Excerpted from the Korea Career Guide
Major differences still exist between a typical Korean company and a Western company. Confucian ethics continue to dictate a great respect for age, parents, teachers and employers. Although Western cultural influence is gradually entering Korea’s business world, many Korean companies still apply the seniority principle, or hierarchy according to age. However, brainstorming, regular meetings and other team-building activities have entered the mainstream of organizational culture in Korea.
Korean people tend to act in a reserved manner. They use few hand gestures, and there is no personal contact beyond the handshake unless the parties are close friends or family members. Women cover their mouths when they laugh, as do men who use toothpicks or anyone who yawns. It is considered quite rude to blow one’s nose in public. Eye contact may be considered confrontational; junior businesspeople avoid looking directly at their seniors.
Fifty percent of Korean men smoke, and office buildings are usually equipped with smoking rooms. Smoking in an office is strictly barred. With the number of non-smoking workers sharply increasing, many companies have banned smoking inside their buildings to protect non-smoking workers.
If You Want to Act Like a Local...
- While street food vendors are abundant, businesspeople should never eat from them. Buying food from these vendors and taking it to a private place to consume, however, is perfectly acceptable.
- Eating establishments in Korea range from modern fusion restaurants to traditional Korean restaurants. It is usual for restaurants that serve traditional Korean cuisine to have traditional Korean décor, i.e., low tables that require diners to sit on the floor; however, it is becoming commonplace to find restaurants catering to foreign visitors with Western-style tables and chairs.
When one walks into an office building in Korea, he or she will generally find everyone hard at work. One will notice that workers are generally soft-spoken and quite polite. When they do talk, it is never to brag about themselves; Koreans are modest people.
Korean managers have paternal relationships with their subordinates. Like a father, the highest-ranking employee in a group makes most of the decisions. Like children, the group obeys. In return for their obedience, the manager will take care of his group members (and probably give advice on their personal affairs as well).
Negotiations begin slowly in Korea. In fact, little or no business will be discussed at the initial meeting. Instead, the parties will sip tea and make small talk in order to forge a long-term business relationship that will outlast any potential project. This is the stage when the feeling of jeong is developed and should be allowed to flourish. If numerous people are present at the meeting, be sure to show the proper respect to the most senior person in the room. One way to do this is to not insult him or her by sending junior representatives to meet with senior contacts – find out who is coming ahead of time and send negotiators of equal stature.
Korea uses the 24-hour clock.
Business letters, in line with Koreans' preference for building relationships before doing business, should reflect this by beginning the letter with compliments and wishes for success. Paragraphs should be indented rather than in blocks, which gives the impression of being 'all business.'
This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the complete South Korea Guide.