During the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, I was assigned to the HR department of a major toy manufacturer in Korea. My first assignment was not the development of human resources, but instead, laying people off through performance assessment. I had to dismiss several people who had worked, ate, and drank with me just a couple of days earlier. Neither their performance nor their competencies defined them as underperformers. Still, assessments were made to identify personnel with comparably less performance outcome.
The layoffs were inevitable, because the crisis forced Korean corporations to go through restructuring and reduce the size of their workforce. It was a brutal and unforgettable experience. But it sparked my genuine interest in developing and managing human resources, and I decided to pursue an academic career as an HRD professional.
Today, I work as a scholar, consultant, and professor of HRD in Korea. Through 12 years of experience in the field and with the accomplishments of my research team, I have followed Korea’s trends in and its forward-looking vision of human resource management and development based on the deeper understanding of Korean people and workplace culture.
Korea is famous for its cultural and technological advances. South Korea’s rapid economic development—from a war-torn wasteland to the world’s 11th-largest economy (Rauhala 2012)—has been heralded around the world as one of the primary examples of developing countries. Also, Korean culture has seen a recent surge in popularity, led by generations that are deeply connected with online media. Hallyu, or Korean Wave, is now on trend, along with Korean pop music (K-pop), cinema, and drama.
Korea’s cultural popularity has resulted in various projects on official development assistance and on benchmarking of foreign companies, especially in the field of HRD. Developing countries in Southeast Asia are adopting the HRD systems and structures of the Korean government, and various foreign companies are trying to benchmark the best cases of HRD in Korean companies.
Still, we have a long way to go; Koreans have struggled to keep up with global HRD trends and incorporate them into their HR structure. Traditionally, Korean corporate culture is strictly hierarchical. From time to time, this creates tension as Korean companies strive to innovate into more globalized companies and set a new tone for the internal culture, allowing junior staff to speak and act freely.
Throughout my journey to innovate Korean HRD, I have observed many different responses among Korean HRD professionals and others. Some people were reluctant to adopt new methodologies, casting doubt on their effectiveness; others were eager to try new, innovative solutions. These days in Korea, a plethora of businesses are attempting to change their culture, people, and management practices to keep up with the ever-shifting global environment. Thus, it is truly important to understand the country to follow its fast-paced HRD trend. I hope this chapter will be a useful guide to grasping Korean audiences and their culture.
People and Culture: Get to Know Your Audience
The population of South Korea is just over 50 million. Despite the influx of foreign workers, the population is relatively homogeneous; approximately 96 percent is native Korean, with people from China, the United States, Vietnam, and Thailand mostly comprising the remainder.
One remarkable thing about the Korean population is its unprecedented pace of aging. As of 2015, around 13.1 percent is elderly, which will soar to 40.1 percent in 2060, according to Statistics Korea (2015).
A residential area in Seoul. The population of South Korea is just over 50 million.
This rapid pace has two negative implications. First, it means the decline of economically active people. The shrinking labor force will likely have an adverse impact on the overall economy, including the deterioration of potential growth rate, decreased investment and expenditure, and a limited social insurance budget. An aging society may also lead to an imbalance between younger and older generations in the workplace. In response to this, organizations have been trying to bridge the gap between Millennials and older generations by raising awareness of each generation’s unique traits.
Ironically, Korean society is famous for its vitality. According to the Better Life Index, published by OECD (2016), South Korea ranked third in average annual hours worked, approaching 2,124 hours annually, which is 354 hours more than the average among OECD-member countries. The long hours signify not only that Koreans are some of the most hardworking people in the world, but also that the imperative to work hard and play hard imbues Korean society. Similar to what Johan Huizinga (2014) described in Homo Ludens, a book about the play element of culture, Koreans value the meaning of their professions and pursue playfulness in their lives. In this sense, Korean audiences could be summed up with three keywords: fast-paced, adaptable, and playful.
Getting Started: Conduct a Needs Assessment
A needs assessment is crucial in designing training programs in Korea. Current HRD goals are to maximize the effectiveness of training solutions while minimizing travel and time out of the office. Corporations want training programs to deal with the constantly changing skill levels and tastes of Korean audiences.
Korea has the highest smartphone penetration in the world—nearly 90 percent of the population is using smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center (Poushter 2016). It is important to consider technology use when assessing needs. Mobile learning can be a great way to engage a large number of audiences with little effort. In particular, surveying people with a mobile messenger app would facilitate the process of accumulating data. HR analytics using big data have enabled Korean HRD professionals to assess their target audiences’ individualized interests and motivations for learning.
Here are some recommended steps for conducting an effective needs assessment:
• Define the trainer and trainee. Before initiating a training session, carefully consider who the trainer and learners are and from which generation they come. For example, someone from an older generation may not be accustomed to using technology adeptly, or they might be unable to read small text written on a screen. It is a good idea to survey trainers and learners for technology proficiency if you are considering using any e-learning.
