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Managing employees in times of crisis

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By Charlotte Kennedy Takahashi

While we watch the tragedies of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis unfold in Japan, we cannot grasp the depth of pain and despair.

This disaster is becoming a catalyst for, what many sense, will be a sea change for Tokyo’s working environment. Management and employees have battled a 20-year recession, which worsened over the last two years since the Lehman Shock. From my perspective, this may well be the final straw to an already battered corporate and employee environment and extensive change will ensue for organizations, the employee and government response.

Today is different from what my firm experienced following the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. The economic recession had not drained personal resources to the level we’ve seen in the last two years; this crisis is bigger and the radiation factor shakes all to the core because it speaks to long-term survival. Lastly, this disaster is more graphic in visual impact, driven by recently emerged social networks.

As a result of mulling over some issues around the employment environment the last two years and especially the crisis of the last month, I have put my ideas to paper. The foundation for identifying these issues is 30 years in Japan working with firms and thousands of professionals.

Employees in Crisis

Reacting with anger & fear: Anger and fear have ballooned in the last two years and this disaster enhances that response. For an economic downturn, culprits can seemingly be identified, but with a natural disaster, there is no one to blame, so the expression of fear and anger has no target, enhancing a lack of focus as to where anger and fear are spent.

Firms are experiencing increased negative behavior in the following ways:

• Legal action by individuals who do not seek justice, but who want revenge (one out of two firms we deal with have legal issues)

• Aggressive, radical labor union activity

• Harassment and physical threats: I personally was physically threatened and intimidated in the office three times over three years.

These actions arise from feeling out of control and are attempts to regain control. Compassion for fellow workers is weak or non-existent.

Reacting with despondency: Culturally, Japanese more typically respond with despondency and passive aggressive behavior. For Japanese, the expressions of “shoganai,” “shigataganai” and then “ganbarimasho” or” gambatte kudasai” give a feeling of meaninglessness, implying hopelessness in the face of fate, making individuals numbed with little energy to move forward. The weight that is being carried is shown by the current slowness of walking on Tokyo streets. This numbness turns into depression, becoming isolating and destructive to corporate and personal performance and well as it does to life in general.

Career frustration: The economy has altered the careers of many professionals. Firms have closed. Corporations and jobs are moving to other parts of Asia. Some employees are tired as they are working two jobs because of staff cuts. Some have not received promotions. Many have given up on career goals and want to just be safe, even with a decrease in pay. Many jobs are going begging because they are seen as “too hard.” Also, with frequent transitions of professionals, it is harder to find professional support among colleagues.

Increased detachment: There is less personal support for professionals. There are more single professionals with less support for their careers from a personal source. There is also an increase in the ”spouse factor.” Some spouses are more demanding and put stress on the career of the other spouse (more money in hard times/let’s leave Japan now!). In times of adversity, the weaker support system makes solutions at work more difficult.

The current professionally maturing generation is one of entitlement: Instead of working through issues and finding solutions, it is easier to change or quit work and defraud the employment insurance system. One little girl on an NHK program said it well: “ I want a job where I get lots of money and do little work.”

Management in Crisis

For management the challenges to deal with the changes in the working environment are enormous:

• How to neutralize negative behavior and motivate positive actions.

• How to provide a normal and stable environment, building effective teams and morale.

• How to respond to increased mental illness: Dealing with mental illness is an ongoing issue in Japan, but it is now intensified and there are few corporate resources to solve the issue and little governmental understanding about how mental illness negatively impacts commercial operations.

Taking the blame: CEOs receive a lot of blame as they are seen as comfortable and rich while others are suffering; some of this is deserved and some is scapegoating. Those who take leadership in times of crisis can neutralize this tendency.

Foreign management in time of crisis: Many foreign managers are committed to Japan and have done their best to support their employees during the disaster, demonstrating grace under pressure. But, some managers abandoned their responsibilities and left Japan.

Life-altering decisions were made in a flash moment based on inadequate information. It will be a long time before Japanese will stop remembering this panic and regain respect for management in those firms. A few managers have already paid with their jobs.

Corporate management and professionals have an opportunity to be a catalyst for change, defining new future directions and building on the strengths of the Japanese work place (team work) and bring resolution to these issues. With action, the economy will more quickly return to growth.

