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The Chasing Out Room
September 4, 2013 7:09 PM   Subscribe

With mass layoffs still taboo in Japan, senior workers who refuse to resign are sent to "chasing-out rooms" instead of being allowed to work. (SL NYTimes)
posted by reenum (48 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously: the New York City Schools' Rubber Room.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:12 PM on September 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


came here to post about the Rubber Rooms, was beaten out by Horace Rumpole... :-)
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:14 PM on September 4, 2013


It's important to note that in the end, the NYC teachers union broke the rubber rooms, not vice versa. They were yet another one of Stein's bad ideas.
posted by NoxAeternum at 7:17 PM on September 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


That's the kind of job I can learn to appreciate!
posted by markkraft at 7:18 PM on September 4, 2013


"Compete in the global marketplace" seems synonymous with "race to the bottom".

You know, another alternative would be to find something else for them to do within the company, or even, gosh, pay their salary while they went off and did something for the public good.
posted by maxwelton at 7:21 PM on September 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


There is some horribly black comedy in watching people discover that the ownership class views the working class as disposable. It's awful, but there's a sense of... I dunno, of realizing that many people really did believe that the company gave a shit about them, and that's well into "laugh or cry" territory.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:27 PM on September 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


instead of being allowed to work

I think this is a weird phrasing. The point is that there is nowhere for them to work inside the company. I mean these are people that helped make VHS tapes or products where Sony was outmaneuvered by its competitors.

It's awful, but there's a sense of... I dunno, of realizing that many people really did believe that the company gave a shit about them, and that's well into "laugh or cry" territory.

In Japan, the company really did/does "give a shit" about its workers, at least more than American companies do. Unfortunately, there's a reasonable case that this has a lot to do with Japanese economic stagnation.
posted by downing street memo at 7:35 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I am not sure this is entirely a new thing in Japan, although it might be new for outgrown executives who were, I believe, previously consigned to the madogiwazoku - the window tribe.

(See also this Ask from 2005 which contains references back to 1999.)
posted by curious.jp at 7:41 PM on September 4, 2013


So Sony has decided that they can't think of a single useful thing for these guys to do, but they need 21 billion dollars of market capitalization to not do it with. Hmmm, and this guy has been doing it for two years. I wonder....
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:43 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


How embarassing to find that the article makes this very observation two paragraphs below where I paused reading to go and find the AskMe. Mea culpa.
posted by curious.jp at 7:44 PM on September 4, 2013


My uncle faced this. He was an accountant for a hospital, and was made redudant in a merger. They wanted to lay him off, but his contract allowed for a not-meager severance package in that event. So, they had him report to a boredom room.

After three years, they tried some shenanigans - and it backfired to the extent that he sued and they had to pay him a settlement. Also, they had to continue to employ him - in the boredom room.

After 7 years, they had had enough and finally bought him out for 3 times his severance package. That, plus his accumulated pay meant that he could retire at 53.

As the Russians have learned, time and again, you can't out-stubborn a Finlander.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:44 PM on September 4, 2013 [56 favorites]


Sounds like something George Costanza might aspire to. Cue up "My Baby Takes the Morning Train".
posted by 2bucksplus at 7:51 PM on September 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


As the global market expands capital will always have an advantage over labor. That is THE POINT of "globalization."

Contracts can and will be broken.

Why would any be surprised that we, the masses, are seen as chattel?

What would Jesus invest in?
posted by Max Power at 8:06 PM on September 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


This happens in the US as well sometimes. Sometimes a dismissal requires board approval but a change in duties doesn't. Sometimes a contract stands in the way and it is cheaper to keep someone on the pay role.

This used to happen to students in way as well, at least in New York, where certain types of suspensions meant a week sitting in someone's office. Happened to me for bringing a coat to class.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:07 PM on September 4, 2013


Kid Charlemagne - that chart is very misleading a more realistic comparison.

Its probably not meaningful to place this in the context of anglo-saxon corporations. The relationship between big business and the government is japan is very different from what we have in the US or the UK in many different ways. For decades there was a tacit agreement that the corporations would offer lifetime employment and high staffing levels in exchange for the government doing a whole heap of things to keep the Japanese market closed and turning a blind eye towards lots of other borderline behaviors.

