In any office, look around and you’ll see them. Someone with a complexion like a veal calf, the link that wishes for nothing more than the destruction of the chain, a person who so long ago gave up trying to find the “I” in team that they can no longer find it in themselves.
Companies around the world have varying ways of cutting loose the employee who just can’t or won’t cheer during one of those manic teambuilding sessions.
In Japan, it has long been the slightly passive-aggressive practice to promote such employees to a “banishment room”, mainly to avoid outright firing them and thereby having to pay severance and benefits. Put them in a room with a computer loaded with nothing but a spreadsheet and assign a bogus task, or give them hours of mind-numbing security camera footage to look at, and eventually the employee will crack and resign, releasing the employer from the act of pulling the trigger themselves.
Japanese banishment rooms are not a fringe practice
If you think this is a fringe practice, think again. Japan has institutionalized it at prominent companies such as Hitachi, Sony, Toshiba, etc. While most companies are reluctant to talk numbers, a PR person from Panasonic admitted that the company had 468 employees enrolled in its “Business and Human Resources Development Center” in April. Of that group, 35 have resigned under their own steam, while 29 of the more recalcitrant cases settled for transfer to other departments.
So what goes on in these rooms? One former employee alleges he was instructed to stare at a monitor for ten hours a day, watching for any “irregularities” in TV programming. Another says he reads newspapers and his college engineering textbooks, and then files a day-end report on these activities. They do this because, unlike here in North America, layoffs are still frowned upon in Japan.
Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, the slightly more brutal and direct practice of “constructive dismissal” is achieved by making conditions for an unwanted employee so onerous and difficult that they have no choice but to leave. Think “Mean Girls”, or just high school in general but with grown-ups this time, and you get the idea. It’s also pretty illegal. On the one hand, it can manifest itself in cut wages or demotions, general foot-dragging, refusal to grant requested holidays, or a sudden change of duties. On the other, it looks a lot like outright bullying.
The defining trait from a legal standpoint is that an employee resigns quite quickly, under not-so-subtle pressure to do so from above, and typically features a “last straw” moment that triggers the departure. The UK’s Employee Rights Act frames it in such a way that “the employee terminates the contract under which he is employed (with or without notice) in circumstances in which he is entitled to terminate it without notice by reason of the employer’s conduct.”
Employees who find themselves on the receiving end of what they perceive to be an actionable case of constructive dismissal, however, ought to seek legal advice since the line between a company engaged in routine restructuring behaviour in which the employee just happens to get caught and the willful targeting of an employee for summary termination can be difficult to parse, as the recent dismissal of a case brought by a disgruntled employee against Chevron Canada proves.
In other words, look before you leap. There may not be a net waiting to catch you.