When I worked at a Japanese company in Japan years ago, one of my greatest experiences of culture shock involved the discovery that I was not considered a “real employee.” Despite working just as hard as my Japanese colleagues, I had been hired into a different category, which implied a very different degree of future prospects. While my Japanese colleagues were seishain, which can literally translated as “real employees,” I was merely a shokutaku, or contract employee.
In United States business as well, there are “regular employees” and “contractors.” The difference with my experience in Japan is that at the time of hire, one is given a clear understanding of which category they are able to join and what the implications are. Whereas for me, unbeknownst to me I was not considered a part of the Japanese company’s “corporate family” to the same degree as my Japanese peers. As a shokutaku, there was no possible career path for promotion, nor was there any real assurance of a future in the company. This would be true as well for contractors in the United States. However, in the Japanese firm I worked for, the seishain category was open only to Japanese. In the United States, that would be considered discriminatory. While there are some exceptions of Japanese firms who employ non-Japanese as seishain, most notably Sony, in most cases non-Japanese still are automatically relegated to the seishain category. And as one of my former colleagues who hailed from the U.K. found, despite years of loyal service producing excellent results, he was not able to make the switch from shokutaku to seishain – there was simply no precedent or mechanism for it.
Human resource management practices in Japan seem to place great emphasis on putting employees into categories. Not only is there the seishain/shokutaku distinction, but there is also usually a distinction between jimushoku and sogoshoku. The former are employees, mostly women, who perform administrative tasks and have a limited career potential. The latter, mostly male, have the potential to move into the management ranks. The distinction between these two categories is quite rigid, despite the fact that they often do similar work, and in many cases the jimushoku are the ones who are really holding things together. If one wants to switch from jimushoku to sogoshoku, if such an option is even available and is not openly discouraged, it requires jumping a hurdle such as passing a test. Until this practice was recently made illegal, for years many Japanese firms prevented many women from opting for sogoshoku positions by requiring that those of sogoshoku status be willing to be transferred anywhere within the country at any time, something unappealing to most women, who in Japan often prefer to live with their parents while single and after marriage would be reluctant to live apart from their husbands.
From an American perspective, the strict distinction between different categories is difficult to fathom. In the U.S., although there are indeed differences between standard employees and contractors, there is no equivalent to the jimushoku/sogoshoku distinction. The emphasis is much more on the job than what category the employee is in. And because there is a lot more fluidity in the labor market, and no promise to regular employees that they will not be fired at the drop of a hat, there is not as great of a real difference between regular employees and contractors that there is in the Japanese context.
This article originally appeared in Global Manager Magazine
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