New Korean anti-bullying legislation a wake-up call for multinationals

24 January 2019

After amending its laws to strengthen protections against sexual harassment in May, South Korea has now made further legal changes to specifically address workplace bullying.

The new laws are the first to define workplace bullying, also known as workplace harassment, which is described as instances in which someone uses their status in the workplace to cause someone else physical or mental suffering or worsen their working environment.

Under a modification to the country’s Labor Standards Act (LSA), employers will be required to prohibit such harassment and create a process for complaints. If an incident occurs, they must investigate it promptly and take action to protect complainants even before the investigation is concluded.

Employers must also refrain from retaliating against those who complain. If a complaint is found to have merit, the employer must take corrective action against the perpetrator and offer the victim a change in work assignment or paid leave. Employers must discuss with the victim any remedial measures or punishment before putting them into effect.

The LSA changes were passed December 27, but have not been officially announced. They will become effective six months after the government’s official announcement. To further clarify matters, the country‘s Ministry of Employment and Labor plans to publish a manual on workplace harassment sometime this year.

The LSA amendment does not pertain to customers or clients who harass employees. But the Korean legislature also added language to the Industrial Accident Compensation Insurance Act to allow compensation for a new class of claims from workers with “illness caused by work-related mental distress due to harassment in the workplace, such as verbal abuse by customers/clients.”

What multinationals should do

Multinationals with employees in South Korea should familiarize themselves with the new amendments and review their policies and procedures for harassment and bullying, including disciplinary action. Though the new laws do not require workplace training, holding an educational session is an excellent idea. Keep abreast of local news to find out when the new laws will take effect.

The new laws carry no punishment such as administrative fines, except in the case of retaliation against an alleged victim, which carries a fine of up to 30 million Korean Won ($27,000) and up to three years in prison. However, in a time of increased scrutiny and negative publicity about employees who are treated badly, violations would be a public relations nightmare and could lead to loss of business and a diminished ability to recruit talented workers.

Sexual harassment law

The workplace bullying laws follow on the heels of amendments to South Korea’s Equal Employment Opportunity and Work-Family Balance Assistance Act to strengthen sexual harassment provisions. These changes, which became effective May 29, are similar to those of the new workplace bullying law, requiring worker protections, investigations and remedial action. One difference is that they mandate annual training. They also extend outside the workplace to include behavior at business trips, parties and other social events.

South Korea follows a host of countries that have recently passed anti-sexual-harassment laws. Other nations — including Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia, Sweden and Australia — have enacted more general workplace harassment laws using terms such as “moral harassment” and “psychological violence” to prevent bullying.

Growing outrage

In passing the bullying laws, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon cited a national report claiming 70 percent of the country’s workers have been bullied at some point in their careers. Many don’t complain, fearing it would only make the problem worse.

A recent survey by a network of labor unions found that 30 percent of South Korean workers have experienced workplace bullying, ranging from insults to behavior that violates labor laws.

Particularly notorious offences have become international sensations, including the 2014 Korean Air "nut rage" incident in which the airline’s vice president, who was also the CEO’s daughter, flew into a rage and demanded that a plane return to the gate after a flight attendant served her macadamia nuts in a bag instead of a porcelain bowl. She was later sentenced to a year in prison and served five months.

Her sister, who also worked for the airline, made headlines last year after throwing water into the face of an advertising executive.

Then there was the CEO of a file storage company who was arrested after subjecting employees to abuse, including forcing them to slaughter chickens for his entertainment.

The sports world, too, has been dogged by complaints of bad behavior, some of it egregious. The coach of two-time Olympic speed skating gold medalist Shim Suk-hee was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison after confessing that he beat Shim and other athletes to “improve performance.” According to Shim, the coach bullied and brainwashed her for years, at one point breaking her fingers with a hockey stick.

Incidents such as these have fed public anger over abuse and rallied citizens to demand change.

In an age where social media amplifies workplace injustices, companies across the globe are scrambling to pass new laws to address them. Multinationals, whether or not they have employees in South Korea, should take note and make sure their anti-bullying and anti-sexual-harassment policies are strong and effective.

Suzie Woodcock, Senior HR Consultant, contributed to this article.