Japanese companies no longer growing their own

The wheels have been coming off Japan’s post-war HR system for some years now – whereby seishain or “proper” employees in Japan have been hired straight out of university, onto generalist, lifetime employment tracks, heavily weighted towards seniority-based promotion.  It stabilised the workforce in the immediate post war period when there were labour shortages, and worked well throughout the boom years, when there were places for everyone to go in an ever-expanding organisation.

Since the economic bubble burst, Japanese companies cut back on graduate hires and used contract staff to fill the gaps, but these contract workers had lower status, without job security and benefits, and there have been accusations that overreliance on less motivated contract workers to do quality checks, under pressure, has caused some of the recent scandals. Japan’s labour market is still relatively less mobile than in Sweden, Switzerland or the USA, according to Hays.

So maybe it’s time for “outsiders” to have a higher status.  This idea was floated by Nagisa Inoue in the Nikkei Asian Review, and now its sister magazine, Nikkei Business has a special feature “Your sell by date as an employee – the increasing pile up of employees who only have ‘age’”.

It looks at Panasonic, who have hired around 500 a year into management positions – over 40% of whom are over 35 years old. Panasonic’s founder, Matsushita Konosuke, said employees were family – and up until recently, managers were meant to select their successors from their juniors and develop them.  Now they have been allowed the option of saying they do not see any suitable successors, and can ask to look for outside hires.  The salary system is also being adjusted so that higher salaries than the norm for a position can be offered to those outsiders with specialist skills.

“I did think the next promotion was going to be me – I even tried to improve my TOEIC score so I could work globally, and made efforts to widen my job”, said a 40 something Panasonic employee – but his new boss was hired from outside.

Denso, the Toyota group automotive manufacturer set up a new division to develop components for the “connected car” and around 2/3 of its employees were hired from outside the company.  The division is also deliberately placed in Yokohama, away from the headquarters in Aichi prefecture and from the Tokyo branch office.  “We wanted to cut ourselves off from Denso culture” says one manager.

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