Actually Sony is a pretty interesting example as they basically just told a big activist hedge fund guy who normally scares the shit out of corporate boards he attacks in the US to go the hell away.
posted by JPD at 8:13 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Payroll damnit 😞
posted by Ad hominem at 8:13 PM on September 4, 2013


ETA: not just in the context of "anglo-saxon corporations" but also in the context of "globalization" - this is a very different thing that is going on here. Japan is probably the first world country that is the least guilty of favoring capital over labor. A quick glance at the ROC of most companies on the Tokyo Stock Exchange would tell you that.
posted by JPD at 8:15 PM on September 4, 2013


I can see the wisdom in fostering a culture of allowing the employees to stick around for a while after a redundancy, but after six months or a year, they should really be free to let the person go. It seems more humane than paying them to be what amounts to human chess pieces until they die.

On the other hand, maybe that's the point: if someone gets stuck in the rubber room and can't figure out something to do with themselves after a year+ of sitting around, maybe they deserve to just sit there and rot.
posted by gjc at 8:44 PM on September 4, 2013


I always take what Hiroko Tabuchi writes with a grain of salt. Instead of offering insights, explorations and examinations, her modus operandi, her particular niche, is to write nasty things about Japan.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:09 PM on September 4, 2013


Labor practices in Japan contrast sharply with those in the United States, where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete.

Or when the sun is shining, or when it's cloudy, or when the current day of the week ends in "y."
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also, having used the UIs on Sony products of the last twenty years, I'm not surprised this is the best they can do.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:28 PM on September 4, 2013


“I have a single wish for Japan’s electronics sector, and that’s labor reform,” said Atul Goyal, a technology analyst at Jefferies & Company.

Says the parasite.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:37 PM on September 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


Happened to me for bringing a coat to class.

You bastard! A coat? In a classroom? Fie, that way leads to anarchy!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:45 PM on September 4, 2013


"I can see the wisdom in fostering a culture of allowing the employees to stick around for a while after a redundancy, but after six months or a year, they should really be free to let the person go. It seems more humane than paying them to be what amounts to human chess pieces until they die."

I'm just kind of amazed that they can't think of a single other thing for these folks to do that would be productive for Sony. Can't they hug robots or something?
posted by klangklangston at 11:54 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


But too many employees IS a huge problem for Japanese companies. I do a lot of work with Japanese companies and they are top heavy, bottom heavy, middle heavy with people who are on the payroll, but who have nothing productive or even useful to contribute. It sometimes borders on absurd to sit in a room on one side of the table - by myself - and to have a dozen Japanese on the other side and only one person talking.

Making it impossible to reduce your workforce when you no longer have the business to support them makes you really hesitant to ever hire anyone new and makes setting up shop in other countries which do not have such oppressive labor laws - such as the American south - much more attractive.

Which is Japan for the last 2 decades in a nutshell.

"It seems more humane than paying them to be what amounts to human chess pieces until they die."

The attitude of someone who has never had to make payroll. I have hustle my ass off in order to make sure there is enough money every month to pay my employees. Paying someone to NOT work - on top of all the taxes I already pay - would put me out of business. Simple and plain. Humane is all well and good, but when you're running a business paying people not to work is a problem. How about YOU pay them not to work? Surely households with two wage earners and no kids can take on some extra help.
posted by three blind mice at 12:03 AM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


The corner office thing has been going on for years. Without having an absolute understanding of the labor code in Japanese, I can say that the basic rule is: it's almost utterly impossible to fire a full-time worker in Japan. Difficult to the point that companies resort to paying employees to come to work and putting them in embarrassing positions and hoping they'll quit is actually easier, and cheaper, than the long process of firing a full-time worker.

I'm absolutely willing to say that the difficulty involved in firing a full-time employee is one of the biggest problems in Japan (and there are a lot of problems).

The thing is, I am *seriously* pro-worker. I really, really am. I would never advocate for reducing worker protections. What has happened as a result of this is what needs to be looked at. Sure, everyone points and smirks and says 'weird, the corner office in Japan is punishment?!' and goes on about their day.

What happens now is that there are no full-time jobs to be had anymore. A crushingly large percentage of Japanese workers in their 20s and 30s are part-time or contract employees, with no chance, not even a slim hope, of ever finding full-time work. Contract employees don't have to be fired, companies just don't renew the contract, and nothing can be done. Part-time employees can be dropped for any reason at all. That's the labor situation here, so much so that (I can never seem to find the figures) a scary-large percentage of workers in their 20s make less than 10-15,000 dollars a year.

