Why do Koreans work so late?It is probably the question that most foreigners working or studying in Korea love to discuss and outsiders often ask or have heard rumors about. It's true, Koreans have some of the worst working hours in the OECD in fact according to 2012 statistics they were ranked 2nd in the OECD for Average annual hours actually worked per worker and while most of your Korean coworkers and friends will have you believe that they are genuinely that busy that they need to work overtime (which in some cases is true) there are also some interesting and unique cultural forces in play which are causing Koreans to stay later at the office than they need to.
I will try to cover all of the different reasons as to why Korean white collar workers in corporate positions are working so late and also touch on how Korean companies are trying but in some cases failing to change this overtime corporate culture.
The culture of working long hours in Korean companies are a result of a variety of influences - the epic rise from poverty to middle class power; top - bottom hierarchy structures, constant reporting, micro management, perception, loyalty, face and Noonchi
The ideal of noonchi (눈치) can have a variety of meanings. It often refers to how one can perceive the emotions and atmosphere of others by observing them without any communication which can also apply to the business setting. However I prefer to refer to Noonchi as a silent set of expectations and rules placed on workers. Often in the Koreean corporate world people will refer to what they call the Noonchi pyramid - that is the Junior members are watching the mid managers. the mid managers are watching the managers, the managers are watching the department heads and the department heads are watching the directors and finally the directors are watching the family owners. When I say watching I am referring to noonchi and how each level of hierarchy is concerned of how their superiors above them perceive their actions and through noonchi they can determine the subliminal demands of their managers. This is sort of like how a junior worker for fear of appearing stupid will not ask "why or how" when given some work rather they will simply say "yes" and sit quietly with no idea of how to complete their work.
What holds most Koreans back so late is this noonchi and the belief that they can't leave on time because that's what the boss wants. The bosses can't leave early either because he believes that's what their superiors want and so on and so forth. The only person who is leaving on time in this scenario is the person at the top of the noonchi pyramid. Koreans will often sit in their office chairs from 7pm to 11pm or later with no specific work but out of noonchi. From that time at night there are probably millions of Koreans on social media talking about how they can't go home because "눈치 보여" (noonchi)
Perception and Old School Management
Being busy in Korea is viewed as a positive rather than a negative, even in social settings. Think of all the times you have messaged your Korean friend to see how they are only to get a reply days later and the mandatory sorry message of "I was so busy out of my mind" (너무 바빠서 정신이 없었다). In most cases this is just a cop-out so that they could ignore you but when I think about it now I can never recall a situation where a Korean friend or colleague said to me "I'm not busy at all" or "I have nothing to do at work". There is a lack of honesty here but it's because in Korea not being busy can so easily and often is interpreted as being lazy.
Finishing all your work and going home on time is not viewed as hard working but quite the opposite - you either don't have enough work and your position is not important or you are not working hard enough. If the office takes this view then what advantage is there for Koreans to finish their work and leave on time? Nobody in the corporate world wants to appear as if their job is easy, or that they don't have enough work because that would be admitting that they are easily replaceable, not adding value to the company and not working hard enough - and in a incredibly tight and competitive job market it is the safe play to give off the impression that your job and by association you yourself are integral to the operation of the company.
The general rule in a Korean company is to not leave until your direct team leader has left which would be fine if not for the team leader also believing that they can't leave until a certain time because they also want to give off the impression of working hard. Perception reigns supreme in a Korean office and giving off the impression of working hard by staying late is something all Koreans will do. In fact although your contract will state working hours from 9am - 6pm but working until 8-9pm or later (and then there is Dinner drinks) will be the norm.
