Personnel Perspectives


Three views of the human resources process:
candidate, recruiter, employer

By Peter Harris

The Candidate

Whether at graduate level or further down the line in a career, increasingly, most of us are more likely than ever to keep a keen eye on the job market, whether or not we are proactively seeking employment. In Japan, when the time does come to look for a position, foreigners face a number of advantages and disadvantages that they might not come across in their home country. For example, academic qualifications may be less useful than language skills. Liam McNulty, from the US, told us about his experience of job-hunting in the Japanese market (right). For Liam and others, even having Japanese language ability, finding work, particularly at a Japanese firm, can be much harder as a foreigner. How much can a professional recruiter help?

For Liam, although he was in contact with some agencies, without specific skills, he didn’t have much success with them, “You could say I tried to use a recruiter but failed; two recruiters even tried to recruit me into recruiting. For me, my leads came via personal connections and job fairs.” Probably, at entry level, the commission that recruiters can make off salaries are not really high enough and they might be more useful down the line. One telecommunications professional told us that he approached a headhunter after spending five years at the same company, “it cut down a lot of the work in terms of scouring the market and I don’t think I would be on the salary I am now if it wasn’t for the agency pushing me into a higher bracket than I had previously felt approachable.” It is probably the case that the higher up the ladder a candidate is, the less of a need they have for a recruiter but it certainly wouldn’t harm anyone’s chances, and may well save them some work, if they did use one.

Liam McNultyLiam McNulty

Liam McNulty, applied for over 35 entry level jobs in Japan before eventually finding one, in operations at a major global financial institution.

“I wanted to get an entry level job in Japan, but I wasn’t really interested in teaching English. The specific challenges I faced were:”

  • Convincing companies in Japan that it would be worth hiring a foreigner instead of a local for an entry-level position. If you think about it, there’s little reason for a company to hire a foreigner who has no significant work experience, whose Japanese is worse than that of a native speaker, and may require a visa sponsorship/relocation assistance. So I had to address those points, often using just a resume and interview.
  • Since I wasn’t physically in Japan, it required a bit of advanced planning (going to interviews when doing study abroad, for example) on my part and flexibility on the company’s part.
  • Finding companies willing to even consider hiring a foreigner. This one is easier than it sounds, as many companies I spoke with were at least willing to interview me. But it was still a small challenge.
  • Finding the right balance of conforming to Japanese hiring practices and trying to play up the “make an exception for me since I’m a foreigner” angle. For example, after I absolutely bombed my first hikkishaken (written test), I decided that I wouldn’t waste my time with companies who weren’t willing to let me slide in this area. At least at this point in my life.
  • Doing all of the above in Japanese.

The Recruiter

Recruiters come in many shapes and forms—from those who basically perform outsourced human resources functions to specialized, niche headhunters. Uniting these is the fact that almost all recruitment companies and individual recruiters get paid by making a successful placement. The industry in Japan thrives on a constant demand by both domestic and foreign corporations searching for talent, often requiring a very specific skill set, not least the desire for English/Japanese bilinguals. Damion Way of legal specialist recruiters, Legal Futures told us that it can be highly beneficial to both candidates and employers to use a recruitment company (see below).

Another recruiter, who has requested to remain anonymous, told us that although it differs from industry to industry there is always a high demand for quality sales people and also for those with specialist skills, particularly in IT and technology. For employers nervous about using a recruiter, when asked what are the indicators that a recruitment agency is not doing its job well, he added that “the tell-tale signs are when the agency keeps sending you unsuitable candidates and if they don’t follow up—a good recruiter will always follow up continuously with the needs and wants of clients and candidates.”

Damion WayDamion Way

Damion Way, Managing Director, Legal Futures Japan

Candidates: Why use a recruiter?

Our candidates use us because we are specialists. If you are a busy professional then you don’t have the time or the contacts to thoroughly investigate all potential job opportunities. It is our job to know the market, that is all we do, and our services are free. The challenge is to find the right recruiter, one who understands you, your aspirations, your market and to find someone with whom you can build up a trusting, professional, working relationship. This is your career after all, it needs to be managed properly.

Employers: Why use a recruiter?

The same reason, we are specialists, all we do is source good candidates. The job of human resources departments is to hire, train and retain good staff and that is a huge challenge and HR professionals rarely have the time to become expert recruiters. It makes far more sense for them to enlist expert help. It will cost them of course but our clients realize that it is a good investment, time is money and the sooner they hire, the sooner that employee can start working and contributing to the business. It is a false economy to waste months looking for staff yourself—go to an expert, get the hire made as quickly as possible and get on with running and growing your business.

Can you give an example of the hardest request a client has given you?

One of our clients had clearly been given some positive discrimination hiring targets and said (in all seriousness) that if we can find them “…any disabled lawyer, ideally a lesbian” then we were pretty much guaranteed a fee. We passed on that one…

Are recruiters ever tempted to apply for the jobs they are searching for?

