‘Power harassment’ is a term that has been coined in Japan, in English (as ‘pawahara’ for short), to describe the kind of psychological bullying that may happen to junior staff in Japanese companies, primarily because they do not have the protection of a clear job description that outlines their duties and working hours.
Consequently, you would not expect to find it in Western owned companies (known in Japan as gaishi) where there is supposed to be a clearer set of expectations, job descriptions and performance based evaluations.
According to Diamond Online, however, there are cases of power harassment in foreign owned companies in Japan. Diamond journalist Norifumi Yoshida interviews a 50 year old IT manager, Mr A, who left his foreign owned finance company through power harassment arising from being caught in a battle between a Japanese and an American executive officer (director).
Mr A joined the finance company at the age of 45, having worked for four other foreign owned companies in the past. The first few years went by without incident, but then he found himself the target of attack by the Japanese director. Apparently this director had failed in his original intention to become an actor and was bullied by the troupe he had entered. Then thanks to his politician father’s connections he was able to join a financial services company, but was teased there too for having reached middle age without any competencies and left that too. Again through his father’s connections he found a post in the foreign owned company. Through assiduous sycophancy he managed to jump from team leader to director without going through the usual route of General Manager (GM).
Mr A was GM of the IT department and reported into an American director so should not have had to cross paths with the failed actor, who was responsible for 15 staff in PR, HR and General Affairs. However there were overlaps between the departments, so whenever Mr A’s work affected the payroll or accounting systems, the failed actor would complain in front of everyone that he had not been informed and Mr A was ‘out of order’. In fact Mr A was just doing what he was told by his American boss, but clearly the American boss had not gained consensus from the failed actor.
The American boss was more concerned with doing what he had been asked to do by the President of the company. When Mr A was scolded, 10 or more times a week, for 20 minutes at a time in front of 30 or so employees, and made to apologise, for petty things he had no recollection of doing such as not greeting the director properly, he did not intervene.
The American director probably wanted a quiet life says Mr A, and not to fight with the ‘pawahara machine’ as the Japanese director was known. The Japanese director was on good terms with the President, and was widely thought to be in line for promotion to managing director/board director in a few years, says Mr A.
The President was a Chinese American, who had been brought in by a foreign venture capital company to restructure the company. Mr A says he did not intervene because he preferred to back the winning horse when there was trouble and Mr A’s boss was somewhat of a yes man to him, and probably hoped to get on the board himself.
Yoshida comments that most Japanese would think Americans are open minded, frank and fair, but in his experience “Americans who come to work in Japan can often be rather cold and dry – egoists, to put the worst slant on it – in some ways almost scarily so”. Mr A says he has experienced plenty of upstanding American bosses in his career, but there is definitely a tendency towards egoism and a lack of compassion. “Many of my Japanese friends tell me Europeans are better. I think Japan was a bit brainwashed about America these past 60-70 years but now we have suddenly woken up.”
“Just being able to speak English is not going to be enough for Japanese people to succeed in a globalizing world” says Yoshida. “There are more wily foxes amongst Americans than amongst Japanese. Japanese are too trusting of people and do not know to be suspicious.”
Mr A points the finger at the executives of the company having no understanding of how to look after or create a structure that looks after mid career hires. “They have no sense of responsibility to the people below them, and just insult those employees who leave by saying that they ‘weren’t collaborative’ or ‘she was more suited to housework’ That way they can justify their own management style, if they say it was the fault of the people who leave. Performance based systems (seikashugi) are just a tatemae (a front) for an irresponsible egotism.”
Clearly Mr A is still very traumatised by his experience – still refusing to go anywhere near his old employer. To me, it seems less about whether the company is foreign owned or some difference in character between Americans or Japanese. I certainly recognise those kinds of selfish management behaviours, but usually they are kept in control by HR systems which result in negative consequences for those bosses who do not make efforts to develop a supportive environment for their employees. Western bosses often have employee engagement, retention and training and development targets as part of their annual evaluations. Also HR departments usually conduct exit interviews with staff who resign, to make sure there is not a major problem that had not been aired before. I suspect the foreign financial services company was actually too old-fashioned Japanese, not too American, in not having those mechanisms in place for its own management team. But as it was the ‘pawahara machine’ that was heading up HR, maybe that’s not surprising.
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