Sanae yŏnae (사내 연애) is the Korean term for workplace romance.
Although not at all a traditional way of meeting, sanae yŏnae is not an uncommon way for couples to get involved in these latter days—I’ve known several couples who met that way, both Korean and, like us, “multicultural” (다문화 tamunhwa, the Korean term for couples/families that include a Korean person and a person from a different background).
Actually, it’s hard to imagine there haven’t always been couples whose connection arose from being thrown together in some kind of work. The word itself, though, seems to be about 20 years old—at least, the first reference in KINDS’s searchable newspaper database (to 사내연애 or 사내 연애; spacing is somewhat flexible in Korean writing) is from the mid-1990s (강원도민일보 1995).
The word comes from the Chinese characters 社內 戀愛, which, together, literally mean romance inside the company: sa (社, 사, company) nae (內, 내, inside) yŏn ae (戀愛, 연애, romance).
How common is workplace romance in Korea?
Workplace romance in Korea is quite common—in fact, a 2011 survey found that 42.3 percent of the 1200 workers questioned had been involved in sanae yŏnae. This was especially true of workers at companies employing more than 300 workers, where 47.2 percent had been involved with a coworker (엔브레인트렌드모니터 2011).
Of those who had experienced workplace romance, most—69.6 percent—wanted it kept secret. The top reasons for this were to avoid gossip that might influence their jobs, to avoid the attention of others, and in case of a breakup.
This reflects my experience with the hubs: We kept our relationship secret from all coworkers for the first three or four months after we met, and then were only “out” to our friends among the junior officers and the two other foreign teachers. I was careful for exactly the reasons above, which seemed especially important to me because the workplace, being the army, was about 95 percent male. (My coworker A started calling it yŏngnae yŏnae (영내 연애), or on-base romance.)
By the time we’d gotten officially engaged and told our department heads, enough people had seen us together—we both lived in the same army-owned apartment complex with nearly all our other coworkers, after all—that rumors were flying, and we’d even been very awkwardly confronted about alleged neighborhood PDA by a poor captain, whom I suspect was given the task mainly because she was female. However, once it was all out in the open, pretty much everyone at work was extremely supportive.
Legality of workplace romance in Korea
Although most couples try to keep workplace romance secret, sanae yŏnae is not illegal,* according to a labor law briefing for managers (경총 노동정책본부 2013). Employees can only be disciplined or fired for canoodling at work or neglecting their duties or something. However, because of contradictory reasons in lower courts that have so far (as of 2013) not been resolved by a higher court ruling, employers have to be very careful about firing employees in these situations and need to make it clear that the official cause of any disciplinary action is causing disruption to order in the workplace or whatnot.
There’s also precedence for disciplinary action for illicit affairs between married coworkers and other shady things that can damage the company’s image. However, the briefing advises that this may only apply if it occurs in ways that are directly related to work, and it must be pretty immediate and clear that some disadvantage has occurred to the company. Any judgment of whether this is the case depends on various factors, including the particular qualities of the employees’ jobs, the company, the industry, and the actual conduct that took place.
Workplace romance in Korean popular culture
Company romance is frequently employed as a plot device in Korean dramas and movies. There’s even a (weak) joke that the characters in American hospital dramas cure patients, the characters in Japanese hospital dramas learn a lesson, and the characters in Korean hospital dramas fall in love.
The plot of Queen of the Office (직장의 신) involves sanae yŏnae, for example, and it’s absolutely central to the plot of Very Ordinary Couple (flabbergastingly, the English name of 연애의 온도, which translates to the “Temperature of Love”). It’s also kind of a thing in Coffee Prince, although it takes place in a coffee shop and not an office.
I’m not super up on dramas, though, so if anyone knows of a drama with sanae yŏnae, please let me know in the comments!
* Not intended as legal advice!
강원도민일보 (1995). 샐러리맨의 직장내 생활 재미있게 그려. 강원도민일보, 1995년2월10일, KINDS, 2016년9월27일.
경총 노동정책본부 (2013). “Labor Desk CEO가 알아야 할 노동법 : 근로자의 사생활에서의 부정행위로 인한 징계.” 월간 경영계 411권0호 (2013), 40-41. KISS, 2016년9월28일.
엔브레인트렌드모니터 (2011). “2011 사내연애 관련 조사.” 리서치보고서 2011권6호, 1-29. KISS, 2016년9월28일.