So who is demanding that these laws of noonchi and perception are being enforced? Many believe that a lot of these negatives of Korean corporate culture are a result of the old school management principles of the company Directors. These directors have grown up and worked through one of the greatest economy turn-arounds in modern history. They are from the school of hard work - long hours, personal sacrifice for the good of the company. I definitely felt that in my experience working at Korean companies that the mid managers often in their 40s are not horrible, sadistic people who like to see young people suffer just as they did and for that matter nor are the directors but there is a difference in how they view the working hours. Company directors are not thinking to themselves "You guys need to suffer like I did" they simply expect the same commitment and work ethic that they contributed to build the company.The important issue now is that the next generation of Directors begin to recognize the changing values and demands of young Koreans - long hours and sacrifice are not going to produce the same results as they did in the past and there is definitely hope that the next generation begin to see the value in promoting better work-life balance.
Hierarchy Chains and Bottom lines
All of these factors are intertwining which makes it hard to accurately sub-head sections. One aspect which often does not come up in many discussion on Korean overtime is that there are actually some workers, departments and companies that are genuinely THAT busy.
Some departments and companies are very understaffed; if a person is working 80 hour weeks a company doesn't think to itself that it needs to hire extra staff to share the workload, simply they think that an 80 hour work week is what is expected. Companies have a lot to answer for in this respect and they have a keen eye on there bottom line - they never needed extra staff to do the position before so why should they now? which means inevitably there will be staff doing the work of two or even three people for the sake of company profits.
The other issue Is that of Hierarchy chains and demands. This has some links to the military history of Korean leadership and also the 2 years of military service that young Korean men have to undertake. When demands come from the top they are required to be attended to first. This means real work that is contributing value to the company is ignored as staff are forced to supply the top management with their demands. This is a vicious cycle of ad-hoc reporting, I like to describe it as a fire department, teams move from fire to fire doing adhoc reporting on issues that the management have suddenly taken an interest in. It is unavoidable to not stay late when you and your team are forced to prepare reports to the standard a CEO expects on topics and issues which are not your expertise nor are directly related to your work.
If the CEO wants a report tomorrow on the Australian HR system and it's difference to Korea than you really have no choice but to spend the night preparing the report. It would be like if you had a very inconsiderate and irrational teacher at school or university who does pop-style 20 page assignments which are due the following day. What can you do? if you don't do the work your position is on the line, and if you do do the work then you are going to sacrifice your personal time and health. Because it is the CEO or another director demands you can not simply give a verbal report either - you want to be perceived as if you have done a good job which usually means a simple 10 minute ad-hoc briefing on a topic is turned into a 1 hour; 40 slide power point filled with graphs and models which essentially mean nothing.
Loyalty and Sacrifice
Korea as we know is a largely Collective society. Personal gains are sacrificed for the group, or in a workers perspective - personal time and well-being is sacrificed for the better of the company (and by large the economy). It has always been interesting to me that this style of thinking is common place when clearly the elite families who run the major Korean chaebols (Samsung; LG; Hanhwa; CJ) got into that position by not sacrificing for the group rather they have had others sacrifice for their own personal gain.
In the case of staying late - if we again look at the aforementioned pyramid model; young workers will look to stay as late as their mid-managers and so on. This is to display that they are "all-in" they are willing to sacrifice just as their managers, it is a show of loyalty and of caring. If we suffer then we suffer together and this is a admiral trait if but for the fact that nobody really has to suffer.
Sacrifice is glorified and expected. Of course there are those who simply prefer to stay at the office and are avoiding their home lives (possibly another subheading) but the majority are definitely sacrificing personal time, health and mental well-being. In a society where individuals are expected to tow the line as part of the group it becomes increasingly difficult for workers to avoid the 'sacrifice' of staying late - for fear of being ostracized or made an example.
"Smart Days" and "Family Days"
Without a doubt modern Korean society has had enough of the pointless overtime and there are signs of change among 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 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 abnormality, a reward and other than that day they are expected to work the industry “Normal” hours which is essentially overtime work.
I hope I have been able to give you some insight into the complexity of Korean corporate culture and overtime and I will continuously add to this article as I am sure others who have experienced it also have valid opinions and points as to why Korean workers simply can't leave the office on time.