Seems like there is always some fascinating new experience at work to enjoy. I’m thinking specifically about public shaming, of course.
As I mentioned in a previous post, going to my office in Tokyo is a bit like time travel, in that I’m transported back to a world that’s still in the 1950s. Okay, actually maybe a little more recent than that. After all, you can’t smoke at your desk anymore. People have to walk all the way to the office smoking room.
Actually, joking aside, some of these old-style workplace customs are great, and it’s a shame so many companies in the U.S. have lost them. For instance, the after-work socializing. It’s a thing in Japan that you need to go out for drinks a lot after work. Sometimes with clients, sometimes with partners, sometimes with colleagues. I’m pretty sure Japan must be an impossible place to be a teatotaller (not that I would know). It seems like people just won’t trust you until they’ve seen you get a few under your belt.
It is absolutely no exaggeration to say that I went out for drinks 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 was like a ghost town. Something about families or whatever, blah, blah, blah…
In Japan, let’s just say that the work/life balance is a little bit different. Want to see your family? Fine. Watch ’em sleep when you get home at 11:00 pm. So yeah, people tend to work long hours here, and there are a few different reasons for that, 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, some parts of old-style Tokyo office life aren’t quite so cool. For instance, our office doesn’t have voice mail. No, there’s no typo; you read that right. We have no voice mail. Even now, as I write this, in 2016. If a phone rings in the office, someone is expected to pick it up. The view seems to be that letting a call roll over to an impersonal recording device is rude. And as with a lot of the ideas I’ve been exposed to here that I had never considered before, I actually think I can get on board with that one to a certain extent.
But not completely. The reason I was hired was to help my traditional, old-fashioned Japanese company expand globally. So whereas before we might get a phone call from anywhere in Japan and it would still be the same time zone, now we might be dealing with people all the way around the world. In my old home state of California, for instance, they’re 16 or 17 hours behind Japan, depending on whether or not it’s daylight savings time. (Japan doesn’t practice daylight savings time, because one hour isn’t going to be enough for people to get home while the sun’s still up anyway. And also because it’s stupid.) So someone from San Francisco might call 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 the possibility of a call rolling 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 actually know someone at a different company where they went through the same debate about ten years ago, and the decision to get a voice mail system was in fact very controversial. Someday we’re going to address the matter here, I’m sure. By then, though, phones may well be obsolete.
These anachronistic little quirks are either inconvenient or good fun, depending. And that’s all well and good. For me, though, maybe the biggest eye-opener in my first few months on the job had nothing to do with workplace practices coming back from what I envisioned 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. As each name was read, a salesman stood up, so that by the end there were maybe 25 people standing at their desks, while everyone else watched them. I didn’t understand what was going on, so I asked a colleague and he told me that these were all of the sales personnel who hadn’t met the revenue goals for the quarter.
Yep, these guys were being publicly shamed for missing their numbers! After every slacker was standing, they bowed humbly in apology, and sat back down.
I actually spent no small part of the day trying to understand what I had seen, because I almost couldn’t believe my own eyes. Remember, my perspective is that of a California guy. “Don’t stress, dude.” I’m not even sure an American employer could get away with that kind of thing without someone filing a class action lawsuit. But here in Japan the perspective is different. Here, if you have 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 felt something similar in my old office in the U.S., but not to the same extent. And it seems this sense of shame can be used as a handy motivational tool.
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 ways. But it’s true that western employers are more about the carrot, and Japanese ones are more about the stick. Gotta get that donkey moving somehow, and this is the way we’re choosing.
This incident actually helped me to 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 the government is considering new legislation even now to deal with the vacation matter.
But another reason so many paid days off go unused is that if you’re on vacation, your work isn’t getting done. Sort of by definition, I know, but bear with me. See, 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. Just think of the rude imposition your selfish little holiday is forcing on your colleagues! 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.
Here’s the strongest example I know of. Before I joined the company, there was a guy here whose wife was expecting their first child. Unfortunately, as it will turn out, as her due date approached, the quarter was coming to an end, and this guy hadn’t made his numbers yet. So on the day his wife went into labor, the husband was pressured 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. Nevertheless, there he was at his desk while his wife was giving birth, showing his solidarity with the rest of his team. Just thinking about this again now, writing it down, is making me angry.
Needless to say, this person is no longer with the company, but I don’t really know whose decision that was, his or the corporation’s. I wish I knew who the manager was, though, who pressured him to do this and didn’t tell him to go be with his wife that day. That guy wins some kind of an award for either managerial brilliance or complete jackassery.