Sure, it happens, we have lost a number of our Banking & Financial Services team to the top investment banks, and some of our Legal team to the big law firms. It is flattering I suppose that these leading companies value our staff so highly that they wish to hire them and you always gain a friendly client contact when it happens. It is certainly much better than losing them to a competitor!

The Employer

To place even a small quarter page classified advert in an international business magazine can cost thousands of dollars. Understanding the value of decent employees, companies will go a long way to attract the right pople. Often, instead of spending on advertising a vacancy, companies will invest in using some form of recruitment services, from outsourcing the applications process to targeted executive search.

An HR executive at a major global law firm told us that there is an increasing likelihood that experienced staff will take a job elsewhere. Thus, while they look to make staying as attractive as possible for existing employees, they are also using headhunters to keep their eyes open for people who can immediately expand their business if hired.

We spoke to Toshinori Iwasawa, Managing Director of Abeam Consulting about the challenges facing them in terms of recruitment. Having been a part of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, when, in the wake of Enron, the group was forced to separate its auditing and consultancy capacities, Abeam was compelled to establish itself independently in 2002. Losing the brand power of Deloitte made recruitment a much harder task for the firm. Nonetheless, with the help of recruiting agencies and internal branding and human resources initiatives, the firm has managed to grow from an office of 1,530 in 2001 to 2,640 today, and it expects to have approximately 5,000 employees by 2011.

Toshinori IwasawaToshinori Iwasawa

Toshinori Iwasawa, Managing Director, Abeam Consulting

What challenges do Abeam face in terms of human resources?

In Japan, at the graduate level, talent tends to be drawn towards the big brand names. For us, despite our CEO, Mr Nishioka, having been the leader of the original 18 people who set up Tohmatsu Touche in Japan, our current brand name is not as powerful as Toyota or Mitsubishi. This also affects us at the executive level and there are always firms out there who can offer more.

What has Abeam done to deal with these difficulties?

To get good graduates, we are very active on campuses in Japan and overseas. For example we have a stall at the Boston Career Forum to try and recruit bi-lingual Japanese who have graduated from universities in the US. At the higher level, we have managed to keep staff by creating opportunities for them to develop within the company that rival what they could achieve if they set up on their own. We also allow a greater degree of freedom than at other firms. Every year we recruit 100 new graduates and 150 experienced people. We try hard to cultivate a team culture, interesting opportunities and an accumulated store of knowledge that will persuade people to both join us, and stay with us. We have also recently started to spend on boosting our brand recognition. Additionally, current employees are encouraged to introduce good people to the firm.

Have you used recruitment companies?

We handle graduate recruitment ourselves but at the mid-career stage we use both matching services and executive search. This helps to filter applications and, where we use headhunters, we can try and pick up some narrowly targeted and highly beneficial lateral hires. We have a good long-term relationship with one headhunting firm although we have occasionally tried other outfits.

What difficulties are there when using a headhunter?

Often there is a salary issue. You have to offer a good incentive to get the people you want but it is important to be sensitive to the ambitions of existing employees, particularly in Japan. Therefore, we try not to use headhunters too often although it is vital that we do occasionally make moves to hire key people from outside the company.

Bad HeadhunterBad Headhunter

Sneaky things that bad headhunters do:

The Top Five

By Anna Kitanaka

1. Faux Boxing: Headhunters may go to events and place an attractive box in the corner with a “Win A Car!” slogan on the side. This entices people to put their business cards in the allotted slot in hope of winning a beautiful silver Mercedes. For the recuiter, this makes for a successful and anonymous round of name collecting.

2. Social Engineering: Most recruitment companies have a clause against what is euphemistically known as “social engineering.” This is also known as fraud/impersonation/deception. A headhunter may ring a company pretending to be a client, customer, friend, relative; anything to keep their identity secret and stay on the phone. Although companies may endorse this clause, a large number of them may make a note in their training manual that “yes, it is illegal but yes, you have to do it.”

3. Unknown Number: A headhunter will make sure that any calls made cannot be traced back to them. However, some companies may be savvy enough to decode the “unknown number” and trace the caller. To deal with this problem, some headhunters route the phone system through a foreign country to make absolutely sure that their track is hidden.

4. Trawling: Once a headhunter knows the formula of a company’s email address (for example,, then it is possible to shoot off mass emails with random names. If any get through, the reader is confronted with a familiar sounding email such as, “We have heard great things about you and would like a meeting…”

5. Mapping: A similar method to trawling, mapping is commonly used via the phone system. Mapping entails finding out the standard part of the phone number before punching in random extension numbers. This usually takes place in the nocturnal hours so that a long list of names can be compiled from answering machine messages.

Compiled through confidential interviews with experienced headhunters working in the Japanese market.