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Why South Korean Companies are Making Employees Use White People Names

When South Korean internet firm Kakao decided three years ago that all of its employees must use English nicknames at work, it became a bit strange for the workers.

The issue was not because the names were English, but the thought of being called without any rank or titles is quite unheard of in the country, reports The Washington Post.

As a common Korean code of conduct, most employees do not address each other by their first names. For many, it would be rude not to address someone by title or position. In fact, very few people (usually in close intimacy, like relatives and friends) are expected to call someone by his or her first name, even in a non-professional setting.

“The younger person must use honorific to the older person,” Kakao employee Hwang Yun-ik was quoted as saying. “If not, that makes a lot of conflicts.”

This is because Koreans place great importance in their societal hierarchy, which recognizes a high degree of authority for people in higher social or professional positions.

Kakao and some local companies, however, are seeking to change that. By dictating that employees use English names, they are hoping to somehow eliminate the socially-entrenched hierarchy. So far, the industries which have adopted the English nickname policies include English education, tourism, trade and other globally focused companies.

The firms are hoping that while many might still find using the actual Korean names of co-workers impolite,  an English nickname may have a different reaction.

For the policy, many Koreans have now adopted typical English names while others choose to be unique. Like Hwang, who chose the name “Unique,” because, as he explained it simply, “I am unique.”

While Unique seemed to have comfortably accepted the use of English nicknames, some employees still feel a bit weird about it.

Some workers, like Hwang Hye-rim, a former employee of a translation company, still attached position titles to her co-workers’ English names. “I was concerned that omitting job position names would be really offensive,” she was quoted as saying.

Hong Yun-ji, an employee of Saudi firm Sabic, expressed that she appreciated her company’s moves to remove the workers’ hierarchy but she still chose to use her name Yun-ji anyway.

“I prefer to use my Korean name because I am a Korean person,” Hong said. “Using an English name even though you are not American is a little bit strange. Your name is from your own mother and father.”

Many younger workers are more open to the change in the hierarchical structure, as the new policy has allowed a shake up of the dynamics of the Korean workplace, including the decision-making, which traditionally had to go through several chains of hierarchy.

Those who are already used to the traditionally run firms, however, might find it a little more difficult to adjust. For them, the older way seems more logical: Raises and promotions are given in schedules according to age, office desks are arranged by position, and hiring is even limited to just twice a year at most.

In is important to note that Koreans are some of the most hardworking employees in the world, with many working full 12-hour shifts, usually for just one company for almost all their lives. 

For them, a structural change like this brings about a massive shift not only in how they work, but also how their identity is viewed by the company. Forcing employees to use English nicknames thus becomes problematic, especially for those who think their identities are being taken from them.

Feature Image via YouTube


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