Corporate careers with Japanese companies in the U.S.. A.F. Antom.
In the early 1960's, Bob Dylan wrote "the times they are a' changin'." Today, in the 1980's they continue to change. And as they change they bring with them new opportunities in business. One of these, brought to us by the now infamous oil embargo, is the opportunity to be employed by wholly owned subsidiaries of foreign multi-national corporations that seek to do business in the U.S. In particular, the United States has become a prime market for the manufactured goods of other nations, the most influential of which is, of course, Japan.
In attempting to facilitate trade in the United States, Japanese multi-nationals are expanding their U.S. based subsidiaries, thereby increasing employment opportunities for American professionals. Unfortunately, all is not as it seems to the American who takes a position with a Japanese multi-national.
The discussion that follows is based on situations and events which I have experienced in almost 20 years with U.S. and Japanese multi-national corporations. Every instance I describe has been verified by colleagues in positions similar to mine. Although I did not intend this to be a sociological study of Japanese and American corporate differences, the situations I cite are illustrative of interesting traits which might be significant to career-minded Americans.
In the fast moving electronics industry, whether his skills are in technology, marketing, or finance, the career-minded individual has a choice between the entrepreneurial start-up venture and the national or multi-national corporation. Benefits of these two environments are well-documented. For many, the high payoff style of the start-up is exciting. Others prefer the security and stability of the corporation even at the expense of financial compensation.
Until recently, opportunities in the U.S. electronics industry existed for people seeking professional career in both of these environments. But now, the explosive microcomputer business, led by price cutting and consumer product-like merchandising, has attracted a new element into the United States, and element that offers a third environment for career multi-nationals who are attempting to enter the U.S. microcomputer market and are establishing and staffing wholly owned American subsidiaries.
Much has been written about Japanese corporate business and management styles, and it is not my intention once again to delve into that material. However, there are several elements of Japanese corporate behavior which must be understood if we are to explain the experiences of Americans employed in Japanese companies operating in the United States.
Japan is a mass society whose every part is geared toward reinforcing the whole. Unlike the United States, there is little room in Japan for entrepreneurship. This characteristic is reflected in Japanese corporations where talented and creative individualism is not encouraged. Decisions are made by consensus management, and team effort toward realizing project or business goals is standard fare.
This method of decision making presents one of the greatest frustrations to the American corporate manager. In U.S. corporations, decisions are made by superiors who have been presented by their subordinates with both data and alternatives. Depending on the scope of the decision and its implications, decisions can be made by first level managers or those higher up, as required. This is not always a simple process, but even in the most stratified corporation, each manager has an opportunity to affect decisions at higher levels by making and presenting his case. This process is probably the major vehicle by which rising stars in a corporation can gain visibility and leave impressions on senior managers.
In Japanese-owned American subsidiaries, the process for decision making is entirely different. The decision making process is by consensus. And for the American manager this means consensus decisions made in Japan--not America. This usually results in enormous delays between initiation of the process and a final decision. It also means that there is a high likelihood that the decision makers, who are not part of the environment wherein the decision must be made, do not understand the circumstances completely, and will not arrive at an optimal decision.
Where speed and determination are essential, this usually means missed opportunities while the problem is being discussed and debated by Japanese managers residing across the Pacific Ocean.
And this process points out a second and perhaps more serious drawback for career-minded corporate American employees. Except as a collector of data and executor of policy, the American manager plays a very insignificant role in the decision making process. This phenomenon does not augur well for promotion-minded managers whose career opportunities within Japanese subsidiaries are minimal.
Another interesting feature of the Japanese corporation is the office environment of the typical Japanese professional. Offices in Japan are large "bullpens" where new and experienced workers' desks are set side by side. Project and department managers' desks are also situated in the bullpens, but usually in more "strategic" locations. Even divisional managers' and presidents' offices tend to be small, often set in a corner of another bullpen, closed off from the masses by only glass or thin wooden walls.
This is so unlike the United States where, within corporate environments each professional's workspace characterizes his seniority and responsibilities. The new hire often works in a bullpen, and with each successive promotion moves to a shared office, single office, office with door, larger office, office with picture, etc.
These differences in attitude regarding offices can be explained by the differences in the geographic nature of the two countries. In America, land and space are bountiful. Not so in Japan where overcrowding is an accepted condition.
One of the interesting consequences of this situation can be seen in the behavior of Japanese executives who are assigned to the United States for a few years. Many Japanese managers upon arriving in the U.S. obtain the largest luxury U.S. built auto they can afford. This is their opportunity to wheel around on our uncongested streets and freeways which are so differenct from the narrow crowded roads of Japan. Evidence of the desire to break out of those tiny Japanese economy cars which we Americans so cherish, can be seen in many California high tech Japanese corporate parking lots. The reserved executive parking spaces are filled with the American cars belonging to Japanese managers, and the rest of the lot is filled with American-owned Japanese cars.
