The Evolving Workplace Culture in South Korea: Millennials, Gender, & Speaking Out

As we set sail into another decade, South Korea’s leading companies are seeing radical change underway. In fact, the Korean workplace, once known for its strict conformity and protocols, is undergoing substantial evolution as a younger generation fills its ranks.

I explore these changes at great length in my recently released book, Korea 2020: A Workplace in Transition. South Korea is amidst a fundamental restructuring of age-old corporate norms such as more casual dress, a simplification of workplace titles leading to flatter organizations and the pushback against workplace bullying and gender discrimination.

The following are some excerpts from the book that I wanted to share with Branding in Asia readers.


The millennials and their workplace culture

I feel South Korea’s strong hierarchical corporate culture is being challenged in great part by the growing number of millennials.

Driving corporate change millennials have been the strongest advancer of workplace diversity and the most highly critical and vocal of employee abuses and exploitations.

But perhaps the most obvious display to date of millennials’ power in changing work culture is how South Korean millennials are starting to turn away from the country’s top chaebol—some leaving their corporate jobs to pursue freelance work.


Older generations may criticize the millennials all they want but the generation’s power over reshaping workplace culture is something that should be recognized.

This generational disruption of the nation’s otherwise powerful hierarchical corporate culture has not gone unseen by leaders of the top Groups. More so, younger Koreans’ struggle against the hierarchy and the ills associated with it have gained considerable attention including the media.

This media coverage has centered on terms like kkondae and gapjil. Kkondae usually means an older person, and usually, a man, who expects unquestioning obedience from people who are junior. Holding on to the past, they may become outraged when colleagues fail to use the correct honorific to address them. It is difficult for office workers to decline invitations to after-work drinking sessions or weekend hiking expeditions with the boss.

Younger Koreans’ struggle against the hierarchy and the ills associated with it have gained considerable attention including the media.

We usually see the behavior of kkondae associated with gapjil —the bullying employees. That said, heated public attention towards gapjil is contributing to change in the workplace today as the media and whistleblowers expose the inappropriate actions by those in power in both the government and the private sector.

One not-so-surprising change is the growing push back and reporting of the strong arm or gapjil tactics in the workplace. One of the reasons is the heightened press coverage over instances of bullying by the members of the South Korean elite and privileged family businesses.

Linguistically, gapjil is a uniquely Korea term… and provides a look into Korean culture. The word, a newly coined term, is a colloquial expression referring to the arrogant or authoritarian attitude by someone in a position of power over others. The Korean culture of high-power distance and strong hierarchical organizations have shaped and reinforced these attitudes. Sadly, gapjil is so much a part of the culture that we find individuals as subordinates on the receiving end of bullying-type situations guilty of the same actions to those below them.

Company/business owner gapjil is the most common type of term’s usage and the one drawing considerable media attention. In this scenario representatives or executive family members of a company treat their employees with contempt, using abusive language or even assault. Owner Gapjil reflects the mistaken view that employers can treat employees however they want because of the extreme vertical relationship between the two individuals.

Gender in the Workplace

Until recently and relative to much of the West, South Korean culture has remained patriarchal, with women and men expected to fulfill certain roles based on gender. Centuries of Confucianism marginalized women in society and these old norms linger.

       Although Korean Law prohibits the practice it’s still not uncommon during a hiring interview to be asked about their plans for marriage or children.

As a Korean- American friend found out when she moved back to Seoul for family reasons and taking a new job, old norms not only linger but can surface often. My friend who previously had a significant director-level role working for an American biotech – at times meeting with Fortune 100 CEOs and even state governors—was more than frustrated when senior Korean managers at clients asked to speak with “her boss” rather than taking a meeting with her.

These old gender role norms surface, too, often especially the case with child-rearing. Although Korean Law prohibits the practice it’s still not uncommon during a hiring interview to be asked about their plans for marriage or children.

Speaking Out

On a positive note, we are seeing like with bullying, more and more women are speaking out — and forcing the government to act.

This is part of a wider reckoning with South Korea’s patriarchal society that has also seen a number of high profile #MeToo movement cases.

For one, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, has developed new guidelines on gender equality in recruitment, which are now in place and to being distributed to private enterprises.

South Korea has also seen its female employment index improve steadily over the past 10 years but continues to struggle with gender equality when it comes to parental leave and consequent career breaks.

The Moon administration has taken steps to add incentives for companies to employ women. It has extended paid paternal leave, made it easier for both parents to take leave at the same time, and created incentives for companies to allow both parents to work reduced hours.

It has also taken steps to expand afterschool programs while reducing the maximum hours worked in a week to 52 hours in an effort to help working mothers.

Bottom line

Most agree practical moves like extended paid leave and incentive programs are steps in the right direction, but what is ultimately key to solving the gender issue is a change in societal perceptions.

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