The globally renowned Korean business Dongbu Daewoo Electronics has been taken to tribunal by a female employee who claims she was subjected to acts of sex and race discrimination.
Mrs Misook McDonald, who is representing herself at tribunal, was allegedly demoted from her job as a financial manager because she did not bow to her boss Mr Ho Seung Yoo, who is employed as chief financial officer.
Mrs McDonald claims she was called into the director’s office at the Berkshire branch of the electronics giant to be reprimanded by Mr Yoo for her ‘disrespect’ at not bowing to him at the beginning and end of each day. She was later demoted from her position as financial manager.
Mrs McDonald also claims that on another occasion she was told to prepare coffee for a number of guests despite this task not being part of her daily duties. When she refused Mr Yoo allegedly responded with the discriminatory question “Isn’t that what female workers should do?”
Both Mr Yoo and Dongbu Daewoo Electronics deny all allegations.
A case of this kind is of particular interest as there are elements of cultural contrast involved, specifically in regard to British and Korean attitudes. In the latter country bowing is generally considered an act of respect comparable to a handshake or verbal greeting, but such a gesture is not familiar to the British workplace.
Although Dongbu Daewoo Electronics is a Korean business, a form of greeting synonymous with the culture of that nation does is not required to translate to its offices in another nation, especially if the employees are not citizens of that nation. Mrs McDonald is of mixed race, with a Scottish father and Korean mother.
The tribunal heard that she was made to feel an outcast at the Berkshire offices and did not receive a warning prior to being demoted to position of administrator. Mrs McDonald stated at tribunal that she believes her employers felt they could behave this way because she is an Asian female:
“I know if I had been an older British white Caucasian male, Mr Yoo would have seen me very differently and would not dare to push me around so easily […] “I expressed that I felt discriminated just because I am viewed as a Korean female and younger, hence lower in status that I can be looked down upon and pushed aside”.
Her allegations of race discrimination are rooted in her assertion that she was demoted so another employee could take her place. She originally received a lot of praise from her employers as she was the only bilingual employee in the office; speaking both English and Korean. This changed when a Korean national with stronger language abilities was employed and she was given the lower admin role.
“I know he was glad to utilise me when I was the only bi-lingual person but when a better speaking Korean employee came along, I was not his preferred choice. I am also not considered ‘pure’ as my father is English.”
Mrs McDonald claims she did not bow to Mr Yoo because she wanted to avoid him and thus stop further harassment. The alleged discrimination eventually led Mrs McDonald to take leave from work due to stress.
She informed her managing director Mr Chong Park about what had happened, but a private investigation into the the matter did not find grounds to support her grievance. The mediator employed for the investigation stated there was “no reason to favour one account over another” since Mr Yoo denies all the allegations, claiming he was taken by surprise at the claims: “Mrs McDonald never complained about being called into my office whilst at work until she lodged her grievance.”
Mr Yoo also rejects any responsibility for sexist or racist behaviour. In regards to Mrs McDonald’s claim of discrimination for refusing to bow he said the following:
“Bowing is considered a custom in Korea but nobody in our UK office is required to bow. Some of our Korean staff choose to bow but as I say nobody must bow, it is entirely voluntary.”
Speaking at tribunal the company’s Managing Director, Mr Park, also denied that employees were expected to bow to their manager. However, he did claim that he initially had some concern at Mr Yoo’s conduct when the chief financial officer first came from South Korea to Berkshire to begin a four-year contract in 2015, stating that he wondered “is he normal or is he mental?” Such a reaction from Mr Park suggests there was either a degree of culture clash occurring, or that Mr Yoo’s conduct in the workplace has been at least been unconventional at times.
As branch director, Mr Park confirmed his support for Mr Yoo’s decision to implement a change of role for Mrs McDonald, claiming the alteration was largely in job title only and was due to a need to prevent redundancy across the office: “Mr Yoo designed the presentation which included the job chart to show the CEO and HQ that we had met their request. Nobody’s job role actually changed at that stage.”
Mr Yoo denies that Mrs McDonald was regularly given duties beneath her position, and says that his request for coffee was due to her past actions suggesting she would not object to it:
“When initially Mrs McDonald joined our company, every morning she brought me a cup of coffee or tea, every single morning. […] It was quite strange to me […] however, I just accepted it”.
He claims her generous attitude convinced him she would be comfortable performing a similar action for others and that he reluctantly requested this: “I asked her to make some coffee for my guests, I was really sorry for asking that of her at the time.”
The tribunal continues.