Another phenomenon, which is a consequence of overcrowded office space in Japan, is the opposite situation which Japanese managers select for themselves when they are assigned to America. Many Japanese who work in the American subsidiary separate themselves from the day-to-day project or managerial activities of their U.S. employees. Instead they act a liaisons with Japan, as overseers of events, or as policy administrators for the home office. It is not always clear to the American staff the exact nature of the Japanese employee's assignment, or even of his status in either the subsidiary of the home office.
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that regardless of assignment, status, or responsibilities, every Japanese employee will have office space unlike any he has had in Japan. His assignment in America is his opportunity, as with the automobile, to enjoy, even for a short time, the expansiveness of America.
Though this may be understandable from a sociological standpoint, the effect on the moral of the American employees can be devastating. Consider, for example, the typical corporation employee who aspires to increased responsibility and status, who works hard to attain it, and time and time again loses his opportunity to acquire some of the trappings of promotion to Japanese executives whose contributions are not obvious to him.
In the Japanese-owned U.S. subsidiary for which I work, there are two kinds of managerial office space. One, twice as large as the other, is located on the exterior walls of the building with large windows. The other is smaller interior space. In virtually every case, the large windowed offices are occupied by the cadre of Japanese on assignment, while the interior offices are all occupied by American management.
As a sort of corollary to this situation, Japanese employees tend to occupy their offices late into the night, well past the late hours worked even by compulsive American workaholics. These late hours are usually spent communicating with the home office in Japan where the morning start-time coincides with American nightfall.
In the firm described above, because the large Japanese offices are set off from the smaller American-occupied offices, the separating aisle is often described by the American staff as the "international dateline."
Both in the United States and in Japan, corporate career paths are very well defined. Talented individuals can move upward from level to level until either the Peter Principle takes effect or the employee "screws up" and lands in the "penalty box."
Promotions in Japan are a function of talent and seniority. Unlike the U.S., where corporate success leads to quicker and quicker promotions, in Japan, there appear to be defined terms associated with each career level. Regardless of the level of accomplishment, Japanese corporate employees must serve their term before proceeding up the corporate ladder.
The concept of the penalty box is also differenct in a Japanese corporation. In the United States, the penalty box has been described as a one- or two-year period of penance which higher level managers serve when they have committed a corporate blunder. The employee's career usually comes to a dead stop for a peiod of time. All his perq's--salary, office, secretary--remain in effect. However, his phone usually stops ringing, and company activities pass him by.
In Japan, corporate blunders are penalized more severely. Instead of a lull in his career, the Japanese blunderer's career usually comes to dead stop and a dead end! And though his day-to-day work does not stop, opportunities for advancement within the corporation are usually ended. Unlike the U.S., where if this were to occur, the employee might seek employment elsewhere, in Japan where every person is trained to maintain the orderly patterns of society, the Japanese employee usually acquiesces.
In the United States, material reward for a job well-done in a corporation takes two forms--salary and vacations. The higher up you rise, the more responsibility you acquire and the larger is your compensation. Additionally, the longer you spend with a corporation, the longer annual vacation period. And most Americans look forward to those holidays each year.
In Japan too, the corporate laborer is rewarded both financially and with vacation days for time on the job. However, in Japan, most corporate managers would be embarrassed to use any part of their vacation. Work and production goals induced by corporate peer pressure prevent career-minded Japanese from taking time off.
One of the most disturbing situations encountered by American executives in Japanese-owned U.S. subsidiaries is the reaction of Japanese managers to American vacations. The Japanese manager even in America brings with him his attitude toward vacations, and it is apparent that peer pressure with regard to vacation continues to be exerted even while he is in the U.S. Within managerial circles which include both Japanese and Americans, the Japanese raise their eyebrows upon learnign that an American manager is taking any of his earned vacation.
Again, this sort of behavior seems petty and incidental to larger and more important issues. But it serves to illustrate how a clash between cultures can have upsetting and uncomfortable effects on employee morale. And after all, when an American chooses a corporate rather than an entrepreneurial career one of the thingss he seeks, is an assured comfort level in his working environment. But in a Japanese-owned U.S. subsidiary, there is no guarantee that the expected comfort items will be available.
The place of women in Japan has been described in many texts and articles. In a nutshell, there is virtually no place for women professionals in a Japanese corporation. While it is certainly true that American corporations have not granted across-the-board professional parity to women employees, there has been a definite trend in this direction. Despite the pleas of apologists for Japan, one can barely perceive an equivalent trent in Japan. Except in secretarial and clerical positions, women employees are visible only when they pour tea and coffee for their male bosses and their guests.
