If you’re already familiar with Asian society you won’t be surprised by South Korea’s corporate business structure. Korean companies are highly centralized and respect for authority is an overriding value. In fact power over subordinates is not limited to the workplace or to official business hours. Decision-making generally follows a formal procedure involving more bureaucracy than Westerners are used to. Korean employees are very loyal to their employer and are expected to do their best to ensure that their immediate superior doesn’t lose face, which sometimes puts them in conflict with the best interests of the company.
Although there have been a few incidents of an executive being younger than his subordinates it is still an extremely rare occurrence. Korean companies rarely hire based on merit. Women have not traditionally been part of the corporate world, but age and rank generally count more than gender. Despite all this, personal ties – family, common school or birthplace etc. - often take precedence over job seniority, rank and other factors. This is why you may find yourself surrounded by people who all attended the same university. It is also important to maintain the respect due to rank in matters that are not business related e.g. one would not own or drive a car of greater size or value than one’s superior.
When meeting a Korean business person for the first time it is best to be introduced by a third party. The exchange of business cards is a vital part of a first meeting. It is also important to emphasize one’s title so that, right away, the correct authority, status and rank are established and understood. Use both hands if possible when presenting and receiving a business card. Business cards should be treated as an extension of the person and therefore respected – putting someone’s card straight in your pocket or writing on it, for instance, will not be taken well.
Business meetings should be scheduled a few weeks in advance. Punctuality is important as it is a sign of respect. If you realize that you may be a little late, it is best to call ahead to say so. That said, don’t be surprised if top Korean executives arrive a few minutes late for appointments due to their extremely busy and stressful schedule, and it is also not unusual for Korean executives to cancel appointments with little or no notice. The cancellation may be due to an unexpected and unavoidable situation but, if it’s happened before it may be a signal that they don’t really want to do business or need to delay the process for some reason.
Gift-giving is a common practice when doing business in Asia. The gifts given at the first meeting are intended to acquire favours and to build relationships. Wait until your host has presented his gift and use both hands to accept it. The gifts exchanged should be of similar value, with that of greatest value going to the most senior person. To enhance communication and reduce the possibility of misunderstanding you may find it helpful to send written materials to your Korean counterpart prior to the meeting.
Contracts are seen as starting points rather than the final goals of a business agreement in Korea. Koreans prefer contracts to be flexible so that adjustments can be made as the project evolves. Even those who are aware of the legal implications regarding the signing of contract may still view it as less important than the interpersonal relationship between the two companies and find it difficult to understand why, despite the excellent relationship you’ve been having, you are not willing to overlook elements of the contract as time goes on. Once you’ve been hired for a job it’s important to try and get a signed personal job contract from your employer. If you’re in serious doubt about some terms and passages in the contract consider getting advice from a lawyer. In any case pay attention to the following:
Try to make sure that general statements such as "as is typical in this line of work" or "as is commonly accepted" or "subject to the employer's judgment" are avoided since they are unclear and reduce the employer's obligations to a minimum.
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