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Employers’ ‘box them in, drive them out’ tactics fail legal test

by Hifumi Okunuki

Surely few employees would jump out of bed every morning, itching to start work at the “Department for Driving Them Out”? But what is an oidashi-beya? And what scary entities are to be driven out?

The answer is neither ghosts nor zombies. It is you. Some companies have been known to set up departments dubbed by critics as oidashi-beya to make their employees feel so unwelcome that they quit voluntarily, thus saving the company the hassle and messy legal responsibilities associated with dismissal.

One such company is a major player in education and publishing, Benesse Corp. Its name is a portmanteau of the Latin adverb for “well” (bene) and the present infinitive of the copula “to be” (esse), and its corporate philosophy stresses the idea of “wellbeing,” including “teamwork, people development, fairness and active participation in the workplace.” Benesse uses the kanji 財 instead of 材 (both read zai) in the name of its human resources department (jinzaibu), suggesting it sees its workers as part of the company “treasure” rather than just “material.” Yet this company, which purports to pride itself on benevolence, apparently had no qualms about trampling over at least one long-serving employee, treasure or not.

Benesse found itself in court recently in a challenge to the legality of its oidashi-beya. The defendant started working for the company’s predecessor, Fukutake Shoten, as a part-timer in the late 1970s. In the early 1990s she became a seishain regular employee. In the mid-noughts, she was seconded to and named section leader at subsidiary Benesse Business-mate, Inc. to help promote the employment of those with disabilities.

One day in 2009, an HR manager dropped by her workplace and asked if she would like to extend the period of assignment or return to HQ. The plaintiff chose the latter but received no further contact. When she asked about her status, she was told that cutbacks had eliminated her position and there was no place for her to return to. After refusing an offer of a transfer from Tokyo to a remote post in Shikoku, she was told she would join seven others in the Annex to the HR Department, a section she would later learn was Benesse’s oidashi-beya.

The eight were told: “You are problematic. Please take two or three months to ascertain your strengths and weaknesses so that you can challenge yourselves anew.”

But the plaintiff had never been told she was problematic. She had never dreamed she would start in her new office with this type of sendoff, and understandably, it made her extremely anxious.

Her anxiety turned out to be well-founded. She was ordered not to answer the phone, not to carry a business card and to look for a division within the company that would accept her. Her annual pay was cut by ¥2 million. Her department name was changed to the Operations Support Center, although nothing really changed. She found herself left off the guest list for company celebration and farewell parties and was denied access to the company’s intranet.

Tasks assigned to her and others in the department included topping up supplies, making photocopies, cleaning up cardboard boxes in the company library and checking for missing tiles and dirty spots on the ceiling in the offices on each floor.

This employee had served the company for decades, yet now found herself robbed of her pride and falling deeper and deeper into irrelevance. The department had been set up to make her and others feel so miserable that they would resign of their own accord.

The plaintiff decided she had had enough. But rather than quitting, she sued Benesse. She claimed that the “existence of the Annex to the HR Department itself was illegal as its real purpose was to apply extreme pressure on employees to resign, and that the order to transfer to that department was thus invalid.” Benesse denied all her claims.

The Tokyo District Court’s Tachikawa Branch ruled in favor of the plaintiff on Aug. 29 last year. “The Annex to the HR Department was likely set up to encourage resignation and is undeniably an illegal system,” the court said. The ruling also invalidated the ¥2 million reduction in annual pay, saying the cut “exceeded acceptable bounds of discretionary authority.” The company appealed but in the end settled with the plaintiff on undisclosed terms.

The Benesse case reminded me of the zashikirō (tatami jail) case of 14 years ago. Game developer Sega Enterprises set up what it called a “personal room” for one of its workers. He was assigned to no particular department and set no specific tasks, and was later pressured to resign because of “poor performance.” The “personal room” was dark and windowless with two desks, three or four chairs and a phone with no outside line, leading people to call it the zashikirō, after the rooms used to hold criminals and lunatics in the Edo Period.

In the end, the company fired him, citing its shugyō kisoku work rules, which stipulated that dismissal was acceptable if “work performance is inferior and shows no sign of improvement.” The worker sued to reverse the dismissal. Tokyo District Court overturned the dismissal on Oct. 15, 1999, ruling that the reason cited was insufficient since it could mean simply below the average for the company workforce. The court also said the company failed to take measures to improve the worker’s skills.

The only way for workers to fight these companies — which can appear scarier than ghosts or zombies — is to take a clear, courageous fighting stance. What companies fear more than anything else is solidarity among their workers.

If you are suffering at work, find coworkers you can talk openly with. If one of your colleagues is being harassed, speak up and get him/her to confide in you. When workers cooperate to improve their lot instead of competing with one another, the challenge of driving out the demon of corporate bullying can look a lot less frightening.

Hifumi Okunuki works for Sagami Women’s University and serves as paralegal for Tozen Union (Zenkoku Ippan Tokyo General Union). She can be reached at tozen.paralegal@gmail.com. On the third Tuesday of the month, Hifumi looks at cases in Japan’s legal history to illustrate important principles in labor law. Send comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp .