Korea Inc ditching job titles to revamp top-down culture

But chaebols' bid to avoid addressing staff by title may not bring real change, some say

A "regressive" corporate culture characterised by chronic late-night working hours and irrational performance evaluation systems has made Korea among the longest-working but least-productive countries in the world, reports say.
A "regressive" corporate culture characterised by chronic late-night working hours and irrational performance evaluation systems has made Korea among the longest-working but least-productive countries in the world, reports say.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SEOUL • When Mr Tyler Kim joined a South Korean company last year after nine years working in the United States, he was surprised his co-workers did not address him by name. They used his job title - chaekimnim, which means "manager" in Korean.

"It was a bit awkward at first," he told the Korea Herald.

In South Korea, employees typically address one another by the person's job title followed by his or her family name. It even applies to co-workers of the same rank, regardless of whether the communication is in writing or face to face, the Herald reported.

Now, in an effort to revamp South Korea's authoritarian, top-down corporate culture, the country's chaebols, or conglomerates, have decided to eschew the use of job titles.

Employees are encouraged to drop the mention of job titles in the workplace, with changes in business cards to follow.

  • Common Korean job titles


    Unless you work in a small company, you are unlikely to meet your company's hoejang in person.


    Sitting at the top of the executive board, the sajang oversees company operation or heads a certain business unit. In smaller companies, the sajang often doubles as the chief executive.


    Jeonmu is usually the head of the finance department. The job title is the third most senior level in the hierarchy.


    The title of sangmu is mostly given to senior level directors with more work experience than an isa, or director.


    Isa is the lowest rank of seniority in the executive board.


    The bujang, or team jang, is the most senior figure that employees will be in contact with most of the time. A bujang is the leader of a team within a department and usually has more than 10 years of work experience.


    Just below the bujang status, chajang has similar seniority to bujang, but with less experience.


    Gwajang usually has about five to seven years of work experience. There are often multiple gwajang in a team to lead projects.


    With at least four years of experience, a daeri has no real authority but is expected to pull off projects better than a sawon, a regular staff member.


    Although not all companies have jooim, they are usually the next level up from being worker with no title. Sometimes employees with masters or doctorate degrees are automatically given this rank.


    Sawon is an official member of the company who has passed through an internship or basic training.


    First-year newbies, the lucky ones who make it through the open recruitment competition.


Last month, Samsung group's pharmaceutical arm, Samsung BioLogics, began to add "pro" (meaning "professions") or "nim" (meaning "expert") as the suffix to every employee's name in place of existing job titles like daeri (assistant manager), gwajang (manager), chajang (deputy team leader) and bujang (team leader). These are lower-level positions.

Higher-level positions, such as senior executives and directors, will still keep their titles.

In the same vein, Samsung Electronics will streamline five job titles into four.

CJ group, a food and entertainment empire, was the first South Korean company to start eradicating the use of job titles in 2000, the Herald reported. The conglomerate also implemented a fast-track system that prioritises performance and capability over the number of years with the company.

But not all companies have succeeded.In 2012, local conglomerate Hanwha launched a similar campaign to streamline job titles - from new graduate employees to senior managers - only to revert to the old system within three years.

"Projects and tasks are always, and still will be, led by experienced veteran employees, normally who are a lot older than me," said a woman who works at the manufacturing firm's human resource team.

"Getting rid of superficial titles cannot really bring a big change to current work systems."

Experts agree that it will take more than the abolition of job titles to overhaul the corporate culture.

When exchanging business cards, South Koreans pay particular attention to job titles as they reflect the person's job type, rank, experience, earning power and social status.

"Koreans tend to rank people based on occupation, hometown, academic background and more," sociology professor Kim Seok Ho, from Seoul National University, told the Korea Herald.

Things are starting to change, given the reluctance of younger employees to tolerate the rigid strictures of the typical South Korean workplace.

Entrepreneur Lee Hye Min, who worked at trading service firm STX for almost five years, said dropping job titles could reshape a company's internal culture. Earlier this year, she quit and launched her own start-up company.

"While working at STX, I was more likely to shut my mouth and hide my opinion in front of those with higher titles," she said.

"But as you know, start-ups are not run like big companies. We cannot communicate when stuck in a hierarchical system.

"That's why I made my co-workers call me by my name instead of 'daepyonim', or CEO."

A study by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry and consultancy McKinsey & Company found that eight out of 10 South Korean businesses suffered from poor "organisational health" compared with their global counterparts.

The study, released last month, criticised what it called a "regressive" corporate culture characterised by chronic late-night working hours and irrational performance evaluation systems, the Korea Times reported.

"Korea is among the longest-working but least-productive countries in the world," a McKinsey Korean staff member told the Times.

The findings were based on a nine-month survey of 40,000 employees at 100 major South Korean firms last year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2016, with the headline 'Korea Inc ditching job titles to revamp top-down culture'. Subscribe