Getting fired is never a pleasant experience. It is important for you to know that in Japan, this is not a unilateral decision; it is a negotiation. You need to protect your interests and be aware of all available options to disengage from your employer in the best possible way. This is not just a legal fight—it is a psychological one, and you need all the help you can get.
It is overwhelmingly difficult to fire someone in Japan, we all know that. Unlike in the United States or other countries, Japan is not an “at will” jurisdiction. This means that employers cannot fire you without cause. Here, there is tremendous emphasis on an individual’s career. Your job is not just a monthly paycheck; it is one’s social status, their human network, and part of their lifelong career.
When you get hired, you are joining a (corporate) family and the unstated goal is to make sacrifices to ensure the well being of the company. People dedicate their lives to companies, they work hard, and when the company decides (for profit motives) to cut you out, luckily the law here does not support that.
Foreign Firms in Japan
Foreign firms frequently arrive in Japan with a foreign mindset. As long as business is flourishing, they hire people; when times are tough, they lay people off. This accordion style of business is poorly viewed in Japan. The Japanese perspective is: “Look, we allowed you to come in and set up in our country, to sell your products or services, and to make a profit—that’s okay, but there are certain obligations you need to fulfil. You cannot destroy people’s careers and livelihood to guarantee bonuses for the main office back home. You have to meet the standards of a normal Japanese company.”
Here in Japan, Lawyers love HR, but only because people have grown to hate HR more than they hate lawyers! HR delves into everything about you: where you live, your history, even your online and email habits. They are pros at psychologically manipulating you into accepting a bad deal and then stonewalling your every attempt to achieve a better outcome. Talk to anyone who’s been in this unfortunate situation: the stories are the same!
Legitimate Reasons for Termination
In Japan, an employee’s job is sacrosanct. There are only two legitimate reasons to legally layoff an employee in Japan. The first is that you are strikingly incompetent, but for the company, this is a very difficult thing to prove in a court of law. They interviewed you, you went through a probationary period, everyone thought you were great, and then all of a sudden they say you’re not meeting expectations. The onus is on them to identify why you are incompetent, and in fact, to help you overcome these deficiencies. The other legitimate reason that they could terminate you is that the company is bleeding money, but again they must demonstrate:
a.) the dire economic situation;
b.) offer voluntary early retirement to EVERYONE;
c.) establish a pecking order of who to lay-off first, if the voluntary early retirement numbers are insufficient. This takes about a year.
For these specific reasons, companies will try to convince you to accept a voluntary resignation. Many companies, including Apple and General Motors, have hired me over the last 30 years to act as their mediator when they had to downsize their staff. In those instances, they were able to achieve a smooth transition for all the employees involved. Unfortunately, not all companies see it that way. I have had tremendous experience in protecting individuals from unethical and unlawful scare-tactics. It is crucial for you to know that this is not a unilateral decision. Once again: this is a negotiation. For example, if you understand that they already made a decision to reduce headcount and that you are one of those identified, then let’s go ahead and accept that, move forward with the voluntary resignation, and get the best possible deal. You really don’t want to get into a fistfight with your employer. They are at a great advantage and can simply outlast you, and they have a great psychological advantage (if you are unprotected).
Typically, a reputable company will offer you a certain number of months (for every year served) as a payout, plus a couple of extra months to ease you through the transition. This can be characterized as “Garden Leave.” Garden Leave means that, for all intents and purposes, you are still working. You still receive your salary while you take time to look for a job. This makes the recruiting process easier, especially if you happen to be a foreigner. You want to be able to legitimately say, “Well, the company was changing and I wanted to broaden my scope and do different things, so we came to an agreement and we parted on good terms.” Sometimes you need help to make sure that that is the reality.
Dispel the Fear
I know what you’re thinking: “If I fight against my company, I’ll never get another job in Japan ever again.” That is, in fact, not accurate. The company is legally forbidden from blackballing you and saying bad things about you after you leave the company (though this does occur from time to time with really nasty companies). And besides, jumping jobs does not carry the career-crushing stigma it once held…these days, it happens a lot!
If this sounds familiar and you find yourself in a difficult situation, reach out—we can help.