How to exit a disagreeable contract?
August 16, 2010 4:48 AM   Subscribe

My future supervisor just walked out on me during an employee meeting. Can I break my contract and leave?

I have been in South Korea for just two weeks, and have yet to be officially employed. I already had to email my supervisor about how the cleaning tasks a janitor should really be doing are taking time and energy from completing my real job, which my coworkers complain about during meetings.

At the latest meeting, the supervisor talked about my email for about 5 minutes, saying ‘complain’ several times. When I asked her, "what's the problem?", she walked out. The interpreter told me the supervisor was upset because emailing anything to do with work is seen as complaining, and that "this is how we do it" in this country. The interpreter explained that the supervisor said she’s been my friend in getting me set up with housing, etc., and kind of a “this is how I repay her” routine.

I have been told to go to the parent organization with any problems I might have, and I feel like I owe them decent notice, but I don't think that will improve the silent treatment I received from the supervisor all day. I don't think waiting it out will change my feelings about working for her, either, given the way she deals with disagreement. I have already had to witness the supervisor putting another employee to tears for not getting me something unimportant quickly enough.

How much notice should I give the supervisor in this situation? Also, should I bother explaining (in person?) to the supervisor exactly why I am leaving?
posted by Keysig to Work & Money (20 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, if Korea is anything like China, (and my understanding is, there are similarities) then it's not seen as appropriate for employees to complain about what they are asked to do. Workplaces are not democracies; they are top-down structures: the boss is the boss. It's like this at school, too: the students don't dare complain, or even question the teacher. Of course, some office environments will be more democratic, and some bosses nicer, but in general in Asian culture, employees are not asked for their opinions about what the boss wants done. I don't know what industry you are in, but you might think about working for a Western-run company. I do understand your frustration.

*I know my comment does not directly answer your question, but I was trying to make the point that culturally speaking, your email might have been seen as inappropriate or even rude.
posted by bearette at 5:11 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're working in a foreign culture you need to comport yourself in a manner that meets that culture's expecations. It doesn't sound like you're doing this.

So, the real question here is: why are you not doing this?
posted by dfriedman at 5:16 AM on August 16, 2010 [14 favorites]

I'm assuming you're an English teacher... I'm Korea, it's not okay to make complaints to your boss. She may now see you as challenging her authority. The best thing is to say yes to whatever she tells you to do, and then you and your co-workers can figure out your own system.

Also, having the teachers clean is standard in Korea, especially if you're at a hagwan. It's rare to have a cleaning service at any school or academy. Making the Korean teachers cry is also pretty typical; it's shocking to you but normal to them.

If these bother you so much that you can't work in this environment, try to give them at least two weeks. I wouldn't tell them why you're quiting, though, because they could make things difficult for you down the road if you stay in Korea.
posted by canadia at 5:20 AM on August 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

It's a little surprising you're not considering the culture over there. You have to be really careful about knowing your role and sensitive to the workplace heirarchy. I would apologize and then read some books on Korean culture.
posted by WhiteWhale at 5:31 AM on August 16, 2010 [9 favorites]

Yikes, sounds like an upsetting morning, but I might take some time before quitting.

But I guess, sure, a person can always just quit.

Before doing that, though, can you talk to coworkers and get a better handle on the whole situation? It does seem as though maybe you're not totally up to speed on the culture of your new position (which is understandable).

I'd find out more about the expectations, the culture, and from there I'd balance out the pros and cons of quitting. Maybe it's not such a bad fit.

If it's not for you, I'd still ask you to consider: Are you financially able to walk? Do you have other job prospects that are more in your comfort zone?
posted by dzaz at 5:39 AM on August 16, 2010

Best answer: I think the OP wasn't aware it would be like this. I agree that it would have been useful to learn this before accepting the job, but it seems like a dealbreaker now. Those saying that it's just a cultural thing and to get used to it don't seem to understand that the OP doesn't want to work in an environment like this. Neither would I. Plus, no matter what the OP's cultural sensitivity level should be, the supervisor should have given the benefit of the doubt to a foreign hire instead of treating it like a complaint. That's a bad supervisor in any multi-national environment.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:41 AM on August 16, 2010 [8 favorites]

no matter what the OP's cultural sensitivity level should be, the supervisor should have given the benefit of the doubt to a foreign hire instead of treating it like a complaint.

