Survey: Managing Foreign Employees Working in Japan - GPlusMedia

Survey: Managing Foreign Employees Working in Japan


  • Respondents: 50 companies
  • Participants: Japanese supervisors with foreign employees working directly under them
  • Period: Oct. 23 – Nov. 30, 2018
  • Method: GPlusMedia online and newsletter survey
  • Partner: WizWe (Japanese)


In recent years, the number of foreign workers in Japan continues to set record highs, and this trend of companies hiring more foreign employees is expected to go upward. However, as the population of non-Japanese personnel grows, preventing turnover among these employees and promoting their success in the workplace are becoming key issues.

To learn how best to retain and build long-term relationships with non-Japanese employees, GPlusMedia partnered with WizWe — a business and human resources training company based in Tokyo — to survey corporate managers in Japan regarding their foreign employees.

Through this survey, the supervisors of foreign employees fielded questions regarding issues they face daily, methods they have used to resolve these issues and initiatives their companies have taken. Using the results of this survey and analysis of problems found therein, we aim to help companies improve how they manage foreign employees.

For this survey, we received feedback from companies in a wide range of industries. While most of the companies were small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with fewer than 100 employees, the number of responses received from large companies was slightly higher than the ratio of large enterprises to SMEs in Japan.

Company attributes

The highest percentage of respondents — 20% of them, to be precise — belonged to human resources departments. We presume that many of these respondents play a direct role in the hiring of foreigners and employ foreign workers to perform HR-related duties. A high percentage of responses also came from sales and marketing departments, indicating that these company sections hope to benefit from the perspectives of foreign employees in their workplaces, as well.

Most foreign workers in Japan are from Asia, which accounts for 42% of survey responses with the next highest percentage being from Europe. Interestingly, the number of foreign employees who speak English as their native language is not particularly high.

Real estate is one industry with a notably high number of workers from Asia. We presume that the reasons for this statistic are that the top two nationalities of foreign residents in Japan are South Korean and Chinese, and that the number of Chinese people investing in Japanese real estate has surged in recent years.

The organizations with the fewest examples of cultural bias were educational institutions and the data shows a considerable number of foreigners from all regions working in this sector as language teachers.

There is also little bias toward place of birth in the manufacturing industry. We believe this is due to the fact that foreign languages and cultural practices create fewer barriers to the work that employees do in the industry.

Respondent attributes

The managers who responded to this question were relatively young (in their 30s and 40s). Strikingly, the number of responses from female supervisors — at 13.2% — was higher than the actual rate of women in management positions in Japan (reportedly less than 10%).

Most respondents manage no more than five foreign workers, so we assume that many tend to be in environments where they have firsthand communication with the foreigners that work under them.

Acceptance of foreign employees

Of the participants who answered the survey, 90% reported that workplace acceptance of foreign employees has been “positive” or “somewhat positive.”

The total number of “negative” or “somewhat negative” responses was slight, at just 4%. We take this to mean that foreign workers and their Japanese counterparts are generally building sound relationships.

Problems arising from hiring foreign employees

More than half of the respondents replied that their foreign subordinates have not experienced problems within the company or with clients. For the 44% of respondents who answered “yes” to this question, we asked for the causes of the problems in the next query.

Graph 4: Causes of Problems

List 1: Other Causes

Causes attributable to foreign employees:

  • Unable to transfer their jobs to successors due to a sudden need to return to their home countries

Causes attributable to the Japanese employer:

  • Company unable to offer a future career path
  • Insufficient salary and promotion standards offered with the company

Causes attributable to Japanese employees:

  • Low proficiency in English (or other non-Japanese employee languages)
  • Lack of cultural understanding about diversity and foreign employees
  • Stress due to excessive micromanagement

The answer that received the most responses by far for the “causes of problems” was: “Different awareness of punctuality or other time-related issues.” This one accounted for 36% of all answers. There were also high response rates for other reasons not directly related to an employee’s ability to do the job, including communication issues and  job description misunderstandings.

