Business / Corporate Culture In South Korea

Corporate Culture In South Korea

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Autor:  anton  22 December 2010
Tags:  Corporate,  Culture
Words: 3770   |   Pages: 16
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The Corporate Culture in South Korea

Business in the XXI century is becoming more and more global, international; we find new partners in various, sometimes very exotic parts of the world. It is all possible thanks to the common language (assuming that “everybody” knows English), good and fast transportation and new ways of communication, like for example Internet. We are learning from each other and trying to adjust to new situations, although the differences are often much greater than just a language or a skin color. It gets harder when not only two different countries, but two different civilizations clashes. Then it is easy and highly likely that a lot of misunderstandings will occur, what can be a threat to our potential cooperation. That’s why it is important to get to know the basic information about the culture and habits of the country we plan to do business with. There might be just some small differences, but those small differences might make a huge change in the overall impression and image of us, and significantly contribute to our future collaboration. Further in this essay I’m presenting some information that might be useful before we do business with South Koreans.

Before we move to specific aspects of the Korean culture it is crucial to know about very strong Confucian traditions in that country. At this time Koreans are the most conservative Confucian society in Asia. Its main characteristics are loyalty, centralization of the power, hierarchy, collective responsibility, high work ethic, respect for older people and caring more about the group success than individual. Worth remembering is the fact that Confucianism is not a religion, but a social and moral philosophy, what Europeans often confuse. It is easy to see and experience those values even during the first contact with Koreans.

Of course we have to remember about some rules that are rather unchangeable and the same everywhere in the world. One of them is punctuality. Koreans are rather punctual and they expect the same from their business partners.

Polish people can have some problems with Korean names. In business Koreans usually don’t like calling them by their first names out loud, because many of them believe it can bring bad luck. Only closest friends and family members can use them. Typically Koreans have first and second name and a surname. The last name used to be always written and pronounced before first names, but now this situation got little more complicated and confusing, because it happens that names are reversed. It’s caused by the trend of having European names, what on the other hand has some pros for us, simply because we are more used to those names, they are easier to pronounce and to remember. When it comes to Koreans working and living in Poland for a longer period of time it even happens that they are taking Polish names, so don’t be surprised when you will see Roman Lee or Jacek Kim . So as we can see it is good to show some effort before a meeting and find out which name is the first and which is the second. Using titles like Mr. President or Mr. Chairman is also acceptable. Besides that Koreans very like when we use their titles connected with their education, for example Ph.D.

There are two interesting facts about the names in South Korea. First is that there is only about 250 last names. Of these, Kim, Park and Lee make almost 50% of the whole (Kim makes about 25%). Of course most of them are not related, what makes a lot of problems for Europeans and creates many funny situations. The second is that women do not change their names after they get married.

Extremely important in doing businesses with Koreans are business cards. Exchanging them is an important thing; we could even say a ceremony. Its main purpose is to provide Koreans with information about our status, what helps them quickly assign us to a particular group and place us in their own hierarchy. The content of the business card will pretty much determine how you will be treated. It is absolutely impossible to participate in a meeting with Koreans without business cards, and you should have them with you at any time.

Having business cards is crucial, but it is not only to have them, it is also important what is on them and how to deal with them. First of all, it is best when our card is Korean (with no mistakes; other way it might be taken as showing disrespect). The second option is a card in English. Polish business card is completely useless, because it doesn’t tell them anything and doesn’t let them classify us in their hierarchy.

Assuming that one has the most common, English business card, he has to make sure that the name and the title has been correctly translated. Naturally we shouldn’t lie on our card, but we should translate our title in such a way, it will look possibly best. We should always have in mind how important the titles are for Koreans, and that no other country in Asia pays that much attention to it. Very often having a good, prestigious title is more valuable for them then the salary.

