How to Overcome Common Recruitment Pitfalls in Japan

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Foreign capital companies operating in Japan often have flawed hiring processes stemming from a lack of experience with a new culture and local business practices.

That difficulty is compounded when expat managers attempt precise replication of business styles that are successful at their headquarters.

The most common pitfalls that foreign capital firms encounter in recruiting include:

Prioritizing English skills over job skills

This is the biggest error foreign managers make when recruiting in Japan.

Most people prefer working with colleagues who share a common language and, because effective reporting relationships are critically important, the foreign language ability of new hires can be not merely useful but necessary.

As a result, foreign managers base recruiting decisions on language skills rather than on business skills, while some job changers mask a lack of business skills with their language capability. To avoid this hiring pitfall:

  • Set clear, measureable job specifications for the position, regardless of language ability.
  • Have your local staff interview candidates.
  • Consider whether your new leader is actually already on your staff, but overlooked for lack of perfect English. Promote internally, and invest in foreign language education for your staff.

These measures keep the focus on the candidate’s suitability for the job and reduce ill feeling within your team in Japan, who resent incapable leaders hired just because of their English skills.

Vague and unrealistic job specs

Positions often remain unfilled despite a desperate need because job specs are vaguely defined, becoming a “moving target” for recruiters. The job spec should be a balance of capability vs. priority. Here are some critical action steps:

  • Seek the advice of successful people in your local organization to determine what contributes to their success.
  • Ask experienced recruiters to describe job specifications they recommend for the type of person you are seeking.

Awaiting the perfect candidate

One potential drawback of creating the perfect job spec is holding out for the perfect candidate.

Many companies become paralyzed when they seek someone who is a 100 percent match, rather than finding someone who can realistically perform the job.

Consider this: If a candidate is a perfect match, what room does that person have to develop within your company?

Organizations are better served by setting specifications to attract employees who can grow into a given role for less cost than the “perfect” candidate – who may not even exist.

No Japanese strategy

Japanese job changers appreciate employers who have done their homework on Japan; they prioritize employment with companies that demonstrate their understanding.

Unfortunately, foreign managers are often sent to Japan to implement a business model that works at home and in other foreign markets, but with no Japan-specific strategy.

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Potential candidates can be quickly turned off if they suspect they will not be able to leverage their knowledge and creativity. The solution?

  • Do your homework on Japan.
  • Be prepared to adjust your strategy based on input from your new employees and the local business environment.

Job applicants vs. executive search candidates

Japan is among the hardest places in the world to recruit top talent; it requires a change in mindset from “screening applicants” to “courting future employees.”

Japan has few qualified candidates based on Western standards, so it is imperative that a potential new employer “sell” job changers on the new company.

An employer branding strategy that provides clear messaging about the company’s culture to potential job changers pays dividends beyond the employment of the immediate applicants. They will share their new knowledge of your company with their colleagues, making it easier to convince other candidates to join your company. Such consistency of tone is critical for long-term hiring success in Japan.

No career path

It is no mystery why many Japanese seek work with foreign firms; bottlenecks to promotion in an ageing society make retention and moving up the corporate ladder impossible in many Japanese companies. To capitalize on this huge selling point:

  • Create a clear career path, which is often a more compelling motivator than compensation.
  • Provide opportunity for overseas assignments as a means of promoting career satisfaction.
  • Develop a culture of long-term employment based on transparent and proactive promotion.

Forgoing reference checks

Because of the stigma linked to job changes in Japan, it is difficult to find references.

Reference checks might be delayed until after the candidate’s acceptance of a job offer, but they should still be made. Aside from confirming the candidate’s background, references provide other benefits:

  • Surfacing potential employees and business contacts.
  • Letting more people know about your company.

If a candidate balks at providing a reference, it is best to drop them from the process. It is said that “reference checks are not performed in Japan because Japanese are honest,” but references are still the simplest form of risk management to ensure a good hire.

Just as foreigners must adapt to the language, culture and local business practices in Japan, they must adopt the same approach to recruitment, keeping in mind methodologies that are successful at HQ may not be transferrable abroad.

Jason Hatchell, is the managing director of J-Source Corporation, an affiliate of MRINetwork, one of the largest executive search and recruitment organizations in the world. Hatchell has over 15 years of Japanese-based recruitment experience and is an expert on cross-cultural issues between Japan and the West.

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1 Comment on “How to Overcome Common Recruitment Pitfalls in Japan

  1. Some excellent insights, advice. These type of pitfalls, like going for the English speakers, no J-strategy, the lack of precise job descriptions, etc. are exactly true. Some extra points might be importance of age or seniority in the system here, as well as double emphasis on the final reference point. There is no doubt Japan works as a group, team-spirit type society, and work even more so. If someone is not tuned in and respected or able to work well with others, he/she should be clearly double-checked since will carry over into any new situation.

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