Saturday, December 24, 2022

my American coworker gets news

My American coworker M called me this morning with news that he is supposed to report to such-and-such place on Monday (the day after Christmas) to begin training as a substitute teacher. My coworker used to be a sub at this company years ago, and he hated working with little kids, which is what made him so happy to switch to R&D. Going back to subbing is not only a step backward but a plunge back into the nightmare realm for him, although he's got too much pride to put it that way himself.

M is balking at going to training, and I can see why: the contract he's on specifically says he's working with R&D, so technically, it seems the company ought to put him on a new contract while also giving him a written document clearly stating that his time with R&D is now over. I'm pretty sure the company doesn't see things this way: from the corporate point of view, we're all just chessmen that can be pushed around the chessboard at the whim of the higher-ups. For them, the contract is little more than a piece of paper to get you into the company, and once you're in the company, they can do what they want with you. That's a pretty typical hagweon* attitude, especially when it comes to foreigners.

Not that it matters much to me, but I've been thinking several moves ahead to figure out what this might mean. If M puts his foot down and refuses to go to training on Monday, it's conceivable the company might make threatening noises, but I've never worked anywhere that a foreign employee was outright fired.** Normally, in hagweons and colleges, "firing" equates to the non-renewal of your contract. This allows both parties to part ways with minimal loss of face. M is demanding that the company provide paperwork that I'm pretty sure the company doesn't want to cough up. This puts the company in a difficult position because it sees M as a warm body to be shunted somewhere while the real operation—getting rid of my boss—goes on. Not that I sympathize with the company's discomfort.

That's what all of this is really about, I think: if you're letting the boss go but keeping the workers, that means the boss is no longer needed. To me, that's a huge mistake, and as a result, I feel fortunate that I'm leaving this dysfunctional mess in a few weeks. Commenter John asked about the possibility of canceling my resignation and staying with the company. That could happen if there were a guarantee that I'd be working under the same boss and with the same team. But even then, I know this sort of nonsense—about dissolving R&D—happens every year or two, and I'm getting sick of going through this drama again and again for no reason other than to inflate the CEO's already-inflated ego. The whole thing is a power trip for the guy—our fates dangle in his fingers. And as M bitterly pointed out, this isn't about money: our department isn't a money-loser, and the huge company celebration earlier this month was ostentatious enough to show that the company has plenty of money.

Upshot: my coworker is supposed to report to a new post on Monday, but he's elected to dig in his heels. How this will turn out, I have no idea, but good for him for resisting. I hope he runs his plan by our boss so that the boss can speak up on his behalf come Monday.

UPDATE: M has talked to our boss and will be talking to him again later today.

UPDATE 2: M just texted, after talking again with the boss, that he's been "talked down off the ledge." I don't know what this means, and his clarifying statement that "We'll just wait it out" is equally mysterious. Does "wait it out" mean he's now going to go to sub training and then see what happens from there, or that he's still not planning to attend the training (after all, "wait it out" = sit and do nothing)? At a guess, M is the only one being trained, so the company can probably shift the training date if M's actions force a delay.

UPDATE 3: it took a while, but my coworker texted back to clarify that the boss persuaded him to go to substitute training. I suspect the boss sees what I see: the company merely views M as a modular piece that can be crammed into any other part of the machine at need. Were M simply to put his foot down, this would prompt the company to take some sort of drastic action. If M were to be fired for his resistance, he'd lose severance benefits, etc. Since he's got a wife and daughter, discretion may be the better part of valor in this case.


*A hagweon is a cram school that kids attend to supplement their regular in-school studies. Many Korean kids have no childhoods because their parents will enroll them in several hagweons. These extracurricular schools can be for math, English, music, or whatever. They survive mainly because parents are convinced that, without such extra help, their kids will not do well on crucial tests in the future, especially the big CSAT (suneung/수능) taken at the end of high school—a test that can determine what tier of school a student may apply to. Teenage suicide in Korea is often related to doing poorly on this exam. From an American perspective, killing oneself over a damn test seems stupid, but to be fair, Korean kids who hear about American teen suicide think US teens are stupid for killing themselves because "I have no friends" or "My parents don't understand me."

**Actually, that's not true. We did suffer a nasty scandal that shattered our department in 2018. The employee at the center of the scandal was summarily fired.


Charles said...

"The whole thing is a power trip for the guy—our fates dangle in his fingers."

I know nothing about your work environment (except for what you've posted here, of course), so take this with a grain of salt, but I wonder if even that is true. That is, it strikes me as more likely that the CEO just doesn't care. I would be very surprised if he got any sort of satisfaction from making you wonder about your fate every couple of years. It would be more in keeping with corporate culture in general if he barely knew you existed.

I remember feeling like that at a previous place of employment. I met the president of our glorious institution at a function, and I could tell even as he was greeting me that he was looking right past me in hopes of finding someone important to interact with.

Kevin Kim said...

You're right: the CEO doesn't care. But this isn't merely a case of malign neglect. My boss has known the CEO for years, and while I haven't heard this in a while, he used to call the CEO his "friend." I've long wondered what sort of "friend" would treat someone in this way, i.e., by periodically threatening the R&D team with dissolution. That kind of threat can only come from the top, so what we're really looking at is a situation in which the CEO knows perfectly well what's going on but still doesn't care.

My boss is supposed to meet the guy on Tuesday next week. It's another opportunity for the CEO to see my boss grovel for another chance to shine even though, from my perspective, we've all acquitted ourselves well, producing products that other R&D teams in the company have failed to produce (in the realm of textbooks, I mean). The repeated nature of the threat to R&D's existence is the main reason why I think of this as malicious.

I keep hoping that my boss will finally learn that the man at the head of our company does not have our best interests at heart—something the boss himself has noted in his more lucidly cynical moments. No one (among the Koreans in the company) wants to see the foreigner-heavy team succeed.

The CEO, from my perspective, has never been my boss's friend, and for whatever reason, he wants our team scattered and my boss out. This is why I've finally said "Fuck this." Because we've been through this garbage before.

John Mac said...

Yeah, after reading this it seems clear that whatever you had there is now irrevocably gone. What possible outcome does your boss hope to achieve on Tuesday? It seems to me the damage is done.