Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Korean Corporate Hierarchy, Structure and Titles

What should I call my work colleague in Korea?

Unlike corporations in the West, Korean companies corporate positions and jobs are very hierarchical. Job roles and more importantly remuneration are based on the length of service and experience as opposed to job role based remuneration in the West. This is something which can be very frustrating for a foreigner just starting out in Korea because you are being rewarded basically based on age; not on the function you play in the organisation.

It also means that it makes it very difficult for foreigners to determine what their colleagues would be titled back home and vice versa! For example in Malaysia young staff and new employees are usually referred to as "executives" which in Korea is a term reserved only for those in the "executive suite" positions. 

The issue of Nepotism also plays a major role in Korean conglomerates where regular employees work their way up the ranks by compiling year upon year of service while the CEO's offspring or family relative is made a director in their early 30's or sometimes younger! (Another thing which makes relations difficult with overseas partners)! 

To help out with this confusing part of working at a Korean company I have created a Top - Bottom list of my previous companies corporate structure and titles with the English equivalent title and explanation. 

Korean Corporate Titles and Hierarchy

Now if you are unfamiliar with Korean language but still wish to try and address your Korean coworkers or business partners appropriately then remember to add the suffix - nim (님) to each and every title. This is the polite form of addressing somebody. For example the CEO you may refer to as 회장님 (HuiJang-Nim) Get it?

When in doubt just refer to people of similar age as 선배님 (SunBae-Nim) which means "my senior colleague" a polite way of referring to work colleague.

The exchanging of business cards allows for each person to view the persons title and address them in the most appropriate manner.
The exchanging of business cards allows for each person to view the persons title and address them in the most appropriate manner.

회장 HuiJang (Chairman / CEO)
The big man, the guy at the top, the head of the 'family'. Unless you work for a small Korean company or you are of very high status then it is unlikely that you will ever really get to meet the CEO. That said medium sized companies' chief executives are likely to at least make an appearance to welcome any foreign guests!

I had one experience with my companies CEO in that by chance he was in the lobby of the building at the same time as I was. Of course everyone before me was bowing very low to greet the CEO and when it came to my turn I naturally did the same; only to have the CEO look at me with a great big smile, waving and saying in English "HELLO!"

사장 SaJang (President / COO)
The right hand man to the CEO this person usually is head of a certain business division or separate businesses altogether if you work for a Korean conglomerate. For example you would have the CEO of the Samsung group and then the people of SaJang status would be the heads of the different business units such as Samsung electric or Samsung C&T

전무 JeonMoo (Executive Vice President / CFO) 
From my experience the JeonMoo is the title most used for the head of the finance departments. It is generally the 3rd level of being a company director. That is the third most senior level in hierarchy

상무 SangMoo (Vice President) 
Sangmoo is a title given to senior directors who are the heads of departments but have more experience than the below EeSsa.

이사 EeSsa (Director) 
EeSsa is the lowest level of seniority when it comes to being a director. This is for the "younger" department heads. It also can sometimes determine the importance of the department. Usually smaller or less important departments will have an "EeSsa" at the top rather than a "SangMoo"

수석부장 SooSeok BooJang (Department Head)
This title is confusing as it is for those who are the heads of their department but don't have the appropriate seniority to be a company director. This is also the title used for those who are in charge of operations - those in charge of manufacturing or the entire factory (Think blue collar workers) are often given this title as they do not have the qualifications to become a company director. 

부장 BooJang (Team Leader / Head Manager / Senior Manager)
Here are the titles which most of us will be in contact with more. The BooJang (who you will also call Team-Jangnim) is the leader of a team within a department. Like the sales team, accounting team etc. This person will be part of a group of team-jang's who meet with the department head (Sangmoo or EeSsa) to discuss business and then filter down instructions to each of their own teams. Think mid 40's worker with 10-12 years experience.

차장 ChaJag (Deputy Team Leader / Senior Manager)
This title is for those who are just below BooJang status but are more or less tasked with the same role as a team leader. The reason for their title is because they are lower in seniority to a BooJang but only just!

과장 KwaJang (Manager)
Kwajang are the late 30s / mid 40s worker with 7 + years of experience. There is usually around 2 Kwajang per team and they work as the actually people managers of the below staff. They will lead most projects and work with the below DaeRi and Sawon to complete projects.

대리 DaeRi (Assistant Manager)
This title is used for staff with around 4 years of experience, probably the worst position in terms of hierarchy as you are off the bottom of the food chain but don't get any power while also not receiving any guidance as you would if you were a Sawon. Usually there are 2 or more DaeRi per team who are charged with  basic job tasks and working together with SaWons.

주임 JooIm (Senior Staff / Assistant Manager)
An in between level. Not all companies have JooIm but they are basically the next step up from being a graduate worker. Sometimes if a graduate employee is a Masters or Doctorate Graduate then they are automatically promoted to this level. Only difference from a Sawon is a tiny increase in pay.

사원 Sawon (Regular Staff / ~ Assistant / Officer ) 
the namesake of this blog! It's a graduate employee who has now been at the company longer than a year! There is usually around 1 per team.

신입사원Shinip Sawon (New Graduate Employee) 
First year newbies sums it up best! Graduate employees who are employed by the thousands by companies like Samsung every recruiting season. Just FYI most new graduate employees to mid sized companies can expect a salary or around 35,000,000 KRW/Year while those lucky enough to be with big conglomerates will receive around 40 - 45,000,000 KRW.


  1. Makes me remember my ex business partner Lee daeri-nim and Kang Jooim-nim, the daeri-nim called me Gwajang-nim sometimes, the jooim-nim called me noona if he wants me to get things done quickly :D both guys has k-drama stars looks so i never mind. lol~~
    Thanks for sharing the complete hierarchy

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  2. Where does "shil-jang" fit in?

    1. Thanks for your question Kevin. I have left out a few titles like Shil-jang and bopin-jang. In general you can equate the shiljang with the suseok bujang literally it would be something like 'section chief'. Sometimes companies name departments [something]Shil like 조직개발실 or 경영실 hence the head of those sections are 'Shil'jangnims.

  3. Hello!
    I would like to know the meaning of KoJomJang, please!
    And thanks for the whole explanation above!

  4. Hello!
    I would like to know the meaning of KoJomJang, please!
    And thanks for the whole explanation above!

  5. Hello i entered a korean agency 5 months ago and im 20 what will be my title? thanks!

    1. wow think hard. what do you think

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