The author is CEO of Oak Associates KK, a company that provides consulting and coaching for senior management in time of change and employee programs to motivate positive actions in times of crisis. For further info, visit http://www.oakassociates.co.jp/.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

26 Comments
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With action, the economy will more quickly return to growth. CEO of Oak Associates KK left some controversial issues with some solutions. Employers and employees can overcome in specific cases with appropriate responses.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I find this article to fall well short of dealing with the core problem that has come out of this crisis. The people needed positive support from their employers that demonstrated concern first for people and second for the continuity of business. This did not happen for a lot of people. And in many cases was better handeled by small Japanese companies who had the wisdom to allow people time off in the immediate days after the quake. Time that allowed people to focus on family and personal concerns so that they could later return with more grounded responses.

Many foreign firms tried the "business as usual" approach when public sentiment was anything but usual This threw many people into conflict between personal considerations and employer objectives. Resulting in many people simply taking matters into their own hands or feeling trapped.

Real useful advice for CEO's. In a multi-dimensional calamity like the recent Japan experience, work with your people as individuals. Those who need time away should get it without fear for their jobs. Those ready to man their posts should be supported in doing so. And those in need of more fundamental support should get it.

Not everyone is a team champion player, though that same person may be an otherwise perfect employee, emergent situations can seen some reeling. While that quiet wall flower employee may stand up to be a true leader in this kind of situation. My point is you must judge one by one.

As for post disaster sentiment including labor movements. I do expect a lot of workers will be seeking better protections of their jobs, their safety and more influence over company responses to future disasters. Labor movements are needed in Japan and should be welcomed. Of course business fears this. And they should if they do not put people first.

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Difficult to take this article seriously with so many dramatic, unsubstantiated claims.

"Anger and fear have ballooned in the last two years" Have they? Stats please.

"(one out of two firms we deal with have legal issues)" How many firms do you deal with. Two? Is this actually an increase? Legal issues pertaining to anger / labour issues or patent issues? Most big firms have legal issues at any point in time. It's why they have inhouse legal departments.

"Compassion for fellow workers is weak or non-existent." Really? Not where I work, or most of my clients if their post-quake activities are anything to go by. Any stats to support this?

"The weight that is being carried is shown by the current slowness of walking on Tokyo streets." Eh?!! Haven't seen this. Has the current walking speed been measured and compared to an average over time? Or maybe people are walking slower because it's safer with all the lights out?

"One little girl on an NHK program said it well: “ I want a job where I get lots of money and do little work.”" Hardly a wealth of supportive evidence there.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

scotchegg. Well written.

And what does his experience two or three years ago have to do with managing people in the current crisis?

I am often amazed by the sheer cluelessness of corporate gurus and writers. Perhaps stemming from their capacity to reduce people and offices into gross generalities instead of seeing people and employees as people.

I have seen quite the opposite of what this person is concerned about. First of all Management in many cases were the first ones relocating families or putting their prize workers offshore or in Osaka. Not a great way to encourage calm amongst the other help.

Second, many were dismissive of the worries people had in the first week after. This could easily have been better managed by giving people the option to take time off. And working on reduced levels as many Japanese companies elected to do.

Third. I have seen people come together to gather goods to be sent to shelters, raise money, host fund raisers and work to help other people out. Often doing immediate work that probably saved lives with urgent deliveries of food and supplies.

Meanwhile the business leaders were patting themselves on the back for sending donations to large charitie that are still not geared up, or for the incredible effectiveness of their offshore continuity plans.

A national crisis like this requires managers with a greater sense of humanity, empathy, compassion and emotional intelligence than most leaders I observed were able to demonstrate. Workers should be concerned and should organize to assure that future calamities are better managed. People first. If you are a manager and you don't understand that, then you are a problem.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I do agree with the part where Ms Takahashi said many people made life-altering decisions without giving it proper thought. One of my friends, who works for a moving company, said they got inundated with calls from foreign workers, some of them managers, who just panicked and took off and then called from their home country to ask the moving company to pack up all their stuff (after checking to see if it was radioactive) and then ship it to them.