This attitude prevails also in the American subsidiary where there is an inherent anti-female bias among the Japanese. As in Japan, it is common to find women occupying clerical and secretarial positions. A concession that seems to be made in the United States is the hiring of women for professional and technical positions. To find a woman in managerial ranks is rare. In fact, I suspect that in the United States absolute legal minimums are adhered to only when there is no option.
Women managers, when they are hired, seem suspect, and their judgment is questioned more often than is that of their male counterparts. Nor, unfortunately, can woman managers expect the same promotions as men.
Japanese multi-national corporations and their U.S. counterparts have many similar business philosophies. Their main objectives are to generate revenue and to be profitable. And despite claims to the contrary, they prefer to generate revenues in several countries, while maximizing profits in the home country. It follows then, that these companies prefer to minimize the cost of business and treat all foreign subsidiaries as branch offices whose sole purpose it is to sell and service the company's products.
When a multi-national opens a manufacturing plant or a development center in a foreign country, unless the goal is to capitalize on cheap labor, the corporation is usually satisfying government demands for the company to provide employment and economic opportunities within the country in return for a license to sell its products in that country. This has been standard practice for U.S. as well as other multi-nationals and has resulted in a number of Third World countries receiving what would be, based on their standards of living, very high tech R&D centers.
A consequence of these unofficial trade agreements between governments and corporations is the plethora of offices established by the foreign company inthe communities in which it wishes to do business. This proliferation of offices provides a solid corporate image in the community.
This situation is probably a major source of much of the difficulty an American enocunters when employed by a Japanese company. For it is this very image, so similar to the one established by local American multi-nationals that misleads the local national into believing that all corporate environments, be they American or Japanese, present similar working conditions and attitudes.
An example of such attitudes is company loyalty. Executives working for U.S. multi-national corporations typically feel a sense of loyalty to the company family. It is common for these companies to reward loyal employees with a variety of bonuses based, not only on exemplary performance, but also on length of employment. The ten-year pin and twenty-year dinner probably do more to generate continued high performance than do the annual performance appraisal and salary review.
Company loyalty is also fostered through other programs, not the least of which is, for non-unionized firms, job security. Consider, for example, the loyalty inspired within IBM when, even in times of severe recesion, not one employee is laid off.
Of course, such corporate policy is not effected without significant short term cost to the company. A perception of the value of such policies is an indication of the maturity of the management (and ultimate success) of the company. A relatively immature company, or one unable to hold on through bad times, seeks to eliminate employees who are unable to contribute directly to the bottom line. In a sales-oriented company, branch office staff are laid off. In a manufacturing company, production workers receive pink slips.
Mature multi-nationals plan for bad times, even during good times. For example, IBM, justifiably reputed to be a marketing company, is also a manufacturing company. However, IBM's manufacturing processes include a large amount of work sub-contracted to outside firms. When there is a decrease in demand for IBM products, it is the sub-contracted work that is reduced, not the IBM work force.
A significant indication of IBM's maturity level is the consistency of this practice, even outside the United States, in Third World countries where IBM has both sales and manufacturing facilities. These policies foster not only corporate loyalty to the parent corporation, but also an international loyalty shared by IBMers around the world.
But what of Japan? Are there parallels that an American corporate employee can expect to find when he chooses a Japanese multi-national as an employer? Unfortunately there are not! Japan has historically been an insulated and isolated country of islands. Until World War II, when external influences were forced on the country, Japan had been closed. And it would be naive to assume that the last 40 years has significantly changed Japanese attitudes in this regard.
Japanese are fiercely loyal to their homeland, as are Americans. But unlike extroverted America, Japan has yet to understand the need to enlist foreign assistance in accomplishing its business goals. It is rare to find a Japanese multi-national corporation that treats its off-shore subsidiaries as more than expendable branch offices. The often-discussed concept of lifetime employment, so prevalent in Japanese companies, is virtually non-existent for non-Japanese employees.
The relative immaturity of Japan's multi-national corporations is illustrated by the following incident. A manager responsible for attending to customer complaints regarding the company's products marketed in the U.S. had established a very organized, workable, and objective response system for such complaints. Letters and phone calls concerning product deficiencies were handled in an orderly cost-effective manner. From time to time, such complaints were received in written form, addressed to the Japanese president of the U.S. subsidiary. Usually, these letters were automatically forwarded directly to the manager of the complaint department. However, an occasion, written complaints, signed with Japanese names were received. Inevitably, the personal presidential attention received by such letters was disproportionate and unrealistic--attention far in excess of that paid to similar correspondence from non-Japanese customers.
