For the first time in its history, the Supreme Court of Japan has ruled in favor of a whistleblower. The defendant was Olympus Corp, but the person bringing the case was not former CEO Michael Woodford, but 51-year-old Masaharu Hamada. Hamada says he was almost driven to breakdown during a five-year battle in which he claims he was demoted, systematically ignored by colleagues, and required to take embarrassingly rudimentary tests as a sort of punishment for bringing to light complaints from suppliers.
Japanese companies can be unforgiving environments for whistleblowers, and the courts have done little in the past to help them. In Japan, the big companies provide lifetime employment for their salaried workers. While part-time and contract employees are more easily let go, salaried employees often must be forced to quit, rather than have their employment terminated by the company. So people who run afoul of the company, like Hamada apparently did, are often subjected to harsh harassment intended to drive them out of the company. These employees often find themselves in closet like offices, socially isolated by coworkers, and even forced to do menial work, like cleaning the bathroom or mowing the lawn. Their have been recent attempts at protecting whistleblowers, a new law was put in place in 2006, but critics complained it did not punish companies for chastising those who chose to speak out. In order to be protected by the law, a whistleblower must remain employed by the company he or she is bringing the action against, but few seem able to withstand the retribution of the company over the course of a drawn out court case.
Hamada’s troubles started when apparently some suppliers had complained that Olympus was luring away all their most talented employees, he brought the complaints to his bosses, and then to the company compliance unit. In the lawsuit, which he originally brought back in 2008, Hamada claimed that for questioning the professional behavior of his colleagues, for what he saw as the public good, he received the cruel treatment noted above and a demotion. Olympus said that he was never demoted, but only transferred, but the courts ultimately agreed with Hamada, that he was unfairly punished as a form of payback for going against the company. The Tokyo High Court, which overturned an earlier district court decision, ordered Olympus to pay Hamada 2.2 million yen ($28,000) in compensation for his “transfer,” Olympus then appealed to the Supreme Court, where its appeal was dismissed. Hamada remains employed at Olympus, and plans to go back to work on Monday morning, where he hopes to be transferred to the company compliance unit, where he would like to help reform the company he says he still cares for. It is unclear though how he will be received.
[Via Washington Post]