I would agree with this,actually. It's kind of a red flag if the supervisor had such a strong reaction- either she does not have experience dealing with many foreigners, or is just not very sensitive herself, which are not good signs.

In general when just arriving to a very foreign culture it is most comfortable to work in a multi-cultural environment (a company that has historically hired foreigners). Those saying "just adapt to the culture" might not understand that that is actually really difficult. Especially in Asia.
posted by bearette at 5:47 AM on August 16, 2010

But if the OP is planning on quitting this job and moving to a different company/school (again, I'm assuming she's an English teacher) in Korea, things aren't necessarily going to be so different. I work at a good school with an excellent supervisor, but I still clean the school once a week, never question my boss, and watch her make my co-workers upset. This is the culture of Korea. She may be able to find a place that is more relaxed (like my school), but it's difficult to know how it'll be until you're actually working there, and even relaxed supervisors still have certain expectations of how their employees will behave.
posted by canadia at 5:49 AM on August 16, 2010

I also want to add that I understand why the OP is upset and I think her supervisor is a little extreme, but I don't recommend quitting just yet.
posted by canadia at 5:50 AM on August 16, 2010

the supervisor should have given the benefit of the doubt to a foreign hire instead of treating it like a complaint. That's a bad supervisor in any multi-national environment.

But if the OP is at a school (which seems likely) calling it a "multi-national environment" is only barely accurate. It's a Korean environment with one foreigner, and therefore it falls on the OP's shoulders to adjust to fit the way the rest of the school works, not the other way around.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 6:04 AM on August 16, 2010

It sounds like you already decided to quit, so telling you to get used to it is probably an irrelevant response.

I'd give some notice because, while you may not feel like you owe your supervisor anything, it's just the decent thing to do. Whatever responsibilities you leave behind on a whim would just fall on your co-workers and make their lives harder. If you give the company time to find a replacement or (if that's not enough time) to make some transitional changes, you can at least feel better about the decision without screwing over the people who had nothing to do with your supervisor's tantrums.

I don't know if you're planning to leave the country after that or to look for another job in Korea, but you might want to keep your visa in mind. If they're sponsoring you and you break your contract, you may be screwed. I don't know anything about their visa laws (I did my time in Japan instead), but you may want to look into if it you're planning to stay. (And then the "get used to it" comments would be relevant. You can only control how you react in a situation. You can't control anyone else's reactions to you.)
posted by zerbinetta at 6:11 AM on August 16, 2010

It's a Korean environment with one foreigner,

How do you know the OP is the only foreigner? I'd bet there are more at the school, if not at this time, than at least historically. It's rare for there to just be just one foreign teacher in an entire school. At the very least they'd be looking to hire more in the future, so it'd be a kind of pre- multi-national environment.

I do think the OP needs to be aware of cultural expectations; at the same time if the school is looking to hire foreigners they should also be culturally sensitive.
posted by bearette at 6:25 AM on August 16, 2010

A couple things. First, if you're on a visa for teachers, in Korea, from what I've heard, your employer holds your visa, and for you to find other work, they must release you from that visa. If you piss them off, it could cause further difficulties for you. You might want to check out more about that, and make sure what your legal options are, especially involving visa violations.

Second, having taught in eikawa (the Japanese version of hagwan), if you are an English teacher, there's something to keep in mind. The average stay of an English teacher is pretty short, usually a year or two, sometimes even less. We're arguably (at the English for kids factory) interchangeable, whereas a manager who will put up with foreigners and their utter lack of understanding of how things work is nearly priceless, especially considering that they're, on average, paid quite poorly (likely nowhere near what you're making), and have to serve as a buffer between you and any issues parents or students might have. In Japan, at least, teachers frequently turn to school managers for help in all manner of things, from translation to paying bills to explaining why it's not okay for the teacher to do that transgressive thing they did.

