- Do your best to be punctual, and be sure to make an apology for your tardiness if you are late.
- Bow to the most senior businessman first as low as he does. However, watch to see if he extends his hand to greet you with a handshake.
- Receiving Business Cards: Asian culture interprets the respect you show one's business card to be indicative of the respect you will show the individual in business. Use both hands (or the right hand only) to receive a business card as the left hand is considered unclean and is used for the removal of dirt and for cleaning. Do not put the card away immediately, but regard it carefully and then place it in on the table before you until everyone is seated. Do not put it in the back pocket of your pants as this could be taken as you sitting on the individual’s face. Similarly, do not write on a card unless directed to do so.
- Presenting Business Cards: Use both hands (or the right hand only) when presenting a business card, making sure that the writing is facing the other person. Do not deal out your cards as though you were playing a game of cards as this risks being interpreted as rude.
- Allow a few moments of social conversation to pass before mentioning business.
- Avoid making jokes with those of a higher rank than you.
- You will often be offered tea during business meetings. It is best to accept it as a gesture of esteem.
- Koreans are generally very respectful listeners. Reflect their manners and wait your turn to speak without interrupting.
- Defer decision making to the person with the most authority and watch how they direct conversation. Subordinates will constantly refer back to them.
- Expect meetings to be fast moving as Koreans generally do not like to waste time.
- Avoid filling moments of periodic silence as these are usually times for contemplation of what has been said.
- A lack of protest or criticism does not necessarily indicate agreement in a meeting as Koreans are conscious of maintaining harmony and face. Therefore, do not base your conclusions on answers that aren’t clear cut, but rather double check meanings by asking open-ended questions that allow them more leeway to get to their point.
- Reiterate everything agreed upon during the meeting in writing afterwards.
Koreans can be very competitive in business; they generally do not like coming second and sometimes view compromise as a defeat. Therefore, they often need to be reassured that a win-win situation is the goal of business in order to boost their confidence in enterprises.
This business culture of competition is accompanied by a sense of urgency as business negations are often fast paced and very tenacious. Time is rarely wasted as Koreans tend to look for quick sales and run out of patience for elaborate strategies. Responses and decisions are often provided within a day of a proposal being made. Therefore, it is reasonable to interpret a week without contact from a Korean as being an indication that they want to terminate the project.
Koreans are also known to easily volte-face on negotiations and break relations if they find a better deal elsewhere. As such, it is best to aim for short-term agreements with a Korean business partner until you have built a strong and trustful business relationship. Understand that the long-term survival of their company is often at the forefront of a Korean’s mind, and for that reason they are wary of ambiguous situations and avoid uncertainty at all costs. Unless they can trust you, they will generally consider you to be their competition.
As Korean business culture is very competitive, the business relationships a Korean keeps are very important to them. An introduction by a third-party is often very effective in establishing rapport and confidence early on. When a mutual trust is established, Koreans work hard to ensure the success of their partner and continue working to build the trust and loyalty needed to support business in the future. They tend to want to know a great deal about their partners. You may consider many of the details and questions asked to be irrelevant or unrelated to the point at hand, but try to be patient and provide them with answers for the sake of the business relationship.
Business relationships often cross into the personal life; Koreans appreciate developing relationships over meals and drinks and like to think of their business partners as friends. Businessmen often smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol together at the end of a day's work (and a fair level of inebriation is often reached). Your Korean counterpart may exhibit an ability to consume a great deal of alcohol as a point of prowess, but do not feel pressured to keep up with their consumption. In fact, it pays off to be the more sober one as key business information is often disclosed at the end of drinking sessions. If you want to excuse yourself from drinking, do so for religious or medical reasons as opposed to moral ones. However, keep in mind that by exempting yourself from their drinking culture, you are excluding yourself from a large component of the Korean business culture. Drinking sessions are used to develop camaraderie and loyalty as they consider this to be strengthening a business team to face their competition.
Productivity in the Korean Workforce
The Korean business culture is fast paced, however this does not always equate to productivity. Rigid protocols of reporting back to superiors in order to observe hierarchies means that tasks often involve convoluted processes that take some time to complete. Furthermore, in an effort to give face and favourable impressions, the appearance of presentations and enterprises are often judged over the substance of them. As such, a disproportionate amount of time is often spent on making something look good instead of making it function well. Koreans have also been known to sometimes exaggerate their workload to give an impression of diligence and dedication.
- Korean business culture (and Korean society in general) is very hierarchical and management is paternalistic as status is determined by age, position and connections. Be aware of how you navigate this tiered structure, discerning who is superior to you and showing the proper amount of respect they are due. Your Korean counterpart may even ask your age to determine who the superior is between the two of you.
- Koreans sometimes contemplate what has been said while standing or sitting in silence with no acknowledgment of what is going on around them. To interrupt this pause, gently cough and wait for them to return from their thought.
- Koreans are adaptable and innovative, often being prepared to accommodate different approaches and remaining flexible to change things at late stages of negotiations. Appreciate their creativity and willingness to try new things as their risks and initiatives often pay off.
- Koreans can be tough and sometimes deceptive negotiators. In an effort to seal an agreement, they may actually relay something incomplete as being completed. It is best to judge their proclamations on past performance, not future projections. Avoid appearing gullible, and maintain a tough, respectful, focused and pragmatic front.
- For the sake of saving face, Koreans will seldom give a flat negative response to proposals you make, even when they do not agree with it. Therefore, focus on hints of hesitation and pay close attention to what they may imply. Double check your understanding by asking open-ended questions.
- Koreans are generally easy to access and do business with. Therefore, if you find that it is becoming harder to contact your Korean business partner, it is likely that either you have disrespected them or they are no longer interested in doing business with you.
- Mistakes are common in Korean business culture. If you anticipate this and make allowances, the process will be easier.
- Do not show heated displays of negative emotions or openly criticise anyone as a Korean will likely avoid working with you thereafter.
- South Korean businesses are sometimes structured within very large business conglomerates called ‘chaebols’. These are companies that are controlled by a single family descending from a family dynasty. In 2011, the ten largest chaebol shares of South Korea’s GDP was 76.5%.
- Due to extensive length of many Koreans’ tertiary studies (and also 2-3 years of compulsory military service), graduates often enter the Korean workforce for the first time at an older age. The average age is 33.2 years old for men and 28.6 for women. This means that they may lack the practical experience in business that an Australian of the same age would usually have.
- The Korean business culture still has a sexist undertone, making it more like for women to be belittled and have to work harder to gain respect.
- On the Corruption Perception Index (2017), South Korea ranks 51st out of 180 countries, receiving a score of 54 (on a scale from 0 to 100). This perception suggests that the country’s public sector is moderately clean from corruption.