New Korean Anti-Bullying Legislation a Wake-Up Call for Multinationals
Suzie Woodcock, Senior HR Consultant
What Multinationals Should Do
Multinationals with employees in South Korea should familiarize themselves with the new amendments and review their policies and procedures for harassment and bullying, including disciplinary action. Though the new laws do not require workplace training, holding an educational session is an excellent idea. Keep abreast of local news to find out when the new laws will take effect.
The new laws carry no punishment such as administrative fines, except in the case of retaliation against an alleged victim, which carries a fine of up to 30 million Korean Won ($27,000) and up to three years in prison. However, in a time of increased scrutiny and negative publicity about employees who are treated badly, violations would be a public relations nightmare and could lead to loss of business and a diminished ability to recruit talented workers.
Sexual Harassment Law
The workplace bullying laws follow on the heels of amendments to South Korea’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Balance Assistance Act to strengthen sexual harassment provisions. These changes, which became effective May 29, are similar to those of the new workplace bullying law, requiring worker protections, investigations and remedial action. One difference is that they mandate annual training. They also extend outside the workplace to include behavior at business trips, parties and other social events.
South Korea follows a host of countries that have recently passed anti-sexual-harassment laws. Other nations — including Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Sweden and Australia — have enacted more general workplace harassment laws using terms such as “moral harassment” and “psychological violence” to prevent bullying.
In passing the bullying laws, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon cited a national report claiming 70 percent of the country’s workers have been bullied at some point in their careers. Many don’t complain, fearing it would only make the problem worse.
A recent survey by a network of labor unions found that 30 percent of South Korean workers have experienced workplace bullying, ranging from insults to behavior that violates labor laws.
Particularly notorious offences have become international sensations, including the 2014 Korean Air "nut rage" incident in which the airline’s vice president, who was also the CEO’s daughter, flew into a rage and demanded that a plane return to the gate after a flight attendant served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of a porcelain bowl. She was later sentenced to a year in prison and served five months.
Her sister, who also worked for the airline, made headlines last year after throwing water into the face of an advertising executive.
Then there was the CEO of a file storage company who was arrested after subjecting employees to abuse, including forcing them to slaughter chickens for his entertainment.
The sports world, too, has been dogged by complaints of bad behavior, some of it egregious. The coach of two-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist Shim Suk-hee was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison after confessing that he beat Shim and other athletes to “improve performance.” According to Shim, the coach bullied and brainwashed her for years, at one point breaking her fingers with a hockey stick.
Incidents such as these have fed public anger over abuse and rallied citizens to demand change.
In an age where social media amplifies workplace injustices, companies across the globe are scrambling to pass new laws to address them. Multinationals, whether or not they have employees in South Korea, should take note and make sure their anti-bullying and anti-sexual-harassment policies are strong and effective.