• Make it concise and simple. Korea has a pali-pali culture, which means “hurry up” or “faster” in the Korean language, and demonstrates their fast-paced, hardworking character. Korea’s pali-pali culture is one of the driving forces behind the accelerated pace of development in every aspect of society. Given this trait, Koreans are accustomed to managing tasks and working in a very fast and efficient manner. Try to make the assessment questions concise and straightforward. Otherwise, results might be vague.
• Inform both participants and managers of how important training is. We erroneously consider our customer in learning to be the audience (or participants). However, the managers (or departments) who are sending participants in the hope of performance development must also be considered customers. Unfortunately, some managers think it’s inappropriate for direct reports to be doing something else during the working hours (even training), which may make the result of needs assessment invalid. Therefore, it is important to stress the importance of training to both the participants and management.
• Get honest feedback in a needs assessment. The concept of “face” (kibun), found in many Asian societies, also exists in Korea. Koreans strive for harmony in business relationships, avoiding confrontations and sometimes responding to needs assessment surveys with what the assessor wants to hear rather than identifying issues head-on. Westerners often find this approach confusing. Rephrasing needs assessment questions to a more indirect approach may be necessary: “If there were a typical obstacle a worker in that occupation faced, what might it be?” Koreans are very protective of personal dignity, so be very careful in business discussions about performance gaps and always be respectful and mindful of kibun.
Itineraries: Plan the Learning Journey
In the past, Korean companies were notorious for a strict corporate culture and centralized decision making. Many workers were required to show excessive employee loyalty and productivity, which would force them to work until late at night, skip holidays, or follow whatever their employers’ orders might be.
However, as the Millennial generation begins making up more of the workforce, Korean companies are transforming. Millennials are not willing to sacrifice their private lives for their work and expect their workplace to be more democratic and free. Companies must transform their corporate culture and try something new and innovative—particularly in HRD—in response to their fresh and energetic audiences. Moreover, these audiences expect their learning to be engaging and fun.
Here are some practical strategies that could improve the learning experience.
It’s Show Time!
Whenever I deliver sessions on HRD issues and trends, I use a multitude of visual examples that relate to the audience. People want to see how different HRD practices can be implemented in a real setting. Words are not enough. It is best to engage audiences by using all kinds of examples. Recently, I adopted a short clip from a television drama to show how communication between a boss and employee could get worse with poor coaching skills, which prompted a deep discussion.
Bridge the Generation Gap
Although the younger generation is more willing to share opinions about a freer corporate culture and work practices, a generation gap still exists. Existing hierarchical structures make the situation worse: In most cases, the older generation is working as executives or decision makers, while the younger generation is staff. Thus, their differences create a sense of disharmony that is often perceived as a conflict between employee and boss. A challenge, then, is to find ways to bridge the generation gap, breaking boundaries by creating a harmonized atmosphere, which provides a free flow of communication. A well-facilitated classroom discussion can open up the lines of communication.
Quench Workers’ Technological Thirst
As some of the most connected workers in the world, Koreans show little reluctance to incorporating technology into their learning experience. Moreover, because Korean people show high adaptability to different technologies, HRD professionals should proactively integrate technological elements to improve workers’ learning experiences. For instance, people can learn by using their smartphones. Learning takes place wherever or whenever the they want; they can select content based on their personal interest and motivation, creating authentic, self-directed learning.
Use Structured On-the-Job Training (S-OJT)
The changing generational composition of the Korean workplace provides a rationale for trainers to facilitate more practical and immediate learning, as companies strive to keep new talent from leaving. In a recent survey in Korea, 92.3 percent of team leaders who have hired new personnel responded that S-OJT was helpful, while 46.2 percent of new employees replied that S-OJT has significantly reduced their time to competency. Managers saw how it was useful for new workers to get training with content similar to actual work tasks. New employees thought it was easier to learn useful content necessary for the job compared with other training methods, and was more helpful with adjusting to a new workplace environment (Lee 2013).
Packing Lists: Logistics, Technology, and Resources
Most companies in Korea are up-to-date on the use of technologies. It is likely that companies will have projectors, screens, extension cords, tables, chairs, whiteboards, and e-stations. However, some companies may not have the latest versions of programs, such as Microsoft Office or the Windows operating system, which may cause compatibility issues. Always bring a laptop in case such matters occur. Also, if using any devices other than a PC or laptop with a Windows operating system, bring a connector for RGB cables, because many companies do not have cables compatible with Apple products. The electric outlets are 220 volts, unlike the ones used in America, so purchase a multiadapter. Here are a few more pieces of information to keep in mind:
• Ask for a flipchart. Although flipcharts are commonly used, some companies may not have them on-site, so do not forget to ask for one before your course.
