Indepent Working Module, Article: Finns and Korean hierarchy

Finns Making Sense of Korean Hierarchy: How Expatriates from Finland Experience Hierarchy in a Korean Working Environment

Article concentrates on how Finnish expatriates consider hierarchy effecting their work in the Republic of Korea. The author interviewed 10 Finnish expatriates working in R.O.K, both in Korean and Finn-Korean working environments who are being referred with pseudonyms to protect their true identities. The author states that even if Korean working environment is known to be Confucian due to the traditional values which are learned during childhood, a Western observer might want to consider questioning ones own perspective: if an observer has a presumption that the environment is Confucian, one might interpret ones observations by judging them by those standards.

At the moment, however, the author interprets from previous studies that the working environment is paternalistic which derives from Confucianism due the culture of collectivism. The question of hierarchy does not reflect only in gender but also in age: older is bound to be higher in hierarchy than the younger and in occasions where employee is younger than the supervisor, the employee “loses his face”. The reason for Koreans requesting to know e.g. the age and marital status, for they have an urge to categorise a person “on a ranking scale”, thus knowing how to speak to a person. Hierarchy reflects in language, which “has a complex morphology for showing politeness and societal ranking order”: the interviewees preferred English instead of Korean due to the complexity of the language and the fear of making errors that could have negative effects for them. The Interviewees also felt that language effected also in working environments: English-speaking working communities the atmosphere was quite different in comparison to the Korean-speaking ones due to the lesser hierarchy. Hierarchy is evident when addressing individuals: they are not addressed with given names but instead with their titles. One of the interviewees, “Juhani” explained that high ranking executives would not discuss with their “inferiors”, thus he had to change his title of his business card to have more credibility among them.

The interviewees found the 10-12 hours consisting working days to be unproductive and a bit misleading: in some occasions the employees entered the office before their superiors and did practically nothing, as well as with the last hour when they e.g. mainly wrote e-mails although trying to look busy. Ergo, the purpose of long hours is about “pleasing” ones superior. The “rapid changes in schedule” were as well prove of hierarchy in the working environment: if a superior requests to change schedule, one must obey. However, the interviewees found this aspect of culture disturbing their efficiency: the interviewees considered the mentality to disturb the long.-term planning due the frequency of the rescheduling, thus leading to feeling of frustration. Questioning a person higher in hierarchy would be pointless, since e.g. during meetings the expectation was that superior was to speak unless opinion of an employee was asked: if the subject during a meeting diverges from the original agenda to which answers have been planned ahead, Koreans will get confused, thus creating a possibility of embarrassing them and  endangering relations. The author states that according to the interviewees this aspect of culture had negative impact: some aspects of project had to be re-done due to the lack of information, some teams were doing exactly the same task without acknowledging the fact and the interviewees considered the “non-discussion culture” harmful due to the lack of opinions that could develop the organisation. The projects weren’t started without permission, for if a person would prove to be a bad one, “one’s job might be in jeopardy”. Superiors were negative using consultants for hiring them would send a signal that higher ranking supervisors would lack knowledge or understanding about the subject. The interviewees thought that concentrating the decision making in upper levels “passivizes” the subordinates: “Mikko” compared the situation to the army, and stated that soft touch by the management would be considered as weakness. “Mika” also pointed out the aspect of being careful due to the possible harmful effects of suggestions: “one should proceed gently” and think which person might be affected before suggesting anything, thus avoiding of insulting anyone or harming ones position.

Even though the working culture might feel obsolete, the change has been rapid during the past few years. “Mikko” stated that the number of female civil servants was increasing. However, “Laura” and “Eeva” commented that they have experienced gender discrimination: women are still considered less important and considered as objects whose mere function is to please men. “Eeva” especially considered the situation “intolerable”. However the progress in the working culture is inevitable: “The interviewees described how Korean companies have women working for them and some have even been promoted in the hierarchy”. The author states however that R.O.K is clearly in transition: younger generations are “in many ways very different from the older Koreans” whilst women are increasingly participating the workforce and rising in the hierarchy. The women are also reported to be less fond of phallocratic-oriented system: since they do not benefit from it, they “are more ready to give it up”, thus implying a change in working culture in future. The interviewees highlighted that Korean workers in Finnish-managed working environments, if their interpretations were correct, were satisfied with the more liberal and less hierarchical rules, especially “Mikko” thinking what he considered weaknesses in Korean working culture had been identified and “European and American [cultures] were becoming more popular”.

The author concludes that age-related position is at the moment a great factor and Korean use of time frustrates the Finnish expatriates with culture lacking dialogue. However, the author also reminds that the results are dependent on attitudes of the interviewees, thus the author reminds a reader to be skeptical about the results. The author also states that R.O.K has adopted “foreign values” during the last decades and Koreans are willing to assimilate themselves in a globalised world. The conclusions of the author about the changing R.O.K are very realistic: development has been rapid and status quo does not longer exist, explaining international leverage and status of R.O.K at the moment. However, in my opinion the author could have concentrated more to the transition instead of interpreting the working culture as a heritage of old Confucian values, even though some criticism towards the current status seems justified.

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