I can see how such behavior would leave many companies in disarray. Business goes on as normal, and if some staff take off, the rest do get stressed out, having to do extra work with no notice. It's happened to me, too.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think it's worth interpreting this article with the knowledge that the author is a CEO with a financial interest in people thinking they face big challenges and might need help. Obviously, they're going to focus on the negatives more than the positives.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Airion. The nature of the author does indeed weigh in to the credibility of the article.

"I can see how such behavior would leave many companies in disarray. Business goes on as normal, and if some staff take off, the rest do get stressed out, having to do extra work with no notice. It's happened to me, too."

Which is why companies should have minimized operations for the first week. As many companies very intelligently did.

Reduced operations would have enabled people ready to work to do so and those in need of time off to do so. Even if that had meant partial time in the office.

People were in shock from experiecing the quake and long journey home on the 11th. Plus the emotional impact of seeing the tsunami and quake damage in the north. Then the addition of the nuclear worries.

No business should have expected people to just carry on. It was unreasonable to think so and the smarter companies didn't try. They let people off to recover. And then they got back on track a few days later with staff ready to get on with things. Smart management.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Although my company was "business as usual", it understood well that many of the commuters from the outlying areas could not make it into the city as their trains were not running. The company also offered to cover hotels for managers who could not commute to and from home during the week following the debacle. Some staff took extra leave due to "mental stress" (emotional stress?) from the fear of the quake and damage to our building; the company supported that by stating that yuukyuu did not need to be taken (though without pay, which is reasonable).

Companies do MANY things to support their employees. It is also very important for employees to support their companies as well. There has to be a balance in everything done. Many employees think that their 8hrs of work = their income, and if they put in the time, they are square. But in most cases they fail to understand the full costs a company bears to support an employee and the family. The company can pay up to 3X the employees salary in other costs. This is why everyone needs to work together, the company AND the employees, in normal times, as well as abnormal times. The company and the employees are a team, a family, and should support each other in a very balanced way.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

While I have never wanted to work of a J-company as I wud have trouble fitting in day in day out, I am fine co-exisitng & working with from the edge so to speak.

But with the triple whammy if I had a choice I wud rather work for a J-company than a foreign one for sure, generally speaking.

While anecdotal a friend who works for the later, all the gaijin disappeared without a trace, it wasnt till the following mid week when it became known the 5-6 were spread over Europe, Asia & western Japan(trying to get flts outta dodge).

Now having been in Tokyo when it hit & thinking I would soon be dead under the rubble I totally GET the flight response, I do. But it seems many fled & never bothered to tell anyone, the remaining staff & some of their larger customers are totally pissed, understandable so imo. There are ways to get out of harms why & do it more professionally but sounds like many didnt & they & their companies will pay higher prices for it.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

These stories of foreigners fleeing without giving any notice are truly unbelievable. I work for a mid-size company with a few dozen foreign employees and not a single one fled.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

One of my friends, who works for a moving company, said they got inundated with calls from foreign workers, some of them managers, who just panicked and took off and then called from their home country to ask the moving company to pack up all their stuff (after checking to see if it was radioactive) and then ship it to them.

??? this sounds hard to believe.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Salsero, manfromamerica

Those stories of people fleeing are true. I personally know of three cases - one who fled to Singapore, and the other to New York - and they are getting all their stuff sent over after it has been checked for radiation. The third case was an Aussie woman who panicked and fled home to the Gold Coast. She then called her landlord in Tokyo and said she wouldn't be coming back and he could sell all her stuff. And as I said earlier, my friend at the moving company said there have been many such cases.

I also heard that one of the investment banks - not sure if it was Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs - ordered their employees to stay in Tokyo and warned that anyone who left without permission would be fired.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I do agree with smarticus about the sudden exodus of foreign labor during the past 3 weeks.

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I also agree with smartacus.

My estate agent is cursing as many left with no notice and he has to sort it out now and might have to foot the bill for unpaid rents.

