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SK’s Chey ditches dull New Year speech

Chairman holds a less formal town hall - and promises more
Jan 14,2019
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SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won answers staffers’ questions at the company’s headquarters in central Seoul last Tuesday. [SK]
For his first casual staff get-together of the year, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won arrived at the company’s headquarters, central Seoul, last Tuesday in a green jacket, open-necked shirt and colorfully striped socks - intentionally eschewing the black-and-white uniform expected of the leader of the conglomerate’s controlling family.

At a 90-minute improvised event dubbed the “Happiness Talk,” the first question directed at Chey was, “How would you score your work-life balance?”

“It’s a mess - around 60 points [out of a 100] maybe?” he replied candidly. “I work on a more flexible timetable than you guys, but I have work thrown at me regardless of the time or place, so the term ‘work and life balance’ doesn’t really apply to me.

“But this doesn’t mean you have to do the same,” he continued. “Forcing you to do so would only make me ‘ggondae,’” he added, using the Korean slang term for old people who force their opinions and experiences on younger people.

Casual sessions between company leaders and staff are not common in Korea where most companies - regardless of size or industry - remain stuffy and authoritative.

When they do meet, the events are typically in grand halls with the founding controlling family’s representative giving a predictably upbeat speech. Taking questions that are not filtered in advance is rare.

This was the first of 100 casual staff meetings Chey has promised to hold this year, said SK Sunday. Around 300 staff working inside the building - from such affiliates as SK Innovation and the Supex Council - attended.

“We don’t exactly know who from which affiliate came - they weren’t listed in advance,” an SK spokesman said. “An email was sent to staff around two days before the event asking them to come if they’re free.”

The event, accompanied by sandwiches and gimbap (seaweed rice rolls), turned out to be more popular than expected. As the hall was too small to hold all 300 or so attendees, some ended up sitting on the floor, including senior executives who failed to turn up earlier.

For an hour and a half, Chey replied to comments and questions he received through a mobile app. A father of three asked for ways to encourage the usage of paternal leaves by staff. Another person suggested a policy in which team leaders can choose team members to work with rather than having them assigned by the company.

“There may be pros and cons to that idea,” Chey replied to the second question.

The main reason for the event was to collect specific ideas to make SK a better workplace for its staff, the company said.

“Pursuing happiness at work isn’t as easy as it sounds and it doesn’t come simply as the results of changing the organization, policy or people,” Chey said at the meeting. “In order to address difficulties and points of dissatisfaction at work, we have to share them and discuss them together.“

For the company’s New Year’s celebration, Chey chose to hold a panel discussion among affiliate CEOs instead of giving a speech in a grand hall like other conglomerate leaders.

“For positive change, we need to communicate with each other and start with finding the smallest solutions possible to fulfill in real life,” Chey told his employees.


BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]