Foreign and over the hill - Part One

Foreign and over the hill - Part One

I never thought of it as a trend, but over the last year, more and more skilled non-Japanese executives have been coming to me asking for help to find a new job after being laid off. Despite the improving economy, these people are getting laid off either because they are aged over 45 - an age over which companies are openly saying they don't want to employ otherwise suitable candidates – or because there is an anti-foreigner swing inside the company.

The age issue is something I have discussed previously. Although usually not blatantly advertised, it is a very real metric inside the HR departments of both foreign and Japanese mid- to large-sized companies. People over 45 are viewed as unretrainable and expensive. They may also have more health problems, especially if they've been highly stressed executives. Not a politically correct comment, I know, but it is a reality.

For people who have found themselves on the receiving end of this, I can only say that you are going to have to lower your sights in terms of salary and company prestige, and get yourself back into the workforce as soon as possible. Once back in, especially if it's a small company, at least you have the consolation of knowing how to work your way back up the corporate ladder. Pick your target as a company which is growing quickly and has an overseas component (export, foreign client base, foreign owners, etc), so that they will value your foreigness.

How much do you have to reset your expectations? Often by dropping your salary 50% or more. Many multinational executives are on combined packages of JPY20MM+, which in a local company is probably more than the CEO is getting. If you bite the bullet, how do you catch up in terms of lost salary and time? The simple answer is by crafting yourself an agreement which lets you take a lot more responsibility and build a business for the company. In creating new business, the CEO could hardly deny a request to share in the spoils, by receiving some of the company's stock if you hit certain metrics, or by spinning the business off into a subsidiary. CEOs of smaller companies will value this approach and usually be ready to contract accordingly.

Foreign executives who have become victim of an anti-foreigner backlash in a company have an additional set of problems. Firstly, being victim of corporate politics is difficult to explain in job interviews. How do you tell an interviewer that the Japanese management dislike the head office and have frozen out all HQ-dispatched foreigners? This is a common problem, but look at the interviewer's viewpoint. If your soon to be ex-company dispatched you as part of a solution to take back ownership of the business, and now you're being forced out, it casts doubt on your own competence and value. Of course, they wouldn't know how you were put into the position with very little preparation or knowledge of Japan, and how HQ is conflicted by the desire to take control versus the desire to keep earning juicy profits from Japan.

Secondly, the dismissal is usually abrupt and unplanned. For an executive who may have been brought in to fix a particular problem, they may have just brought family in or may be halfway through a language course and not yet fluent in Japanese.

If you're in this position, the first thing you need to do is bite your lip when you get the hard word and quickly negotiate a very slow withdrawal from the company. Most firms are willing to trade an extra few months salary for a graceful exit. I know a number of executives whose package ran 9-12 months. Also, be sure that you can carry the company name card for at least 3 months, while you do job interviews. So that you are technically still employed. This will help immeasurably when you go in for other job interviews.

Next, it would be prudent to move the family back to your home country (with the inlaws if necessary) at the end of the school term, until you're well settled into another job. The last thing you want is to keep the family hanging on while you're trying to land another position. That almost audible sucking sound on your bank account can be hard on the best of marriages.