

In this article, I'm going to avoid using that quippy, catchy, jingo-istic style that has become something of a requirement in writing articles these days. That style of writing has a built-in cynicism, and funny though it is, I think there's too much of it among foreign teachers in Korea.

Come to think of it, that accusation underlies my purpose for writing this article. There's a lot to be cynical about I'm sure, but I think a lot of cynicism comes out of misunderstandings, differing perspectives between Korean employers and foreign employees, and bad reactions by both sides.

I think we have to begin by making a positive assumption that seems obvious to me: Korean employers take a lot of trouble to get us here, whether it be airfare or the business investment they're making. We have to assume that they want things to work well. We have to assume that they want to, within reason, keep their foreigners happy. We have to assume those things because we can't succeed if we don't. Those who are cynical will not succeed regardless of the situation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not so naive. I know of bad employers out there, employers looking for cheap solutions, or those who don't know what they're getting into. They will always be there, but they are not as numerous as the cynics would have us believe. Negative people create their own realities. I resent them for turning potentially good bosses into ones suspicious of foreigners. Those of us who will return home, happy from our Korean experiences, are those who assume the best and who do not easily jump to the lazy stance of cynicism.

Beyond that, there's a lot we need to understand about Koreans and about the politics in communicating with them. I'm going to touch only on the major ones.

We have to understand that Korean culture has not been through the same problems as Western culture. This is seen by observing Koreans' negative remarks about Black people. Until now, Koreans have never been forced to deal with the problems of racism. To a similar extent, they've never had to deal much with unionism. It's only beginning here, and it's not a big deal.

The Korean perspective of the employee-employer relationship is paternal. There's no question that in Korea, the employee is subordinate and inferior to the boss. Koreans readily go along with their boss's whims. When it comes to this relationship in the West, there are a pile of in-built assumptions: vacation time and pay; provisions for sickness; overtime rates; a respect for our personal life and most importantly, strict adherence to a contract. We assume, in short, that we are equal to an employer. We must remember Koreans do not see it that way at all. We don't have to fully accept that, but we must realize they make their decisions from that perspective.

It is not all bad, however. We sometimes focus on the disadvantages of this and forget the advantages of their system. Their system is paternal and hence there is a strong sense of responsibility to take care of us. The cynics will balk at that, but that is because they muck it up before the good bosses ever prove their worth. This brings me, then, to dealing with our Korean employers.

I can't stress enough the danger of a typical Western overreaction. We react to the first thing we see and claim we should because this sets the precedent - "it's the principle of the thing." This is dangerous thinking and leads to trouble because Koreans are very situational. They do not understand our thinking and they see many of our reactions as petty and yes, dangerous, because it shows a lack of trust. I can honestly say a lot of the problems I've heard about, a lot of the horror stories, are not about evil bosses. They are about a bad situation that developed from overreactions. Here's the scenario – see if you recognize it.

The boss does something, something small, that the foreigner does not like. The foreigner reacts immediately and badly, usually with a vocal complaint. The boss reacts badly in turn, because in Korean terms, this is an embarrassment. The foreigner, on the principle of the thing, makes a threat (I won't come to work tomorrow). The Korean, unfamiliar with the situation and invariably thinking it's more serious than it is, (because no Korean would ever do that) reacts in a panic. The foreigner becomes a cynic, and an unemployed one at that.

Think about this from the Korean perspective. We completely disregarded the trust they based our relationship on. We were impatient with a petty problem. We embarrassed them. We threatened. Drinking with their friends, they have an evening's worth of fodder over which to discuss evil foreigners. Of course, there is a Western perspective by which we can (and the righteous cynics readily do) define all their evils. All I'm saying is most situations that end up badly, may not be bad situations to begin with. I'm not saying we should cast aside our perspective and adopt the Koreans'.

We need to respect theirs and patiently coach Koreans in understanding ours. And we need to know how they see things so we can look for solutions. The rest I will say through example.

My boss infuriated me by suddenly making changes in my schedule without discussing it with me or warning me. I was angry and ready to express it. Fortunately, I was told Koreans, with their paternal thinking, see it as their right to make such changes for the better of the business. Why would they consult us? We are not their equals.

Instead, on the basis of some good advice, I held my tongue. I was not willing, however, to let this continue. But I waited for a relaxed moment to discuss this with my boss. It was over a drink. I told him how things were in the West and that his changes really took me by surprise. Mainly, I had it in mind to look for a solution rather than point out a problem. I said I would feel a lot more comfortable with some warning about changes that might happen.

It was through this that I discovered the benefit of their paternal system. My boss wanted me to be happy because it was good for business. His attitude was to take care of me, so he made a real effort to communicate more although it was not in his nature to do that. I think he appreciated the tip in dealing with foreigners.

This is a cute, little, 1950's-type, perfect-world story, but don't write it off too easily. It is in line with typical Korean thinking. Typical Western thinking would be to assume he should know not to do that (because the union would have his head). Consequently, we would react - maybe by arguing the point, or maybe by an act of defiance after several similar offences. But any reaction is an overreaction here.

That's the best advice I can give. Some things are too petty to bother bringing to our employer, and sometimes we should choose to teach our boss the Western view on things, because he has hired a Westerner.

I don't expect the cynics to agree with me on this - how can they? It takes a good attitude to see things this way and to make things go this way. But it can work; it has always worked for me. The bad employers are quickly recognized and easily avoided. So are the cynics, for that matter.

This article originally appeared in The Exit, June 1997, and is reproduced here for educational and informational purposes. Please contact the author for re-publication information.