In the movie Titanic(19917), there is a scene where a group of musicians continue to play beautiful music while the ship slowly sinks into the icy sea. They perform solemnly in attempts to calm the frantic passengers around them, who are desperately seeking to escape the doomed ship. In reality, eight musicians did exist on the real ship, and they all really did perish in that 1912 tragedy in their efforts to calm the passengers down. The captain of the Titanic, Edward John Smith, nobly followed the law of the sea and refused to leave. He purportedly fired blank shots from his firearm to keep his distressed passengers in order. His life also ended as he went down with his ship.
In sharp contrast, on April 15, 2014, the captain of the Sewol ferry was caught fleeing the ship only wearing his underwear, leaving behind more than 300 passengers, mostly Danwon High School students, in the sinking ferry.
Although both disasters are viewed as tragedies where the high death toll could have been avoided, the performances of the captains are starkly different. The captain of the Sewol is being blamed for his irresponsible and immoral behavior. Commenting on this difference, Rho Jin-chul, a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Kyungpook National University emphasized the importance of “work ethics”, asserting that all safety manuals become useless if there is a lack of strong work ethics.
In this regard, the recent tragedy has caused many to reflect on a myriad of issues including the importance of work ethics, which the Sewol captain and most of his crew clearly lacked. Another subject the public is focusing upon is the general lack of values concerning one’s profession. Koreans appear to be more focused on external factors of a job such as the financial benefits or whatever rewards they can obtain. It is being argued that this mentality is becoming increasingly prevalent among university students as they consider their future careers. According to a survey conducted by The Hanyang Journal(The HJ) asking Hanyangians what they focused on the most when choosing a career, “salary” received the highest vote at 34 percent.
Lacking Work Ethics in Korea
“Work ethics” refers to the sense of moral obligation of an individual in a certain occupation. To be more specific, job ethics is the social contribution and responsibility of a person whose role affects the ability of a society to function positively. This is in contrast of a person who instead, focuses on his or her own personal profit or comfort when performing his or her job. Since different jobs require different roles, work ethics also differ accordingly.
In terms of historical background, since most jobs in ancient Korea were limited to simple tasks, such as serving and being loyal to the King, the work ethics at that time also remained simple. However, as occupations have become more diversified in contemporary society, so too have the responsibilities of each job. “Since current Korean society has going through rapid changes, we are in an environment where it is difficult for work ethics to be clearly defined and realized in each different career field,” said Huh Chang-deog, an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Yeungnam University.
Even though countless jobs have been created compared with the past, they have not automatically come with the necessary education about the inherent moral and ethical responsibilities that should be observed. According to research by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training(KRIVET), it appears that job ethics are not adequately covered in middle and high school textbooks. Only two short chapters cover work ethics in the national high school Ethics textbook, and it is limited to perfunctory education. “To be honest, I do not remember what I learned about job ethics at all when I was a middle or high school student. Chapters on job ethics were not emphasized by teachers and I was busy learning about ancient philosophies during my ethics classes, like Confucianism,” said Jeong Ah-young, a Junior in the College of Business Administration at Kookmin University.
According to the survey conducted by The HJ, of the 79 percent of Hanyangians who replied that job ethics are important, only about half of the respondents thought that work ethics are important because they considered them to be fundamental values. However, despite these responses, education on job ethics is still lacking and not provided properly in many academic institutions.
In the case of Hanyang University(HYU), courses related to work ethics are being substituted by classes on the humanities and leadership. Choi Ki-won, the Director of the Career Development Center at HYU believes such substitutions are important in establishing work ethics. "Education on the humanities and leadership teaches students about the duties they need to carry out for others. Both types of courses are available at HYU in the form of general education courses and the Hanyang Essential Leadership Plus (HELP) courses," said Choi. However, it is difficult for Hanyangians to recognize or even acknowledge the value of work ethics, because there are no direct references to the concept. Kim So-min, a Junior majoring in Political Science and Diplomacy at HYU said, "Frankly speaking, I think most university students believe that a career with high pay or with stability is a “good career”. There is no course or curriculum that focuses on what we should be considering when doing specific jobs, let alone ethics or moral responsibilities involved in that field.”
Factors Hindering the Job Ethics
Unlike Western countries where modernization progressed over the course of 200 to 300 years alongside the internalization of work ethics in society, Korea went through rigorous modernization, industrialization, and urbanization at the same time in only half a century. This has led to the failure of establishing a firm sense of work ethics in society. Outcome and efficiency were the key factors emphasized during Korea’s short period of industrialization. Kim Sang-hag, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at HYU commented that the social tendency to evaluate everything only through their external outcomes has hindered work ethics from taking root in Korea. “After the 1960s where capitalism was deeply ingrained in Korean society, Koreans prioritized efficiency instead of ethical values such as honesty. All values started to focus only on money and as a result, ethical values started to disappear,” said Kim.