In a mature business environment, a problem of complaint should be judged on merit rather than race. Unfortunately, Japanese corporations, in their chauvinistic immaturity, often base business decisions in their off-shore subsidiaries on criteria of home-grown nationalism. This phenomenon can be most distressing to Americans who are unaccustomed to being patronized by other nationalities, or who for more objective reasons, are accustomed to working in environments where business is business--regardless of nationality.
As for being an employee of a Japanese multi-national in an off-shore environment, the following anecdote will shed considerable light on Japanese managements' attitudes toward Americans working for the Japanese-American corporation.
An American executive working for a Japanese subsidiary was approached by an American firm seeking to lure him away for marginal improvements in his compensation package. The executive, accustomed to multi-national business environments, was uncertain about the prospects of the American firm, but was more uncertain about the Japanese parent's commitment to the U.S. subsidiary. In an effort to determine the parent's long range commitment to the U.S. business, the executive sought the advice of one of the Japanese assigned to the subsidiary.
Following a hearty meal including a number of aperitifs, cocktails, and liqueurs, the American explained his dilemma directly to his Japanese collegeau. The Japanese, who was no less affected by the alcoholic nature of the dinner, responded candidly. The American was told that the parent firm's commitment to the U.S. market was assured; however, the company expected American employees to seek other employment regardless of the company's success or lack thereof. Japanese management had no expectation of loyalty from their American employees and would terminate American employees if market expectations were not met.
Consequently, the executive was told, Japanese management considered every American expendable, including him. And if he wished to leave the company, regardless of his value and previous contributions, no one would care.
For American executives who choose a corporate business environment with attendant lower remuneration, this Japanese attitude can and should be unsettling. Frequently, the American manager has prepared himself for a lower income in exchange for job security. He has intentionally decided to dedicate himself to job excellence within the corporate environment. While such a strategy usually pays off in job security for Americans (and even for foreign nationals) working for American multi-nationals, it is not necessarily so for non-Japanese employees of Japanese multi-nationals.
In all fairness to the Japanese, it is important to recognize that Japanese multi-national corporate behavior is a reflection of Japan's relatively recent entry into international business. Japan, like a few other world nations has high self-esteem, which often manifests itself as arrogance. This behavior can be seen in instances of patronizing treatment such nations give to lesser or newer nations. (Remember the ugly American?) Examples include France in Algeria, Britain in India, and Portugal in Angola. While it is no less true that Algerians resent the French and Indians the British, of concern in this discussion is America's reaction to the Japanese.
When a Japanese corporation establishes an American subsidiary in the United States and employs within it American citizens, a force comes to play that is very difficult to contend with. The force is a consequence of the strong personalities of the nationalities involved. Japanese corporate management views the American subsidiary as equivalent to (but perhaps more lucrative than), for example, a subsidiary in any foreign country. And the employees of that subsidiary, rightly or wrongly, are as expendable to the Japanese as any other foreign national employed in any other subsidiary.
Americans, however, have always viewed themselves as a major political and business force in international affairs. In the minds of many Americans, most of the "important" multi-nationals have been founded by Americans; and the subsidiaries of those companies have been well, though often condescendingly, treated. Many corporate-minded Americans have been trained in such companies, and when they leave, take with them this attitude of American corporate superiority. This, like the managerial, organizational, and technical skills learned in the U.S. corporation, stands the executive in good stead if he moves to another U.S. corporation. It even stands him in good stead if he moves to a subsidiary of a French or British multi-national. There is enough commonality among such nations to permit the executive to adapt to being part of an off-shore facility.
However, the differences between the Japanese and Western cultures are so vast, that similar adaptation is enormously difficult. It is a whole new ball game. And the rules are made in Japan. Even the umpires who determine what is fair are Japanese. No longer can the U.S. corporate manager expect preferential treatment in job assignments; no longer is he a part of corporate decision making; no longer does he have quick and easy access to upper management. Now the American, who is merely a replaceable employee of a Japanese firm, finds himself within a group of expendable employees located in the Japanese company's remote branch office of the United States of America. And this can be a bitter pill to swallow.
At the beginning of this article, I cited the two career environments that have traditionally been open to American professionals. One, the high risk entrepreneurial venture, and the second, the secure, but often less financially rewarding corporation.
In recent years, with increased wealth and skills being acquired and developed in other countries of the world, the U.S. marketplace has become a target of some of these countries. Consequently, we find more and more foreign influences in our own business backyard. It is essential for us to understand those influences and not be naive in any part of our dealings with them. This includes trading with these nations, employing their nationals, or, as is becoming common, being employed by them. There is nothing insidious or traitorous in being employed by a Japanese or any other multi-national corporation. We should, however, be very aware that the work environment is very unlikely any we have experienced before.