I have been astounded recently by the tricks and devious tactics employed in Tokyo as companies rush to reduce headcount. I have been advising both companies and employees-targeted-for-termination in Japan for almost 3 decades and I have never seen it like this before.
The source of this are the foreign companies. The typical situation that I have seen many times before is someone from headquarters says something like, “Reduce the headcount in Japan, I don’t care about what they say, just do it!!” These comments always come from people in HQ who are ignorant of the unique attitude in Japanese law towards protecting full-fledged employees. When people at HQ get tired of hearing, “Sorry, you can’t do it that way because Japan is different,” etc., they kick chairs over and say something like, “Well, that’s the way we do it here, always have, and we never had any trouble in Hong Kong or Korea,” and making it clear that heads must roll.
Something is truly in the air this time. In fact, this appears to be gaining momentum. I noticed an uptick in dismissals about 8 months ago within the big financial houses here, essentially Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citibank… and the rest of the Big Players. While this happens from time to time in other fields such as autos, high-tech, foods and imported-goods industries, this “uptick” has matured not only into a rush, but it is alarmingly accompanied by underhanded tactics, deceptions, intimidation and, thus, growing acrimony.
The spill-over effects in unrelated industries can be clearly anticipated. So uncharacteristic is this that one could surmise that these guys are packing their bags and preparing for quick departure. That is a daunting and scary prospect, coming as it does from what were once the most highly respected companies in this very-difficult-to-be-successful market called “Japan”.
People get fired all the time. As a practicing lawyer inside Apple Computer Asia Pacific and in General Motors Asia Pacific in Japan, I likely terminated more people than any lawyer in Japan. But through it all, and after having made every conceivable mistake in this area, I have learned that there are ways to do it that accommodate Japanese law and the society we have chosen to make our home.
Nowadays, however, it seems that arrogance and cost-cutting have emerged as drivers of implementation emanating from elsewhere: New York, Paris, London, etc. Once vaunted companies now bully formerly cherished employees into voluntarily resigning … “or else”. Promises made to repatriate the now-jobless employee back to their home-country are now suddenly withdrawn; company-provided housing is yanked-away, leaving those who resist facing the prospect of being a homeless foreigner in Japan (THAT would have to be a first!). Passive-resistance in negotiations, mind-games and brinksmanship are also artfully brought into play to the disadvantage of the solo-employee. Individuals in such a one-sided game are totally out-gunned, out-maneuvered and over-lorded.
There are avenues of relief but these in Japan are limited. An employee unfairly pressured into an involuntary dismissal situation can hold their ground (and wait for an illegal termination), hire a Japanese bengoshi (Japan’s unique version of “lawyer”), form a union for protective and defensive purposes, or they can accept what is presented and slouch off into the sunset.
In fact, most people typically choose the last option with the well-reasoned explanation that to fight is too daunting, physically and financially draining, the company is too big & powerful to fight against… etc. There are hundreds of good reasons.
Unfortunately, the prospects for many of finding a job now or even into the foreseeable future are bleak. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to just fight to simply prolong an untenable situation while scrambling to polish-up your resume and line-up some interviews. For those in finance, however, they usually kick you out the door on the day you first get the news, never-mind that you are 10,000 miles from home, light-years away from speaking the language, three months to being broke and 8 months away from any hope of landing your next job.
The only golden lining here is that Japanese law proscribes quite specifically how an employee can be terminated, how long such a process should take and spells-out the kind of documentation/justification(s) required before a company can take such drastic action. The other saving grace is that foreign companies frequently make the most egregious errors and are favorite targets of bengoshi and of judges in this sometimes anti-foreign country.
The current deluge of sudden and dastardly implemented terminations in the financial sector will continue, in fact may increase over time. The tactics being employed may continue too, should they prove to be effective overall. Individuals suffering under this kind of situation need to explore their options, understand their legal standing, and take a stand with regards to the company’s tactics … or suffer the consequences.
I hate hearing, “I wish I had known about you earlier, Mr. Langley.” The reality is, however, I hear it far too often. If you have a friend or overhear others crying in their beer about their own termination situation, please encourage them by letting them know there are legions of others struggling as they are, and the fact that they are targeted is not because they are terrible, under-performing & detested by colleagues. Try to impress upon them that there are other ways to address their situation than just taking it on-the-chin.
You need not endorse me: just tell them to search for “Langley Esquire” on Google or Facebook. We’ve invested too much in this country to allow a few foreign companies make a complete mess of things.
Update 2012/12/10: New Blog Series “Getting Fired in Japan Revisited”