Executive Careers Blog

Leading by Example

Employees who just don't quit.

Who take less vacation time than you allot.

Who are loyal to the company and compete to see who can work the longest hours, and deliver the most service.

Sounds like a good thing, right?

A dream for employers—except that it's not.

A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted the decision by the South Korean government to mandate that all state employees must take at least 16 days vaction this year. "The hitch," says the Journal, is thatKorea has a "hierarchical society where superiors set the tone in business and politics." That's a problem because "some of the very bosses behind the vacation push can't be bothered to take them."

Having lived and worked in South Korea, I can attest to the fact that the average employee there puts in more hours—and on more days—than anywhere else I've been before or since. While that sounds like an admirable trait—especially to a manager—the reality of how that played out on a day-to-day basis was very different.

For one year, I worked as a teacher in a private language school in Korea with both Korean and Western employees. While I became very used to seeing my Korean coworkers putting in 12 hour days—often for six or seven days a week—the same standards were not expected of the Westerners I worked with; for the most part, we did standard 40 hour weeks, occasionally more. We were all entitled to the same amount of vacation time—the school shut down for one week, twice a year—but typically only the Western teachers fully utilized that time.

Clearly, then, cultural expectations played a major role in the amount of time employees were willing to devote to working.

Hand on heart, I can't honestly say that my Western colleagues were any less productive than my Korean counterparts. I'm not saying that we did the same amount of work—the Korean teachers spent 25 percent more time in the classroom than the Westerners—but there was nothing even close to a 25 percent gulf in terms of quality of output. In fact, when it came down to creation of new curriculum items and resources to supplement the existing materials—things that could be reasonably be described as "optional" work—Western teachers tended to do more, and more often. That chimes with the wider picture posited in the Journal: despite its citizens working around a third more than those in an average OECD country, "South Korea's productivity […] ranks below all but some former Soviet bloc countries among OECD members."

All told, my experience in Korea taught me how damaging a culture of "presenteeism" can be to an organization.

While I worked with some very talented people, the pressure of the sheer number of hours they were expected to work took a serious toll. Because of that pressure, Korean employees were infinitely more likely to show up to work when sick—a trait that, rather than helping an organization, only increases recovery time, and the likelihood of other employees also falling ill (assuming the ailment is contagious). Additionally, my Korean colleagues consistently seemed more tired at work (occasionally falling asleep during breaks from the classroom—one reason their curriculum development output was lower).

As noted above, that pressure to constantly be at work came directly from the top, and was exemplified by the school's owner and senior management. With them setting the example of being present all day, every day, other employees felt that they had no option but to follow.

That's a lesson that extends well beyond any one country: owners and senior management set the tone at any organization.

If you want to see a specific behavior or attitude, you have to be prepared to live it on a day-to-day basis yourself. And the corollary: if there's something you don't want to see—like employees not using the vacation time they're entitled to—you have to set that example as well.

Doing otherwise could seriously hurt the culture and productivity within your organization.

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Phil Stott is a Web Content Producer at Vault.com. Originally from Scotland, he has lived and worked in Slovakia, Japan and South Korea, and currently lives in New York.

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