5 Work-Culture Woes Expats May Face in a Korean Company 

5 Work-Culture Woes Expats May Face in a Korean Company 


Many foreign expats come to South Korea as ESL teachers and teach in an environment with a high expat ratio. As such, workplaces are very much westernized as compared to a local company. However, working in a small local company with an older-male workforce can be a different experience. I’m here to share with you my experience as an expat working in a small local company in Korea!

Right after graduating from university, I was offered a job with my internship company in Seoul. It was a small research company with 4 other middle-aged locals and 2 foreign interns. As the only young full time female foreigner employee, I understood that they treated me with more leniency as compared to previous Korean employees working in the same position. 

Before we move along with the rest of the article, it is important to understand the most basic cultural aspects of Korea. As a culture that follows Confucianism and collectivism closely, South Korean companies take social bonding and hierarchical differences very seriously. They will create plenty of opportunities for employees to bond, be it through meals or company events. Due to the focus on hierarchical differences, younger employees have to respect and follow their employer’s orders closely. In smaller companies, it’s no surprise that the youngest employee or the one holding the lowest position has to prepare food and drinks for guests. 


Work-Life Balance 

The difference between working with old and young locals is their concept of work-life balance. In 2018, South Korea limited the maximum working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours. Despite the gradual declination of hours, many locals are nonetheless buried with heavy workloads. At times, some Koreans may not leave the office because their supervisors are still in the office. Thereafter, co-workers may be obligated to attend company dinners together till 2 am. Despite this, employees have to go to work the next day at the same reporting times, oftentimes hungover. 

Fortunately, younger people view work-life balance as an important employment ‘benefit’. Many of them choose to knock off work earlier in the evenings to meet their friends or join yoga classes. Many supervisors also began to see company dinners as optional, even though many employees will continue to attend as a form of networking. Similarly, many younger Koreans are ignoring their boss’s phone calls or messages when they receive it during the late evenings. With such trends, work-life balance in South Korea may improve gradually. 


Company Events 

Other than company dinners, many South Korean companies hold events once a year to reward and encourage bonding amongst coworkers. Events can include snow skiing trips, hiking or cycling at the Han River. Should you be an extroverted person and enjoy outdoor activities, it will definitely be an enjoyable aspect of working in Korea. However, for introverted individuals, seeing your coworkers outside of work and during the weekends can be a chore. Nonetheless, these activities are great for expats who want to learn and explore Korea a little more. 

Based on my personal experiences as an introvert, these trips were fruitful and have exposed me to different things outside of work. Most importantly, I saw a different facet of my co-workers and realized they were all very fun people. 


Friendliness or harassment? 

Source: The Asian


For many expats, one of the largest deciding factors of getting a job is workplace safety. Unfortunately, different forms of workplace harassment do happen in all industries, companies and countries. Due to language barriers and the fear of losing visas, many expats choose not to speak up as they fear losing their jobs or get inadequate assistance. 

While some forms of sexual harassment are inexcusable, others may leave you confused and uncomfortable at the same time. Is this just their culture or are they assuming that foreigners are more open-minded? Due to their collective culture and the importance of social bonding, many foreigners living in Korea may realize that Koreans are physically affectionate with each other. It’s common seeing guys hugging or having their arms slinged around each other. 

During company events, coworkers are encouraged to enjoy themselves after a long day at work. Most of the time, company dinners often end up at a karaoke place, where tipsy coworkers get to sober up and be entertained. Coworkers will typically encourage each other to sing a song or prompt others to dance while they cheer on. Although this is common work culture in South Korea, it may be a little uncomfortable for foreigners. Especially with the existence of Karaoke bars that offer call girls, getting called to dance in front of other co-workers alone may seem strange. At times, the bosses may realize your discomfort and encourage others to stop, or they may continue despite knowing you are not enjoying yourself. 

In the situation where you are uncertain and uncomfortable, it’s best to seek advice from your Korean friends or any trustworthy expat community that can provide adequate assistance. There are times where certain actions are based on cultural norms, while others are to take advantage of oblivious expats. Ultimately, your discomfort should not be ignored and appropriate actions should be taken. 




As I was talking to my Korean friends and expats with office jobs, many of them pointed out a very similar experience -- the over and under-estimations of their supervisors towards them. Everyone enters the workforce with different skills and adequacy. For example, you may have included some intermediate adequacy in photoshop on your resume. Supervisors, however, may have overexpectations and require you to work on projects way past your capabilities.

Thus, many peers with years of experience in the South Korean workforce advise on setting expectations clearly right from the beginning or just remove a skill that you lack confidence in.




Last but not least, when working in a non-ESL environment, the willingness to speak and learn Korean is paramount. Even though the job scope allows you to speak in English, a Korean centric company with a majority of Korean workers will prefer you to have some adequacy in Korean. While they may not force you to speak in English, a lot of them can express their displeasure by avoiding you or showing discomfort as they struggle to speak. Anyhow, expats who choose to work in local companies with locals making up the majority of the staff have to understand that learning their language is a form of respect for their culture. 

As Korea is a very homogeneous society, many locals find it impressive even when foreigners speak to them in basic Korean. 


As the quote says “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. When expats choose to work overseas, they have to understand the culture and be willing to learn and adapt as much as they could. Just like how every job industry has its own culture and job requisites, learning the culture is also a very important job aspect. 

Although some parts of South Korean’s work culture may be strange or disapproved of, expats should have the responsibility to accept them along with their choice to work in the company. Nonetheless, there are many organizations and pages that can help expats who require assistance. 


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