Friday, December 31, 1999

might I be leaving my R&D team...?

[Originally posted on 12/19/19 at 4:45 p.m.]

At my job, a lot has happened over the past two years that I haven't felt comfortable talking about. I'm going to write about some of that now, but in a somewhat oblique way. As they say, "names have been changed to protect the innocent." And the guilty.

The boss I started out with at the Golden Goose—we'll call him Stack—called me today after a long period during which he was incommunicado. We'll talk about that call in a bit. First, some background. Stack is the one who persuaded me to join the Golden Goose; he's the one who had dangled the offer of a 5-million-won salary before my eyes, and by the time I was going to sign my contract, that offer had shrunk to 3.5 million—barely more than I'd been making as a prof at Dongguk University during the 2013-14 academic year. Generally, I like Stack, although I'm now aware that he sometimes promises more than he can deliver. It took three damn years for me to get to the initially promised salary level, but that's where I am now, and I'm closing in on zeroing out my massive scholastic debt. As of this month, the debt, which was originally close to $80,000, will finally be below the $20,000 mark. It's all downhill from there, and while I have no particular loyalty to the company I work for, I'd be remiss if I didn't feel thankful for the opportunity to, at long last, earn money at this level. Thankful mainly to Stack, that is, but also a little bit to the Golden Goose.

Stack managed just two of us, in the R&D department, until July of 2017, which is when our department moved to another building and a much bigger office. For a while, we had eleven people working together, and life was a lot noisier. We lost one staffer when he inexplicably "pulled a runner," as they say in these parts, and skedaddled back to America. (Turned out he was homesick, as he wrote in an apologetic email to Stack a few weeks after his disappearance.) Barely two weeks into the changeover, and still in July of that year, we lost another staffer when his contract ended, and he chose to try his luck as a German-language instructor in the States. We hired on a few female staffers to bulk our numbers up and help with the workload; they generally proved to be excellent workers—much better than Trish (not her real name), the bitchy graphic designer I've complained about before.

In 2018, there was a sexual-harassment incident involving Trish and a male staffer in our office. We'll call this guy Handsy; he had the air of a tall, lanky Australian drover (think: cowboy). The actual incident apparently happened in August, but it didn't get reported by Trish until October-ish. Stack was understandably upset about the situation; back in August, Handsy purportedly got drunk and, during an outdoor company activity, slapped Trish on the ass. Trish said nothing about this for months. During that time, Handsy, who was Trish's supervisor, kept getting on her case about being slow, sloppy, and generally lazy. I had no direct knowledge of that situation, but even from a distance I could sort-of agree with Handsy's assessment of Trish's horrible work ethic and bad attitude in the office. That said, Handsy should never have been so handsy with Trish (he's a married man with a wife and daughter in Canada), and he was obliged to apologize not only to Trish, but also to a couple other female staffers in our office who had complained about his untoward behavior. The fact that Handsy actually went through with those formal apologies indicates to me that he was indeed guilty of what he'd been accused of. This hurt me somewhat because Handsy and I had been on very good terms. He had biked the Four Rivers trail in four days, so I respected him for that achievement, and he respected the fact that I had walked the same route. So we had our little mutual-admiration society going, and we even hung out on occasion... and then all this shit happened.

The repercussions of this incident echoed strongly and, over the course of the following year, caused the destruction of R&D as we knew it. Every time I've hinted, on this blog, at certain transitions and upheavals, this was the reason behind them. Enough time has passed that I think it's safe to write in an oblique manner about the incident and its aftermath, but I still have to be sure I'm not revealing too much. The first repercussion was that Handsy got summarily fired—a rarity in South Korea (they usually just refuse to renew your contract, allowing you to "quit" with dignity). The second repercussion was that Trish got transferred out of our office. The third repercussion was that certain higher-ups put us all on lockdown, telling us just to do our jobs and not to talk about the incident with anyone. I may, technically, be violating that lockdown by writing this; the Golden Goose, which has gone through big-time legal troubles in the past (mainly dealing with copyright infringement), is intensely concerned about its reputation. That's why Handsy had to be jettisoned as soon as possible, and Trish was probably transferred as a way to keep her happy and stop her from talking trash about the company. (The question of why Trish waited several months to complain, if the harassment had been that traumatic, is an open one. I've heard enough female victims of sexual harassment claim there are legitimate reasons for a woman not to report such harassment immediately, so I'm not judging so much as remarking.)

