A recent conversation with an HR person has shed some light on a question I've long had since coming to Japan. I have seen time and again people being assigned to jobs that they are neither interested in or particularly enthusiastic about. There are also a number of people that have told me about being moved from a job they enjoyed to a completely different department in order to "balance things out" in a particular section. The balance has little to do with what the organisation actually needs, though, and instead focuses on an imaginary metric that companies have imposed on themselves regarding what sorts of staffing numbers are required in a particular area … whether it's actually needed or not. This lead me to ask a number of questions about how HR views their people.
Some time ago I met a woman who was required to learn English for her job. She didn't want to learn English, and she didn't even have the opportunity to use it outside of the classroom. That said, someone in HR had picked her name from a hat to receive some very expensive English lessons that she had zero interest in. Noting that she was clearly not happy about learning English, I decided to take another track. I started asking her about her job. According to the client file, Tomoko was a computer programmer for a rather large manufacturing company. This common interest should make for a lively English lesson with some useful grammar and vocabulary study … or so I thought.
I asked her what language she programs in. She didn't know. I started listing some of the more common ones, like .NET, C++, and Java. She looked at me like I had grown a third arm while speaking. I knew she wrote software for car navigation systems, so there weren't that many languages that would be optimal for such a task. After listing ten possible languages she just shook her head.
Alright … next question
Me: What kind of computer do you use?
Me: I mean, what brand of computer do you use? Lenovo? Toshiba? Fujitsu?
Her: Not sure. Black.
Me: Ah … is it a notebook or a desktop machine?
Me: Is it a notebook …
Her: Yes. But always on desk. Locked.
Me: How long have you been programming?
Me: Five years? Do you enjoy your job?
It felt like I was talking to the wall. I understand that she was not interested in studying English or speaking with me, but still … there must be some ability to answer the questions.
But this wasn't the only example. Some time later I met another person from the same company who worked as a software developer in the car navigation space. I asked him many of the same questions. His answers were along the lines of: "Lenovo, I think. Or Fujitsu. I'm not sure.", "It's an older notebook. It asks me to update to service pack three all the time", and "Eight years, but it's tough.".
There are 48 people in this person's department. 48 programmers. All working on a single software package that gets installed in car dashboards across the country and around the world … and I met two who couldn't tell me the specifications of the tools they use to do their job. I have never met a computer programmer outside of Japan that does not know, in excruciating detail, what their work computers are capable or incapable of.
The situation is not unique to this one company, though. I have seen this at a number of larger organisations that have product sales all over the world. There are people who have no desire to be computer programmers writing software that normal people will use, and sometimes for very important tasks.
Asking HR The Method Behind Their Madness
I mentioned this little anecdote to the HR person, telling him point blank that these two people were from his company. He was a smart individual with a solid grasp of English who could see through thinly veiled statements, and he gave me a very interesting answer:
"Anybody can do anything. If I see somebody wants to work for us and they have a degree in science but we need people in sales, then they work in sales. Our comprehensive training packages ensure employees have the tools they need to accomplish a job."
What if they don't want to do that job, though? I asked. What if these people join a company with the hopes of getting something more inline with their interests?
"Work is not about having fun. Work is about doing what we need to do for the company. If someone is not happy in a role, they typically have the option to ask for a transfer to another department after five years."
Five years? I would walk in front of a bus before doing a job that I have absolutely zero interest in for five years1. I know this is not the case at every company, but it's a common scenario at many places around this part of Japan. People are hired to do the task they are told to do, and nothing more. This is a very different way of thinking to what I grew up around where people were asked point blank "Why do you want to work here?" during the interview process.
I understand that Japan is most certainly not Canada, but I do wish companies would change the way they use people. Maybe if we could all have the option of getting the jobs we wanted there would be less work-related stress and a higher amount of productivity overall.