By Jeyup S Kwaak
Like many office workers in South Korea, Cho Sung-joon went out drinking with his colleagues most weeks during his five-year stint at Samsung Electronics Co.
After kicking off the night guzzling soju, a rice-based liquor, over grilled pork or raw fish, he and his co-workers would move on to a pub or karaoke lounge, occasionally past midnight.
“We did drink a lot to blow off steam,” said Mr. Cho.
It’s a hierarchical bonding experience known as hoesik — literally “staff dinner.” Deeply ingrained in South Korean business culture, hoesik usually involves free-flowing alcohol, often forced upon lower-ranked staff who are expected to serve and entertain their superiors. Not playing the rules is a shortcut to soured relations and poor performance reviews.
Current and former Samsung Electronics staff say Samsung’s hoesik weren’t particularly excessive, but in September the parent company, Samsung Group, implemented a strict code of conduct for staff dinners. The rules banned rituals like beolju, or forcing drinks on others, and sabalju — the mixing of several different beverages to make a potent punch.
Spokespeople for Samsung Group and its subsidiaries declined to comment for this article.
Samsung’s move to manage its own drinking culture comes as South Korea has more broadly made some steps this year towards tackling excessive alcohol consumption and drink-induced violence.
South Koreans are by far the heaviest drinkers in Asia and the biggest consumers of spirits in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Drink is valued as a social glue that has long been a part of the collective identity. With minimal laws against public intoxication, drunks dot the streets of the largest cities after dark. Convenience stores sell cheap hard liquor around the clock.
Alcohol-induced violence has also long been tolerated as a side-effect of the nation’s love of the bottle. Arrests have been rare and judges have lowered sentences for criminals if they were found to have acted under the influence of alcohol.
In 2008, a seven-year old girl was raped by a man in suburban Seoul. Prosecutors sought life imprisonment, but the court ruled that the man was too drunk to know what he was doing and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
A campaign this summer led by one of the nation’s major newspapers in coordination with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency has sought to change attitudes about drunken violence. More than 500 repeat offenders were arrested.
“Individual incidents involving alcohol weren’t considered newsworthy,” said Lee In-yul, assistant editor at the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, which ran a high-profile series on alcohol-related violence, or jupok. “We didn’t see that some of them were part of a bigger picture.”
Away from the extremes, companies are finding that attitudes towards drinking are changing among younger staff. Many keep their hoesik attendance to a minimum, puzzling their superiors.
For previous generations, jobs at large conglomerates represented a dream destination — you made every effort to fit in, including accepting the drinking culture. Some job hunters still detail their drinking ability on their resumes.
But as conglomerates seek to increase employee loyalty in an increasingly mobile labor market, some are acknowledging that hoesik culture can be a turn off for some talented employees or potential new hires.
Mr. Cho left Samsung in 2011 to study for a Masters of Business Administration in New York, although he says the drinking culture wasn’t a factor in his decision.
Meanwhile, fresh recruits at Samsung said that they were surprised by the mild initiations and subsequent get-togethers this year.
“Maybe on one or two instances, we were asked to make a toast,” said a new hire who asked not to be named, “but that was it. No one was pressured to do anything.”
“The (company) policy is enforced so well that the general mood is it’s gone too far,” said a 20-something analyst who joined Samsung’s securities arm before this year’s campaign.
The trick for companies may be to find the sweet spot of team-building through social drinking, while avoiding the excesses that hoesik are sometimes known for. For society in general, the challenge remains much larger. ◦