IBM Japan’s secret restructuring manual
Thanks to global market pressures, the days of being a “hatarakanai ojisan” (middle aged guy who doesn’t actually do any work) in a Japanese company are over, according to Toyo Keizai magazine. It used to be that even if there was not any work for a lifetime employee in their 50s to do, they would be allowed to continue coming into work until such time as circumstances changed or they retired of their own accord.
Now most Japanese companies use “requested retirement” sessions to persuade employees to leave the company of their own volition if there is no longer a role for them. However, it is forbidden to use words like “fired” in such interviews. It is possible, but only under very rare circumstances, to actually fire a lifetime employee in Japan – it mainly has to be proved that there is gross incompetency. So when an IBM Japan employee in his 50s sued last December for work related illness, claiming that repeated “requested retirement” sessions caused him to become depressed, the deciding factor in his claim being accepted was that his boss had said “if you don’t accept our request, you will be fired”.
Toyo Keizai have managed to get hold of IBM Japan’s “Requested Retirement Manual” which apparently was developed for internal management training by a consulting company.
The manual recommends using the carrot and stick technique to start the discussion. The stick is that given the person’s abilities and the current situation of the company, they cannot continue in their current role. The carrot is that discussions about redeployment or reemployment will be done in a kind and understanding way. The manual encourages the manager to put themselves in the others’ shoes.
It has recommendations on how to deal with the four stages of:
- Denial – nothing to do with me: explain the personal situation and future in detail
- Resistance – why me, why not someone else: listen sympathetically and allow them the right to differ
- Exploration – will there be a job elsewhere, can I support my current lifestyle?: guidance – would they like to meet with a counsellor?
- Decision – still feeling worried, but will take up the challenge: encouragement – offer personal support and best wishes for success
It also contains advice for dealing with different reactions and personality types – the submissive type, the proud type, the logical type, the desperate, the complainer, the crier, the silent and the angry. It also gives examples of likely questions and how to deal with them, including one I heard about years ago when companies in Japan first started “shoulder tapping” people to leave, which is the “my daughter is getting married – please let me stay until after the ceremony”. The reason for this being that the father wants to be introduced with a high employment status at the wedding rather than as someone who is mysteriously unemployed or in a lower status job. The manual recommends a tough stance on this saying that there can be no exceptions made given the urgency of the situation, global competition etc.
I suppose it is only this kind of question, plus the inability to say clearly that the person will lose their job that makes this different from other countries, and there is nothing unique particularly to IBM as a foreign company/gaishi. There is even a comment at the bottom of the article from someone who experienced very similar methods at a Hokkaido local government agency. In fact IBM Japan is more Japanese than other foreign companies as it still has a company union. 90% of the employees used to belong to it in the 1960s but now only around a 100 or so are members. It was probably one of those members that leaked the manual to Toyo Keizai.
The advice an employment lawyer gives to those who do not want to leave is to say so immediately in an email or letter and repeat this in at least two meetings. Then say that any further meetings are a hindrance to your work. The manual does indeed say that if it is clear that there is no interest in leaving, “then do not approach any further”.
As the article concludes, many Japanese companies are embarking on similar processes in order to restructure, and how far employees are prepared to fight this is both a mental health and a financial choice.
UPDATE: By coincidence it was just announced today that the Tokyo District Court on Monday nullified the firing of five employees by IBM Japan Ltd. and ordered the company to pay their lost salaries. And apparently IBM Japan was found guilty of breaking the Trade Union law last July too.
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