Understanding Korean Corporate Titles is a vital part of doing business in Korea. Based on Chinese characters, they determine a person’s position in Korean society through a hierarchy that is strictly adhered to. They are often treated like military ranks since all males perform mandatory military service and bring that culture to the office environment.
To make matters more confusing, job titles in English can be inconsistent with their Korean ones. Some people use inflated titles in English, especially on business cards. No matter what a person’s job title is in English, the Korean title is the only one that matters. Finding out someone’s Korean job title is the best way to know their level in the company.
Even though Korean office culture is becoming more relaxed with the increase in start-ups and overseas subsidiaries, they are still run top down. I once went to a Korean tourist agency in Brisbane, Australia, and thought I was teleported to Seoul when I stepped inside. It had the same level of formality and protocol as a Korean office.
It’s vital that you refer to someone by the correct title. Always make sure to say their full name followed by their title and add a ~님 (~nim) at the end as a sign of respect. This will help build 정(Jeong) or rapport and make life easier for you.
Here are the most commonly used Korean Job Titles.
회장Hwe-jang (Chairman / CEO)
The Chairman or CEO holds the highest position in a Korean company. He/she rarely makes an appearance in front of employees as they are in charge of establishing the company vision. They are the main decision makers and financial shareholders in a company.
사장Sa-jang (President / COO)
The President or COO is the right hand of the Hwe-jang. He/she is in charge of a particular business division in the company and sets comprehensive goals for growth.
전무Jeon-moo (Executive Vice President / CFO)
The CFO heads the finance department of a company and makes major decisions related to the finances, investment planning and risk management of a Korean company.
상무 Sang-moo (Vice President)
Sang-moo is a title for senior directors who are the head of a department, but have more experience than the Ee-sa (Director).
The director of a Korean company is considered to be the younger department head. This person makes important department related decisions and implements them.
사외 이사Sa-oe Ee-sa (Outside Director)
After the 1997 IMF Financial Crisis in Korea, this position was borrowed from the U.S. corporate system to allow for more company oversight through unbiased opinions. Like in the U.S. they are not employees of the company and instead serve on the board of directors.
고문Go-moon (Advising Director)
Go-moon provides opinions and advice with his/her expertise and rich experience in a specific field. In Korea, Go-moon is often an honorary position that does not go to work or work regularly.
감사 Gam-sa (Auditing Director)
Gam-sa inspects and verifies whether the corporate is properly processing the accounting in accordance with the laws and the articles of association. In Korea, it is normally the second position in the company who monitors work of the CEO.
수석 부장Soo-seok Bu-jang (Chief General Manager)
The department head is in charge of the operations of their assigned department. He/she handles recruitment, supervises managers and is responsible for the performance of that department.
실장 Shil-jang (Department Head)
Literally translates to “head of the room” or “chief of the section”. This title is used when departments are divided into different sections using the suffix of Shil (실). Slightly less senior than the above mentioned Ee-sa (director) but similar in job role/scope.
부장Bu-jang (Team Leader / Head Manager / Senior Manager)
The senior manager is also referred to as the head manager and is the same level as the team leader. He/she manages teams responsible for working on specific current projects. 10 years of experience are necessary to become a Senior Manager.
차장Cha-jang (Deputy Team Leader / Senior Manager)
The deputy team leader makes sure that all members of the team are assigned their specific roles.
A manager must have 7 years of experience in the relevant industry. He/she is responsible for managing team members while working on projects. They are the project leaders.
대리Dae-ri (Assistant Manager)
Assistant managers are just below managers and assist them with projects. They perform basic administrative tasks and provide support for day-to-day tasks.
주임 Ju-im (Senior Staff / Assistant Manager)
An in between level. Not all companies have a Ju-im but they are basically a step up from a graduate worker. Sometimes when a graduate employee has a Masters or Doctorate Graduate they are automatically promoted to this level. The main difference from Sa-won is a small pay increase.
