National / Media | Japan Pulse

Chemical firm hit for punishing worker who took paternity leave with transfer halfway across Japan

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

Chemical producer Kaneka Corp. faces allegations of harassment after an employee returned from paternity leave to find that he — and, one presumes, his family — was being transferred to a different branch in another part of the country.

Condemnation on social media was swift, with many criticizing the company for its management style.

In an interview with Business Nikkei.com, the employee and his wife revealed the sequence of events that led to this firestorm. The employee, whose name has not been disclosed, started his paternity leave on March 25 and returned to work on April 22. On April 23, the employee had a meeting with his boss, who informed him that he was being transferred to the company’s Kansai branch, effective May 16.

The employee asked for some time to talk the matter over with his wife before giving a definite answer, but his request was turned down.

At the time, the employee and his wife had just moved into a new house, found a slot for their young daughter in a day-care facility (a miraculous feat in and of itself for many working couples in Tokyo) and the employee’s wife was about to return to her own workplace full time.

“It was the worst possible timing for a transfer,” the employee’s wife told Business Nikkei. “It wasn’t about getting transferred per se, as that’s just part of working for an organization, but we needed time to digest the information and plan out the logistics. The company wasn’t even willing to give us that.”

After weighing his options over Golden Week, the employee decided to hand in his resignation and asked for two weeks’ paid vacation to get his affairs in order.

Kaneka refused this request and the employee was told to vacate his desk by the end of May after handing over all his duties to another employee slated to replace him.

The employee’s wife posted updates of the family’s situation on Twitter, which very quickly went viral.

Initially, the wife refrained from mentioning the company by name, but she did include Kaneka’s corporate slogan — “making wishes come true with chemistry” — in one post and netizens were quick to make the connection.

“Kaneka, what about making the wishes of the employees come true?” one Twitter user said in a post that was later taken down.

According to Japan’s labor law, Kaneka’s decision to transfer the employee was not entirely illegal. However, the company was in less of a position to deny him a two-week vacation.

In an interview with Business Nikkei, former lawyer Hajime Takehana said domestic corporations are mandated by law to grant employees paid vacation days and have little say over when employees take them. What’s more, employees who are leaving a company are certainly within their rights to take any vacation days they may have left prior to their last day at the workplace.

Responding to a question from Business Nikkei, Kaneka’s public relations department issued a statement saying that the company would refrain from commenting on the matter until it could confirm that the employee in question had been formally employed by Kaneka and that he had received an order for a transfer immediately upon his return from paternity leave.

On June 4, Business Nikkei published excerpts of an internal email that was sent from Kaneka’s president, Mamoru Kadokura, to the company’s employees.

In the email, Kadokura claims the comments on social medial “lack factual precision” without being specific about which comments were inaccurate.

And although Kadokura acknowledges the employee had been asked to transfer, he says the order was not a miseshime, or a punishment dished out publicly that serves as a warning to others.

Kadokura says that the employees are the “most important stakeholders” of the company and that this incident was the result of miscommunication.

In recent days, an online backlash against the couple has developed.

According to reports, the employee’s wife had posted a tweet in January that said her husband was about to quit his job and start his own company. She took this post down and didn’t mention it during her interview with Business Nikkei, although she wasn’t able to stop screenshots of the deleted tweet from later appearing online.

“They really don’t deserve our sympathy,” one commenter said. There was also speculation Kaneka had found out about its employee’s start-up plans and had been waiting for an opportunity to retaliate.

On the whole, though, Twitter users have largely supported the couple, especially those who see the incident as a reflection of a much larger problem that exists in Japanese society today.

“Kaneka’s management is adding fuel to the fire by ignoring the fact that this isn’t a legal issue, it’s a moral one,” Twitter user kaikaburi@kannaload wrote.

The fiasco has hurt Kaneka’s corporate image and its stock price and, by the end of the week, the controversy reached the highest level of government.

Over the past few years, Japanese companies have been struggling to uphold a family-friendly image and many have started to encourage male employees to take paternity leave. The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed a desire to increase the rate of paternity leave from 5.14 percent, as of 2017, to 13 percent by 2020.

“But what happens after we take that leave and come back?,” asked one anonymous commenter on Nikkei Business. “It’s scary to think about the consequences.”

Unfortunately, the incident at Kaneka perhaps represents a cautionary tale of taking an employer at their word.