Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Boredom Room

Somewhere, early on in my work life, I worked at a bank.

There were a couple of older men who “worked” in our immediate area who didn’t appear to have all that much to do. They came in late, had long – presumably liquid – lunches, and left early.

When I inquired, I was told that they had not been doing a particularly good job in their earlier positions of importance, so they’d been kept on in make-work, do-nothing positions. All very old-school-tie WASPy – all the machers at the bank were prepster-Ivy Leaguers.  Let’s put old Dexter Standish III in a place where he can do no harm; after all, I crewed with Dex at the Snodgrass School, and his sister is married to my brother. Let’s allow Mansfield Mayflower IV to wait out the years until he can collect his pension in a respectable “job” where he can continue to make use of all those nifty seersucker suits and bow ties from J. Press.

There was even an eponymous term for the act of taking care of an old school tie-er. When someone was kept on in this way, it was said that he was being Elliot Quincy’d.*

Of course, this benefit was only available to members of the club.

Still, back in the day it was, at least for some folks, a kinder, gentler world when it came to keeping the pay checks coming in.

I hadn’t thought of Elliot Quincy in years. But then I read an article last week in The New York Times about something the Times calls the boredom room, which is where workers who by law cannot be laid off are sent to wile away the hours.

Shusaku Tani is a Sony employee who, for the past two years, has gone to “work” in:

…a small room, taken a seat and then passed the time reading newspapers, browsing the Web and poring over engineering textbooks from his college days. He files a report on his activities at the end of each day.

Bet that makes for fascinating reading.

Anyway, when his job was eliminated, Tani – who is only 51 – thumbed his nose at the early-retirement package, which he was able to do under Japanese labor law, which goes to extraordinary lengths to protect employees.

So there he sits in what is called the “chasing-out room” [a.k.a., the boredom room]. He spends his days there, with about 40 other holdouts.

“I won’t leave,” Mr. Tani said. “Companies aren’t supposed to act this way. It’s inhumane.”

I’ve had plenty of bouts with boredom at work over the years, but none of them lasted very long, and I can’t imagine anyone who could go to work, and have nothing to do, for such a protracted period of time and not go nuts.

And it sure sounds like Mr. Tani is letting his stubbornness get the better of him.

Other than knowing about company loyalty and employment for life, I know precious little about how the Japanese economy works – maybe an engineer in his late forties is unemployable - but surely someone that young, with the cushion of a generous severance package, could have spent the last two years trying to find something else to do, other than pore over his moldering college text books and seethe.

The existence of Japan’s boredom rooms is, of course, emblematic of the labor market problems the country has. Given Japan’s rigid labor laws, companies are reluctant to hire younger workers, since employment means a lifetime, death-do-us-part commitment on the part of an employer.

Economists say bringing flexibility to the labor market in Japan would help struggling companies streamline bloated work forces to better compete in the global economy. Fewer restrictions on layoffs could make it easier for Sony to leave loss-ridden traditional businesses and concentrate resources on more innovative, promising ones.

How Sony and other firms cope with the strictures placed on them is setting up rooms like the “chasing-out room”, where:

...the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Or stay there, seething. Talk about a recipe for someone going postal.

On the other end of how to treat unwanted/unneeded employees is the USA, of course:

…where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. Some economists attribute the lack of a dynamic economy in Western Europe to labor laws similar to Japan’s that restrict layoffs.

Crappy as it often is at that atomic worker level, I have to say that I prefer the American way, although we could use a bit more on the support side of things to temper the impact of a crappy economy and/or a crappy company on workers and their families.

Critics of labor changes say something more important is at stake. They warn that making it easier to cut jobs would destroy Japan’s social fabric for the sake of corporate profits, causing mass unemployment and worsening income disparities. For a country that has long prided itself on stability and relatively equitable incomes, such a change would be unacceptable.

Well, the good news and the bad news, from the American perspective, is that no one really seems to give a hoot about the social fabric, mass unemployment, and worsening disparities.

Of course, as the article points out, keeping unneeded older workers in non-jobs means that companies hire fewer younger workers, or hire them on a temporary and part-time basis, in which they don’t enjoy any of the protections that the older cohorts do, which is not exactly a recipe for strong social fabric, stability, and equitable incomes. And punitively treating employees by relegating them to boredom rooms can’t be good for that social fabric, either.

While details to the government plans are still being determined, Mr. Tani’s managers at Sony are already upping the ante. Starting this month, the company has ordered him to work 12-hour shifts on an assembly line at a Sony plant in Toyosato, more than an hour’s drive away. He says he will comply.

And, from a psychological standpoint, he’ll probably be a lot better off than he is reading old textbooks and staring off into space.

Is there not a way in which an economy can work on both the micro-worker and macro-enterprise level? Does a safety net have to mean a boredom room?


*No, they did not say “Elliot Quincy’d”. I made that up. I’m obviously not going to give away the guy’s name that was actually used, even if it’s more than likely that he is long dead.

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