Thoughts on Hiring – the Korean Way


Few days ago, I found an article on JoongAng Daily, saying an American newspaper/magazine (New York Times? New Yorker? can’t remember) featured an article on how South Korean firms – LG, Samsung, etc – hire the candidates.  According to the article, obviously written by non-Korean or for non-Korean, says their hiring process is really systemized and strict to the degree of getting points on and off by your table manner and in-group activities where you spend 2 nights with all other potential candidates.  Was the article positive or negative?  I don’t know because I failed to find the original article.  Whether it is an article by JoongAng Daily or some American paper with “New York” in its name, the hiring process in South Korea can come as a pure astonishment and shock to non-Koreans.  For big firms with nice names and nice treatment, their hiring process is way to systemized and difficult.  As of small firms, they can’t even put on a clear job description (this can be applied to some big firms, but I am talking in general).

Though it is differed by each company, most of big firms in South Korea do the following hiring process:

Resume screening -> “adaptability/personality test” -> 1st round interview -> 2nd/3rd round interview -> physical check up -> You’re in -> orientations

Even though the names, adaptability test, personality test, interview does not sound that alien to western readers, how the Koreans  run those tests and interviews and how they view them is totally different from America.  By the way, this is merely how I see and how I think personally, so please throw in your opinions, and correct me if there is something I am not on the spot.  Also I want to make it clear that I am writing this with subjective viewpoint and lots of generalization – each firm has different practices thus not all firms fall under my writing.

1) Resume screening

Many knows that Asians use a different format of resume.  You have to put your pic and birth information on it.  Okay, bearable.  Sometimes you have to put your eyesight.  Okay.  Then you have to put your height and weight.  What for, unless you are to work at a spa or cosmetics store? Then, you need to put your parent’s personal information – their jobs, names, age, the degree they earned, whether you are living with them, whether your parents live with each other, and the name of the organization they work for.  Sure, I understand that Asians have a holistic view on pretty much everything.  To many Asians, your family, your parent’s job and your address tell a lot about you, just like how you dress and how you talk is who you are.  But let’s put this around.  A nice job candidate loses his point because his/her parents do not live together, or his dad is not working on a job that looks nice on a namecard.  Or, sometimes even asked to explain why.  Is this a fair game?

2) Adaptability/personality test

Because so many people wants to get into that nice big firms, the firms have to filter out candidates.  Thus here comes the test.  As a Korean I did took some of them and they are strange.  I understand Barclay Capital asking their job candidates to do a simple math testing because they deal with numbers.  Well, in here, you have to take something like a full old-school SAT – mostly math and verbal.  Sometimes these verbal are insane – certain firm is known for giving hell-like verbal questions, like the words you never ever hear in everyday life, or able to solve if you have a very good knowledge of pure Korean and its roots.  There are books, tutor services and classes so you can get prepared for these tests.  I still do not get this, for the purpose other than filter out the large quantity of candidates.

I had a chance to take the exam with C firm, a well-known advertisement company in South Korea.   Their job posting said “all majors are welcomed.”  Then on the test, there was a section filled with marketing jargons.  If they were to ask such expertise knowledge and want someone who already knows such things, why did they put “all majors are welcomed” to begin with?

3) Interviews

The wisdom of interview – don’t be stupid, curb your negative answers, behave, be honest and be yourself.

Nervous but not a big deal.  In fact, I did pretty well on my job interviews with American employers.  You can actually put your complaints, or even sue if they asked unfair, offending questions.  Not here.  If you are the job candidate, you are teh low dog.  First, most of the time you are to be interviewed not one-on-one but as a group.  It already feels strange – if I say it reminds me of some kind of beauty pageant or slave market, am I going too far? Sometimes the questions itself are bizarre – “how much can you drink?” “how many friends can you get to come here within 1 hour? Call them now.” At one interview I was asked: “I see that you are a political science major.   Why did you apply to our marketing firm?  What are you going to do?”  I was furious – first, if you want to ask that question to me, why did you put “all majors welcomed” on the job description?  Second, so you made me to fly for three hours, re-schedule all of my agenda and reimburse only 80% of all my trips, with no accommodation arrangement, to ask that question?

Some firms have such a strange interview structured.  All interview candidates are put into a group, and they have to spend 2 nights or so in middle of nowhere.  Then the interviewers make them to do all sort of weird things like extreme hiking and  boot-camp like activities.  In the name of “team spirit.”

4) Orientation

Congrats, you survived all of these and got the job.  What can be more?  Well there is.  Orientation.  For some reason – probably due to group mentality fortified by military practices – the orientation is all about team spirit.  The firms make you do to: extreme canoeing, hiking 25 miles at night, marine boot camp, mass game (yeah, think of North Korea).  True, when a group of people go through a hardship together, it does enhance a sense of team and friendship.  But hiking 25 miles at night?! Marine boot camp?! What are you going to do if someone is just not physically fit? He’s just gonna be left out? Even if his teammates help him out, wouldn’t that create a sense of burden, or even leave him a stigma as a “failure?”  Maybe I am going too far here but that’s what I felt.  And as of unofficial orientation, a drinking party is involved – and there is peer pressure for you to drink like everyone and attend even if you have other agenda to do.  Bail out and that affects your evaluation.

Most managers know this.  Thus, for them, it is natural to filter out anyone who is physically inept, physically challenged or unable to consume a lot of alcohol (or does not even enjoy such thing) in the beginning, not by their skillset and possible contribution. In west generally, what matters the most is your skillset and what you can contribute to the employer.  If employer wants your skillset, and you sound like a sane person at the interview, you are in.   In Korea, the candidate have to fit in to the cookie-cutter so this newbie would not mess with the existing order and harmony of group.  Even if you have the right skills and sanity, Korean employers are more likely to filter you out if you do not fit into that cookie cutter frame (and this is why many of firms are still reluctant to hire foreigners).   What is viewed as confident and deserving in states can be turned in as arrogant and cocky in Korea.  For small/medium firms, things look like western way.  But once you are hired and start working, you do not have your own space for expertise.

Run! We gotta beat the competitors! But Don't outrun too much! like saying "I'm a bit pregnant."

Of course there are pros and cons for each way.   For western ways, there’s greater chance of having someone who is good at what he/she does, but with total shi*ty personality, causing a huge dissonance therefore bringing down everyone’s motivation.  In addition, there is bigger possibility of taking too much time for coordinating differences.  Korean ways do not have to worry about these. Yet it is more likely to suffer from resiliency and chance to be exposed to different way of solutions.

After all, the two societies function in a totally different ways.  In America, as long as you do your responsibility, that’s what it matters.  But in Korea, you have to balance everything – good that you are doing your job well, but make sure others are not feeling uncomfortable by your performance…AND make sure you look neat and clean…AND keep a good relationship to everyone, including your boss and coworkers, in an almost political way, since it does affect your performance review.  According to the Hofstede scoring, South Korea is almost bottom when it comes to individuality.  US scored over 90 on it, placing herself as one of the highest.

In short, you are not left alone to concentrate on your own job; if you are not willing and ready to be broken, too bad.


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