It's a brutal situation, and Yamada-san up in the corner office, he knows that if he gives in, if he lets the soul-crushing shunning he deals with everyday get to him, if he quits, he will never, never be able to find another job, so he'll dig in, he'll endure as long as he can. Meanwhile, when things begin to turn around, just a bit, all of the people who had the misfortune to enter the workforce (graduate from college, essentially) during the downturn will never get hired. Full-time, all the trimmings, that sort of job is reserved for fresh college graduates. Have you been working part-time? Have years of actual work experience? You're damaged goods, and none of the big companies* will hire you on anything more than a contract.

That's the race to the bottom. They can't get rid of redundant employees. They aren't crazy about re-training workers with obsolete skills. So the new kids, they hire them, then throw them away, and then everyone goes nuts and wonders why consumer demand is falling. Domestic consumption is falling because no young people have any money, or any hope of ever having any.

*Most large companies in Japan get their new workers direct from graduation. It used to be, and still is for a vanishingly small portion of university students, that juniors in college would essentially be guaranteed employment. If you were still looking for a job in your senior year, ooh, that's not good. Then, because university education in Japan is more like a 'congratulations! you've slaved away your childhood for a chance to slave away the rest of your life, here's a four year vacation,' most new workers have no skills, and have no idea how to do their jobs. I taught freshmen orientation courses for Fujitsu one summer. All of the new employees were in training for nine full months before being told to go to work. Companies don't want workers who already have an idea of how to do their job, they want fresh, moldable minds who will unquestioningly follow THE COMPANY WAY.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:17 AM on September 5, 2013 [18 favorites]


Sorry, last thing: Of course Abe wants this protection to go away. He'll try to couch it in pro-growth terms. He'll say "if we get rid of the dead wood, we can plant new trees' or some other nice sounding bullshit. The day they succeed is the day that full-time employment in Japan dies. Companies have been getting by with contract workers for so long, why would they ever go back? As it is, contract workers are usually given the same, or larger, workload as the full-time employees, for much less pay.

The consumption tax is going up. The old have all the money in Japan, and they'll take all the money they can from the young to prop things up just long enough so their standard of living doesn't suffer. It's going to be very, very ugly in Japan, probably very soon.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:24 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


They still get to read newspapers all day. Add Internet access and it wouldn't be too unpleasant.

If management want to chase the workers out, they could make them work flat-out on something tedious and unpleasant; i.e., manually adding figures/classifying words to arbitrary rules. Hire other employees to set and check the tasks (making sure they're from a different area so they don't collaborate). Perhaps even make the task so hard to do without error that there'd be justification for sacking an employee who, after 25+ years of sterling service, is rubbish at spotting one-character differences in long strings within a fraction of a second.

It's like a grim meathook version of full employment.
posted by acb at 1:19 AM on September 5, 2013



Actually Sony is a pretty interesting example as they basically just told a big activist hedge fund guy who normally scares the shit out of corporate boards he attacks in the US to go the hell away.
posted by JPD at 8:13 PM on September 4 [3 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]



Just to note that the activist Loeb is calling for the spinoff of Sony's movie, TV & music units - which he sees as both the core value in the Sony business and also underperforming due to being part of the conglomerate. All these units are American/Anglo-Saxon culturally , not Japanese - staff can and will be let go easily at a drop of hat en masse at them ( has happened at Sony Pictures before for instance). There is a tension too within Sony over how their American content businesses are much more profitable in recent times than Sony's Japanese traditionally core engineering businesses ( actually they make more money in Japan out of insurance and personal finance) - working in loss-making TV engineering (the soul of Sony) is considered to be far more prestigious than making profits doing funny movies in Hollywood or even working in Playstation development.
posted by Bwithh at 1:27 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bwithh's comment about the conglomerate nature of Sony is spot on. One of the bigger issues is just how large these companies are, and how difficult it can be to get them turned around.

As a random example, the place I bank with is just one arm of a massive corporation that got started with heavy manufacturing and chemicals, but is one of the larger banks in Japan. Sony's insurance arm is massive, while their manufacturing arm gets weaker all the time.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:37 AM on September 5, 2013


Acb, incompetency isn't usually considered grounds for firing someone. You just move them around into something less critical.

Culturally, the shunning is a lot more effective. The group, and working to help support the group, has been, and is still, one of the strongest motivators here. To be pushed out of the group, but still fully visible to the group, to be forced to come to work every day, knowing that the group doesn't want you, and that your effort, which is the sum total of your value to the company (and therefore key to your own self-image) is no longer wanted.