The most significant fallout was the putting-to-pasture of Stack, my boss since 2015. All of this had happened on Stack's watch, and Stack was already under fire because the Korean upper echelon had never been able to stomach having a Korean-fluent foreigner that high up in the company. Stack's enemies now had the weapon they needed to push him out of his managerial position and sideline him, and they did so. Stack told us all, at a staff meeting, that this would be his final week with us, and that he'd been given the option to move back to the Mido Building (where I had originally worked) to live out a quiet life as a worker directly underneath the Golden Goose's CEO, taking orders directly from him and doing whatever projects the CEO assigned him. (As it's turned out, Stack has been given almost nothing to do. He tells me he spends his days practicing calligraphy and watching Netflix movies on his office computer. They still pay him his grandiose salary, though, so he says he's not complaining.) Stack packed up and left us, and another of my coworkers—let's call him Spike—suddenly found himself thrust into Stack's position, but without Stack's level of Korean fluency, and without the same deep knowledge of the company's inner workings. Spike's a nice guy, but R&D under his command became (and still is) something of a chaotic mess, with no clear vision as to where the department is going.

R&D, having lost most of its staff as other coworkers opted not to renew their one-year contracts (one distraught female coworker called the Golden Goose "a madhouse"), moved out of the large office around March and into where we are now, a tucked-away shoebox of an office in the Classia Building. Spike managed us until October, and while I was away on my walk, a new gyopo manager named Argo (not his real name) stepped in to sort-of take over Spike's position. I was unsure about Argo at first, but he's turned out to be a stand-up guy who is sympathetic to our situation. A laborer can trust management only so far, of course, so I'm still a bit circumspect, but in general, we all have a good relationship with Argo.

We're a small team now, and we have been since March. In the three weeks spanning the end of July to the beginning of August this year, before Argo's arrival, we were required to babysit a young woman I'll nickname Pester, who turned out to be a psycho bitch far worse than Trish ever was. I'm normally a calm guy, but Pester riled me to the point where she and I had a verbal altercation. I apologized, as a gentleman should, once I regained my cool; Pester of course did not apologize in return, basically because she was a cunt who, as comedian Bill Burr might aver, could use a good slap. When she finally left our office and got a job somewhere in Busan, all I could think was Good fucking riddance. She was a spoiled twat, and she'd been shunted to R&D after having been kicked off the teaching staff for being lazy, unruly, and adversarial with fellow teachers. Pester had been given a 30-day notice: "You've got 30 days to find a job." During Pester's brief reign of terror, I began to think of R&D as a dumping-ground for employees that the company doesn't know how to handle.

I have to admit that Pester did, in fact, produce decent work for our department; the problem wasn't the quality of her work so much as the leprosy in her soul. She professed to be a devout Christian, but she was arrogant, selfish, lazy, quarrelsome, and constantly mooching from us coworkers. She'd been spoiled by her rich parents, Korean business owners in San Francisco who had given her an "allowance" of $5000 every three months while she attended grad school. Pester dropped out of grad school, pissed away her bank account, maxed out her credit card, then found herself in our company, where she immediately incurred the wrath of her coworkers, who also saw her to be the utter bitch she was. Pester would cheerfully tell us about how she wanted to start an online clothing business; inwardly, I scoffed and wondered how a financially stupid person who was unable to manage her own money could possibly start and run a business. God, what a fucking idiot. Anyway, she's in Busan now, so there's that.

The other bit of bad news that occurred while I was out walking was the return of Trish to our R&D team. While our small team had moved to the Classia Building, Trish had stayed in the Cheongshil Building... but when the company decided the time had come to renovate Golden Goose offices at Cheongshil, that was the excuse to shuffle staffers around, and Trish was taken away from her post and re-inserted into R&D. Joy. I'll admit that Trish hasn't been that awful, of late, but she's still a lazy, constantly whining bitch who talks in a slow drawl like Eeyore from the Winnie the Pooh stories. Even so, keeping my temper around Trish is easier than it had been around Pester, who was orders of magnitude worse. I'll cope. I'll manage.

