+ A

Forced drinks after work takes life of new recruit

Apr 21,2018
The death of a 27-year-old new hire at Hyundai Glovis following a night of drinking during a company workshop in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi, has brought renewed attention to South Korea’s corporate drinking culture.

According to Hwaseong Police, the employee, whose name was withheld, was discovered dead by one of his colleagues in his hotel room at 7 a.m. on April 12.

He had apparently drunk beyond his level of tolerance at a company dinner the night before and returned to his hotel room by 11 p.m. The employee had been hired in February and was undergoing seven weeks of new employee training. He was about to be officially assigned to a post at the company before the tragedy.

The police said there was no evidence of foul play but is investigating the exact cause of death. Hyundai Glovis, a parts and service company in the Hyundai Motor group, remains hushed about the incident, but the deceased man’s colleagues are demanding a thorough inquiry.

Drinking alcohol is deeply enmeshed in South Korean corporate culture. It is believed to be a way of strengthening relationships and promote solidarity, and many corporate veterans believe drinking skills correlate with better work performance. New recruits are often initiated into the corporate lifestyle by being forced to drink as a rite of passage.

Some are trying to change that culture of overdrinking. The catchphrase “A life with dinner” has become popular, standing for a healthier work-life balance in which employees are allowed to go home to eat after work. The government is also encouraging a healthier balance through its shortening of the work week in February to 52 hours.

Some companies have launched campaigns like the “119 plan,” which restrict employees to one kind of drink after work (accounting for the first numeral 1), at one venue (the second 1), and dictates that company dinners end by nine o’clock (the 9). “More people are deciding to have dinners with their families,” said one human resources employee at a finance firm, “and company dinners focused on drinking are being replaced by group trips to the movies or searches for local delicacies.”

But the ritual of making newbies drink to excess after work remains a customary practice at many workplaces.

Kim, a 28-year-old Hyundai Motor Group employee, remembers well his days as a new recruit and doesn’t think it’s different now. “Times may have changed,” he said, “but the mindset of old guys at the company remains unchanged.”

“Company dinners are often seen as extensions of work,” said Lee, a 29-year-old worker at a construction company, “and senior employees often pressure subordinates to drink. Sometimes they prefer that we vomit at work the next day rather than decline alcohol at a company dinner.”

A study performed by online recruiting company JobKorea found that among 456 office workers, drinking was the primary purpose of 80.5 percent of all company dinners.

BY YU SUNG-KOOK, SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]