It's a rejection of a person's entire concept of their self-worth. It's public humiliation. It's not any kind of fun.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:43 AM on September 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Ok, since I live here, and since I have been involved in labor issues, let me chime in. The way I would explain it is this: for the most part, employees have to accept being laid off. And if you are over 40 or god forbid over 50 and below a certain level, your options for another job are pretty much taxi driver or combini worker (it's an exaggeration, but not too much of one). So the situation is not good on either side -- the company has no role for you, but neither does any other company. And being unemployed is not a great option, of course. So.......you get these rooms and people sitting by windows. I have seen people offered severance equal to their remaining time before retirement (ie you have five years before retirement, how about we pay you 5 years of salary to leave now) refuse, because they would rather be part of the company and go to work than be a 55 yr old guy sitting around the park doing nothing. So, this is a clear outcome of the way the economy was built up, and the answers are not fast or simple. One extra note -- you can actually forcibly lay off whole divisions and things like that in Japan, the labor laws are not as restrictive as the article seems to lay out. I always here, over here, "hey, it's not France."
posted by Vcholerae at 1:52 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Kid Charlemagne - that chart is very misleading a more realistic comparison.

Actually, they're the same chart if you stretch the time scale out to 2 years - my chart just lost that in the linkage. I should have checked because my point was very much that Samsung (among others) is kicking Sony's sorry ass in the market, while Sony's big ideas mostly consist of a litany of making sure none of their stuff is compatible with anyone else's stuff and to send cease and desist letters to fans of their products.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:50 AM on September 5, 2013


> They still get to read newspapers all day.

Have you ever sat down and carefully read a daily newspaper from a large city front-to-back? It shouldn't take you more than a couple hours if it's, say, a big Wednesday edition of the Times. And you go as far as to read the entire obits section and fine-print public notices in the classifieds. Then you have six or eight more hours to fill that day, and then four more days of exactly the same routine for the week, and more of the same the following week.

If you're not prone to a life of the mind, nor have an inclination to bring a notepad and some ideas about a novel to write, I doubt it's how you'll want to spend the last few years of your career.
posted by ardgedee at 3:41 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


another alternative would be to find something else for them to do within the company, or even, gosh, pay their salary while they went off and did something for the public good.

Actually, in the article it says that a number of these men were indeed offered very big severance packages - like, over a year's salary - but the men turned them down. The notion of "you work in one job and at one company until you retire, and that's that" is still really strong, so they were turning down the early-retirement or huge-severance packages because "what? No, you can't pay me off, I'm supposed to be working here until I'm 60, that's the way it works."

It really is a George Costanza situation - these guys were offered money to leave and do something else, but they refused, so they're just in this room to be kind of kept out of the way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:31 AM on September 5, 2013


Except there isn't anything else for them to do. Especially at the same level of prestige. So that "big" severance package isn't very big.
posted by JPD at 5:01 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Actually, in the article it says that a number of these men were indeed offered very big severance packages - like, over a year's salary - but the men turned them down.

Except that's not big at all, compared to what they could get by waiting it out - five or ten more years salary, plus a retirement. I'd refuse that "very big" package and complete online degrees - or read Metafilter! too.
posted by corb at 5:08 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


It really is a George Costanza situation

"They can't bore me out of the company, Jerry! I thrive on boredom! You can't out-bore George Costanza!!"
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:25 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


"hey, it's not France."

Indeed, it sounds more restrictive than France. Here we have similar issues, almost word-for-word Ghidorah's great post, but it's easier to lay off people in general, both mass and individual. Not a lot easier, but definitely simpler, and with less cultural fallout. Everyone I know here has been through a period of unemployment, none of them hide it or are ashamed by it; they know it's common enough in the current economy.

In French the corner room/chasing out room is called le placard, "the closet", and the expression la mise au placard ("put in the closet") basically translates to "being pushed out". A lot of people quit, most others are fired within a few months of being "put in one", though sometimes it can take up to a year. I've never seen it last any longer than that. And over here it's rarely a distinct room; it can be a regular office, it mainly refers to having zero responsibilities, or meaningless ones, and having to report to upper management about why you have zero responsibilities, why haven't you managed to bring in business on your own, why is your motivation flagging, why aren't you showing a good face for the company... the worst part is, if you don't quit, there are people who will ask you why not since "it would have shown some motivation"! It's a really shitty, unfair position to be put in.
posted by fraula at 5:41 AM on September 5, 2013


At the risk of over-commenting, I have witnessed this firsthand in a school I was working in. There was a teacher who, for whatever reason, students turned on him. I don't know exactly what had happened, but it got to the point that on the open day for parents, his class was packed out with parents, who then went out of their way to complain about him.