사원Sa-won (Regular Staff / Assistant / Officer)
Regular staff members work within teams headed by managers or team leaders. They are slightly higher than entry level employees.
신입 사원Shin-ip Sa-won (New Graduate Employee)
These are employees who have just been hired and just graduated from their studies. Unlike other countries, they often have no real work experience and need to be taught basic office etiquette. This is because the Korean Education System is competitive and they spent all their time studying.
반장 Ban-jang ((Field) Foreman / Squad Leader)
조장 Jo-jang ((Field) Leader / Group Leader / Junior Mechanic)
판매사원 Pan-mae Sa-won (Sales Clerk)
운전기사 Woon-jeon-gi-sa (Driver)
용역Yong-yeok (Hired Services)
How to Use Job Titles
There are three job title terms: 직위 (jik-wi, position), 직급 (jik-geup, job grade or rank), and 직책 (jik-chaek, duty or responsibility). Don’t worry if this is confusing at first. Even Koreans have trouble understanding the differences and need to learn them before their first job.
A position refers to a ‘social and administrative position defined by a job’, or a basic corporate hierarchy. This category includes Bu-jang(Vice President), Cha-jang(Manager), Sa-won(entry-level position), etc.
The basic structure of positions is nearly identical everywhere. However, positions differ slightly depending on the company or have different names. The basic hierarchy system is as follows:
Regular Positions: Sa-won < Ju-im < Dae-ri < Gwa-jang < Cha-jang < Bu-jang Executive Positions: Ee-sa < Sang-mu < Sang-moo < Jeon-moo < Bu-sa-jang < Sa-jang < Bu-hwe-jang < Hwe-jang
직급 (Job Grade)
A job grade refers to the rank of a job. It’s the ‘category of grouping positions with similar types, difficulties or responsibilities of work’.
It’s more common for government officials or public servants under 호봉제 (ho-bong-je, salary system). It’s not often used in general corporations, but the nuance is similar to Nth-year dae-ri or gwa-jang.
A duty refers to ‘main occupational responsibility’. A duty is named according to one’s responsibilities and authority. Often a Team-jang, Bon-bu-jang or CEO belongs in this category. Since a duty is assigned according to one’s responsibilities and authority, it may remain the same even within the promoted position, and positions may differ with the same duty.
Duty: Part-jang < Team-jang < Shil-jang < Bon-bu-jang < CEO, CFO, COO
A title refers to both position and duties in Korea. We recommend asking what someone’s title is when you want to learn their position. If all else fails, this is the best way to find out someone’s position in a company.
Addressing Someone in a Company
Basically, it’s a good idea to address a superior with his/her last name or first name and their position, such as ‘김__ 부장님 (Kim__ bu-jang-nim)’. However, if you are on the same team or their duties are clear, it’s better to call them by their duty, such as ‘팀장님 (Team-jang-nim)’ or ‘본부장님 (Bon-bu-jang-nim)’.
Addressing a Superior: ‘Last Name or First Name’ + Position + Nim
Addressing Colleagues: If a colleague has the same job grade = Last Name + Position, or First Name + Ssi (i.e., ‘이 대리 (Lee Dae-ri)’ or ‘___씨 (__ Ssi)
If a colleague joined the company before you, but doesn’t have a title = ‘____ 선배님(sun-bae-nim)’
If a colleague joined the company before you, but has the same job grade or is older than you = Last Name + Position + Nim (i.e., ‘이 대리님 (Lee Dae-ri-nim)’)
Addressing a Subordinate: If a subordinate has a duty = Last Name + Duty (i.e., ‘박 주임 (Park Ju-im)’)
If a subordinate doesn’t have a duty = Last Name + Ssi (i.e., ’__씨 (__ Ssi)’)
When in doubt, 직함 (jik-ham, title) is the most important, which combines 직위 (position) + 직책 (duty). For example, When someone asks in a polite way:
“직함이 어떻게 되십니까? (What is your title?)”
The answer to that can be:
“저는 _____회사 대리 김__입니다. (I am Dae-ri of ___ company, Kim __.)”