Dentsu chief Ishii resigns amid mounting pressure over employee’s suicide

Kyodo

Dentsu Inc. President Tadashi Ishii said he will step down in January to take responsibility for the overwork-related suicide of a 24-year-old employee at the advertising agency.

“We deeply regret failing to prevent the overwork of our new recruit. I offer my sincere apology,” Ishii, 65, said at a news conference Wednesday evening in Tokyo.

The news conference was held after the labor ministry referred Dentsu and one of its executives to prosecutors the same day on suspicion of forcing Matsuri Takahashi, who joined the company in April 2015, to work and underreport illegally long hours, leading to her suicide on Christmas Day last year.

“Although we took various countermeasures, the issue of overwork has not been improved. I will take full responsibility,” Ishii said.

Ishii said he decided to resign after finally being allowed to apologize to Takahashi’s family in person on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Hideo Tokuyama, former vice minister of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism, will be appointed adviser to Dentsu effective Jan. 1, a source close to the decision said Wednesday, a move that might improve the company’s internal compliance.

In a statement issued after Dentsu was referred to prosecutors, Takahashi’s 53-year-old mother Yukimi called on the powerful company to “make sure it implements efforts to end long working hours so there will not be a victim like Matsuri in the future.”

Labor authorities suspect the advertising giant and Takahashi’s supervisor broke the Labor Standards Law by forcing her and another employee to work illegally long hours between October and December 2015.

The latest move by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry’s Tokyo Labor Bureau came with unusual speed after Dentsu was searched on Nov. 7. In referring the case to prosecutors, it said the case amounts to an indictment. The bureau said it has already questioned Ishii about the matter.

Takahashi, who showed signs of depression prior to her death, was found to have worked overtime far in excess of the maximum allowed under a labor-management agreement. She jumped to her death from the upper floor of a company dormitory on Dec. 25 last year, according to a lawyer for her family.

The Tokyo labor standards inspection office in September this year recognized her suicide as a case of karoshi, Japanese for death by overwork, because her overtime hours had drastically grown from around 40 hours a month to over 100 hours before she began to suffer from depression.

Her family argues she was also a victim of power harassment because her boss allegedly told her, “You have too little capacity if you find the current volume of work hard to handle.”

Dentsu Vice President Shoichi Nakamoto, who joined the news conference, said, “It cannot be denied that this was a case of power harassment, given the fact that she lacked experience in the business,” but he also asserted that there was no illegal conduct at the company.

Dentsu employees who watched the president’s news conference on the web largely agreed that the decision to resign was natural after the incident, but others questioned whether the gesture would really change the influential company’s corporate culture.

“His stepping down is a natural decision to prevent the company’s image from deteriorating further,” a midcareer employee said. The reactions of his colleagues, who also watched the president’s news conference, were similar, he said, adding that they thought resignation was unavoidable.

“I feel so ashamed and it makes me think of quitting the company. Dentsu’s had scandals before, but this is the first time that a president has had to step down,” the employee said.

Another said: “Everyone is a workaholic here and I don’t think they blame anyone for that situation. It is a bit questionable whether the company can change,” he said.

When the company turned off its lights at 10 p.m., a decision made after Takahashi’s death to discourage employees from working too long, a number of workers rushed home. Asked to comment about their president’s resignation, they declined to comment.