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Myths and Truths about Recruitment in Japan

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At Morunda, we’ve held a successful partnership with a large European life science search firm for several years, and they have helped us by providing leads when European companies, large and small, have sought senior executives for their Japanese subsidiaries.

Recently, I received a call from our partner who had just returned from a meeting with a board member at a major European pharmaceutical company. He had learned that the Japanese subsidiary would need a new head of pharmacology, and he excitedly outlined the role requirements, how we should pitch to win the search, and strong potential candidates. However, for all the excitement, something was nagging at me. This felt familiar. Had I heard this before? I put my phone down and turned to Giorgio (Morunda’s R&D recruiting leader) and told him about the role. Giorgio, matter-of-factly, smiled and said, “yeah, I’ve heard about this role. They’ve been looking for a while, I think.”

Amazed, and a little deflated, our European friend was shocked to learn that this role had been broadcast to a wide net of recruiters and that this practice was quite common in Japan. The position fit all the normal criteria of an executive search. It wasn’t a role that the company would normally want advertised to the broader market because it was very senior, would be hard to fill, and, presumably, the client would want one search partner to manage the process and introduce the two or three best candidates to the line manager directly.

As a next step, I called the Japan HR director of this particular company to clarify the current situation. He confirmed that the position had been provided to a number of recruitment companies (he couldn’t actually tell me how many because he didn’t know) and that if I found a suitable candidate, please send him the CV. I asked whether he’d be open to considering a formal search and whether it would be useful to talk to the hiring manager to present the reasons why this method would be beneficial, and he quickly responded with a “no thank you, please let me know if you have a good candidate and please don’t contact our line managers.”

The above response is a slightly rare case (perhaps driven from a previously negative experience with a recruiter), but it did get me thinking about the interesting differences between Japan and other markets when it came to recruiting. I’m not implying that one market is better than the other but it is fascinating to see the differences between two major pharmaceutical markets when it comes to finding talent.

After considering the differences, it occurred to me that there are a variety of assumptions, maxims, and superstitions that inform this divide (the tired old mantra “this is Japan, and it’s different here”), so I thought I’d outline these reasons and give my own thoughts on whether these are actually real or just perceived differences.

Candidates are harder to source/move from their current companies than in Western markets. TRUTH

We can largely ignore the tired stereotype of “lifetime employment,” but there is truth in the fact that candidates typically prefer to be approached by trusted advisors with whom they have a preexisting relationship rather than newcomers when choosing to make a move. Japanese candidates are also less likely to actively seek new opportunities or promote their own recruitment through social media (LinkedIn, etc.) or by meeting with recruiters. This trend is changing somewhat with younger candidates.

If Candidates are harder to find, then logically I should work with more recruiters to receive more potential candidates? MYTH

There are about six or seven “brand” recruitment firms (Morunda is one of these) that have been established for many years in Japan (these aren’t the global recruitment firms that tend to be comparatively smaller in Japan with only one or two people using their personal network). Of these six or seven firms, they would already 75% of the potential candidate population for any particular search and, with time, would be able to scout the final 25% through their own network. By working with more than one of these firms, you’ll likely be mixing your messages. Indeed, given such a similar candidate talent pool, it’s likely that you could drive away that one perfect candidate you’re looking for if she’s been approached by five different firms telling her a variety of stories about the same position.

Both HR and recruiters have lack of confidence in the other’s abilities. (PARTIAL) TRUTH

On one side of this equation there is truth that sometimes companies are reluctant to allow search firms to more deeply manage the hiring process. Much of the blame for this lies with recruiters who have misused or abused this trust given to them in the past. When this happens, HR often has a confidence issue with recruiters and feels like they have to provide “quality control” on résumé screening. On the other side, recruiters have tended to view HR as an impediment to learning the “core” requirements of the job and have often actively tried to circumvent HR. Successful companies always include their HR as vital stakeholders in the hiring process: HR is the first point of contact for recruiters because they know the most about the role and close the communication loop with all stakeholders with high efficiency and proficiency. Indeed, successful companies see trusted recruiters as valuable external stakeholders. These trusted recruiters thrive on providing a value-added service to their clients, report on relevant market information, and would never dream of abusing the trust they have been granted.

This is the system under which we work, and there’s not much we can do to change it. MYTH

The quality and competencies of recruiting in Japan are improving every year and moving to be more in line with a global model where senior search firms are separated from staffing agencies. Companies are enjoying this improvement of service. Having the experience of recruiting in Japan for five years, then working in Europe for several years before returning again, I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement in the quality provided by the high-end recruitment firms, and, although not perfect, HR and line management are now beginning to receive the quality service they expect and deserve.

Although there are some differences between markets, the ultimate truth is that the closer the connections between companies and quality recruiters become, the more all sides will benefit. Don’t let the bad apples spoil the whole bunch. After you find a search partner that really demonstrates an understanding and passion for your company, bring them closer into your business, and they will love you and work harder for you than ever before.

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