• You may have to ask for Wi-Fi access. Wi-Fi access is limited. Although many businesses have Wi-Fi that is accessible for nonpersonnel, it may be necessary to ask for Wi-Fi access, because the primary Wi-Fi routers are password protected. Some companies may provide an extra computer that has access to the Internet when outside computers are prevented from connecting.
• Ask the organizer of the event about transportation. Most companies will provide transportation for your convenience, but if not, it is easy to use public transportation. Korea has a great mass transit system, and it is not exaggerating to say that getting anywhere in Seoul or a nearby city is easy with public transportation. Just purchase a rechargeable transportation card from the nearest convenience store or subway station and use it for any public transportation. These locations also have machines to reload transportation cards. Buses, subways, and even taxis accept the transportation card.
• Bring business cards. Exchanging business cards is East Asian etiquette. After shaking hands, immediately share a business card. This practice shows respect and properly introduces people. Some companies use e-business cards with phone applications, but most upper management still use the traditional business cards.
• Check the visa status for your country. Although South Korea shares a loosened visa system with many neighboring countries, it has strict visa requirements for several nations. Don’t forget to double check the visa status for your country.
Customs: Body Language Dos and Don’ts
Here are a few behaviors to keep in mind while training in Korea:
• Appearance greatly affects impressions. Koreans are very sensitive about appearances. They expect professionals to look like professionals, which means a man should dress in a formal suit and tie and a woman should wear business attire or a loose-fitting dress.
• Bow slightly while shaking hands. Bowing is important for cultures in East Asian countries, but Koreans do not expect full 90-degree bows from foreigners. A slight bow with a handshake may be the best way to show respect.
• Receive with two hands. There will be lots of giving and receiving during your stay in Korea. Using both hands is regarded as polite in Korean culture, including receiving gifts or even a handshake.
• Keep eye contact. Don’t use too much direct eye contact, but show that you are paying attention. Too much looking away or looking at your phone may seem impolite and unfocused. To show respect, some Koreans may not make eye contact when in the presence of a perceived authority figure, such as an instructor. However, this is changing, so make and expect direct eye contact as an indication of honesty and interest.
• Try not to have too much direct physical contact with someone who seems older. This is seen as disrespectful, particularly touching on the head or shoulders, because many elders do such actions to children or people younger than them. Stay friendly, but try not to be too friendly before getting to know people.
• Don’t forget to share. Sharing is something that is found commonly in Korean daily lives. It could start with just sharing a piece of gum or utensils for writing. People will return things that are yours after they finish using them. Keep valuable belongings with you, but most things will stay where they were left.
• If possible, don’t cross your legs when sitting down. This may be seen as disrespectful to others. Try keeping both legs on the ground, with the bottom of your shoes facing down.
• Going out for food and drink is part of business in Korea. Similar to other East Asian countries, Koreans expect to enjoy food and drinks after the official schedule to show gratitude and share welcoming remarks. Some even suggest going for a second round or more, which means to move to another place for additional drinks. It is OK to refuse politely.
Bulgogi, a classic Korean dish. Koreans enjoy going out for food and drinks at the end of a training program.
There are eating and drinking etiquette guidelines in Korean business culture; here are some to keep in mind:
• Usually, the oldest or highest-ranked person picks up chopsticks to eat, and the rest follow. If you’re the highest-ranking person, they’ll invite you to begin eating.
• The person in charge will most likely create the seating arrangements. Someone will invite people to sit in a designated seat, so wait for instructions.
• When drinking Korean alcohol such as soju, it is traditional to have someone pour a drink for you. Hold the glass with two hands, and wait for the cheers (cheers in Korean is gun-bae). When drinking, try to look away from the table or colleagues to show a gesture of respect.
• Try not to refuse drinks too strongly. If you cannot or do not drink, tell the host ahead of time so that they will not offer drinks in the first place.
Most important, Koreans in business will know you are from a foreign culture, and they will respect cultural differences. Many Korean businesspeople have a global mindset and know various customs and cultures from around the world, so they will do their best to make you feel comfortable. Do not take these recommendations too strictly; rather, they’re to help you prepare for Korean culture. Demonstrating these behaviors gives the impression of a knowledgeable professional.
Climate: Create a Warm Learning Environment
In Korean culture, acknowledging age or rank difference is crucial to showing respect. The way to speak and react is different for people who are older or higher up than you, for people who are the same level, and for people who are younger or junior.
Therefore, in training sessions that consist of employees holding different positions, you’re likely to see less input from participants in higher ranks. Create an environment that will encourage their full participation with these tactics:
• For group activities, group people with similar positions or ranks. When grouping individuals with diverse positions, it is common to see people in lower ranks doing most of the work. If you create groups of people with similar positions, you are nudging them to participate as equals within the team. They will be more open to share ideas and respect one another’s ideas.
