When the topic of meaningless meetings in Japanese companies comes up in my training workshops, I often tell the story of how I once had to attend a meeting in the Japanese headquarters of the company I was working for, as the representative of the corporate planning department, on a topic I knew nothing about. I was told to read the ringisho and not say anything, except for “ryōkai” (understood, agreed) at the end. “It was two hours of my life I will never get back. The two people in charge of setting up a loss-making factory simply read out the ringisho (circular memo for making a decision) line by line and then asked for approval to write off several hundred million yen. This had been approved already, so obviously we just said yes. I still don’t know to this day what the meeting was for – perhaps it was a kind of punishment”.
Japanese companies have internal accountability
On reflection, I think it was about ensuring internal accountability – to give an account of decisions made, actions taken and the reasons behind them. Most Japanese companies have these kinds of mechanisms for internal accountability and their executives are also expected to be accountable to Japanese society for any failures, hence the succession of shazai (deep bowing to apologise) rituals we have seen recently.
There is a missing piece though, both in the recent Japanese corporate scandals and also the sexual harassment revelations in the Western media and entertainment industry, which is professional accountability. As Japanese companies globalize and diversify their workforce, I believe they will have to add this piece to their corporate governance and compliance systems.
A wide range of professions in the West, from traditional professions such as law, medicine and accountancy through to newer professions such as HR, banking or engineering all have associations to which professionals are expected to belong if they want to practice. They sign up to a set of ethics and regulations and are expected to take exams in order to progress through a series of grades and also undertake a certain number of hours of professional development every year.
Professional qualifications help diversity
Although it has proven tricky to get mutual recognition across countries of professional qualifications, it does help companies build a diverse workforce because they can be “blind” to the gender, age, disability or ethnicity of the person they are hiring, if they have the necessary professional qualifications.
Japanese companies will find it easier to ensure accountability internally and externally when they operate overseas if they employ professionals. Employees who have professional accountability know they will lose their professional status if they do not abide by ethical and regulatory standards, and this gives them the strength to resist any unethical pressure that is put on them by their bosses or customers.
Ensuring accountability is a two-way process, however. Although employees will be accountable internally and to their professional association, their bosses will still be accountable internally and externally for their subordinates’ behaviour. This means that bosses must enable an environment of trust, achievable targets and adequate resources.
This article appears in Pernille Rudlin’s latest book “Shinrai: Japanese Corporate Integrity in a Disintegrating Europe” available as a paperback and Kindle ebook on Amazon.
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