The values of outcome and efficiency still remain to this day and are also applied when it comes to university students choosing their career paths. Professor Kim pointed out that university students tend to consider their future jobs not based on internal values which are related to job ethics, but instead on compensation. Hwang Mi-deum, a Junior in the College of Business Administration at Hongik University said, “It is hard to set my priorities on internal values of a job because one of the main reasons for getting a job is to have a stable life where I do not have to suffer from economical distress in the future. Also, almost everyone, including me, thinks a good job consists of high pay and a positive working environment. For this reason, no one around me considers internal values when choosing their jobs.” Furthermore, Professor Huh commented that the reason why university students put their values on external things is because “They tend to go after what is visible. When considering their future, salaries and work environment are much more visible than the values they can gain when they keep their work ethics.”
In addition, 12 years of schooling under the national education system can also be seen as resulting in Korean materialism. “The current Korean educational system also reflects the tendency to put importance on external outcomes. Korean students are accustomed to being evaluated based on their test grades instead of on their aptitudes and talents. With individuality and talent being ignored, the education system in Korea groups students according to their test scores, ranking them from high to low. Consequently, these students in the future seek jobs that have been graded according to their pay and work environments, similar to how students were evaluated in school.” Professor Huh said.
Issues Behind Work Ethics
The reason why each individual works can be due to personal reasons, such as fulfilling a desire to succeed or for survival. However, researchers at KRIVET assert that as an individual living in society along with other people, a person is also working for social relations that come from need. Therefore, regardless of what job a person has, society is largely influenced by how each individual accomplishes his or her tasks and how each person upholds his or her job ethics. When this does not happen, social problems may occur.
An illustration of this notion can be seen in the Subprime Mortgage crisis of 2008, which originated in the United States(U.S.) and affected the world economy. Many business schools in the U.S. determined that this crisis stemmed from a lack of consideration to job ethics among bankers. In order to maximize their profits, the bankers imprudently created subprime mortgage loan products. However, eventually the price of homes hit rock bottom and borrowers were unable to pay back their loans. As a result, numerous financial companies went bankrupt which ultimately triggered the huge financial crisis that spread to the rest of the world.
Moreover, Professor Kim pointed out that failing to maintain job ethics lowers or breaks social trust toward others. “Practicing work ethics means acting in accordance to what one is expected of based on his or her role. However, if people fail to maintain job ethics, or in other words, they do not perform how others expect them to, social trust among individuals can be adversely affected.” The vessel operators and the captain of the Sewol ferry, for example, are those who had received qualifications and authority from the government to sail a passenger ship. However, they themselves aggravated the state of crisis by putting their passengers in danger, and consequently betraying the social trust of the people. This incident showed that even qualified people cannot be trusted.
It has been revealed that the absence of job ethics is behind the Sewol ferry crisis. "As a result of this tragic incident, it was discovered that the owner of the sunken passenger line, Chonghaejin Marine Corporation, had turned a blind eye to over-excessive remodeling of the ship and its overloaded freight, and had dodged taxes as well. Ultimately, the lack of ethical conduct in the work place harms society by allowing various sorts of illegal acts such as tax evasion and even murder,” said Professor Huh.
To Encourage Work Ethics from Within
To establish work ethics within the Korean mindset, a researcher from KRIVET said that traditional Korean work ethics should be encouraged and developed to bring about more familiar values to the people. The traditional Korean attitude towards work involved positive conduct and responsibility can help Korean society to establish a more developed sense of job ethics. The value of craftsmanship, which refers to the attitude that focuses on the duty of one’s job and motivates one to do his or her best, could be just what society needs right now. While some traditional attitudes should be maintained, those that degrade work ethics must be reformed. For instance, ranking occupations according to a Confucian hierarchical society in the past, called Sanongongsang, still lingers in today’s society in similar form. In the past, scholars and farmers were considered high ranking jobs, whereas artisans and tradesmen were considered low ranking ones. “Because of Sanonggongsang, people engaging in commerce or industry were looked down upon by the rest of society. Therefore, as their act of selling and making products were despised by others, it was hard for those engaging in these jobs to establish their own set of moral job principles,” said Professor Kim. Discrimination against certain careers still exists today and should be abandoned as it is an obstacle that discourages work ethics.
Furthermore, Professor Huh claimed that education on the work ethics is insufficient in Korea and that the cause of such a shortage is due to the educational environment of the country, which has not properly developed the needed mindset and values. Therefore, before actually teaching work ethics, an education system where students can decide upon their careers according to their aptitudes and talents should be in place. “Discovering one’s interests and talents, and doing the work with a sense of professionalism can bring about a sense of pride for people in their jobs and establish ethical conduct towards their work. Looking at countries where education on job ethics is actively promoted, we can see that the educational system is well developed to encourage the aptitude and talent of each and every student,” he explained.
The Social Atmosphere Needs Change
This moral crisis at work can lead to an even bigger crisis for general society. For this reason, the future working generation, including university students, must be nurtured with and taught proper work ethics before starting their careers. In order to achieve this, it is important to change the general atmosphere of society. He added, “University students develop their values through their direct and indirect experiences. Therefore, even through education that teaches students for 12 years to do their best and to positively contribute to society, students cannot help but falter when faced with the temptation of personal gain, since the current social atmosphere lacks emphasis on considering morality for the greater good.”