While exchanging the business cards we should remember to always hold them with two hands, with text on the top. When someone hands us out his business card, we should take short time to take a careful look at it and get familiar with it. We absolutely can not just take it and put it to our pocket or a wallet. We should not hide it anywhere at all; it is best to put it in a place where we can easily see it during the whole meeting, for example on the table. It happens that Koreans write the pronunciation of the Polish names on the card, although we are not allowed to do the same thing. We can not write anything on it and not bind it, because it shows disrespect towards owner of the card.

To make a good first impression it is good to learn few words in Korean, like “Good afternoon, how was your flight?” etc. It is usually hard, but it is also a nice surprise for them and it makes them as happy as when any foreign takes the challenge and tries to say something in Polish. I would suggest though consulting our Korean expression with someone who actually knows Korean first to make sure our guests will understand us and what is more important to avoid offending them or any other awkward situation.

In contacts with Koreans we should rather use simple English, at least at the beginning when we don’t know how well they now it. It is better when we speak slowly and clearly, using the basic vocabulary. For some Koreans admitting they can not understand what we are saying would be very embarrassing. When it comes to English language Korean situation is similar to Polish one. Everybody in Korea learns English, but at the end they know it rather poorly and they don’t like to use it. Even if someone speaks it fluently, often happens that one has very strange accent which is extremely hard for us to understand. That is because Korean has completely different grammar and pronunciation. The safest solution to the language problem is employing a translator.

Business clothing is no different then in Poland. Men should wear a traditional, dark suit with white shirt and a tie. Women should wear similar clothes – elegant suit with pants or skirt longer then till knees.

When organizing meetings we have carefully select participants, respecting their positions in the company. The members of two delegations – Polish and the Korean one – should have more less equal formal status; other ways it might lead to some problems. This has its roots in the Confucian culture; representatives of the Korean delegation should meet with people at least as important as they are, for example when the CEO of the Korean company is coming to Poland, the Polish CEO should also be present at the meeting. It is also important to pay attention to the formal status of each of our guests and make sure that the leader of the delegation is in the middle of everybody’s attention. It is highly likely that before the meeting we will receive the full list of the Korean delegation, where the most important person will be at the top. Then it would be expected from us delivering similar list of Polish members of the meeting. Like in every other similar situation it is worth considering getting familiar with CVs of the delegation members for future conversations.

All the time we have to remember about the inequality among Korean society and respect it. According to the Confucian culture every Korean is classified and has its place in the society. Some of the criteria of the classification are one’s background and social status of one’s family, age, sex, education level, wealth and of course the title and the job one currently has.

Koreans are used to working in an autocratic way, and that requires a strong leader. It will be very hard for Koreans to adapt to Polish way of doing businesses, where many different people are responsible for different things. Investing their money in Poland they will have to deal with several governmental agencies and high ranked politics what will be very new thing for them. They will intuitionally look for a strong leader among the Polish representatives which they will expect to take care of everything as a whole, control the negotiations and make the decisions.

Another small, but important thing is that when we are giving or just passing something, according to Korean culture we should use both hands (hold the thing in both hands). When we shake hands, we should use also the left one and hold the hand of our guest. It is very polite to bow while greeting too.

If we are passing something while eating, our moves should be slow and calm. We can not pass something holding it with one hand, especially the left one. It would be consider wrong and disrespectful.

Just like in doing businesses with any other foreign investors, it would be very nice if we prepared some gifts for our guests. Taking under consideration that they have a long way home, our gifts shouldn’t be very big or heavy. Presents don’t have to be expensive, although they should be very high quality. The package is also important and it should be very elegant.

For men the safest gift would be high quality polish alcohol; in case of women it can be jewelry. It just supposed to be something connected with Poland, with a specific region of it or with the company. Koreans will be most happy if they receive two presents (for example two elegant pens) because that in their believes is going to bring them luck. Avoid giving them four gifts, because that is opposite and is bringing them bad luck.

There is no hard rule telling whether we should give presents before the meeting or at the end of it so it is up to us. Although we have to remember about the hierarchy and think about the formal status of each delegate while choosing presents.

