Staffing a hotline for victims of abusive bosses, Yasuko Okada has heard it all — from complaints about one manager who would communicate only by e-mail with an employee he disliked to another who kicked, slapped and ridiculed a worker in front of clients.
Meanness, she said, is increasingly a sign of the times.
Though relations between superiors and subordinates in Japan have long been strict by Western standards, Okada and other workplace watchers said the pressures of the economic slump are turning a growing number of middle managers into office bullies.
“There have always been aggressive, heavy-handed managers,” Okada said. “What’s different now is that pressure and job insecurity are bringing out the worst in otherwise normal people.”
The phenomenon reflects the bitterness of a generation of Japanese workers — perhaps the last — who joined their firms expecting that loyalty and dedication would guarantee them a job for life.
That was before the world’s second-largest economy fell stagnant a decade ago, pushing unemployment to a record 5 percent and forcing middle managers in their 40s and 50 to look over their shoulders when they’re not handing out pink slips themselves.
The frustrations are being reflected on the job.
Responding to an increase in workplace disharmony related to downsizing, the labor ministry launched a dispute resolution system two years ago. It handled more than 6,000 complaints about bullying in fiscal 2002, up 25 percent from its first full year of operation. It successfully mediated only a fraction of those cases — about 200.
But the issue didn’t grab the media’s attention until Okada, 49, started Japan’s first hotline for what she dubbed victims of “power harassment,” a pseudo-English term modeled after “sexual harassment.”
Her consulting company originally specialized in providing counseling services for working women. She started the hotline after hearing from an increasing number of men who said they were being bullied by their bosses and had nowhere else to turn.
Since opening the hotline last October, her company, Cuore, has heard from more than 1,200 people.
About half were men, and many of the women were calling on behalf of husbands or sons. Two-thirds were in their 20s and 30s, and almost 40 percent reported suffering sleeplessness, depression and other effects.
“These people feel demoralized and humiliated,” Okada said. “But in this economy, many of them are too scared to quit.”
Shin Kurosawa finally did quit — when his hands trembled so badly he could barely type and he was diagnosed with depression.
Kurosawa, 26, said he started to be bullied by his 56-year-old manager shortly after joining an affiliate of a major electronics company.
“Every day it was like, ‘It’s your fault this company isn’t growing,’ ‘You’re dead weight,’ ‘You’re just making work for the rest of us’ — always in a loud enough voice for the whole floor to hear,” said Kurosawa, who quit a year later.
Some of the cases in a recent report compiled by Okada on workplace bullying would hardly have raised an eyebrow a decade ago, when men were more likely to accept such abuse without complaint.
“It used to be taken for granted that subordinates obeyed their superiors without question,” said Shingo Takahashi, a professor of psychiatry at Tokyo’s Toho University. “But this generation isn’t used to taking orders because they’ve grown up with less parental authority.”
Japanese courts have ruled that bullying violates employees’ constitutional right to be “respected as individuals” and employers’ contractual obligations to provide a safe workplace.
But going to court is not a realistic option for many in a country where trials are notoriously slow and costly and the resulting controversy could jeopardize a victim’s chances of finding another job.
“People are apt to just suffer in silence,” said Yoshiaki Usui, a lawyer who specializes in labor cases.
There’s also scant evidence so far that the recent media coverage of “power harassment” has affected the attitudes of those in corporate Japan with the power to harass.
“It’s like back before sexual harassment became a big issue in this country,” said Hifumi Murakawa, a human resources manager at Recruit, a publishing company. “Most people who engage in this sort of behavior probably don’t feel like they’re doing anything wrong.”
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