Korean society is more homogeneous than most and, as a result, foreign investors and expat employees wanting to do business in South Korea are expected to adjust and conform.
According to The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings for 2020, South Korea came fifth out of 190 countries. It scored particularly highly on enforcing contracts (2nd), getting electricity (2nd), and resolving insolvency (11th). In the categories of getting credit and registering property, the country fell outside of the top 30.
While most expats wanting to work in South Korea do not start a business or need to register property, they still have challenges to address. This includes overcoming the language barrier, adapting to the nuances of local business culture and avoiding social faux pas that could make the difference between success and failure in the Korean business world.
Officially 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Legislation has limited the maximum working week to 52 hours, but it's still common for employees to work for longer hours than this.
Korean, but English is often spoken at a senior level. Translators can be hired, if necessary.
Koreans take dressing well seriously, and modesty and subtlety are values that inform business dress. Wearing a suit is almost always a safe choice for men. Women should avoid wearing revealing clothing.
Gift-giving is common practice. Gifts should be given and received with both hands and should not be opened in the presence of the giver. If someone receives a gift, they should reciprocate with a gift of similar value. Gifts are best wrapped in bright colours and not dark colours or red. Avoid giving expensive gifts as the receiver will feel obliged to reciprocate. Gifts in sets of four, knives or scissors should also be avoided as these are seen as symbols of death.
Although gender relations are becoming more equitable, men still dominate the Korean workplace. Foreign businesswomen are expected to behave in an elegant, refined and 'feminine' manner.
Men in South Korea often greet each other with a slight bow accompanied by a handshake. Supporting the right forearm with the left hand is seen as a sign of respect. Some Korean women may not shake hands with Western men, while Western women often do offer their hand to Korean men.
Business culture in South Korea
Traditional social practices and etiquette still have an important role in South Korean business. Personal relationships, hierarchy and saving face are all major factors in the Korean work environment. If expatriate businesspeople want to be accepted by their colleagues, they need to display an awareness of these and a willingness to engage in the social codes that are at the foundation of business culture in South Korea.
Koreans need to be able to trust the people they are doing business with and social relationships are directly linked to business success. For this reason, prospective business partners spend a lot of time getting to know each other. Expats should not be surprised if no business is discussed at their first meeting and should not try to rush things along. Despite this, workers are expected to be on time for meetings and social engagements.
Dinner invitations, after dinner drinks and karaoke are also likely to feature at some point and should not be turned down. At occasions such as these, it's common for people to fill each other’s drinks. It's considered bad manners for someone to refuse a drink if their glass is empty. The way to get around this is to leave a bit at the bottom of the glass. Korean hosts always appreciates a spirited karaoke performance, regardless of how good their voice is.
Names in South Korea work in reverse to the West. A person’s family name comes first, followed by a two-part given name. The first of the given name is given to all family members of a single generation, while the second is the individual’s given name. For example, if a man's family name is Park and first name is Min-Jun, he would be called Park Min-Jun.
For Koreans, the idea of 'saving face' is less about preserving oneself and more about saving others from embarrassment, especially those of a higher social or professional ranking. In doing so and by controlling their emotions, an individual maintains their own honour and dignity.
This affects business dealings in tangible ways. For instance, disagreements are rarely solved by direct confrontation while rejection is rarely delivered through a simple 'no'. Instead, rejections may be communicated through delays and ambiguous answers such as 'maybe later'.
While South Korea's place in the global business circuit has made changes to the way that business is generally conducted in the country, there is still an elaborate system of hierarchy that imbues business culture that is based on position, age, prestige and, to an extent, gender.
Exchanging business cards
Business people in South Korea usually exchange business cards when they meet for the first time. So, it's important for expats who are new to the country to have a large enough supply of their personal business cards. These should contain the expat’s job title, with an accompanying Korean translation printed on one side. When exchanging cards, they should be both given and received with both hands.
Dos and don’ts of business in South Korea
Do expect Koreans to ask personal questions, as they are showing polite interest
Do give an enthusiastic performance at karaoke bars
Do protest slightly when paid a compliment
Do be prepared for negotiations to take time
Don't talk about politics or belittle Korean culture
Don't expect a direct negative answer from Korean people if they can’t help or don’t know
Don't make small talk about North Korea