We should never book rooms on the fourth floor of the hotel, because again, 4 is a number that brings bad luck. The hierarchy should be also maintained – top manager at the higher floor in the room with highest standard, while lower level managers on the same or lower floors. It is always a nice beginning of the business partnership if we place some buckets with wine and candies (no cheese!) and a small note welcoming our guests in Poland in their rooms.

Koreans are really involved in their work and they put all their heart and effort to it. Korean work ethic is recognized as the main reason of the rapid economic growth. They don’t only work hard, but they work a lot. Very often they work 49 hours a week, from 9 a.m. till 6 p.m. from Monday till Friday and from 9 a.m. till 1 p.m. on Saturdays. High level managers have a lot of power over their subordinates, far more than in typical European or American companies. There is a general belief that you shouldn’t leave work before your boss does and it’s popular working for one company the whole life. They admire harmony in work, which can be sometimes more valuable than effectiveness, what has its roots in Confucian tradition.

In all kinds of presentations the American model is the most popular. That means that it’s best if we make everything clear, simple and understandable and we use a lot of charts and graphs to illustrate the problem. Even though Koreans do not like to ask additional questions, it is good to prepare answers before the meeting for some potential ones.

Probably one of the most difficult things in doing businesses with Koreans is negotiation. Koreans are very unpredictable and emotional in that process; they will often surprise or even shock us with the conclusions we would never think of. They avoid saying “no”, but we can easily learn about their negative attitude towards something by their gestures or mimic. Sometimes it is hard to get a feedback from them, and since they try not to offend us they do not say many things, what is resulting in many misunderstands at the end. It is not a rare situation that after few hours of smooth negotiations you have the impression that everything is going great, when suddenly they will want to talk about something that has been already fully discussed long time ago or even stop the negotiations. On the other hand when sometimes everything seems to look terrible and you can’t find a common ground, they as suddenly as before are accepting your offer finding the compromise. Although when something has been decided, they rather won’t move back from it. As we can see, negotiations with Koreans might be very surprising. We should remember that Koreans, from they nature, don’t like to spent too much money, especially when it’s not necessary. They are really pleased with all kinds of bonuses, savings etc.

Before we meet or start doing business with Koreans it is good to get familiar with at least the basics of Feng Shui . Like most of Asians, Koreans try to obey the rules of that practice of placement also in Poland; starting with offices and ending on production floors.

We should avoid red color in any business correspondence. Red color in Korea is connected with death and it might bring a bad luck. The red font is used only if someone writes about dead people. What is interesting for Polish people is the fact the color of grief in Korea is white, where in Poland it’s black.

Meetings in restaurants in Korean culture are an important element of building good relations and trust. Asians believe that partners should first get to know each other before making business together. Koreans care a lot about elegant restaurants with good food and good music. All the declarations made by them during such meetings should be taken seriously.

Another cultural part of doing businesses with Koreans is eating using sticks. At first it might seem hard, but after little practice it doesn’t make any problems. In case of Korean visitation in Poland we should from time to time invite them to Korean restaurant. This will make them feel like home and will reduce the cultural shock. We should also avoid serving them cheese; they don’t like it because of its smell.

The head of the Korean delegation should have a special place by the table, where he can be in the center of attention. The head of the Polish delegation is supposed to sit on the other side, vis-a-vie the Korean one. We can not forget that the Korean head of delegation should be served as the first one. It is necessary to inform the restaurant’s personnel about such a situation, because normally women should be served first. If we need to clean our nose, we have to excuse everyone and leave for a while. It is extremely rude to do that in public.

Like most of the foreigners Koreans like Polish alcohols, especially Polish vodka and Polish beer . Alcohol helps them get to know each other and strengthen relationships. It helps them to deal with stress after hard day at work. We might inform in a delicate way our guests that our vodka is much stronger than their national soju, what is often forgotten. It is not very good if we don’t drink alcohol at all, but we should also control ourselves. We can not forget to use both hands passing anything while eating.

