Companies tend to be strictly hierarchical with major decisions being taken at the top and delegated down for implementation.
Many of the large conglomerates (chaebols) are family run companies where much of the power and ownership resides with the founder’s family.
Confucian ethics dominate Korean thought patterns and this translates in business terms into great respect for authority, age and seniority.
As well as formal functional hierarchy, many Korean companies have a strong informal hierarchy, which is based upon personal relationships and loyalties.
Confucian respect for authority dictates that managers will be respected simply because they are the manager.
Korean managers are expected to take a holistic interest in the well being of their staff – and this includes an interest in their personal life.
Initial contacts with Korea can amount to little more than preliminary, polite skirmishes, which are designed to commence the all-important process of relationship building.
The quality of relationship is of primary significance when working with Koreans. Do not jeopardise a relationship through impatience or making a key contact lose face.
Always show respect to senior people. Your trustworthiness and standing will, in part, be judged by your ability to create the right type of harmonious atmosphere.
Balance out the seniority of the two delegations. Senior people should be met by people of similar rank and standing.
Be sure to have all technical details and answers to hand. Do not be found lacking in preparation as this could also result in negative reactions.
Punctuality is of vital importance. Do not keep senior people waiting – it is extremely disrespectful.
If Koreans are to work effectively in a team, it is important to create an atmosphere of harmony and comfort. Making individuals within the team lose face will affect the morale of the whole team.
Although Koreans are restrained and reserved in most situations, they will occasionally show flashes of extreme emotion. If meetings begin to get heated it is probably best to retreat and try again later.
It is difficult to disagree openly and any disagreement will be very vaguely expressed. On the other hand, yes may not mean definite agreement but merely acknowledgement of comprehension.
Try to avoid any form of disagreement or situations which can result in loss of face on the other side such as pushing for quick decisions or asking for favours that cannot be delivered.
Be smartly and conservatively dressed and maintain good, upright body posture at all times in formal situations.
Gifts are important. Always take a supply of small, suitable gifts to distribute to key contacts. Always wrap gifts.
It is unusual to meet women in senior roles in Korea (except when working for foreign firms).
Senior western women will be accepted but may not be given the respect they feel their position merits. Do not be visibly offended by any perceived lack of esteem given.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
In little over half a century (since the end of Korean War), South Korea has managed to transform itself from a deeply impoverished nation to one of the world’s leading economies. It achieved this whilst at the same time restricting Direct Foreign Investment (FDI) and with a strongly interventionist government which dictated policy and goal-setting to local industry. Over the same period, it moved from being a follower of product development to a global leader of innovation. And this has massively improved the overall affluence of its citizens.
How did South Korea succeed where so many other countries have tried and failed? What does South Korea have which other countries lack? In a word, the answer is culture. South Korea is steeped in key Confucian attitudes which have enabled this economic miracle to occur. Confucianism extols the virtues of education; South Korea’s approach to education is universally lauded and endlessly studied. Confucianism places emphasis on frugality and loyalty; hard work and acceptance of temporary hardship, bringing their own rewards over time.
If you are thinking of doing business in South Korea (and you really should be), then one of the key elements of successful engagement with South Korean counterparts and potential partners must be linked to gaining a better understanding of South Korean business culture. If you don’t understand how companies are structured locally, how do you know who you should be speaking to? If you are not aware that South Korea is group-oriented in its approach, how can you understand the local decision-making process?
This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of South Korean business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on: