Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dealing with a Rude Boss

Here's the question:

Well, I pretty much hate my boss. I asked him for one single day off (in OCTOBER!!!) so I can visit a friend in Japan and he rejected me. It's not so much the rejection that irks me, but more how he said it. What did he say? "Absolutely not! Class is more important than friends." What an a-hole! My students even said they were okay if I made up the classes on a weekend or something. And what's worse is that the foreign manager isn't sticking up for me at all! What the hell is the problem?

Man oh man, I love intercultural manager-employee clashes. There's nothing more fun than trying to explain why an overly authoritative Korean boss acting like a complete dick is just "part of Korean culture" and what he really meant to say is "this". As a manager, I have had to deal with this far too often. If I were to translate the above response, it would be like this: "I'm sorry, but you see, if we cancel classes because of a vacation, then I'm afraid it would set a precedent where teachers could take control of when and where classes are held, therefore making you more of a freelance teacher rather than an employee here." Fun, right?

This is a huge question and one that I think should be addressed on many different levels. Let's break it down, shall we?

1) Why do Korean bosses act this way?

I don't need to lecture about respect in Korea. If you want a background on why old people talk down to others, just take a gander at what Confucius said. First, when dealing with Koreans of advanced age or position, it's best to approach the situation as if you were rushing a frat or are a fresh-off-the-bus enlistee waiting in line to get your head shaved. You've got no rights and no authority to express an unsolicited opinion. Most men excuse and attribute this behavior to their military service, but I don't. I see them as whiny frat boys. Just like the freshman who were waiting their turn to do the hazing, these men spent years and years being punished and subordinated by their bosses and when they finally reach that point, there's no way they're going to change the game. It's how it is and I have yet to see any signs of it changing any time soon.

2) Does a faux cultural translation actually benefit anyone?

This is something that always stumps me. Should I offer a sugary version of what the boss "meant" with his rant or should I let it stand as is? Some claim that the role of a foreign manager is more of a liaison rather than a actual authority figure, so smoothing over the rude tirades of Korean managers is part of the description I guess, but I have a feeling that when I sweeten the boss-talk I am somehow legitimatizing their crass behavior. Rude is rude and regardless of culture, there is a "right" way to tactfully talk to employees. But tact is cultural. Especially in the case of the questioner, the boss was speaking English and still chose to speak in a rude manner. Not only does that suggest they knew what they were doing, but shows very little respect or appreciation for the teacher. Korean bosses need to realize that without teachers, they have no business. One of the largest complaints that teachers have are dick bosses that don't listen. On the other hand, we are in Korea and even though English might be the language in use, teachers should be a little more tolerant of harsh words or criticism.

There probably needs to be a little give and take with the teacher/expat giving in a little more. I'm sure some might disagree, but many teachers aren't here permanently. This isn't about acceptance. It's about tolerance. This isn't the West and investing too much into the situation isn't worth it. At the same time, bosses should recognize the differences and try to be a bit more sensitive.

I think the best way to handle this situation is by doing what I do and cut all meetings between Korean management and teachers out. If there's a problem, my teachers come to me and I handle it with Korean management. There's no need for direct meetings in most cases anyways and since I took total control of these interactions, there has been little or no drama.

3) What is expected of me, the non-Korean employee?

This one is a little harder. What is expected of an English teacher? I have known many excellent teachers who were awful employees and vice versa. They are two very different things. No one can be a perfect teacher, but you can be a near-perfect employee with relative ease. As an non-Korean employee, you need to show up on time, follow the rules of the school/contract and do your best to represent your school well. As a teacher, you need to be passionate, flexible and planned. Your Korean boss doesn't expect anything more of you and you shouldn't expect more from him or her.

4) Why won't the foreign manager stick up for me?

Being a foreign manager can sometimes be a more of a curse than a blessing. Sure, the money is pretty great, but you sometimes become the whipping post for unhappy teachers and/or management. The foreign teachers assume that you'll be on their side regardless while Korean management sees you as more of an inside agent. For me, I try my best to listen to all problems and solve them, but sometimes I can't help to get a bit irritated when a new teacher is making unreasonable demands or being totally uncompromising. The teachers need to understand that their foreign manager might be in a very difficult place, trying to balance their loyalties evenly. Your boss wants to stick up for, but you gotta make sure you're being reasonable as well.

5) Is there a way to ask for a holiday or other favor without going through all the BS?

The best way to get favors is by giving favors. Sounds nasty, but it's not. If you go out of your way to help out when another teacher is sick or maybe you pick up an extra class for a month, your bosses will remember and when it comes time for you to ask for an extra day of vacation, they might be more accommodating.

In the end, I'm not surprised that your request was denied. Everybody wants an extra day off to go to Japan or spend a little more time in Thailand, but it's just not a reality. If you're looking for a lot of vacation time, then do your research beforehand and land a job in a uni or public school.


Tate said...

I definitely hear you on the overly bossy boss. They think they own the world when they get in a position of authority, geese and I thought it was bad in U.S. I don't quite hate my boss but he is kind of the same way with authority. I don't ask for anything and I do my work and go home; that is kind of how I deal with it. I try to be as detached as possible. What part of Seoul are you in? I am in PyeongTaek, about 45 minutes away.

The Expat said...

Staying clear is always an option, but I think it makes the situation even worse. At some point, you're going to have to engage and when you do, it might not be too pleasant if the boss isn't used to it.

I'm in Gangnam. How's Pyeongtaek these days? I've only been a couple times and they were all years ago.

afranke77 said...

I have a question for you regarding being fired and getting a new job in Korea:

A month ago I lost my job in Korea after going to the hospital for severe inflammation in my left eye. My boss sent me to a local eye doctor and after two follow up appointments he told me my situation was an emergency and said I had to get to a hospital immediately. I tried contacting my boss but was unable to, but I was able to explain my entire situation to another teacher who passed the word on. My boss was so enraged because I sought medical attention and missed work without his permission that he fired me and threatened to cancel my health insurance and blacklist me from Korea after I was later admitted to a hospital in Daegu for three nights. Later at the urging of the other teachers, he agreed to pass on a form for me to sign saying I was willfully resigning due to a medical emergency so that in the future I would be eligible to work again in Korea.

I'm now at home in the U.S and am trying to return to Korea in March or April. I asked my boss for an employment record at the request of a recruiter who had job openings with the GEPIK program and my former boss said he would 'do that'. However, a couple days later I received e-mails from the GEPIK director and the recruiter saying my former boss had given a bad review and that they could not work with me.

My questions regarding this are: What can I do or say to get my boss to either provide a positive reference or simply keep his mouth shut to not ruin my job prospects? How crucial do you think it is to have a reference from him to teach again in Korea? What methods does he have at his disposal to screw me over (he has a lot of 'friends' in the education ministry and likes to talk about his political ambitions in 2012...)?