By Patricia Pringle, Japan Intercultural Consulting
Frequent job rotations
Henry’s boss Suzuki invited him into his office. “Henry-san, I am going to return to Japan next month and my replacement is Nakamura.” “Oh no, not again,” thought Henry. Just when everything is going so smoothly! Suzuki finally understands what’s going on and can go to bat for us. Now we have to start all over again.”
Whenever we work with long-time employees of Japan-related companies in the U.S., periodic rotation of expatriates is always top on the list of challenges.
Henry had been through the process often enough to know that he could not assume that Suzuki and Nakamura had ever spoken before, and may never even have met. No doubt Nakamura would arrive in Atlanta an almost blank slate, having had a very short meeting with Suzuki to brief him about his new position. Henry also knew that Nakamura would have his own unique management ideas and methods. What was his career history? Had he ever worked abroad before? For how long? In what capacity and in which country? Whatever Nakamura’s background and personality, Henry’s main goal was to overcome the lack of continuity and get Nakamura oriented as quickly as possible while avoiding misunderstanding and upheaval. Henry assembled his orientation team and started making a transition plan.
Here are some things to consider during management rotations.
Getting to know you
While American managers in the same situation would likely call a meeting to introduce themselves, Japanese often prefer to keep a low profile and get to know the organization more organically. Take the initiative to set up a meeting to get to know him and also to introduce your staff and their functions. Don’t assume that your old manager has told him anything about the great employees and what they have accomplished. Also, give him the necessary information about your company (particularly important if yours is an acquisition), its current projects and its future plans.
Orientation to your company office culture
In addition to business orientation, new managers need to be aware of the culture, values and behavior within your organization. This is especially true if they have never had a US assignment before. We often assume that American values and lifestyle are known universally, and are surprised to discover that many Japanese ideas about Americans come from movies. Office Space or 9 to 5 anyone? Here are some topics to keep in mind.
Several years ago, an American manager approached us for advice, saying that the new Japanese president was secretive and unfriendly. Every day he walked through the door and into his office without saying anything to anyone except the receptionist. He did not greet employees when he passed them in the hallways.
We explained to them that while American bosses were supposed to be friendly and be the first to say hello, in Japan normally employees are expected to greet their bosses first. Then the boss returns the greeting. The receptionist’s job was to say hello to everyone who came in the door. That is why she got a hello back. Meanwhile, the new boss was surprised that his US employees did not seem as friendly as he had expected!
We had a word with the Japanese manager, who began to say hello to employees. His approval rating went up considerably after that simple change of behavior.
Explain the typical dress standards in your office. If he objects to it, as in “Doesn’t she look cold?” (the spaghetti straps and the flip-flops) or “Is he really an employee here? How old is that guy?” (the shorts), work with him to create written dress standards. Explain the custom of “Casual Friday” as well.
Holidays and vacations
Make sure your Japanese managers have a list of company holidays, and if necessary provide the vacation calendar for the public schools in your area, so they have some advance notice of when vacation days will be taken. In particular, let them know about Thanksgiving. Japan has a Labor-Thanksgiving holiday around the same time of year. It is simply a day off, so they assume our Thanksgiving is also not very significant. Your new Japanese manager probably does not know that it is a five-day holiday, is the biggest travel vacation of the year, and everyone celebrates it, regardless of ethnic background or religion. Do not let your Japanese manager make himself extremely unpopular by organizing global meetings or scheduling overtime.
Job descriptions and performance evaluations
In Japanese companies, HR is managed quite differently than the way it is done in the US. Therefore it is important to brief new managers about the fundamentals of job descriptions and performance evaluations and why they are important. Provide concrete examples and if possible a process flow chart. You may want to hire professionals to work with managers in Japanese to help them understand the concepts.
A big challenge for Americans to face in Japanese companies is how to get the information they need to do their jobs. Once again, Japanese tend to communicate information in an organic way, from person to person. It is the employee’s responsibility to make the effort to find out what they need to know. In the US, however, management does the “telling and selling.” The new manager should be encouraged to share information in “all-hands meetings,” and to communicate important company news to all employees via email or on the company intranet.
Training on civil rights regulations
This is often referred to as “Sexual harassment training,” but it encompasses quite a bit more. Even Americans don’t automatically know the dos and don’ts without training. Some companies even offer annual refresher classes. If Americans need help with this, how more so the Japanese, who have a completely different experience of sex roles and diversity. They may also have gotten a hold of some misinformation, such as “Don’t work with female managers (or minorities), or you will inadvertently say or do something that might get you into trouble.” This needs to be corrected, and a productive working style needs to be taught. Our company, Japan Intercultural, offers courses on “Preventing Sexual Harassment and Discrimination” in Japanese and tailored to Japanese circumstances. As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And believe me, the cure can be very expensive in both money and reputation.
Naturally some managers make the transition faster and easier than others. The most important thing is not to expect the system on the Japan side to handle these matters for you. Each local organization must take the initiative to orient new managers to the local business and company culture.
This article originally appeared in Japan Close-Up magazine