The viral story of how a Japanese chemical company, Kaneka, reassigned an employee to the Western part of Japan immediately after he returned from paternity leave in Tokyo left netizens indignant last week. And the story has also caused many non-Japanese to scratch their heads and wonder how a company could be so insensitive.

Actually, unwelcome transfers to far-flung locations are not at all uncommon in Japanese organizations. For example, I can remember a very talented woman I worked with at a Japanese bank in Tokyo who got married to one of our co-workers. Whenever anyone congratulated her on her marriage, she’d make a point of saying, “I plan to keep working.” A few months later, however, the bank transferred her husband to its Nagoya branch — but not her. In order to be with her husband, she chose to quit her job and end her career with the bank.

These types of situations happen frequently in Japan due to the way the employment relationship is structured, and how Japanese companies manage their human resources — both of which are very different from what’s typical in other countries.

HR: The Japanese way

The core workers at Japanese firms, called seishain (literally “true employees”) hold coveted and stable positions. Although “lifetime employment” is no longer the guarantee in most companies that it used to be, seishain can still count on their positions being secure for a long period of time. In return, seishain need to be willing to accept whatever work assignment is given to them by the company, no matter what the task may be and no matter the location.

In a sense this is logical, firms that are constrained in their ability to let employees go need some way to be able to shift resources in response to changing business needs. The problem is that companies have become accustomed to reassigning employees whenever they want without meeting resistance, so personal wishes and situations are not necessarily taken into account.

This unilateral ability to reassign employees dovetails with another unique aspect of human resource management in Japan, the common practice of moving people around within the company on a regular basis, known as jinji idō (personnel changes).

In many cases, the rotations require people to be transferred to a location far from home. Those who have children often choose to live alone during the course of the assignment, away from their family, in order to avoid the hassle and disruption of moving. This practice is so common that there is a word for it: tanshin funin. It’s estimated that more than 1 million Japanese workers are tanshin funin at any given time.

This doesn’t just affect those with children, many companies dole out transfer assignments without regard for complicating their employees’ personal situations, such as the need to take care of an elderly parent at home, a spouse’s professional position or, as in the Kaneka case, having just bought a new home, having just had a baby and having just gained admission to day care (the latter of which couples need to sign up for years before the child is scheduled to attend).

According to a 2017 survey by the Japan Institute for Labor Policy and Training, nearly two-thirds of Japanese firms transfer employees, and only 19.4 percent of firms say that they take the wishes of employees into account when making decisions on transfers. Also, 47.7 percent of firms reported that 60 percent or more of their married employees who were transferred within Japan opted for the tanshin funin route, and that number was higher for those who were transferred to locations overseas.

Why do Japanese companies shuffle employees around from place to place this way, disrupting their lives? The top answer in the aforementioned survey was “employee development,” cited by 66.4 percent of companies responding. Transferring people from place to place gives them the chance to learn new things and be exposed to all aspects of the company’s business.

Japanese firms also use jinji idō as a way to keep things fresh and avoid stagnation, according to 50.6 percent of the survey respondents. Employees transferred to new positions gain new challenges, teams receive an influx of new ideas and people who don’t get along are separated. The desire to do this kind of shaking up stems from the lifetime employment custom, as people are not moving in and out of positions the way that they would if the labor market were more fluid, the company itself needs to create a kind of movement.

Why it’s problematic

There are many downsides to jinji idō that tend to get overlooked simply because it’s such a common and accepted corporate practice. First of all, rotation decisions are often made with little explanation to the employee and in many cases the new assignment is unrelated to the employee’s existing skills or interests. I cannot count the number of Japanese employees I have met who have no idea why they were assigned to their current position or who clearly would prefer to be doing just about anything else.

Furthermore, rotating from position to position prevents the development of deeper specialized skills. This can have significant negative impacts on efficiency and competence in areas that require extensive professional knowledge. I have seen many situations where Japanese were transferred into positions without any prior exposure to the field, and were simply in over their heads and barely effective (and likely extremely stressed out).

Another problematic aspect of jinji idō is that firms often move poor performers around rather than terminating them. Assigning a poor performer to another position, however, seldom improves their results and instead places a burden on yet another part of the organization.

The fact that companies often give very short notice before transfers and don’t tell employees how long their assignments will last or where they will be assigned afterward also adds to the stress.

When employees are tanshin funin, the family separation results in significant stress on both the employee and their family — this is both in terms of psychological stress as well as the economic stress of having to maintain two households, often on one income. It’s particularly difficult for the spouse who is left alone to look after the children, especially if they have a job as well.

Although it’s impossible to quantify, these corporate practices may also contribute to Japan’s low birthrate as transfers often disrupt budding romances. Families nervous about transfers may be reluctant to have more children, and living apart decreases the opportunities couples have to try to get pregnant.

Signs of a change

Some Japanese have expressed surprise at the social media outcry over the Kaneka case, given that the situation faced by the employee was not necessarily so unusual.

My interpretation is the reaction suggests that Japanese are fed up with the old-fashioned style of Japanese human resource management that treats people like interchangeable parts and expects them to be completely subservient to the company. Kaneka lost its employee because he wasn’t willing to be separated from his young family. More Japanese companies are likely to see difficulties in hiring and retaining employees if they don’t modernize their human resource practices.

Some Japanese firms have started designating certain positions as being immune to such kinds of disruptive transfers and other firms, such as AIG Japan and Cybozu, have eliminated forced transfers. Other companies have begun to exempt employees from transfer for a period of time after they get married or have children. With a reported 60 percent of Japanese students preferring to join companies that don’t transfer employees to different regions, more firms will likely be forced to re-examine their policies.

Rochelle Kopp is a management consultant working with Japanese firms operating globally and foreign firms operating in Japan. She recently published “Manga de Wakaru Gaikokujin to no Hatarakikata” (“Learn How to Work With Non-Japanese Through Manga.”) You can find her on Twitter at: @JapanIntercult.

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