In other words, that manager is going to be there a lot longer than you are, and the owner knows it, the manager knows it, and most likely, any teacher there longer than a year knows it. If you can, you might seriously consider trying to patch things up, with a whole ton of mea culpa (since, being in Korea, and breaking cultural norms, it kind of is your bad). On the other hand, things could well be past the point of mending. As much as it sucks (and I know, I've been there), being in a new/different culture makes it your job to fit in/find your comfort zone.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:30 AM on August 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Regarding visa violations, I have only a travel visa, because they won't let me go get the teaching one until a third teacher arrives in a month or two. So I was trying to balance out the fact that I haven't been paid, and won't be, with what zerbinetta said about how leaving will affect coworkers.

I appreciate the advice, especially about not being explicit in my reasons for leaving.
posted by Keysig at 7:23 AM on August 16, 2010

I would say suck it up. You have only been there a couple of weeks--not even long enough to get the full benefit of the culture shock you are likely to experience! This job will be a learning experience as much as a job for you so hopefully you will learn more about the culture, apologize to your supervisor, and try to fit in. The Korean system is way different than the American system of doing most things so it would be unreasonable to go to a foreign country for the foreign experience then expect it to be like the US. I'm sure if you work hard to learn the culture and fit in, you will find in about six months that you will have an amazing time (and lots of stories to tell your friends when you get back).
p.s. Teachers there really are expected to do janitorial work!
posted by MsKim at 9:12 AM on August 16, 2010

So what's the cleaning you're not happy with? Are they making you do the janitor's work? Cleaning the whole office on your own or something while they figure out what to do with you? Or are you unhappy with having to participate in the mandatory all school/all office cleaning?

If it's the former, then you've got bigger issues than an angry supervisor because it sounds like the beginning of some kind of scam where they hire an English teacher to become a janitor (which is really weird). But if it's the latter, pretty much most schools in Korea expect some sort of community cleaning from both students and teachers. Both are expected to help maintain cleanliness of the school. It's a cultural thing, so I don't know what you were planning to get accomplished by complaining. If anything it probably made the wrong impression you wanted to get out of something that everyone else has to participate in, which is another Korean workplace no-no.

Also, if I'm not mistaken, most korean schools dno't really have janitorial services. At least not like the American sense where the guy is really the cleaning person. The guy you see walking around is probably the kyungbi or sui ajushi whose more a combination of handy man and security guard/night watchman. He might do some janitorial stuff like taking care of fixing stuff, but he's not necessarily the guy hired to clean up the place. Hence the mandatory all-school cleaning days.
posted by kkokkodalk at 10:13 AM on August 16, 2010

Wait. You're not getting paid for teaching and cleaning and they don't plan on paying you until the new teacher shows up in a couple months? This situation sounds very shady to me.

I don't think I could tolerate this situation and would be inclined to leave without saying a word to anyone. At this point, it sounds like they are taking advantage of you and they know they can get you to do the work for free. What incentive do they ever have to start paying you?
posted by parakeetdog at 10:29 AM on August 16, 2010

A contract, where I live, involves two parties receiving due consideration. A trade. If you're not getting paid, I don't see the trade.
posted by pwnguin at 5:04 PM on August 16, 2010

Sounds like Korea. Some schools (If that's where you're working) have climates where it's frankly impossible to be treated like a human being. Expect the administration and/or your GEPIK/EPIK/SMOE rep to do absolutely nothing for you.

If it's that unbearable, you can leave. But you'll probably not be able to come back (to work) for Visa/Immigration reasons.
posted by GilloD at 1:36 AM on August 17, 2010

Response by poster: If it's the former, then you've got bigger issues than an angry supervisor because it sounds like the beginning of some kind of scam where they hire an English teacher to become a janitor (which is really weird).

This is what it seemed to be--they got a teacher and janitor in one.

There was no way to be prepared for having to wash dishes for the whole school every day--after the regular classroom cleaning. There was one other English teacher, but he didn't have to wash a single dish.

Thanks for the advice.
posted by Keysig at 7:00 AM on June 17, 2011

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