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Childish Employers

Just to be up-front, I’m not talking about my own current employer in this post. I’m talking about the experiences of those around me, including Miss Jiwaku but also a number of other people I’ve known in Korea over the years.

One of the things I will never understand — and this is a cultural difference — is the poor respect that so many Korean employers have for their employees’, and the incredible amounts of respect they seem to think they have the right to demand from them.

Take the process of quitting a part-time job. As far as I understand Korean law, mitigating circumstances aside, you can quit a job with as little as two weeks’ notice. That is your right as an employee. Now, mitigating circumstances are things like clauses in a contract: for example, my (full-time job) work contract has a clause specifying two months’ notice. However, most part-time jobs in Korea don’t involve a contract, and so they are subject to the default rules: two weeks minimum.

The thing is, people I’ve known have tended to be very sympathetic to their employers, and have said, time and time again, that two weeks isn’t enough to find a replacement. They worry that their employer might not be able to find someone else in time, or might not bother (and will instead shovel the workload onto the people already on staff). They usually try to be flexible about giving notice, when they can. They’ll give a month’s notice, or more; they’ll offer to try help find a replacement.

But employers, in my experience, often (almost consistently) don’t appreciate that. They complain that the person hasn’t stuck to the job long enough; they trot out some minimum length of time that is “correct” for the person to stay in the job. If it’s been less than a year, they say a year. If it’s been just over a year, they say a year and a half. I swear, sometimes it’s like talking to someone’s parents.

The thing about shoveling the work onto the people already on staff is notable because the employers who do this consistently, also consistently fail to (or refuse to, or get indignant when asked to) pay overtime pay. It’s a bewildering situation: you work 16 hours a week for someone, and you get paid X. Then, suddenly, they “ask” you to work 32 hours a week for a month, because suddenly there is more work to be done, and it’s assumed you will get paid X. Not double X, not even though you’re working twice as many hours. Just X. They don’t even follow labor law themselves!

And yet they get all shocked when you have the temerity to do something like decide you want to stop working there. They hold your coworkers’ opinion of you hostage, because, like a demented parent, they will do everything they can to emotionally control the situation. They will make their problem (how to get and retain a staff) somehow suddenly your problem. They will demand that you find a replacement for the position. (Of course it’s nice if you offer to help, but you have no legal obligation to do so, no matter how distressed your employer feels himself or herself to be.)

I’ve seen people quit a job, only to be called a month after quitting, with the boss begging for them to come back and work for a month, because their replacement didn’t work out. I’ve seen people let themselves get roped into it, too… and, unhappily, keep working at a place for months while the boss did nothing at all in the way of seeking out a new replacement. This kind of thing, I’ve especially seen in restaurants. Of course, the former employee who goes back is somewhat culpable too: maybe they’re just nice, or maybe they’re a little too nice. (Were it me, I would simply tell the employer I was working on a new job or project, and didn’t have time.)

But though I’ve seen this is food service, I’ve seen it much more in the hakwon industry. And it’s not just Koreans who get asked these kinds of stupid things. I do know a case where a (ridiculously bad) foreign teacher was fired in a way that was embarrassing for all concerned. Later, her employer complained that she hadn’t dropped by his office to thank him and say goodbye; “What if our paths cross again?” he said. The Westerners at the table were at a loss to explain that his expectations made no sense from a Western point of view (and were rather surprised that after a decade in the West this man understood our culture so poorly).

The number of people I know who’ve worked for hakwons with shady bosses is staggering: people going unpaid for months on end; people being verbally abused; people being treated like garbage: these are all pretty unsurprising events in the hakwon industry. And yet, hakwon bosses seem to think they command respect just by owning a hakwon. It’s sad, but it’s also quite weird. The childish behaviour of so many employers here is one of those things I will never understand.

Though I shouldn’t have to add this caveat, my experience with this sort of thing has also been purely Korean. I had one university attempt to keep me under contract, when I had been offered a better job elsewhere, and threatened to force me to stay. (Since employers act as visa sponsors, they can actually do that in Korea. I’ve heard that the excessive difficulty of leaving a bad employer mid-contract is an artifact of the Ministry of Justice’s approach to dealing with immigration issues — it’s supposedly not a legal blockage, just an invented administrative one — but that’s a subject for another day.) My girlfriend at the time had come to a meeting with the head of my department and threaten to marry me (thus qualifying me for an F2 visa, which would entitle me to quit my job and leave like any Korean employee), before the dean agreed to let me go. I’ve only had one such experience in Korea, though — one out of my three jobs held here.

In contrast, not one of my jobs in Canada — part time or full-time — ever made a bigger deal out of my quitting than simply having a sad goodbye party. Not even the employer whose company was doomed by my leaving did more than wish me luck, and bid me farewell (in the case of a couple of employees, a tearful farewell, at that) — even though I wasn’t able to give two weeks notice! Nobody tried to keep me. Nobody tried to guilt me into staying. People realized that I had the legal right to do what I wanted, and didn’t try burden me with pseudo-family obligations when I was quitting. (While working, yes, definitely; while quitting, no.)

(And such pseudo-family obligations as were imposed on me while working were still, relatively, above board. I might get called in to work on a Saturday, but it was assumed I not only would get paid, but would get paid overtime. Nobody had even the faintest hint of an idea that I could be asked to work without pay, because the company was like a family. Had someone suggested it, I would have asked what other family benefits I should expect. And notably, the only employer who ever did pull that “family” thing on me, did so in the context of having populated a lot of positions in the company with family. And when push came to shove, it somehow turned out that “indispensable” workers were all related to her. The company was a family, in her mind, because it literally was family, plus a few hired guns. But even she stayed sane when I decided to mosey on down the road to a different job, one I’d already gotten.)

Hm. Maybe that’s what people who want to quit hakwon jobs should do: claim they just got a job with Samsung, starting Monday, and they need the money to support an ailing mom who needs heart surgery or something. I wonder how many bosses are craven enough to demand the person turn down such a job… hmmm. I guess maybe that’s the trick: but you need to be a good liar… a skill I find uncommon among people who end up working for such idiotic bosses as I’m talking about.

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