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Former Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui, who has joined the New York Yankees, is not the only Japanese to take advantage of a free-agent system.

Though big bucks are not part of the deal, workers at Toshiba Corp. are trying to prove themselves in their chosen sections under a so-called in-house FA program.

Earlier this month, the first group of free agents were assigned to new positions at Toshiba in line with its FA program, which assigns employees to jobs in departments of their choice.

Additional financial incentives aren’t even offered under the new system.

Personnel specialists say that behind the trend is a growing sense of individualism among Japanese salaried workers. They also say employees are identifying less with their companies as the traditional lifetime employment and seniority-based pay scales are being pulled apart.

At Toshiba, 155 people have applied to become free agents since the company began accepting applications via its Intranet site in November; 70 percent of the applicants are in their 20s and 30s.

“We believe the system is forward-looking and allows those who have obtained skills and experience to further expand their potential,” said Takahiro Tsukida of Toshiba’s human resources department.

According to Toshiba officials, engineers in charge of product design and development account for the largest segment of applicants, many of whom hope to try their skills in the personal computer and semiconductor divisions.

Under the system, the personnel office screens applications based on would-be free agents’ motives and talent, and refers them to the sections of choice for interviews. The process is done in a confidential manner.

Although managers at many companies routinely ask their subordinates their job preferences, these opinions are not necessarily reflected. The new program allows would-be free agents to appeal directly to managers without risking their current employment status.

To protect failed applicants from potential retaliation by their current bosses, the process of selecting and placing free agents is conducted in secrecy, and old bosses are notified of a worker’s departure only after the transfer has been decided.

For corporations, the program is expected to help them retain talented workers who otherwise may defect to rival firms. Managers also expect it will improve overall efficiency by opening doors between divisions.

The system’s introduction also appears to have provided a healthy dose of tension among supervisors, according to companies that have adopted the FA system.

Many of them have come to realize they will have to become more attentive to the career concerns of their subordinates or risk losing their top players without warning, they said.

Mitsui & Co. introduced free agency in late 1999 and to date has seen 28 employees opt for it.

Though the number is only a fraction of regular personnel transfers — the company has 6,500 employees — the impact is nevertheless being felt among field managers, according to personnel officials.

Officials of Olympus Optical Co. agree.

“Before the introduction of the system two years ago, there were managers who did not conduct career interviews properly, saying they were too busy. But since then, every one of them does them very seriously,” said human resources manager Tetsuo Hyakutake.

While the program’s operators agree that it boosts worker morale by offering more of a say in their career path, some fear the initiative could invite unwanted friction.

Personnel officers at the nation’s largest cosmetics firm, Shiseido Co., take pains to conceal who the lucky ones are who land desired job assignments. It does not even disclose companywide the number of employees who exercised the free-agent option to peers.

Officials said they have yet to weigh the possible consequences of open disclosure because of the impact it may have on an employee ousted from a position by a free agent. Masayuki Kodera, a Shiseido personnel manager, called it “a dual-edged sword.”

In fact, most companies would not let their free agents be interviewed for this story out of concern for the morale of other workers.

There are other potential pitfalls. Personnel system specialist Naoki Sumi warned that the free-agent system should not be used to appease disenchanted workers.

The senior consultant at Japan Research Institute Ltd. said it should be utilized to discover and place the most talented workers in the most advantageous way for the organization as a whole, not merely for the betterment of a particular division.

“Personnel affairs tend to be viewed as focused on worker welfare or ways to win employees over,” he said. “But it is a highly strategic business matter, and managers should keep this in mind.”

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