Startup takes stress out of fed-up workers’ exit plans

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

There was the 24-year-old insurance saleswoman who got sick of being yelled at when she couldn’t reach her quota. Then there’s the exhausted designer who clocked 160 hours of monthly overtime. And the ramen noodle shop employee who suffered stress to the point of developing depression.

They all shared a common problem: for one reason or another, they couldn’t pluck up the courage to quit. Instead, they asked Exit to make that nerve-wracking call.

“Quitting jobs can be a soul-crushing hassle. We’re here to provide a sense of relief by taking on that burden,” said Toshiyuki Niino, co-founder of Senshi S LLC, a startup he and childhood friend Yuichiro Okazaki launched last year.

The company operates Exit, a service that relays an employee’s intention to resign for a fee: ¥50,000 ($450) for full-time employees and ¥40,000 for part-time workers. Repeat clients get a ¥10,000 discount.

Whether or not people consider that expensive depends on how desperate they are. But if business is any indication, many regard it as a worthy investment for some much-needed peace of mind. In the one year since Niino and Okazaki set up shop, they have mediated the resignations of roughly 700 to 800 clients from across the nation as the number of requests surge.

Amid a tight job market and an improving economy, more workers are changing jobs, lured by higher salaries and fewer hours.

The labor ministry says there were 5.05 million workers in 2017 who found new jobs within a year of leaving their last employment, up about 270,000 from the previous year. Of them, 36.2 percent saw higher wages, up 0.9 points from 2016.

That may bode well for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plans to shake up Japan’s rigid labor market. But in a nation notorious for its excessive work culture, quitting is still no easy task.

The piles of paperwork to fill out, bosses incessantly trying to talk subordinates out of leaving and the silent recrimination filling the workplace all stand in the way, and Niino, who worked for three firms before taking the entrepreneurial path, says he understands firsthand the psychology of those who cower at the prospect of enduring the daunting process.

“Quitting should be something positive,” the 28-year-old said at the startup’s Tokyo office.

“It’s good for companies, too. Employees thinking of resigning generally aren’t very productive. It can resolve the talent mismatch at an early stage and would help enhance labor market fluidity.”

Corporate Japan has been under pressure to review its labor practices since the high-profile suicide of a 24-year-old female employee of advertising giant Dentsu Inc. in 2015 revived the nation’s decades-long struggle to curb its extreme work ethic. The woman’s death was ruled by labor inspectors as a case of karōshi, or death from overwork.

Niino and Okazaki says they have worked for clients who felt cornered to the point of considering taking their own lives. For them, Exit provided a life-saving solution.

Once an online request is accepted and the fee is deposited, Exit contacts the employer and notifies them of the client’s intention to resign and how, in most cases, they will no longer be coming in to work. Exit will relay other requests the client may have, including using up any paid leave, but steers clear of anything that requires a lawyer to handle, such as negotiating severance packages.

“We’re strictly the messenger and won’t stick our nose into legal matters,” Okazaki said.

Some employers raise a fuss, demanding they talk to clients directly, but in the end, they have all obliged. Necessary paperwork and any belongings that need to be returned will be exchanged between the client and employer by mail, while Exit will be the conduit for any queries either party may have.

The Constitution guarantees the freedom of choosing careers, while the Civil Code ensures the freedom of retiring, with employment terminating two weeks from the day the request is made. In most cases Exit’s clients use paid holidays for that period, or if they have none left, opt for unpaid leave.

Work regulations and employment contracts may stipulate a longer notice period, but the law generally takes priority, and so far employers haven’t taken legal action to prevent resignations.

“Some employers are surprised that a job like ours exists,” Niino said.

Indeed, Exit has carved out a niche by addressing an underlying demand in a nation where job-hopping is still frowned upon. It’s also a business that requires little capital investment and expertise. Unlike most early-stage startups, Senshi S, which will soon become Exit Inc., is already profitable.

The partners embarked on starkly different paths after attending the same elementary school in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

After graduating from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Niino worked for three companies: SoftBank Telecom Corp., which is now part of SoftBank Corp., Recruit Technologies Co., a subsidiary of major human resources firm Recruit Holdings Co., and CyberBuzz Inc., a group company of advertising firm CyberAgent Inc.

He only spent one year each in the first two jobs, disillusioned with the work and fed up with bullying bosses. Each time, leaving was an emotionally draining process. At SoftBank, he endured one-hour meetings with five of his superiors asking him to stay. At Recruit, a resentful human resources manager reminded him of the investment the company has made in nurturing young talent like himself.

Okazaki, meanwhile, left to study in the United States after graduating from Kaisei Senior High School in Tokyo, considered one of the best high-schools in Japan. He dropped out of the University of North Texas after three years and returned to Japan, where he spent short stints as a formwork carpenter and as a demolition worker, before settling down in the nightlife industry.

“I was never interested in a corporate job,” the 29-year-old said.

When Niino called last year and sought his opinion on the idea for Exit, Okazaki was working at a hostess club in Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, Japan’s largest adult entertainment area. Now the two jokingly describe themselves as representing both white- and blue-collar workers.

“We’d been discussing about doing something together for a long time, and this concept seemed promising,” Okazaki said. “There’s definitely demand out there. Personally, I’m perplexed as to why people find it hard to quit, but I do sense that this atmosphere is prevalent in Japan.”

The company has already been approached by a venture capital firm interested in investing in the business, a proposition they may take up to boost advertisement and establish brand dominance. Smelling opportunity, several similar services have sprung up since the two launched the startup last year.

The company is also looking beyond just helping workers quit. They want to help people find new jobs as well.

Exit eventually plans on using data accumulated from clients to provide staffing services.

“The recruitment industry is hungry for the type of information we collect,” Niino says.