• Try to form groups with men and women. A group with both women and men is more likely to form more diverse ideas.
• Avoid criticizing in public. All criticism of participants should be conducted in private to reduce or prevent loss of face. It is also advisable to avoid opposing a participant in public as this, too, can mean a loss of face. Express opinion or concerns privately in a one-on-one situation.
• Give participants time to consume snacks. It is common to see refreshments and snacks provided for workshops and meetings. However, most of the time, they are located at the end of the room or outside. Give the participants plenty of time to eat, and let them bring snacks into the classroom to create a more relaxed environment.
• Use humor. Koreans love little puns and jokes within a session, but may show discomfort if you expect an active response from them. Watch their reactions to humor and decide if it is being well received.
• Be humble. In Korean culture, modesty and humility are important. Therefore, it is best to avoid overselling your credentials when beginning your session. Keep humility in mind also when meeting participants and assessing their skills. Participants might understate their abilities and knowledge in a topic to appear humble.
Things to Consider: Handle Classroom Challenges
The lecture format is the most common training method used for orientations or instruction. However, many group activities are also facilitated in Korean companies. Participants have experienced various group activities and lectures, so it should not be difficult to incorporate activities used in your culture. But because it’s not as common a form of training, it is important to clarify what kinds of activities participants will perform, along with their outcomes. Clearly written explanations and examples will encourage active participation.
Here are some other situations to be aware of:
• Koreans are known for not speaking out loud or asking questions in front of people during a lecture. Instead, they will ask questions or express their ideas after the lecture is over by approaching you personally or contacting you through email. Be available to talk with participants during breaks and lunch, and be sure everyone has your email address.
• There may be significant differences between participants from different generations. Try not to make it visible, but help them help one another. It is also important to help them understand one another and embrace their ideas, because it may be hard to close the generation gap. If it seems like a group consisting of various generations will not work well together, create groups with members of the same generation. Once a group is working together well, do not change the team too soon. It may seem as if someone is being pulled away from the group.
• Never act as if your viewpoint or perspective is the right one. There are diverse views, and it is important to realize that as a foreigner. Sometimes, although you may be right, the participants may feel uncomfortable if pushed too hard to change their viewpoints. If it seems that the participants are having a hard time with your ideas, let it slide or try to find a more subtle way to influence them. Remember never to discriminate or put down a participant’s ideas or viewpoints, because it will bring conflict to the session.
• Sometimes it is hard for participants to find consensus. If so, don’t force it; instead, remind people to embrace the opinions shared. In other words, facilitate consensus, but don’t put down one opinion for another. Otherwise, the participation from those opposed will be lost.
Tips and Warnings: Advice for Nonnative Trainers
Here are a few final suggestions for working with Korean audiences:
• Arrive at least 10 minutes before the scheduled meeting time. It is considered bad manners to show up late, and most participants will be early. Use the time for personal introductions and getting to know people before the session begins. If you think you will be late, call someone in advance to let them know, and they will understand.
• Let the senior members realize that you appreciate their participation because of how busy they may be. Do not show less respect for the others, but it is crucial to acknowledge senior members’ contributions.
• When receiving input or answers that are not as clear or concrete as you’d like, work to get a clearer answer. Usually, participants either believe that the question demanded such answers, or they feel uncomfortable giving out answers in long sentences. Koreans tend to shorten their answers to summarize all their ideas.
Nothing is more special than greeting Korean audiences in their language and thanking them in Korean. It is also a sign of respect. Consider using Ahn-nyeong-ha-seh-yo (hello), Gam-sah-hap-ni-da (thank you), or An-yŏng-hi ju-mu-shŏ-ssŏ-yo (good morning) in your introductions.
Remember that a pillar of Korea’s Confucianist traditions is to demonstrate respect. Value the individual who has given their work time or personal time to come to the training session. When you start with respect, participants will return respect wholeheartedly.
About the Author
Chan Lee is a professor at Seoul National University in Korea, focused on vocational education and workforce development. Prior to his career in academia, Chan worked at LG Electronics as an HRD team leader. He holds a PhD and a master’s degree in HRD from Ohio State University. Chan has been a speaker at ATD’s International Conference & Exposition since 2006, and was a member of the conference’s Program Advisory Committee in 2010 and 2011. He was a keynote speaker and one of the organizers for the ATD 2017 Korea Summit. He was also a speaker at ATD 2011 Singapore, ATD 2014 Taiwan, and the ATD 2015 Japan Summit. He contributed to the book Implementing On-the-Job Learning, part of the ASTD in Action series. Chan holds lectures and conducts research on strategic HRD, social learning, smart learning, performance management, coaching and leadership, theories and applications of job analysis, and structured on-the-job training in many countries.
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Busan Tower in Busan, South Korea