As a foreigner working for an old-school Japanese real estate company, it seems like there is always some fascinating new experience at work to enjoy. I’m thinking, of course, about public shaming.
As I alluded to in a previous post, stepping into my office here in Tokyo is a bit like time travel, in that I’m transported back to a world that still operates like it’s the 1950s.
Okay, maybe the analogy should be a little more modern than that. After all, you can’t smoke at your desk anymore. People have to walk all the way to the office smoking room. Like animals.
But joking aside, some of these old-style workplace customs are great, and it’s a shame (foreshadowing!) that so many companies in the U.S. have lost them. The after-hours socializing comes to mind, for example.
It’s a thing in Japan that you have to go out for drinks after work pretty regularly. Sometimes it’s with clients, sometimes it’s with partners, sometimes it’s with colleagues. I think Japan must be a tough place to be a teetotaler (not that I would know). People just don’t trust you until they’ve seen you get a few under your belt.
In my case, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that I went out after work more often in my first month of working here than I did in nine years at my previous job. Back in California, everyone wanted to go straight home after work, and by 5:30 the office looked like a ghost town. Something about spending time with families or whatever, and blah, blah, blah…
In Japan, let’s just say that the work-life balance is a little bit different. You want to see your family? Fine. Watch ’em sleep when you get home at 11:30 pm. Yeah, people tend to work long hours here, and there are a few different reasons for that that I’ll talk about down the line. But the end result is that people need to blow off a little steam every now and then. The preferred steam-blowing venue is the local watering hole, and the preferred steam-blowing frequency is “often”.
On the other hand, there are some parts of old-style Tokyo office life that aren’t quite so cool. For instance, believe it or not, our office doesn’t have voice mail. No, there’s no typo; you read that right. We absolutely do no have voice mail. Not even on our mobile phones. Even right now, as I write this, in A.D. 2016. If a phone rings in the office, someone is expected to pick it up. The view is that letting a call roll over to an impersonal recording device is rude, and as with many of the new ideas I’ve been exposed to here, I actually think I can get on board with this one to a certain extent.
But not completely. The reason I was hired was to help a traditional, old-fashioned Japanese company expand globally for the first time. So whereas five years ago we could get a phone call from anywhere in Japan and it would still be the same time zone as us, now we might be dealing with people all the way around the world. For instance, Japan is 16 or 17 hours ahead of my old home state of California, depending on whether or not it’s Daylight Savings Time there. (Japan doesn’t practice Daylight Savings Time, because one extra hour isn’t going to help people to get home while the sun’s still up anyway, and also because it’s stupid.) This means it is not hard to imagine a scenario where someone in, say, San Francisco calls our office at 10:00 am their time, and here in Tokyo it’s 2:00 or 3:00 the next morning.
The obvious question we should be asking in this case is whether it’s more rude to have a call roll over to voice mail during the day if no one catches it fast enough, or to not have one roll over even though it’s the middle of the damn night. I know of another real estate company that went through the same debate about ten years ago, and the eventual decision to get a voice mail system was very controversial. Someday we will have to address the matter here, too. By then, though, phones will probably be obsolete.
So you can see that these little anachronistic quirks are either an inconvenience or a good bit of fun, depending. And it’s all well and good to cast a fresh gaze on these new workplace practices. But there was another eye-opener in my first few months on the job that had nothing to do with workplace practices coming back from what I thought of as the past. It had more to do with the gulf between cultures.
One morning, toward the end of our daily assembly meeting, somebody began reading out names, and as each name was read, someone stood up, so that by the end there were maybe 25 people standing at their desks while everyone else watched them. I didn’t know what was going on so I asked a colleague, and he told me that these were all the sales personnel who hadn’t met their revenue goals for the quarter.
Holy shit! These people were being publicly humiliated in front of the whole office for missing their numbers! After every slacker was standing humbly before us, they bowed in apology and sat back down.
I spent no small part of that day trying to get my head around what I had just seen, because this was new territory for me. As a California guy, my perspective was usually something akin to, “Don’t stress, dude.” I’m not even sure an American employer could get away with this kind of public shaming session, quarter after quarter, without someone filing a class action suit.
Here in Japan, though, the perspective is different. Here, if you’ve failed to perform, you’ve let down your team, you’ve let down your company, and you’ve let down the stockholders. We would have understood this at my old employer in the U.S. as well, of course, but I don’t think to the same extent.
These days, with globalization and TV and HR lawyers, I don’t think something like our good old fashioned public shaming is nearly as common here as it once was. My company sometimes deliberately chooses to hold onto, or even revive, old customs. But it seems generally true that western employers are more about the carrot, and Japanese employers are more about the stick. Gotta get that donkey moving somehow, and this is the way we’re choosing.
This incident also helped me understand why there are so many people in Japan who don’t use their paid vacation time. I used to think that it was simply corporate bullying of the employees. I still do to some degree, because that’s something that happens here so often that at the moment I’m writing this, the government is considering new legislation to deal with the unused vacation phenomenon. (I promise to write about this soon, in a subsequent post.)
But there is another reason besides pressure from the company that leads to so many paid days off going unused, and it’s shame. If you’re on vacation, then your work isn’t getting done, pretty much by definition. You not being at work performing your tasks might inconvenience somebody else, who relies on your output to be able to do his own job. Worse yet, one of your colleagues might have to do some of your work in addition to his own, just so your team can continue to function. How rude, to impose on your colleagues so you can run off and enjoy your selfish little holiday! The less individualistic, more group-oriented mindset so common here works to reinforce this issue into a genuine sense of shame, and that shame, combined with ugly corporate bullying, can really mess with people’s heads.
Here’s the most shocking example of the motivational powers of shame I’ve heard of so far. Before I joined the company, there was a guy here whose wife was expecting their first child. Unfortunately, as it turned out, as the baby’s due date approached, the quarter was coming to an end, and the father-to-be hadn’t made his numbers yet. So on the day his wife went into labor, management successfully pressured this guy to come to the office, instead of being there with his wife while their child was born.
Obviously there was no way he was going to be able to bring his total up to quota in a single day. Even if it were possible to make his benchmark with the sale of just one property, real estate transactions take weeks. But nevertheless, there he was at his desk while his wife was giving birth, showing his solidarity with the rest of his team.
Shockingly, this particular broker is no longer with the company, although I don’t know whether that was his decision or management’s. I just wish I knew who the manager was who got him to come to work, and didn’t tell him to go be with his wife that day. Whoever that was should win some kind of an award for either managerial brilliance or complete jackassery.