The data indicates that companies need to offer sufficient workplace training and support in adjusting to Japanese business practices along with complete job descriptions to avoid problems with clients and foreign employees.

Trust and work efficiency relationships

Chart 8: Have you experienced improvements in mutual trust or work efficiency with your foreign subordinates?

Seventy percent of respondents answered in the affirmative regarding whether they have experienced improvements in trust or work efficiency with their foreign subordinates. For the respondents who answered “Yes,” we asked how they improved mutual trust or work efficiency using the descriptions below.

How did you encourage improvement?

Mutual trust

  • I took time for personal communication (one-on-one discussions or regularly setting aside time for sharing opinions).
  • I strengthened our mutual trust by communicating honestly, making more opportunities for communication and valuing our time spent outside of work.
  • The employee improved after I attentively listened to him/her and tried to understand cultural differences or ways of thinking.
  • By sharing activities outside of work (e.g., eating together after work or on weekends or taking part in shared hobbies), we built a better relationship. As a result, I feel as though conversation and consultation became easier, while our work could move forward more efficiently.

Work efficiency

  • By giving sufficient lifestyle support, I raised my employee’s sense of belonging to the company.
  • Rather than just asking the employee to perform tasks, I consciously involved him/her in meetings and delegated authority, thereby improving motivation. With higher motivation, the employee came to actively share ideas and opinions, naturally improving work efficiency as these new ideas generated new projects.
  • I thought foreign employees would often feel alienated, so I actively asked for their opinions or engaged them in discussion, depending on which approach suited their personality, as I worked to improve their sense of belonging as a member of the company, whether directly or indirectly.
  • Specific job instruction, OJT and private interactions changed how my employees approached work, thereby improving performance.
  • By building mutual trust, we became able to engage in casual communication, which led to an improvement in work efficiency.
  • There were times when the way foreign workers approached their work changed. These situations occurred when, to promote teamwork, we clearly communicated how we wanted them to grow, after we shared the ideas, expectations and reasons behind their work roles.

Many managers improved their efforts at communication to help build mutual trust. Many other responses from managers who saw trust improvements included spending time together outside of work rather than just talking in the office. Moreover, offering support to their foreign coworkers living in Japan was often seen as an effective means of building trust.

As with relationships of trust, many managers found that work efficiency improved  with an increase in conversations, on-the-job training and other forms of direct communication.

Additionally, delegating authority to foreign employees and actively encouraging them at work led to increased motivation, while task-specific instruction and lifestyle support improved how employees approached their work and their sense of belonging to the team.

Demands made on supervisors

Graph 5: What abilities or qualities are essential for managing foreign subordinates?

Communication-related matters topped the responses for required abilities of Japanese managers. Of these, most responded that “clear instructions” are key. This response appears to raise the question of how Japanese companies function when instructions consist of non-verbal communication, implied understanding and indirect expressions. The next most frequent response for essential skills for managers was “the ability to listen to others.” This particular trait should be an essential skill in working with all staff — Japanese or otherwise — but it seems to get dismissed when working with other Japanese employees.

Graph 6: What experiences did you find useful after working with foreign staff?

Responses other than those listed above (including “Other”)

  • Having learned other cultures or how others think from books or other sources
  • Experiences of struggling to adjust within a company, regardless of nationality
  • Past education opportunities or majors (foreign language departments or international studies)

“Having interacted with foreigners” and “having studied abroad” were the leading responses for “What previous experiences did you find came in useful after working with foreign staff?” Because answers that involved dealing with everyday life tended to stand out more than those involving work skills, we noticed that Japanese staff had trouble establishing communicative relationships with people from other countries if they (the Japanese staff) adhered to their conventional Japanese thought patterns and habits.

On the other hand, this data may also indicate that as long as managers can understand different cultures and how to communicate with people from other countries then even if they don’t have much international work experience posts, they are still able  supervise foreign staff without much trouble.

Demands made on organizations

Chart 9: Please rank the order of what organizations should provide foreign employees to improve their retention rate or performance.

The highest score went to “organizational initiatives for promoting an improved understanding of and offering advice to foreign employees.”

