Like in other parts of the world, work culture in Korea has evolved with the passage of time.
But in general, it is still based on the tradition of Confucianism and has yet to remove remaining vestiges of authoritarianism that prevailed during the military dictatorship until the late 1980s.
It could be noted that some traditional work culture -- like loyalty to organisations and superiors, readiness to take and execute orders without questioning and sacrificing private life -- were part of the force that drove the government-led economic development and the consequent expansion of the Korean corporate sector during the past several decades.
But we must admit that now many of them are anachronistic and only stand in the way of Korean corporations to be on a par with their global competitors.
A report recently released by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) substantiates the need to take the current situation seriously.
The study, a joint task conducted with McKinsey & Company, found that many Korean firms still operate with a rigid corporate culture that undermines their competitiveness.
In other words, the organisational health of Korean firms are not good enough to take on their global counterparts.
The study, based on a survey of 40,000 employees at 100 major Korean firms, used McKinsey’s Organisational Health Index (OHI) to compare their organisational culture with that of 1,800 foreign counterparts.
The OHIs at 77 of the Korean firms were found to be lower than the global firms, with more than 90 per cent of the mid-sized firms were rated in the rock- bottom level.
Major factors negatively affecting the Korean firms’ organisational health included a top-down work order, frequent after-hours work, unproductive internal meetings and unfair assessment of performance.
Given the prevailing office culture and work styles at many Korean firms, the findings are not surprising.
For instance, top-down decision-making is still the norm at many firms, and owners and senior executives wield so much power that their high-handedness often results in social scandals that enrage workers and the general public.
Good examples are the recent case in which a daughter of the Korean Air chairman was slapped with criminal punishment for mistreating company staff, and the owner of a company who faced heavy public criticism for manhandling his chauffeur.
Such rigidity and authoritarianism fosters negative office culture -- like the habitual overtime work at night.
As the KCCI-McKinsey study found, working extra hours at night was one of the biggest problems faced by employees.
It said that on average, the surveyed employees worked overtime at night for 2.3 days out of 5 working days, with 43.1 per cent saying they worked overtime at night for more than three days a week.
What’s interesting is that the same survey found that those who did overtime work frequently were less productive than those who did not.
KCCI chief Park Yong-maan rightly said that many Korean firms still depend on the software of a feature phone and that it should be upgraded to the level of a smartphone.
The most essential thing for the upgrade is the change of mindset of the owner or CEO of each company.
Public campaigns by the KCCI and other economic organisations or civic groups also would be able to help the corporate sector do away with negative work culture.
The Korea Herald is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 newspapers.