Hitachi’s announcement on 26th September 2014 that it would be abolishing seniority based pay and promotion for management positions in Japan has caused quite a stir in Japanese business circles.
One HR consultant likened it to opening Pandora’s Box, as it may spread to non-managerial ranks, other industries and may even herald the end of lifetime employment. Both Nikkei Business and Diamond magazines have linked the announcement to Hitachi’s Global HR Management strategy and the database that Hitachi have been developing for the past two years of 250,000 employees, inside and outside Japan. 50,000 management positions in Japan and overseas are now measured by the same standards. These tools and an evaluation system means that with the abolition of seniority based pay, changes can be made to globalize compensation.
The abolition will affect 11,000 management positions in Japan – those people who are at the kacho (team leader) level and above. From October this year, no distinction will be made between function and grade status pay, and there will instead be one “role and results” pay scheme. Under the old scheme, around 70% of pay was determined by the employee’s length of service in the company.
Hitachi want to ensure that they can hire and retain high performers, regardless of nationality, including as mid-career hires. This is deemed necessary if they are going to reach their target of 50% of sales overseas by 2015, compared to the 41% level reached in 2012. The new pay scheme will therefore eventually apply to all management positions in the Hitachi group, not just in Japan headquarters.
According to the Nikkei, this change to the HR system has its roots in the difficulties Takashi Kawamura, chairman of Hitachi until 31 March 2014, experienced since 2009 when as President he started to weed out businesses he felt did not fit the “social innovation” portfolio. “Westerners place emphasis on their skills and expertise, so even if the company changes, they will follow the business that they have been working in. But Japanese people want to stay with the company, even if the business they are working on is devolved elsewhere… As Japan globalises, the relationship between the company and its employees, and employees’ thinking will also change.”
As Diamond magazine points out, this is a drastic transformation from the “family style” traditional Japanese company image that Hitachi used to have. It was known that Hitachi did not pay particularly high salaries, but that its benefits were very generous, and that it would provide a secure and stable environment for employees. It was always very serious about its HR strategies, and seen as a front runner for innovations in Japanese HR systems. So the abolition of seniority based pay is potentially “epoch making”, with implications far beyond Hitachi itself. It is rumoured that Sony and Panasonic are also looking at changing their pay schemes in a similar way.
The abolition of seniority based pay will impact other sacred cows of the traditional Japanese HR system. For example, there will no longer be “Beh-ah” (short for Base Up) negotiations, whereby the same basic pay rise is applied across the workforce, so no more “spring offensive” – the ritual negotiations between the company union and management for the annual pay increase. As a consequence, the raison d’être of the company union itself may be under threat. Lifetime employment will become even more thinly upheld, as people are more able to move from company to company without worrying about losing seniority based entitlements and it will be easier then for companies to get rid of people.
Hajime Yamazaki, guest researcher at the Rakuten Research Institute for the Economy (who has himself changed employers 12 times since joining Mitsubishi Corp in 1981) makes three recommendations to Japanese employees:
- Review your lifeplan
Not just in terms of when you retire, but think about potential instability of income when you are still working. It might be best to increase the amount you save.
- Take more risks in your job.
If your compensation is going to be based on results, then you have to take a “no risk, no reward” view of your work.
- Regularly think about changing employers
Yamazaki is not saying Japanese employees should all start quitting their jobs, but that you should constantly be reviewing your skills and experiences to see if they would help you get a job in another company.
“For a business person with ability and motivation, the end of seniority based pay means there will be many opportunities in the road ahead,” says Yamazaki.
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