The top response for most managers was: “Organizational initiatives for promoting an improved understanding of and offering advice to foreign employees.” The reason is that many managers believe there is a need for foreign employees who are working in new jobs surrounded by a different culture and language to feel peace of mind before engaging in their work. Additionally, when looking across entire organizations, many managers responded that they think an approach of eliminating bias and prejudice among Japanese employees and understanding different cultures is essential for smooth operations and administration.

The next highest total score was: “A system for fair evaluations.” Among the managers who chose this as their number one response and believe fair evaluations are a natural part of management, there was a tendency to emphasize not giving foreign employees the impression that they are subject to discrimination and — to achieve this goal —  Japanese people ought to accept the cultural misunderstandings that can be common among foreign employees. At the same time, managers tended to focus less on “study groups or writing manuals,” even though these are part of a company’s internal operations. They appear to believe that placing more importance on “Japanese language training, visa support and other lifestyle support” and “the right to improve salaries or overtime workload” — factors that benefit productive communication at work and peace of mind at home — would better serve in improving foreign employee retention rates and performance. The managers who chose these answers as their number one response justified them by saying that building an environment in which employees can feel secure in their lives and clearly stating policies regarding time off and salaries lead to employee retention.

Retention rate and work efficiency initiatives

Policies or initiatives that improve foreign employee retention rates or performance

  • “Expand the options for internal and external training, and increase the number of opportunities to work directly under the CEO.” —Mass media communications/Marketing division
  • “Actively invest in English education for Japanese employees and promote English use in internal materials. Recruit outstanding foreign engineers and they will play a central role in their work.” —Education, information communication, IT and software/Executive manager
  • “Establish performance-based HR systems and improve employee salary compensation through raises and promotions.” —Real estate industry/Sales division
  • “If foreign employees are even slightly unsuited for a job or if they do not get along well with other staff members, give the foreign employees other work to do or have them work with other staff members. They have consented to whatever work they do and working with other staff, and if something comes up, I listen and try to improve communication.” —Education institute
  • “I assign mentors (both a foreigner and a Japanese person), hold company parties, share information on community events and plan company competitions.” —Service industry/HR division

Many of the responses that referenced specific attempts to improve staff retention rates or work efficiency offered initiatives for providing detailed follow-up or maintaining motivation, including HR systems that explicitly state improved compensation for performance, mentor assignments, company training and language or comfort considerations. While these initiatives are also necessary for retaining Japanese employees, many companies appear to take extra measures for foreign employees who are working in unfamiliar countries.


Through our survey on managing foreign employees in Japan, we learned that many workplaces here now see hiring foreign employees as a positive and the reason for that is the many managers who actively support initiatives aimed at retaining these individuals.

Common trends found throughout the responses show that many managers focus on improved communication and lifestyle support rather than work-oriented assistance.

The workplace problems facing many foreign employees vary depending on differences in awareness and a lack of understanding in certain situations, but many of the managers who responded focused on communication as the means to understand and overcome these issues.

Most of the managers engaged their employees in conversation, met with them outside the office and offered their support for adjusting to life in Japan. In the survey, these efforts produced clear results in helping to improve relationships, retention rates and performance among foreign employees.

The survey results show that workplaces welcoming foreign employees must help them have  positive interactions with managers and supervisors by making sure they have the communication skills and demeanor needed for this role. Employers also need to offer a full lineup of systematic training concerning the Japanese language as it relates to work-related matters and general happiness.

To help foreign workers who are starting a job in an unfamiliar country and culture, companies need to alleviate any anxiety staff may have about interpersonal relationships at work and adjusting to life in a new home. The solution to these issues is ensuring that non-Japanese employees trust their supervisors and their colleagues. If foreign employees have people they know and trust that they can turn to for help with their daily concerns, it can provide them with a sense of security. While it can be challenging for all managers to master each of these skills equally, our survey on managing foreign employees in Japan has highlighted the indispensable elements needed to welcome non-Japanese staff and have them fully demonstrate their skills in the workplace.