Updated: Apr 2
When I first moved to Seoul, South Korea in 2005. It was a fun cross cultural experience that I wouldn't have traded for anything. One of the most startling differences in the work place was the distinct hierarchical structure. It was evident from my first day of work when my co-worker instructed me to bow when entering and leaving meetings with our boss. I remember stopping and showing my bow, and her saying, "no that's too deep a bow. He is not a king." Then gave a demonstration. While my boss was friendly towards me, I soon discovered that my co-workers did not feel the same way. This hierarchy deeply affected everyone at my job, and in some ways united the staff against a common enemy but also increased overall stress and dissatisfaction in the workplace.
This power structure and the way to air grievances was much more different than anything I had seen growing up. I found that it was addressed indirectly through our monthly dinners and what Koreans call "hoesik." It is the common practice for employees to regularly go out for dinner followed by heavy bouts of drinking with their bosses as a way to build stronger relationships and relieve stress after work. It was here during these sessions, where the employees would speak more openly with the boss about all of the things he needed to change. It was here that the boss also seemed to listen, and show a softer side to the complaints of the employees which tended to lead to more positive work environment.
While the tradition I am sure has worked for decades, there are downsides to this tradition. Not everyone enjoys drinking alcohol, and there can be pressure to drink more than one is comfortable with. Additionally, the excessive drinking can lead to health problems, both for individuals and for the workplace as a whole.
The fact that hoesik is seen as necessary to build relationships within the workplace highlights a larger problem of hierarchy in Korean workplaces. While hoesik may provide temporary relief from workplace stress and tension, it is not a permanent solution. Instead, employers should strive to create a more equal and transparent workplace, where employees can voice their opinions and be heard without the need for alcohol. One way to achieve this could be through employee engagement surveys, which provide a confidential and anonymous way for employees to share their thoughts and concerns. Employers can use the results of these surveys to make meaningful changes and improve the overall work environment.
While hoesik may provide a temporary solution to the problem of hierarchy within Korean workplaces, it is not a permanent fix. Employers should work towards creating a more transparent and equal workplace, where all employees feel heard and valued. Employee engagement surveys are just one tool that can help achieve this goal. If you would like to find out more about how
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