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
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in South Korea. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in South Korea and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: