Friday, July 06, 2007

The Truth About AEON: Part V

Reprimands and Blogging

This entry covers the experience that caused the beginning of the end of a pleasant work environment for me at AEON. No, I didn't steal anything, insult anyone, or commit a fatal cultural error. I blogged about a business meeting. If you've been following me for some time (since September, at least), you know probably know this by now – it was one of the entries that scored me the highest hit count I had ever seen up to that point.

So what happened?

One Thursday after lunch, as I'm preparing for my next lesson, my manager pulls me aside and tells me we need to have a meeting. A little puzzled, I comply, and shuffle my feet towards an empty classroom.

"Tana sensei, other teachers read your blog, and we need to talk about it."

I was a little confused at that point. I had asked my trainer about blogging at AEON, because that was a big source of information for me researching back in the US, and I wanted to give prospective employees a better idea of what it meant to come to Japan and work in the eikaiwa. Although, I do have to admit my entries up to that point were very primitive and based largely upon GaijinSmash. My ignorance.

Still, my trainer gave me some advice that I took to be the official stance of AEON: don't mention names, and don't brag about any illegal activities that you may or may not be doing (I can't believe some people would put that kind of information on an easily traceable website). I had complied with this – I mentioned I was an AEON teacher and my location, but did not mention the name of my school or any of my staff. And yet...

"Some of the teachers read your blog, and they were so angry... [The assistant manager] read your blog and he was so angry. Why did you do this?"

She was mostly concerned with my entry about an AEON business meeting, which did not contain specific information about the earnings or students of the school, but did discuss my interpretation of the staff's reaction to certain information (e.g. genkiness in the workplace). I had also discussed my reaction to a terrible kids class I had taught earlier that week, and my own trepidation about teaching so many children's classes. In addition, I had covered some of the staff reactions to my presence in the office – this was mostly coming from my manager, but I had the impression they thought I was an idiot because of my poor Japanese skills: spelling everything out, using a childish tone to talk to me...

Essentially the meeting was me clarifying every point I had ever made on my blog. It was humiliating, and I can't believe she devoted company time to talk to me about it.

"Why do you write these things?"
"These are my thoughts, my opinions; I don't tell people these things. The blog helps me think things over, like a diary."
"But this is different than diary, you post these things on the internet. Anyone can read."

There was no point in arguing any further; I later wrote an entry about blogging in the workplace which summarizes my problem with this meeting very nicely: I didn't bring this information into the workplace. I kept my comments at home, on my personal weblog, which is by definition an online diary. The staff chose to read it, and find offense with it. It's no different than them snooping around a personal diary I might have had lying on my desk – they chose to read it, and must face the consequences of having that information. I didn't give it to them, I didn't complain to them, and I didn't see the point of bringing such problems into the school. Apparently management felt otherwise.

In the end, after making me feel pretty lousy and telling me all the teachers at the school hated me and didn't want to talk to me, she asked me if I would like to transfer to a different school (also in response to my uncertainty in teaching kid's classes). I said I would if it would solve the problems here (I didn't really want to pick up everything and go after just three months, but she made it sound like there was no recovery from this). She also stipulated that if she informed corporate headquarters about this, they would fire me; essentially, I was being censored. Told to remove all references to AEON or be fired. I walked away and stayed pretty silent for the rest of the day.

That night, I wrote this entry (sorry about the Lost in Translation cliché) as a way of apologizing and explaining myself. I also included a small note along the lines of: "Since I have not been understood at my current branch, I will be transferring to a different school as soon as possible."

The next day. About two minutes after I arrive at the office my manager pulls me aside and wants to talk about my latest entry. Again, devoting company time to my blog. This is beyond ridiculous.

"This part is ok, but why did you do this? Why did you say these things?"

Referring to my decision to transfer. It's my choice as an individual. Am I not allowed to talk anymore? If I choose to confide that information to someone, am I in violation of AEON's rules? Regardless, the point is moot, because it was written on a blog, and I didn't bring it into the workplace. It was so pathetic seeing sympathy from her, as if this situation warranted sympathy – she was completely ignoring the root of the problem: there was no problem unless you happened to bring it into the light.

Again, censored. Told to remove all reference to the transfer, and prepare for another meeting next week. Later that day, I also received a call from my trainer telling me I was going to be reprimanded and it was a "serious situation".

I didn't want to make a stand over this. I wanted to stay in Japan. To be honest, I found the whole situation laughable – AEON, a supposedly respectable Japanese company, was devoting company time to addressing a problem they were perpetuating. Over a blog.

And why? Why would the company waste time and resources talking to me about these things? My blog entries were interpretations of cultural differences, hardly whistle-blowing material. Yet, according to the policy manual, AEON has the right to control "anything detrimental or embarrassing to the image and reputation [of AEON]." They used this policy to fire two teachers in Tokyo over information they posted on their blogs, and actually employ someone to search the blogosphere for any and all information.

The next week, I had an official sit-down with my trainer, who observed one of my classes (no doubt to determine on behalf of AEON if my "dangerous behavior" affected my classroom performance), and gave me an official Disciplinary Notification:

This is an official notice of disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, as indicated in the AEON Foreign Teacher's Policy Manual, if the areas of performance discussed do not improve. Immediate and effective improvements need to be made in teaching and/or interpersonal skills.

The reasons for this notification have been explain fully, as well as guidelines and suggestions needed for improvement.

The employer reserves the right to take disciplinary action or terminate the employment contract, if performance or behavioral problems continue or do not improve.


Although I stubbornly felt the problem was with management and the company spending so much time discussing the "problem", I did make an effort to rectify things with the staff at my school. I wrote an official letter of apology. I stayed late without saying a word. I did things without question, even when they warranted questions. I talked to the staff, but it was all very mechanical, because I was dead inside; from that point onward, I decided not to let a single aspect of my outside life or personality show through in the office (classes were the exception); placing that AEON nametag around my neck first thing in the afternoon was like amputating part of myself.

There was a reason behind it all; if AEON didn't want to know my opinions (good or bad), then they wouldn't get them. They would get nothing, just like they wanted. No personality, no stories, no ambition, no emotion. Nothing. I hope I lived up to their expectations. You can't have the light without the dark.

These feelings only improved slightly over the course of the next several months, due to my own stubbornness and the conceit of the staff.

Long-term ramifications

All this occurred before my renewal evaluation in December. All these opinions were embedded in the management and head teacher before my renewal.

My contract was not renewed, mainly on the basis of co-worker rapport. The staff let their feelings affect a person's career. Unbelievable. Of course, I hadn't planned to stay for over a year regardless, but to be turned down on the basis of a blog (and letting those feelings alter their judgment about my performance in other areas)... it was a little frustrating.

So where am I now? Writing about AEON on my blog. In the end, they accomplished nothing except giving me fire to fuel the raging debate about working in eikaiwa.

In all honesty, I was never really angry about the company's reaction to my articles. I knew the intent and purpose behind them, and it wasn’t meant to be personal or insulting – just information about working in Japan. There's only so much you can put up with before you decide what will and will not get to you. This was it for me. I just didn't care after that point.

So if AEON had fired me? So what? I could have done a job search and come up with something, or I could have gone home and searched for a job there, after blogging about the events and probably writing a news article for a legitimate media source.

If the staff had tried to make my existence in Japan as uncomfortable as possible? They didn't help, but again, it was impossible to let their behavior throw me off.

What if? What if...? The possibilities are endless. Nothing's changed about corporate responses to blogging – if the information is out there, someone will find it; I mention this because I told no one in the company, foreigner or otherwise, about my blog's URL or name. Be careful, but don't stop writing; you're always helping someone.

The Truth About AEON: Part I
The Truth About AEON: Part II
The Truth About AEON: Part III
The Truth About AEON: Part IV
The Truth About AEON: Part V
The Truth About AEON: Part VI
The Truth About AEON: Part VII

14 comments:

Kirakun said...

came across your blog and read the last 10 entries or so, including the aeon stuff.

to be honest, came across an aeon ad placed in my college's newspaper. I graduated last year but reading the site, made it sound like it would be a good fit for me and them.

Your entries have been very helpful in helping me decide if I want to "teach english" in Japan.

Although, your first couple aeon posts kinda came off, mmm, well as someone who didn't have a clue of how Japanese culture worked and you committed all these cultural 'blunders', so to speak.

So I have to ask, how did you decide you wanted to teach in Japan?

Were you into japanese culture at all before you decided to teach there? If so, you must've realized the huge cultural difference between US and japanese, mmm ideals i guess.

I just felt like if you made a better effort to understand from the get go you would have been able to prevent these lil headaches from popping up.

Thats not to say I dont blame you, some of the ish they get all fussy about, yea you kinda shake your head and wonder why?

Just hard to gather it from your writings I've read.

It may not be an accurate description, although reading the later aeon posts made me realize you made a turn for a better how you've started to understand the Japanese way I guess.

Oh, my apologies if you've answered these questions ahead of time. Havent had the time to read all your entries yet.

Just trying to understand your position because at the end of this year, or so, I'm seriously considering of applying since their LA offices do year round interviews.

Do you have any posts on the actual hiring process, how that was like, questions they asked, questions you asked etc?

Anyways, I like your entries. I also read gaijinsmash. super funny blog by my fellow NorCal peep.
I wanna ask you if you ever met him in real life?

Keep up the writing =)

Shari said...

If I were you, I wouldn't try so hard to distance myself from my original impressions and resulting entries. Yes, you may feel more enlightened now but there is probably a lot of value for newcomers in the knowing that their experiences are not isolated ones. Also, just because we understand cultural differences, it doesn't mean we have to love them.

I'm still personally very frustrated with the communication tendencies among Japanese people that make them beat around the bush about what they want in a manner that makes you play a frustrating guessing game until you happen to stumble upon what they really want. It's an incredible waste of time and I wish they'd just come out and say what they want, particularly when it's something with no emotional impact at stake (like telling me what day a student wants to come when I specifically ask "what day does she want" rather than vaguely saying "in the evening" and making me list all my free days only to say at the end that the student wanted a particular day...Grrrr).

I think that the biggest lesson one can walk away with from your experience is never to use the company names or your own name in such a manner that can be directly traced with a simple web search. The people who perform searches of blogs in order to track down employees who may be telling all are likely very narrow in their search procedures and only do name searches. I'm guessing that you never would have been discovered had you referred to your place of employment as A*E*O*N (or, if you wanted to be more careful A**N).

Great series of posts, btw!

ターナー said...

Kirakun,

Read the post just before this one titled "Patience", in which I explain my early impressions of Japan; your analysis is quite correct.

J said...

"Still, my trainer gave me some advice that I took to be the official stance of AEON: don't mention names..."

Did this mean don't mention the names of any persons involved, or *the name of AEON* and any persons involved? That would be a pretty big difference.

"It's no different than them snooping around a personal diary I might have had lying on my desk..."

But it's very different, isn't it? When you post a blog, you're laying out several billion copies of your diary on several billion desks--and when you mention your employer by name, it's like attaching a bright red sticker that says "AEON!" that will get the attention of anyone who glances at the cover. Have you not heard of people being fired in the U.S. for posting job-related anecdotes on their myspace pages? Or the "drunken pirate" debacle that caused a student to be denied her teaching degree because of a Halloween photo of her posted online? (http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/229538/drunk_pirates_on_myspace_cannot_be.html)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not siding with the knee-jerk reaction treatment you were given at your job, but in this day and age, posting anything negative--or could be *construed* as negative--about your employers on an online forum is a bad idea, period. As an earlier poster mentioned, this probably wouldn't have been an issue if you'd disguised the name of your employer--or not mentioned them at all, regardless of what you were informed was official policy.

ターナー said...

J,

Actually, my trainer said not to mention the specific names of people and places. I had mentioned AEON, but thought this wouldn't be an issue.

I did do my research about people being fired in the workplace, but hadn't seen any precedent for being let go for talking about legitimate concerns with the company; yes, there was the student who got turned down her teaching degree (which I think is completely ridiculous), the stewardess who posted a picture of herself wearing her uniform (perfectly casual), and the original blogger to be fired, coining the term "dooced".

I probably should have covered my tracks a little better, but I really wasn't that concerned about it; I still maintain it's wrong for employers to use that kind of information against you, especially for the type of forum in which it's posted; this isn't CNN or the daily news, it's just a journal.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that it's "just a journal" - the only point to blogging as opposed to writing and then saving the files on your personal computer is the sharing, and that's what created the problems that you had. I don't like the fact that peoples' online lives can be used against them in the workplace, but it doesn't make sense to me to get upset about the reactions, even the bad ones, that people have to your comments. Isn't that the point?

Regardless, though, I really appreciate this series - very informative and honest. I am considering signing on with an eikaiwa and this kind of thing is really helpful. I think that I will probably choose to do it, but I am glad that I will have the chance to go in with my eyes open and knowing what to expect, even the bad stuff.

J said...

Agree, this is a *very* helpful series of commentaries. I wish this sort of thing had been available back when I first came over here.

Like I said, I don't agree with the backlash you received, but I'm not particularly surprised by it. I caught little of the AEON fire myself, but there were all sorts of stories about it even in my day, back before blogs, when backlash was the result of rumor or sheer speculation.

There was one semi-famous story we heard in training from one of the higher-ups (!) about a teacher who habitually called in sick. Wondering what the deal was, someone from AEON used a master key to get into the apartment and do a bit of snooping...and under the bed was found a collection of alcohol bottles. Concluding that the teacher was not in fact sick but simply drinking all the time, AEON summarily fired said teacher, based on conjecture the result of a blatant invasion of privacy.

Myself, I had a pretty decent time at AEON, all things considered. But Big Brother was most definitely watching.

ターナー said...

I never heard that story... one thing I do remember from my second month is all the teachers assuming I just drank myself to death every weekend (far from the truth):

"Where did you go?"
"Oh, I went to Hiroshima."
"Drinking?"

Right... I'm sure that's all there is to do in Hiroshima (sarcasm implied). It was a little insulting when I was in fact going to observe the August 6th ceremony.

Anonymous said...

1. Blogging about your workplace will get you into just as much trouble in the US. Companies don't want their dirty laundry aired all over the internet for the whole world to see. There's even a legal implication, as they (or even you) could be sued for libel or slander by anyone you quoted, especially airing the content of a business meeting. This is just common sense.

ターナー said...

Except I didn't post the information discussed in a business meeting, just the behavior of the staff, which was 100% true; thus, it can't be libel.

Anonymous said...

I personally think it's very naive of you to post reactions to your coworkers' actions on a blog that can easily be linked to the real-life you, and not expect some repercussions. Equally naive is pinning this on AEON in particular. The Japanese workforce is well known for turning small issues into huge scandals based entirely on a single rumor.

Granted, it may seem unjust to punish someone for expressing their opinions on a blog... but if there's even a slight possibility of a co-worker being insulted by something you've written, you're in the wrong if you don't think you're at least partially responsible.

Turner said...

Naive... perhaps. But I didn't blame this on AEON in particular, saying that it was a problem in all company-employee relationships.

I'm afraid we'll just have to disagree about your last comment; it is unjust, simple as that.

Anonymous said...

I once was a head teacher of AEON, and all I can tell you after reading your blog was that I thank GOD that I had never worked with you! Before talking about your freedom of speech and all, just think about how much frustration and damage you have caused on your immediate Japanese co-workers! Just because AEON didn't (and still doesn't) have a whistleblower policy, it didn't mean you could talk about manager and assistant manager, who took great care of you, behind their back. They were the ones who made your salary, and paid for your apartment. I think you should have respected every co-worker and Japanese culture. Causing this entire blog-related incident, I don't think not only Japanese companies but any companies would like to keep you as an employee....

Turner said...

I don't see how this is an issue of whistle blowing; I was discussing cultural differences in the workplace. I didn't report on numbers at the school or specific names.

I concede the point about disrupting group harmony, however, as I've come to realize in the past several months.

That last comment seems rather spiteful; I was hired a few months later by a company with full knowledge of the incident at AEON, and I may be coming back to Japan soon.

Incidentally, I can't help but notice that those who criticize choose to post anonymously...