LIFE IN KOREA: When a Job Offer is Something Else

by Lara Tosh, 25/09/2011

Imagine: You have been working part-time as a consultant within a large company for approximately 7-8 months. The company employs several people directly, full-time to provide similar services to the ones you now do as part of their HRD  training initiatives  throughout the year.  Because you have produced exemplary results and shown  adaptability within a Korean corporate environment, HR has asked you to join their full-time team.

You accept and begin the process of contract negotiations.  Within a week, both parties have verbally agreed to a benefits & compensation package.  Your future employer tells you that the contract has been written up as discussed and sent to the legal team to be approved (standard procedure).  You tell your future employer that you will reject all other competing offers of employment from that point forth.  The HR manager you're dealing with tells you that he's looking forward to having you around full-time.

It's exactly one month before your future contract should take effect.  One week passes...  Two weeks... At the end of the second week, you stop by HR to check the progress of your contract.  That HR manager with whom you've been dealing acts genuinely surprised to see you & even more surprised that you are asking about the contract.  He calls the legal team & tells you that they had forgotten to review it, but that they'd take care of it by the end of the working day on the following Monday. You heave a sigh of relief & leave.

By Friday of the 3rd week, you've still not signed anything, so you stop by HR again remind that manager that, literally, the contract should take effect in 3 working days (on Wednesday of next week) also remind them that you've already said no to 5 other opportunities by that point.  They reassure you that everything will be ready for signing on Monday ...Monday comes & the person in charge decides to take a personal day off ...on Tuesday, right before the end of your working day, you are called and asked to come to HR to sign your contract (you heave a sigh of relief in the elevator on your way upstairs).

The manager ushers you into a meeting room, grabs you both a cup of green tea & follows you in carrying a folder (presumably with your contract inside).  The manager sits down across from you, looks you in the eye & says: "We've decided to not hire you full time.  There IS no contract.  You can continue doing your existing part-time work, though.  We don't have the budget.  My team leader just told me now, as you were coming to meet me.  I'm sorry."

"...but they told you there was!  ...they said they wanted to hire you full-time ...they put in the time & effort to negotiate with you, for goodness sake! ...they created a contract & sent it on to another department for finalizing!  ...they created an internal paper trail!!! ...What about corporate responsibility!?!!   Is THIS how Koreans treat each other in business that what they woul'd've done to a Korean in your position???" is likely what you're screaming inside by this point ^.~

Culturally speaking, the above contains at least two juicy tidbits with respect to why / how I basically screwed myself by choosing to forget what country I now call home ^.~ to take a stab at what they might be?  In terms of Korean Corporate Culture, they actually did nothing "wrong":

Cultural Insight #1:
If you are NOT stalking the earth inside a Korean-looking body, regardless of how long you have lived here, regardless of how well you speak the language, regardless of how deeply you understand the culture & history, and even if you change your citizenship; you will NEVER be treated according to Korean cultural ideas and traditions.   That its, unless it's to the advantage / comfort / serves the purposes of the Koreans you are dealing with ...otherwise, you are simply "other".  You are not and never will truly be "woori" (the Korean concept of "us") according to Koreans.  Korean cultural ideas about how to treat people aren't important when it comes to you -unless it is to the advantage of the person you're dealing with. 

Cultural Insight #2:
Koreans often present things as they would like them to be rather than how they actually are. That contact point of mine within HR simply WANTED there to be a position for me (after-all, I'm an AMAZING catch -hiring me would've made him look extremely good professionally, in terms of being able to recognize good global talent).  He felt that his team leader would most certainly be good to go on it.  From the very start, there actually WAS NO REAL OPEN FULL-TIME POSITION. 

Cultural Insight #3:
The only person within a Korean corporation who has ANY power to make any decisions is the person at the VERY top (or someone that this person has appointed for making certain decisions).   Information is strictly controlled (information = power).  The people I was dealing with were far from being anywhere near the top ....even the VP of HR in a large company is very far from the top^.~  It is entirely believable (and likely) that the only "lie" anyone told was that there was any sort of REAL job opportunity for me to begin with.   That team leader likely DID grab that HR manager as soon as he over-heard him tell me to come sign my contract, and tell him that there was no budget to hire me ...and that team leader was likely given the information less than one hour earlier than my arrival (ASIDE: the truth had run it's course before 10:00 a.m.).

The above understandings pretty much explain that HR manager's behaviour, which from an outside, western perspective involved knowingly painting a false picture, waiting until the last minute & then essentially leaving me high & dry.   None of the details of my having sacrificed my financial situation & professional growth for a contract, which never existed in the first place, hit the radar of ANYBODY within HR.

In the end, there  likely WAS no paper trail (and if there was, it would've been denied into non-existence), and thus, no corporate accountability.  Sending the contract to the legal team may very well have been a stall tactic, intended to keep me "on the line" ...I will likely never know. Culturally speaking, it was nobody's personal responsibility.  That concept isn't taught here.  Nobody felt guilt or empathy.  When I showed displeasure as my initial response to what I had just been told, I was reproached.  After all, I was disrupting harmony ^.~

The moral of the above story?
a)  You are not and never will be perceived or treated as "woori" (don't let that become a bad thing).
b)  What you're being told may likely be what the presenter is HOPING to be true (not what actually IS) ...ask yourself often:  "does the person I'm dealing with have ANY authority to be saying what they're saying?"

This is a wonderful place to live & work ...but being stung hurts ^.~  Don't get stung.

About the Author: Lara Tosh is a Change Coach specializing in Empowerment, Cultural Awareness and Effective Communication. 

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