More Than One Right Way, Part 2

Seoul’s Banpo Bridge with apartment blocks behind

Lawrence’s story

We had a union for a year and a half. Despite the fact that each of the employees made more money for his position than anyone else in the country—a fact that we were quite proud of—the junior staff set one up. These new members were the equivalent of Harvard and Yale graduates, who were suddenly trying to bill themselves as “the downtrodden.” They weren’t hurting. The most junior person was driving a Hyundai Sonata to the office and paying for parking all day long. In the States, if I had driven to work as a young loan officer, my financial background would have been investigated. Like any new movement in its infancy, people took it to extremes. They ordered tee-shirts, they insisted that the company buy musical instruments so that they could demonstrate. They even insisted that the company pay for music lessons, so their noise would be “more soothing to management.”  The instruments are still in their cloth carrying-cases in the union room, which has been abandoned. They’ve never been used.

The sad part about it was that we had, then as well as now, people in senior management who genuinely cared about the junior people—that they had a reasonable lifestyle, that they made progress and that they got training. During union negotiations, people started to wake up to the fact that the senior management did care. Then they started to attack middle management as the guys “lying on the ground not moving”—the current trendy expression used to describe a Korean bureaucrat’s survival strategy.  Somebody has to be responsible. Over a period of eighteen months they went through all the possible targets, even me, the foreign senior executive.

The president told me, the union’s suddenly having issues with you.”

“I’d like to find out what they are.”

“Good, I think you ought to talk with them.”

So I sat down with them, and darned if they hadn’t figured out a way to hate me and to pin all the problems on the fact that there were foreign shareholders. By the end of that meeting, myths were dispelled and the union had exhausted itself. They’d run the gamut.

It ended with an incident at a company outing, later dubbed the Staff Outing Uprising. Every year you have the obligatory mountain climb in company uniforms. It’s supposed to be a “company unity” event with singing and drinking until all hours and gambling with seed money provided by the company. Then the next day there’s a forced march up a hill. All you see are the heels of the person in front of you—no stopping, no resting, no enjoying. At the end there’s the obligatory song, lunch, and everybody splits. On this occasion at four in the afternoon of the first day, over the second drink, one man in middle management—a guy who didn’t want to be there—said he didn’t want to go on the hike the next day. He clashed with the man who’d set this up, who really enjoyed the minutiae of the planning much more than the result. The man who didn’t want to be there slugged him.

The president and I went numb. We walked out because we were both so upset. That night we tried to create some reconciliation by having people break up into teams and make a list of things that could improve the company. The spokesmen for each team suddenly felt empowered to make outrageous, insulting statements on behalf of the team, things that they would never say in normal Korean society. It snowballed. They started being as insulting as they could while still being funny—with a “can you top this one” attitude. It got hysterical. It became a devastating indictment of management. Many of the staff were laughing, some from embarrassment and some from wicked delight. The president was humiliated. He went bright red and then white. He couldn’t believe that these young people would speak to him like that. But the Korean management just sat there stoically. That was the catharsis.

The venting of this hostility marked the beginning of the end of the union—there was little left to fight over. The next day the two who got into a fistfight were walking arm-in-arm up the hill, and the junior people had broken up into fresh groups in order to come up with constructive solutions to the problems underlying the tension that had broken out. We set up some focus teams—on compensation, benefits, career paths. But we set ground rules insisting on mutual respect. It was healthy because we came up with about a hundred points where we needed improvement. We made some changes, and then everything slowed down. There were no more ghosts to fence with. And really, when it came right down to it, what the union members wanted was more recognition, more communication. They wanted a forum for speaking out.

Now, let me say I believe that at one time many of the unions in Korea, particularly in manufacturing, were an absolute necessity for reform. The government was lying about inflation—calling it 9.9%, when it might be 25% in a given year—and trying to keep salary growth at 5%. People were losing tremendous purchasing power, some were being disenfranchised, and factory workers were vastly underpaid compared to the productivity gains and progress in the economy and to the rise in housing and food prices. But most of those injustices were corrected in the first two years of the unionization of Korea, when there were huge pay increases. At our bank the conflict wasn’t about money, benefits, overtime pay, life insurance or health insurance. There was a need for understanding among different generations. There was a need for a conduit for communication. There wasn’t a need for a union.

Actually, even before the Staff Outing Uprising, the men in the union had virtually abandoned it so they wouldn’t have to deal with the women’s issues. The women had more votes, and they were saying, “Give us a 30% salary increase and you take a 5% salary increase. Give us a career path. Don’t make us leave when we get married.”

The men complained, “They don’t understand the sophistication of the problems that we have.”  They also wanted a career path and more money, but they saw their issues as much different. “Really, how can we take this seriously when we have to sit across the table from women who are making these ridiculous demands that have nothing to do with business.”  I was rooting for the women on that one.

The way we treat women here is just outrageous. The women have the same credentials as the men have, but we pay them very little. Up until two years ago we insisted that they leave either when they got married or when they reached twenty-five, whichever came first. We have changed that system, so that now they can stay. And we’ve played some catch-up on salary, so that they no longer make half of what the men do, but it’s still no more than say 65% of the male salary.

We hire only the graduates of leading universities—Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Korea University. The job interviews are incredibly sexist. We ask women job candidates, “Will you do the three C’s—coffee, copies, cleaning?”  Anyone who seems to have a negative reaction is not hired. The interviewers are the senior Koreans and me. We would each score people separately. In the early days when I didn’t speak much Korean, I was looking for body language, eye contact, poise, energy, that sort of thing. At the end of these sessions we would compare our scores, and the correlation was amazing—but only with the men.

We had a woman here who had a double major in math and economics. I thought, “My God, if she stays with us, if we treat her halfway decently, she’s going places.”  They didn’t ask her a single question about her studies. They asked her about her religion, what her mother did, what her father did, if they were living together, had there ever been a divorce in the family, when she was going to get married. I mean, the more talented a woman was, the more demeaning the questions were. They did hire her.

About a year after she was hired, an anonymous discrimination complaint was filed with the Bureau of Labor Standards and the National Labor Relations Board. The male staff of the Labor Relations Board visited the male staff of the bank. During the time it took to drink one cup of tea, it was decided that there was no problem, that we were really the most progressive of Korean institutions. That was the end of it. Six months later this woman quit. I was really sorry to see her go. I had insisted on including her in departmental lunches. But I got comments, even from the youngest male staffer, like, “She’s arrogant.”

“What do you mean ‘She’s arrogant’?”

“She seems to be very impressed with herself and what she knows.”

“But is she right?  Is she just demonstrating that she knows something?”

“Well, she’s—she’s just very arrogant.”

No one would listen. When I tried to bring a moderating influence into the conflict, they laughed at me as much as they laughed at her.

Some time ago we took a woman who’s been working with us for five or six years and made her an officer in a new investment support team. It was very much a token position, but Korean management saw this move as being really avante guarde, really ground-breaking. I said, “Fine, now that’s entry level. How much longer before she becomes an assistant manager?”  People just looked at me like I was from the moon. Ultimately, she left for the States, where she’s doing quite well. Then people forgot about women officers.

At my home bank in the States, we had a couple of Korean American women, like Sandra Noh, who is a vice-president. When she came out to Korea for a brief visit, I was delighted to show her around. She was far more advanced than the male staff here, so that she could actually teach them. People looked at her as quite an oddity. There was a lot of giggling, a lot of discomfort and a lot of sexual innuendo from the men, but I saw that the women were cheering her on.