It’s 6:30pm on a weekday and as a graduate employee I have finished my work for the day and decided to go home. “Team Leader, I’ll see you tomorrow” I announce in Korean and turn to leave the office. As a foreigner in Korea I know that I am not required to meet all the forms of corporate etiquette but as good manners I have adjusted to formally announcing my departure to my boss daily. However every day I get the same passing comment from my boss - “Already? You’re going home now?”
Now my Korean boss is not a horrible man, nor does he truly in his heart want me to stay longer at the office. Maybe it is out of habit or out of noonchi but every day at 6:30pm it is the same routine “Where are you going so soon” – is there a hidden meaning to his words, does he want me to stay? Is he jealous I can go home? Does he hate me? Does he think I’m lazy – such a simple and ambiguous statement could be and often is interpreted in many ways particular by Korean staff. However as I stated, I’m a foreigner in a Korean office and I don’t have to and am knowingly ignoring the snide remark and make a B-line for the door. If I was a Korean in this situation what would I do, or rather what would I feel I have to do? I don’t think I would have the bravery to act the way I have and this leads me to write about the Korean concepts of overtime and Kaltui (Knife time - 칼퇴) the term used to refer to leaving work at 5 o’clock on the dot (like cutting time with a knife)
First let me start by saying that me leaving at 6:30 is by no means “Leaving on the dot”. My official work hours signed in my contract are from 9am to 6pm and staying to 6:30 needs to be recognised as staying (or rather working) overtime for 30minutes. Korean workers have developed a bad habit of referring to 7pm or 8pm finishes as the above mentioned “knife time”; 9pm is now the regular finish time and 11 or later is finally considered as overtime.
Some will say that it’s just a word but when the situation is repeated and widely accepted by companies and workers across Korea it can be viewed as so much more than just a word. The word and the Idea of “knife time” need to be replaced and Korean society needs to start adopting the idea of finishing work on time as just that, leaving work on time. Rarely will you see a friend say to another “I worked overtime until 7pm tonight” – a likely response to that statement will be “7pm!? That’s not overtime that’s knife time!”
As you can see I have struggled to translate this concept of “knife time” into English. There is no word for it and it’s because in most English speaking cultures the idea of leaving work on time is normal and overtime is the abnormality. If you look the word up in a modern Korean dictionary than it will simple state that it refers to leaving work on time “like a knife cutting time” but when the term is used in discussions between workers and friends it can be interpreted in so many much more negative ways.
“You left early and abandoned us”; “you don’t work as hard as I do”; “you don’t sacrifice for the company”; “You don’t care about our results”; “I am jealous of you” – there are multiple sub-layers of meaning to the concept of knife time. As a result the ideal of finishing your work effectively and on time is then packaged as a negative concept while overtime is positively reinforced and workers are effectively stuck in their seats to late hours of the night in a bid to be perceived as hardworking, sacrificing, loyal employees.
Young Korean graduates have had enough and there are signs of change amongst the big Chaebols – who by in large dictate the corporate culture of the entire Korean economy. These major Korean companies and ambitious HR teams are certainly trying to change this culture – with varying success. Some companies though have simply got it all wrong. Samsung and CJ both have programs called “Smart Day” and “Family Day” respectively. These programs aim to give workers more time to spend with their families and to work “smarter” by forcing them to go home at a set time. Good intentions that are being executed poorly.
The issue with these programs is that staffs are leaving work on time; that is at the time stated on their original contracts. They are not leaving ‘early’ or even taking a half day but simply leaving work at the otherwise normal agreed time (usually 6pm). The fatal flaw is these programs are only reinforcing the ideal of “knife time” by packaging what should be the norm into a type of reward. Companies are effectively telling staff that to leave work on time is something special, a gift, a reward and other than that day they are expected to work the industry “Normal” hours which is essentially overtime work.
It’s now time both companies and workers took a new approach to the problem. The voices against mandatory and pointless overtime are growing as a generational change occurs in upper management but more needs to be done from both companies and society in general to push this agenda. Workers need to start thinking that even 30 minutes past the regular work time is overtime and the concept and Korean word “knife time” needs to be deleted all together. Leaving on time needs to be recognised as a positive; not only in terms of work-life balance of employees but in the ability and efficiency of workers to finish their work in the allotted time.
It won’t be easy to change but I definitely believe that with the generational change occurring that there is a chance for the next line of Korean managers to make a significant and ultimately beneficial cultural change for the entire nation.