Upgrading rules on harassment

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry is planning to tighten and enforce the country’s guidelines for harassment in the workplace, the ministry announced in early November.

Revising the Equal Employment Opportunity Law this year and enforcing the changes from July 2014 will be welcome news to the many employees who suffer from workplace harassment and discrimination.

The proposed improvements to current guidelines will help to establish better relations within workplaces. The new guidelines include a reconsideration of harassment between members of the same gender. A female supervisor talking to a female subordinate will no longer be able to make comments such as, “Why aren’t you married yet?” or “When are you going to have children?” Under the new guidelines, such comments will be considered harassment.

Overregulating speech, of course, is not conducive to improving the atmosphere in workplaces or relations between employees. However, using one’s authority and position to comment on the private lives of employees should not be condoned. Because such comments create unnecessary tension and suggest that decisions about promotion or duties will be based on the private lives of employees, they need to be stopped.

The new guidelines also regulate comments that men and women should act differently. Making comments to men such as “That is unmanly” or “You should act like a man” would be prohibited. Prohibiting such gender-biased comments is important if men and women are ever going to be considered equal in the workplace. Making comments that pointlessly prescribe behavior or attitudes differently between men and women constitutes another form of gender discrimination in the workplace.

Most importantly the ministry plans to make regulations about promotion much stricter. Companies will be prohibited, for example, from refusing to promote an employee to management because the worker declined to be transferred to another part of the country because of their marriage or family situation. In the past, when employees tried to discuss such transfers, it was often used as a pretext for not promoting them. Women’s potentially taking maternity leave has similarly been used to unfairly evaluate female employees and deny promotion.

Clarifying regulations and increasing enforcement will help reduce harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Current workers are becoming increasingly assertive about fair treatment and have been consulting the ministry in greater numbers. Workers have the right to be treated fairly at work, both in word and action, and have begun to push for greater equality and better treatment. Improving workplace conditions by removing verbal harassment and unfair promotion practices is essential for improving Japan’s economy and the quality of life for all employees.

  • Unfortunately, the government making these rules only causes people to hide their actual beliefs, it does not change anyone’s actual beliefs. In fact, it will probably promote outrage among bigots, finding some other unhealthy way to manifest itself, requiring more laws to engineer behavior.

    This would not be a problem if there was a culture of people more willing to stand up for themselves in the moment, instead of anonymously complain to the “ministry”. The question to ask is why this is not so, with the only unacceptable answer being “because there wasn’t a law yet”.

    I think we all know the answer in social-hierarchy-driven Japan, but it’s easier to pass a law than to examine the cause, isn’t it?

    If you want a behavioral change at the workplace, I have identified a “cause” that needs to be purged from the culture: the notion that defending yourself from an agent of social shaming, for example about “being a man” or “being a woman”, brings the victim down to the level of the bully. Here, engagement and confrontation, if you are in the right or not, is considered to be the sin: the sin of disrupting the social harmony. But you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Law or no law, you still have to report the behavior and come out about it eventually.

    So, ultimately, there are no lasting cultural changes until individuals find the dignity and self-respect to stand up for themselves, even if it means face-downing their their “superiors” and “elders”. Anyone who remains silent in those moments is a co-conspirator in their own problem. Nothing, including discrimination laws, can replace establishing and upholding your own boundaries. Define them, know them, protect them: no one else can.

    Secondly, while no woman likes hearing, “Let me hook you up with an お見合い” from their nosy boss, and no man likes to be shamed with a “You have to be strong!” as if he has some sort of social obligation that surpasses that of a woman’s, things like this are not the same as some of the other things labeled “discrimination” in this list:

    For example, refusing to move or choosing having a baby (and take maternity leave) has negative economic consequences for the business. Choices have consequences. We can choose to insulate people from their choices, but it only transfers the burden from one entity to another, much like these laws willl transfer the outlet of social aggression from one way to another.

    In the case of maternity leave, it causes more work for the other men and women working at the office. Where is the other employees’ protection against the “discrimination” of having to endure someone else’s work? They must take up the slack for someone who cannot, at least for a time, get the job done. Or, the owner is compelled to use more of his money to hire another person to do that work, and where will that money come from? The wages of another worker? Cutting down on office supplies? Higher prices to the consumer? There is no “free lunch”, except for those groups we dub to be privileged for whatever imagined reason.

    In such a context, promoting others is not so much “punishment” for her taking maternity leave, or for someone moving, as it is a reward to others who are more reliable. It would be the same as someone who had a disease and was sick for a year, their not being considered as highly for a promotion is not a knock against them, it is simply a recognition of the situation and who has a track record of reliability and performance. It is not a matter of sympathy and respect, it is a matter of justice towards everyone else, too.

    If we want to truly be progressive, we should rid ourselves of this expectation that it’s a woman’s place to have children as a natural course of her life, and therefore everyone, men, other women, businesses, society in general, should adjust themselves to fit this goal. That view should be replaced with the understanding that having a child is simply one of many optional life choices that some women happen to choose to pursue.