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Rediscovering the Value of Senior Employees


Jan. 15, 2010

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The Korean word gocham , meaning senior or veteran, is very familiar to Koreans, especially to men who have undergone mandatory military service (gocham is typically used to describe senior soldiers). However, the word does not elicit positive overtones with the general public. While Korean-English dictionaries categorize gocham as a value-neutral word, when applied in the workplace, the term conjures up the image of a highly paid employee whose productivity does not match his salary. Furthermore, it may refer to a person who avoids change and has an authoritative and complacent attitude.

Korean companies' human resources managers say that managing gochams is the hottest personnel topic today. The main questions are: How should be steadily rising labor costs of gochams controlled in order to raise corporate efficiency? What methods should be devised to motivate them? And how should they be treated to enhance corporate vitality? The fact that these questions are being raised endangers the status and vested rights of these employees.

Under these circumstances, although not directly expressed, gochams are being blamed as the main culprit of high labor costs and are therefore being targeted in workforce restructuring. They are also often considered to be obstacles to communication between executives and new employees.

However, gochams should not be treated entirely as a problematic segment of a workforce for they also can help teach the post-baby boomer generation of employees. Considering how the massive retirement of the “dankai” generation in Japan resulted in a serious loss of talent and know-how, Korean companies need to recognize gochams as important human resources and utilize them efficiently. Companies should first redefine the conditions of a “genuine” gocham as someone who can contribute to sustainable corporate growth and help cement their role as a genuine veteran with superior survival skills for the company's use.

The first condition for a genuine gocham is to set an example for juniors to follow. Taking the initiative is the most crucial condition as it can positively affect the behavior of juniors in maximizing job execution as well as impact the commitment of new and upcoming gocham-level employees. Even if one generates high performance and has high specialized ability, an older employee cannot be a genuine gocham if initiative is absent.

The second condition is the power of continuous improvement. A real gocham will not seek to preserve the status quo. Rather attempts will be made to address existing circumstances based on continuous problem awareness and challenging spirit. Such activities will provide intellectual stimulation for juniors thereby helping foster an innovation-oriented corporate culture. Former Toyota Motor Company Chairman Hiroshi Okuda said “ The worst thing one can do is to change nothing” and included “power of continuous improvement” as major rehiring criteria for retired employees.

The third condition is securing specialized talent. A genuine gocham will grow into a professional through autonomous, duty-based learning and become a role model for juniors as well as cultivate a learning culture. Specialized skills or accumulation of various work experiences will be a major factor for raising the survival power of seniors.

The fourth condition is mentoring subordinates. This is a process of transferring accumulated knowledge that will support the sustainable growth of a company. Only when a specialized knowledge of a gocham is transferred to juniors can sustainable corporate growth be ensured.

Companies should differentiate their personnel policy to secure these four conditions and install a system that can motivate their senior employees. To have genuine gochams, companies need to devise a hard strategy to retain them and prevent their departure. Higher-than market value compensation and aggressive incentives should be offered to spark high performance, while fostering gochams as team leaders or candidates for e xecutive positions. On the other hand, for underperforming seniors, duty changes or occupational change to help them chart a new career should be made. At the same time, any potential negative influence from them on juniors should be blocked.

In the backdrop of the approach toward the gocham issue is the overarching imperative in personnel policymaking: dissolving seniority-based practices. Age should no longer be the determinant for human resources management.

Gochams themselves should make utmost efforts to break away from the current image of high labor cost and low productivity. They should also make personal efforts not to take advantage of their age, but to become a genuine gocham with the above-mentioned four conditions.

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