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Firstpoint Japan, the points you made are very logical and it is clear that the author of this article makes dramatic claims which are purely subjective. I like the fact that you have responded with seasoned experience and lucidity thst is difficult to find fault with. You make very good points against the authors Flawed reasoning in the article.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It will be a long time before Japanese will stop remembering this panic and regain respect for management in those firms.

complete and total BS.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Everything that scotchegg said, plus:

"• Aggressive, radical labor union activity" +Anecdotally, I've seen far less radical union activity/ since the late 80s. +All research I've seen says that union-membership in Japan has been on a steady decline for at least 30 years. (see Japan Institute of Labor Policy and Training for stats).

"the current slowness of walking on Tokyo streets." +??? Sorry, what? This whole article must be aimed at people who don't live here or who are are relatively new to Japan. To them, she cans say whatever she wants and claim to be the expert.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well all I can say is those who fled and now are trickling back should be given a heroes' welcome, even a parade.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Japanese friends have asked about this. They can see that our peers remained in Japan and have been trying to help out with relief. They have also heard about the many small NPOs launched by foreign residents that have been taking food to the north or helping in other ways.

I think this does stain the image of foreign workers. But I don't believe that Japan will look at us with any more suspicion than before. I hope that the actions of those who stayed will raise our standing with those who doubt foreigners.

As for this article, I find very little of it to be founded in the reality I have known Japan's work place to be in the 11 years I have been here. It seems rather sensational to me overall.

And as a pro-union person, I agree with previous posts that unions in Japan typically exist to liase with business and resolve fairly ordinary complaints. I have seen few radicals of any kind in Japan. Perhaps with the minor exception of the noisey right wing politicals. So again this article seems founded in some alternate reality Japan and not the one we are actually experiencing.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Well said taj and tkoind, I found this article for the most part as being somewhat void of reality.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's how consulting works. Mildly charismatic people with letters after their names make sensational appeals to impending doom which few people have the time or money to disprove, and the unquestioning are persuaded to give the consultant vast sums of money to avoid the doom.

Seems like Oak are basically recruitment consultants though, which might explain why the reasoning is a little shallow.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Rather strange article this, as it conflates some presuppositions about Japanese work culture, NJ employment and the disaster without ever explaining the connection; perhaps this article has been republished out of a specific context? The claim that there has been a resurgence of 'Aggressive, radical labour union activity' (and the insinuation that this is due to the pathology of the workers, rather than a legitimate aspect of industrial relations) surely needs more evidence to be substantiated.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

tkoind2 -

Japanese friends have asked about this. They can see that our peers remained in Japan and have been trying to help out with relief. They have also heard about the many small NPOs launched by foreign residents that have been taking food to the north or helping in other ways.

very good points.

I hope that the actions of those who stayed will raise our standing with those who doubt foreigners.... As for this article, I find very little of it to be founded in the reality I have known Japan's work place to be in the 11 years I have been here. It seems rather sensational to me overall.

very well said!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The author is CEO of Oak Associates KK, a company that provides consulting and coaching for senior management in time of change and employee programs to motivate positive actions in times of crisis.

When you run a company it is a everyday 100% thing (a family-a life) -when you try to make it a 50% thing in your life that is when you fail. Consulting is more of a 50% option -you really don't have skin in the game.

=At a time of crisis you as a consultant are sort of a 3rd option relief pitcher. =You are expected to try to make that save when the situation maybe dire. You true solutions maybe your associations and not your production (your knowledge of association maybe helpful as a knowledge data bridge to others).

It is upsetting to me to see words like fear, anger, aggressive, harassment and physical threats. -These are not productive or even helpful words.

I would bring these people in -comfort them in a time of need and get them solutions and connections on a weekly if not daily consultation. This is a battle you must win and I would look at getting some skin in the games also. =You need to actually own a business and be intertwined with others (consulting is not enough). --> do the internet/web, advertising. hiring, payments or something other for these companies --> consulting by itself is rather meaningless.

=In many ways your article makes little sense to me and doesn't provide many solutions. =unproductive at a time when people may be uncertain or even have need. -And like you I do feel it will be getting worse in the future. =People should be positioning themselves for this now.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Have to agree with others that the article doesn't match with my own experience.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The other thing that seems odd about the article is how you sense that the author considers other people as simply "units" to be used and then scrapped.

Even the pedestrians around Tokyo aren't "functioning" quite the way they should.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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