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With an increasing number of employees nationwide working remotely these days, human resource departments are also being stretched thin as they deal with a rise in harassment complaints between staff and their managers.

A number of Japanese companies are now in the process of frantically trying to resolve these remote issues before April — a time of year when a whole bunch of new recruits will join the workforce.

“In-person workplace harassment cases plummeted in 2020, mainly because it became awkward for bosses in their 40s and 50s to scold or reprimand underlings online,” says Hajime Takehana, a Tokyo-based lawyer who specializes in labor problems. “On the other hand, the number of complaints for remote work harassment soared, and bosses in the exact same age brackets are the most likely offenders. In many cases, the fact that the harassment is all happening online actually makes things worse.”

What exactly qualifies as remote work harassment? Takehana says that certain situations are cropping up with increasing regularity, especially those concerning female employees.

“When a manager or colleague makes a remark about an employee’s room or the background they’ve selected, it’s a typical case of remote work harassment,” Takehana says. “A person’s home is a private domain, and should be exempt from scrutiny. In fact, managers should be wary of making any off-handed remarks not connected to the work at hand.

“Another common complaint is when a boss forces subordinates to participate in online drinking parties. In-person gatherings were easier to get out of — you could make an excuse and go home early. And managers are generally expected to pay more than their share to cover for the younger employees, thereby easing some of the burden. However, there is no escape with online gatherings. A manager who is unaware of this may find themselves guilty of remote work harassment.”

Other forms of remote work harassment are more subtle, but arguably more damaging. Companies are deploying surveillance software systems to keep tabs on remote work quality and productivity, a separate Nikkei.com article says.

Online tools such as a platform developed by NEC called Hatarakikata Mieruka Service Plus are useful when tracking working hours via the time an employee spends on their computer, and even sends managers an alert when a staff member shifts to unpaid overtime work. The online tools can also work as security programs that prevent outside infiltration or data leaks. On the whole, though, they toe a very fine line between quality control and infringement on privacy, the article says.

On Twitter, users say they are generally turned off by such surveillance systems and wish that things were simpler. “Remote work implies that there’s a lot of distance between work and home,” user @xmg_on wrote, “but the reality is that the two have simply merged. It’s that much easier for us to be watched.”

In any case, managers typically aren’t monsters and are more than likely just as stressed about the issue as their subordinates, Business.nikkei says.

The article conducted a survey among bosses in major cities across Japan, and more than 50% replied that they were worried about remote work communication problems.

“On one hand, the company wants us managers to ramp up communication with our subordinates,” says one boss, speaking on condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, we worry that the subordinates may see those attempts as harassment. As a result, it’s become a lot harder to give orders and get work done.”

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