Koreans are rather careful making new contacts; they don’t trust people they don’t know. That is why it would be good if we have some “intermediaries”, common friends or business partners. It would definitely help us tighten our relations with our collaborators. In general Koreans always try to find some connections between people. If you are a friend of their friend, you have finished the same school as they did, or you are just from the same city or have the same religion, they will fill much more connected with you; they will feel they know something about you and therefore they will trust you more.

We should not be surprised by questions asked by Koreans that are considered to be personal, and are not acceptable in Europe or US. In Korean culture information about private life, age, background, family or salary are needed to determine the social status given person has. On the other hand we should keep the physical distance. Even though some of Koreans are very open and friendly, they rather don’t tolerate back slapping and similar gestures.

Confucian tradition requires from Koreans great respect towards older people. In business, young age and look often might be a problem and is similar to Japanese seniority. That’s why in contacts with Koreans we should not delegate very young workers. Even though such a person will hold very good, high position in the company, for the Koreans it might be psychological barrier, maybe even unconscious.

Europeans can also find some difficulties when it comes to women – their role in the business and the way they are treated in life. From the times of Confucius women had lower social status than men to whom they where dependent

on. Their main role was to give a birth to a baby and they didn’t participate in either public or business life. This rule has been influenced by the western cultures and it is slowly changing. Although we have to be prepared that Koreans do not let women walk through the door first or be served in restaurant first, what are the basic habits in Poland. Probably even more weird for us will be that a woman gives the coat to a man, not like in Poland, where it is the other way around.

In Korea it is very good when men are married at young age. Their status is rising; they can get more respect and get promoted easily. Of course divorces are not very popular, and in such a situation women are losing far more than just a husband. The rights to the kid or kids they have are basically automatically given to the father, and it is very likely that such a woman will lose also her job.

Generally speaking, Koreans are getting more used to women in business, although often such a situation is really uncomfortable and hard for them. We should try to create our Polish delegation in a way where most of the group members, if not all, will be male. If there are any women in the group we should inform our Korean partners in advance. Definitely the head of the delegation should be male.

We should be very delicate having conversations with Koreans. There are many topics they don’t like to discuss and they might get easily offended. We will probably see from the beginning that they are strong patriots, especially in the economic meaning. They try to use only Korean companies (Korean airlines, cars etc.), and are very proud of their country. We should be careful not to confuse the Korean history and culture with Japanese ones. It would be best to avoid talking about Korean politics, feminists, homosexuality, communism, failures of Korean companies like Daewoo and successes of the Japanese companies and Japan in general. Maybe the most dangerous in business meetings is talking about the labor unions. In Korea they are known for their high demands, what creates a lot of problems to the companies. We should be prepared to explain the situation with labor unions in Poland and to persuade our partners that they do not cause such problems as it happens in Korea.

If in our plans there are businesses with partners from Korea, we should take some golf lessons. This game is extremely popular and prestigious among the richest people in Asia. It helps meeting new, interesting people and tightening the existing relations.

Asians which are coming to Poland also like to play golf, which is an important part of their life. When I asked the President of Toyota Poland how does he like Poland and what is he missing most, he quickly answered:” Golf. If you only have more golf courses it would be great. I could live in Poland.”

An average Korean knows about Poland about as much as any average foreigner – which means not much at all. They probably have heard about Chopin, Walesa or Jan Pawel II, but their general opinion about Poland (before their arrival) is rather different from the reality. They often think of us as the communist country, still dependent

on Russia. If they are better informed, they think that we are post communistic country, old fashioned and not well developed. That is why we should tell them more about our country and present them our current situation. We definitely should mention our membership in EU and NATO, as well as the population and GDP.

Unfortunately, Koreans know Poland best from the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan, where the Polish national team lost in its first game with the team of South Korea 0:2.

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