So we're a team of five: Argo, Spike, Trish, me, and one other coworker (mentioned here, section 2) who has also been with me since early 2016. We might acquire another graphic designer (as I said, Trish is glacially slow, and she's always got an excuse for being so slow), but if we do, we might have to move to yet another office. At this rate, I'm averaging almost one move per year, so life at the Golden Goose is never stable.

That's where things stand, which brings me back to the call I received from ex-boss Stack today. "Just between you and me," he said, "I've been given a new lease on life. The CEO wants me to make textbooks for our Vietnam branch, and I need my own R&D team to do that. You interested?" To be frank, I am. Life under Stack was a hell of a lot more stable and made a hell of a lot more sense. He's not a perfect boss, by any means, but he's the best boss I've ever had in Korea, and he and I get along pretty well despite an almost decade-wide age gap and occasional petty arguments over linguistic minutiae. Working with Stack again would mean that my work would be appreciated, which isn't the case where I currently work. Most of what I produce these days gets rewritten by lesser minds, and there's no chance that I'll ever create a product in which I can take some pride, like the series of grammar/vocab textbooks I had authored while working under Stack.

Anyway, Stack and I talked, and it sounds as if he wants to grab back a few of our R&D members, but in the end, I think I'm going to be the only one jumping ship. Trish, who hates Stack for the gruff and unsympathetic way he treated her during the sexual-harassment scandal, has been doing her best to poison my fellow staffers against him such that they, too, will all eventually hate Stack. Depending on how successful her campaign of hate has been, she might end up convincing everyone else in R&D to stay put and under current management. So as I said, I might be the only one jumping ship.

If I have any misgivings, they're related to the Vietnam angle. Our company's branch in Vietnam is not doing well at all, from what I've heard. It's a big-time money-loser, and part of the problem has been the utter lack of understanding that on-site Koreans there have about Vietnamese psychology and culture. I can't say that I know anything, either, but you'd think that, before taking the leap of establishing a branch in a whole different country, my company would have bothered to do extensive market research. That seems not to have happened. Strangely enough, I heard from Argo, my current supervisor, that the CEO—whose various speeches and blog posts Argo must translate into English—seems to have a fairly colonialist attitude toward the Vietnamese, whom he seems to see as little brown simpletons in need of Korean wisdom and savoir-faire. So while I'm happy to help Stack out with this new endeavor, I don't see the endeavor itself as panning out in the long term. But maybe that doesn't matter: Stack will be undergoing mandatory retirement in about a year, and I've got about 1.75 years on my current contract. I'll jump ship and milk this cow for as long as I can, I guess, if it means a return to sanity. Working in the Mido Building, alone with Stack in a small corner room, will feel like coming full circle to 2015. Not exactly progress, but maybe a better scenario than the one I'm currently living. We can only hope.


Charles said...

Well, that certainly is a lot to digest.

Again, good luck.

John Mac said...

Fascinating. I'd heard bits and pieces on our hike, but it is good to see the big picture. The only downside to the new job is it may not have longevity and stability, but there is no guarantee that things will remain as they are in your current situation either. And you have no idea how you will get along with your new teammates either. Rumor has it that Pester may be coming back!

Anyway, the Vietnam angle is the most attractive part to my way of thinking. Imagine turning that division around and the sense of accomplishment that would provide. And if you could justify a business trip or two to get a feel for things, all the better. By the way, I know a couple of folks involved in the teaching profession in HCMC if you need any on the ground insights.

Cheers and good luck! Exciting times...

Kevin Kim said...


Chances are that I won't have any new teammates. In thinking over the situation, I've come to realize that the rest of my current team is probably more loyal to Argo than to Stack, and they're fairly happy with their present situation, whereas I'm not. At least one team member has also expressed an aversion to moving offices yet again, so there's that factor to consider. All in all, I think I'd be the only one to jump ship.