Monday, August 4, 2008

It's my mess, but you clean it up

One of my students recently returned from a business trip to Italy. Before she left, she mentioned to me on multiple occasions that she was dreading it and that she just wanted July to be over so the whole thing would be behind her. Her main concern was that her language skills wouldn't be up to snuff, but she was also worried about the tasks she was going to have to carry out while she was there. She spent weeks memorizing vast numbers of arcane details (catalog number strings and product material types) related to her work.

When she returned, she was exhausted both physically and mentally from the ordeal that the trip ended up being. When I asked her if it was bad in the way she expected, she said that it was difficult for her linguistically, but also that her boss critiqued her manners and social skills during her visit. This was something that she had not anticipated. The boss told her that the smalltalk she attempted to make over dinner was boring. When she didn't act energetic and happy after being berated, she was criticized for not smiling.

Her boss also got on her back about her table manners because she ate food off the back of her fork. I rarely formally dine with others, but my student told me that many Japanese men often eat off of the back of their forks. When I asked her why they did this, she said that it was because the fork is held pointing downward when they cut meat and they scoop rice onto the back of the fork so they can eat the rice and meat together without flipping the fork over. I guess I should reconsider how condescending the "can you use chopsticks" question often comes across since clearly some people actually can't use forks. Maybe they aren't implying I'm a klutzy gaijin who lacks the dexterity to manipulate two sticks, but rather reflecting their own difficulties with Western utensils. (The talking flower says this tongue in cheek so relax any bunched underpants.)

This boss made my poor student miserable and made her feel inadequate in many ways. I felt very bad for her because she tries very hard and the boss had actually been out sick for quite awhile and left my student overwhelmed with extra work for several months. You'd think the boss would at least refrain from embarrassing and humiliating her in gratitude for her hard work while she (the boss) was laid up. In my opinion, the boss was unfairly exacting on my student. This was her second trip working abroad and only the first time that the boss came along. She had never been trained to work in a European country and this trip should have been seen as a learning experience and any guidance offered helpfully and gently. Of course, I believe all guidance should be offered in such a manner, but the first time out of the gate, a person should be afforded extra patience.

A week later, my student shows up for the second lesson after her business trip abroad. She tells me she's tired because she had to make another business trip over the past week, but this time inside Japan. The reason for the trip was that there was a customer who hadn't been paying or had been paying with the Japanese equivalent of post-dated checks for years and her company had finally had enough. This client was my student's boss's responsibility and the boss had allowed this client to squeak by without paying for a very long time. Now, the company had no choice but to refuse the most recent post-dated check and repossess the goods that were sitting in the customer's shop as a way of mitigating some of the loss they were taking.

While the boss created this mess with her lax handling of the client, she sent her subordinate to clean it up. The client runs a boutique in an area which has been hard hit by Japan's economic down-turn. He strongly resisted giving up his stock and laid on a sob story about his family and children and how my student (and another employee who accompanied her) would be responsible for the destruction of their lives if they took back their goods. When they didn't give in, he got angry. My student and her coworker argued with him for 5 hours in a terribly uncomfortable situation in which the client was emotionally confrontational and blamed them for his business's failure. If they walked away with their items, his store would be empty and he'd surely go bankrupt.

My student had to stay overnight because the "negotiation" went into the evening, but the client eventually surrendered the stock. In the end, the client still owed her company nearly $300,000 (¥32,000,000) for goods he'd received in the past. Her company is never going to see any of that money and it's all because her boss mishandled the relationship with the client.

If I were my student, I'd be furious that I was berated for my business failures in terms of how I used my fork or made smalltalk with foreign coworkers after enduring this fiasco of the boss's making. I'd very much want to say to the boss, "I may not know how to hold my fork or make interesting smalltalk, but at least my shortcomings didn't cost the company $300,000."


Liz Stone Abraham said...

This story reminds me of why I left the corporate world. Bad behavior can exist in any workplace, but my 12 or so years in corporate makes me think that it can't get any worse than it is there.

My bosses never blatantly sold me up the river the way that your student's boss did. It was usually much subtler. Backdoor politics was a way of life. The execs would regularly emerge from closed door meetings and announce changes whose benefits were dubious but usually meant that my life and the lives of my co-workers would change for the worse.

My boss at the tutoring center asks for our opinions and listens to our suggestions and complaints with an open mind. She gives us the benefit of doubt when a client makes a complaint. Most of all, she treats us with respect. No situation is perfect, but I really couldn't ask for more in a boss. This is the first time in all of my adult working life (about 17 years) that I can say these things about my boss. I wish that everyone could. What a happier world it would be.

Emily said...

Yes, this sounds depressingly familiar. Now that I'm back in the UK, I wonder how I ever put up with working in a stuation where I was routinely criticised for things that were out of my control. I will never work for Corporate Japan again, but I can certainly see that I had it lucky compared to what this lady has gone through.

What a bitch the boss sounds! Knowing more about Italy than she'll ever know I can tell you that I doubt very much that your student will have been perceived as anything remotely boring. Most British people I know would've told the woman where she could stick her job.

By the way, how good is the boss woman's Italian, or does she think they speak English?

Orchid64 said...

The boss's Italian and English are apparently very good. She converses freely and easily in three languages according to my student.

However, I will note that Japanese people who are not fluent in the languages being spoken (my student doesn't speak Italian and isn't fluent in English, though she can communicate pretty well), are poor judges of other people's skills. They see confident or unfettered talking as fluent when it may no be so.

It's great hearing from you again, Emily. :-)