How to Handle Japanese Employees

“Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss”
By Thomas J. Nevins

Reviewed by Dr. Tadashi Hanami

How to Handle Japanese Employees PDF of the original

Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss is a unique book by an unusual “author,” who runs a labor consulting business that has recently diversified into headhunting services.

I put author in quotes because Mr Nevins himself does that in his remarks at the beginning of the book. He is almost defensive in pointing out that parts of the book were in fact not written and are based on tape transcripts of speeches and seminars that he has given before groups of expatriate businessmen at places such as the American Chamber of Commerce and the American Club.

Mr Nevins has been in Japan 12 years and has gradually established himself as what must be Japan’s first and only foreign full-time professional labor consultant. At a couple of seminars in the past I was asked to speak before expatriate businessmen on the subject of Japanese labor law, I suggested that Mr. Nevins join me and handle the practice side of the seminar.

For businessmen business comes first and although he began his career both in the United States and here in Japan, from presumably a neutral point of view, and in fact worked in a number of labor unions in his early years in Japan, in many of the articles appearing in Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss, Nevins clearly identifies with the management side, answers their questions, and solves the problems that are faced by expatriate executives working in multinational firms here in Japan. When you have done your homework as well as he has however, and when you can boast of the successes that he has apparently had with his clients, there is no doubt that he is also aware that he will only be effective when policies and changes he implements are fair, legitimate and accepted by both participants in corporate labor relations.

Labor Pains has the subtitle Hiring, Managing and Firing Japanese. There is much more to the book and as is described in the author profile on the back jacket flap, Mr. Nevins has primarily been engaged in creating or strategically revising Rules of Employment, establishing or redesigning compensation, “rehabilitation” and nominated resignations or outright terminations of problem employees or poor performers, personnel-related cost cutting programs, massive staff reductions through “voluntary” retirement, maintenance of the union-free environment, and “union management.” His own theories, insights and programs in the compensation area are refreshing and new, as are his applications of “rewards and punishment.”

To me this explains the orientation, point of view and content of the book. Although there are a number of general articles which outline the basics of Japanese people management, and Japanese labor law and the legal and practical implications of union organization drives, employment contracts, probation, transfer as well as overall descriptions of national manpower policies, pension, health, accident compensation, insurances and vocational training programs, the areas discussed by Mr. Nevins with most enthusiasm are those which involve practical and specific issues – the most serious, sensitive and challenging problems that foreign management will face in Japan.

Indeed, not all Japanese are hard workers, and some expatriate managers complain that the mere fact of working in a foreign firm sometimes provides a convenient excuse for their Japanese employees not to work hard and provide dedicated and loyal service to the employer. When this happens Mr. Nevins believes that something must be done about it. These are also services his firm provides.

There is no doubt that many foreign firms have set up their operations as if they were still back in Detroit, and as Nevins points out when compensation structuring or the retirement benefit system are not set up right, it can be an expensive drain on corporate resources. Nevins’ clients testify that he has made a difference in turning these situations around and his efforts have allowed a number of firms to rationalize operations and remain in this country rather than give up and leave the market place, thereby at least providing employment security to the good performers who remain.

Above all else Labor Pains and the Gaijin Boss is a book about experience. My intuition is that many of Mr. Nevins’ clients have faced challenges and had their share of troubles. My own experience is that many foreign companies will wait until there is a crisis before they will bother to focus their time and energies on the important but less visible and understandable area of personnel practices and labor relations.

As the author points out, home country practices are not acceptable. Yet it is not enough to leave this sensitive, potentially explosive and most costly area to Japanese Staff. There is no substitute for the foreign manager to enhance his own understanding of what is being done and why it’s being done. Furthermore, as the American labor consultant points out, only when this understanding is achieved is it possible to have the required checks on costs and necessary blend of home office corporate culture and policy constraints, along with the more pure or “traditional” aspects of Japanese practice.

The seven detailed “Words of Appreciation from Satisfied Clients” appearing in the beginning of the book are testimonials from multinational companies who have used TMT’s services. They must be more convincing than anything I could say about Mr. Nevins’ competency as a labor consultant. In terms of my particular area of specialization I can vouch for his descriptions and interpretations of labor law in Japan.

In the spirit of an objective book review it is important to point out to potential buyers and readers that this work is positioned as a “handbook,” and is in fact a compilation of published materials which have appeared over the last six years (coincidently, from about the time that Mr. Nevins’ firm, Technics in Management Transfer – TMT Inc., was established in 1978). The concepts and manner of expression can be brutally frank and to the point, especially on the tape transcripts of speeches. That in itself makes the content interesting, lively and at times amusing. The advantage of compiling many different pieces on different subjects is that both very general and extremely concrete or “nuts and bolts” type information on a wide spectrum of subjects can appear within the confines of a single 300 page book.

The down side is that there can be some repetition in content. Nevins admits this but encourages the reader to take the book one “part” at a time and steers us toward the euphemism of “reinforcement” rather than repetition. We will also have to excuse Mr. Nevins for being not only expert at labor consulting but also in the area of self-promotion. The book is accurate, practical and convincing however, and I would imagine that he will be successful in tempting all but a handful of his expatriate businessmen readers from utilizing TMT’s Tokyo based labor consulting and headhunting services.

Dr. Tadashi Hanami, Professor of Sophia University, was Dean of the Law School at Sophia University, Public Commissioner on the Tokyo Metropolitan Labour Relations Commission and now a visiting professor of Harvard Law School. He has been a visiting professor at other western universities in the United States, West Germany and Belgium. His English books include Labor Relations in Japan Today. (Kodansha International Ltd., 1979) Note: Since this 1984 book review, Dr. Hanami has had an even more illustrious career and published several English and Japanese books.