Again, all I ever heard was that the students just decided they didn't like him. He was a pretty normal teacher, not all that exciting, but there he was, the target of all of this complaining.

He was removed from his classes in the middle of the term, which is something that just doesn't happen. I've worked with people who were totally, utterly incompetent, and been told just to work around them, because they weren't gong anywhere. This guy, though, that same week, he was stripped of all classes, but they couldn't fire him, as he'd had tenure at the school for years. They didn't move him to a different room, either. For reference, Japanese schools have open plan teachers' rooms, just rows and rows of desks in a large room. He had to come in and sit at his desk, every day, and be totally ignored by the people he'd been working with for years. After what had happened, it was a near certainty his reputation was gone, and he'd never get another teaching job. Last I heard, he stuck it out for years.

I can't imagine the kind of willpower that must take.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:55 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the US tech industry we call this "windowseating". Typically for an executive who was hired, oh, about a year ago and is not working out but you can't fire him because it would look bad or he's sue you. So you promote him to "special projects" and put him in a side office where he can't do any harm. And he vestis out millions of dollars in stock options until he finds the next company to trick into hiring him. I've seen a couple of those in my career and it made me very angry, it's hugely disrespectful to the employees who are actually working. Fire fast.
posted by Nelson at 7:58 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


firing fast is a bad idea. it basically becomes impossible to get outside talent if you identify yourself as someone who does that.
posted by JPD at 8:00 AM on September 5, 2013


it basically becomes impossible to get outside talent if you identify yourself as someone who does that.

That hasn't seemed to be a problem for the MegaCorp I got laid off from - I was one of about 15 people who all got laid off at the same time, and at least one of the other people was someone who had been there for years and been doing fine. I got to my desk at the beginning of the day, and five minutes later was called up to HR and given the news - and they wouldn't even let me go back to my desk to get my things. My boss had to go do that for me while HR was doing the exit interview.

And that happened a lot - you heard a rumor that there were layoffs happening, and then you started noticing over the course of a day or so that there were people who had just vanished. At some point someone would subtly come over and tell you that so-and-so had been let go, but for a couple hours it was often very disconcerting because "wait, where's George? Didn't he come in today?" or "Hey, I haven't seen Hank since Tuesday, what's going on?"

And that same MegaCorp has no shortage of people coming to work for them. (I know, because every year I had to train a couple new people in the use of the expense-report-filing software.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:09 AM on September 5, 2013


"Except there isn't anything else for them to do. Especially at the same level of prestige. So that "big" severance package isn't very big."

Can't they be paid to serve soup to homeless or something else civic-minded? Prestigious in the idea of being part of a team and working for something bigger than yourself, but not actually productive for the company?
posted by klangklangston at 8:10 AM on September 5, 2013


That hasn't seemed to be a problem for the MegaCorp I got laid off from
Not the same thing as recruiting high level people and then realizing you made a hiring mistake.

Can't they be paid to serve soup to homeless or something else civic-minded? Prestigious in the idea of being part of a team and working for something bigger than yourself, but not actually productive for the company?
Differing definitions of prestige aside - the question of "why don't they have them do something productive instead of sitting them in a room" wasn't the question, it was "why don't they take a buyout"
posted by JPD at 8:24 AM on September 5, 2013


You know, another alternative would be to find something else for them to do within the company, or even, gosh, pay their salary while they went off and did something for the public good.

...

Can't they be paid to serve soup to homeless or something else civic-minded? Prestigious in the idea of being part of a team and working for something bigger than yourself, but not actually productive for the company?


These are actually good ideas!
But then everyone would know that all the people who pour soup for the homeless in the name of MegaCorp are those who have no "real" use for the company, so ideally, you would mix up those employees who do this work, so no one would really know who is who...
posted by bitteroldman at 9:08 AM on September 5, 2013


Here are the guys behind this idea.
posted by 4ster at 2:06 PM on September 5, 2013


I'm impressed with the lady who got an online degree while in the room. Good for her.

Hell, I'd stick it out if I were in Japan rather than be laid off. I could put up with that as opposed to my other option being no employment ever again.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:51 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


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