Working Hierarchy in South Korea: My Experience

If you are attending university or working in South Korea, at some point you will need to face the working hierarchy. At first, I was intimidated by this aspect of Korean culture. However, over time, I actually grew fond of this relationship style.

Working Hierarchy in South Korea

Every society has its own social divisions. Some are according to family backgrounds, some according to ethnicity. Almost all societies have a structure based on social status but how the status is given and pursued changes from place to place. In Korea, there is one particular type that I find very unique: the dissociation according to seniority in academic and professional fields. 

Have you guys ever noticed how artists in Korea behave around their seniors? Or have you looked carefully at relationships among work colleagues in Korean dramas?

As an expat, for a long time, the people I had close contact with were also foreigners. And, even when I interacted with locals, most of them regularly interacted with locals. As a result, they were forgiving of my lack of understanding of Korean hierarchies.

So even though I was a member of the drama club since I joined the university here in Korea, and was around a lot of Koreans, I only got to experience the difference between hoobae and sunbae after the other members felt I was comfortable enough in the traditional environment. Still, I was both a junior and the youngest one so if anything, I learned mostly how to be taken care of. 

However, everything changed when I got a job and began experiencing working hierarchy.

First Struggles with Working Hierarchy

Even though it was just a part-time job, not soon after I joined, the teachers from my workplace started leaving. This gave place for new coworkers to join and I became a sunbae. Not long after that, I was the one who was working there for the longest. Weirdly, parallel to this, my boss also started demanding more from me. 

If he needed to leave, he would come to me. If something needed to be done, he would come to me. And, most importantly, if any of the other foreign teachers did something or, even worst, didn’t do something, he would also come to me.

If there were any issues regarding language or cultural barriers, it was demanded of me to solve them. It took me a while to understand what was going on. However, when it came to other Korean employees, he would mostly talk to them directly, which helped ease me a little bit. But either way, there was always this tension around how I had to solve dilemmas and be an example to the other foreigners who were also working there. 

Natural Actions I Started Taking

It is funny how social coercion happens and you don’t even realize it most of the time. After a while, I was not only feeling the pressure my boss put on me, but I also started acting naturally, fully believing there were certain things I needed to get ahead of.

But what surprised me the most was when, without notice, I was the one checking on how my workmates were doing on a daily basis. I began treating them differently and began interfering whenever I saw or felt like they needed help. 

My Thoughts

Usually, it can sound strange and even bad for some foreigners that are not used to working hierarchy in academic places and work environments. I believe that until you understand what is going on, you might feel lost and even have negative feelings towards this aspect of Korean culture.

That being said, I grew fond of the working hierarchy after a while. As a hoobae, I liked when my colleagues helped me learn things and showed me the ropes of the new environment I was in. I liked how I felt cared for by them.

As a sunbae, I don’t mind taking responsibility for things that happen around me. I like being able to help others and taking care of people, now it just feels like the right thing to do.

So, even though this reality is still very new to me, when not overdone in a patronizing way, it is one of the aspects of Korean culture that admire the most.

Want to learn more about Korean working culture? Click Here to read one Pakistani Immigrant’s experience!