Business Culture in Korea

Category : Career/Business / Korean Cultures
Nov 28, 2014

The business environment in Korea is very different than it is in other countries. Foreigners often struggle to adapt to different customs and practices. Although at times you may feel frustrated or confused, try to bear with the differences. If it is really bothering you, remember that you can leave after the contract finishes and to enjoy your time abroad for the experience both good and bad. Familiarize yourself with these main differences and then you can respond accordingly when you’re having a hard time.



Bring a small gift from home when you first come to Korea for your new boss. You can also show your appreciation when you leave and during the holiday seasons (Chuseok /추석 in October and Seollal /설날 during January or February). Alcohol makes a great gift, especially whiskey or fine wine. In general, almost anything that has been imported looks good. Other good gift ideas are traditional food products from your home country or something that symbolizes your culture. Foreign products are hard to find in Korea, so they are always welcomed. Fruits baskets and household goods like detergent, cleaning products, toilet paper, shampoo, and skin cream are good for the holidays but a bit strange as welcoming gifts.


Drinking and Heosik /회식

As mentioned in every blog about Korea and in many of the articles here on WorknPlay, drinking is a popular topic in Korea and it is central to business culture. Drinking after work strengthens the bonds and trusting relationships between coworkers. Alcohol allows Koreans to feel comfortable in an otherwise rigid society. They get to know each other, opening up with the help of alcohol. The idea is that they will hopefully become more productive at work. Heosik means “company dinner” in Korean. Depending on the job and boss, company dinners can be an almost weekly occurrence. At most jobs, heosiks happens about once every two months. Everyone at the office will go for dinner after work. There will often be lots of alcohol, served alongside a delicious Korean BBQ or seafood dinner. It is common to move to another drinking place after dinner, where more alcohol will be consumed. You might even go to a singing room (know in Korean as a noraebang /노래방) after that.


It is expected that all staff attend heosik. It is rude to decline. Bosses are often more understanding of foreigners who are sometimes uncomfortable drinking in front of superiors. Don’t be shy about alcohol consumption, unless you don’t drink. If you can, take the first shot of alcohol with the whole company staff and then switch to something non-alcoholic. If you never drink, attend heosik anyway and politely decline. Ask for something else like coke or cider (Sprite) instead. Don’t just sip water.


Sometimes you may have other plans on the evening that heosik occurs. Try to cancel your plans especially if it’s your first hoesik. Your experience working in Korea will be much better if you can socialize with your coworkers. Look on the brightside: the food is free, the drinks are free, and the next day will be hilarious when everyone stumbles to work half asleep and terribly hung-over.


Respect for your Boss

Confucius said that society is ordered by the relationships of the people within it. The relationship between the King and the servant (or the boss and employee) is one of the central relationships set forth by Confucius himself. The employee is subservient to the employer. The employer may command his/her employees however he/she sees fit and the employee should obey the wiser, more experienced boss. The boss can in turn teach the employee many things and one day the employee will reach a position of superiority ‘ruling’ over others. As well, the boss will take care of his/her employees, like a mother or father would her/his children. It is a reciprocal relationship and one to be aware of. Don’t tell your boss he/she is wrong. Don’t protest when your boss asks you to change or do something. Don’t give your opinion unless it’s asked. Don’t shout or confront your boss. Don’t speak sharply. Take care in asking for things from your boss. Let him or her address you first and then mention something you need.


Don’t say “No”

This little rule goes along with ‘respect for your boss’ and it’s really helpful. Try not to say ‘no’ to anything requested of you at work. The rule is easy. Say “yes”, “probably”, “I’ll try”, “sure”, “sounds good”, “I’ll see what I can do”, “maybe”, “I’ll get to it soon”, “Can someone show me how to do that?” or really any positive or neutral response that you can think of. Simply nodding your head works too. Don’t give negative responses even when you know what your being asked to do is impossible. Do at least attempt to do what is asked of you. If you can’t or it’s very unreasonable just don’t do it. Make it obvious that you are trying or in the process of doing it. Eventually your boss will realize on his/her own terms that you can’t do it and the whole thing will be forgotten about. If you say “no” or confront your boss about the request, you’ll disrupt the delicate balance between employer and employee and it won’t do you any good.


No Names

In Korea, people are referred to by the titles they hold, not their names. Don’t call your boss by his/her name. Call him/her by the title that he/she holds – like director, manager, CEO, founder, owner. Ask your coworker which title your boss goes by. Use the polite honorific, ‘-nim /님’ at the end of the title.


à For example: In Korean ‘director’ is eesa /이사, so to call your director in Korean say eesa-nim /이사님.


You will also be called your title at work. If you are an entry level worker, which has no title the honorific for your name will be attached, ssi /씨 (pronounced ‘she’).

à For example: If your name is David, you will be called David-ssi. Teachers in Korea are called by the title ‘teacher /sansaengnim /선생님’. You too will be called ‘teacher’ rather than Mr. or Ms.


à Check out the list of titles in the article, Titles of Coworkers, People and Family in Korean.


Dress Up

Koreans value outward appearances. Business casual is usually the expected dress code for any office or school. Bosses will expect that you wear nicer clothes– no jeans, t-shirts, runners or caps. Some bosses are really strict while others are extremely lenient. A friend of mine often wore her pajamas and sweatpants to school. Even though her boss was relaxed about appearance, my friend applied an extremely liberal definition to the word ‘relaxed’. Try not to wear pjs to work, but certainly go for jeans and runners if everyone else is doing it. For your first few weeks at work, make a good impression and dress up a bit even if it’s obvious that the dress code is comfortable. 

Tags : Work rules in Korea, Dress code in Korea, Working environment, Business culture

Lindsey lived and worked in Seoul, South Korea for over 5 years. While there, she dabbled in different areas of work and explored the culture. She spent time teaching elementary students, business English to adults and high school students about college preparation. She also studied Korean, wrote blogs and tasted as many foods as she possibly could including fermented skate fish. Over the years, Lindsey developed a love for Korea and the culture. She is keen to share her knowledge of Korea with others and she will always consider Korea a second home.