Japanese car maker Toyota has announced that it reached a settlement with the family of an employee who committed suicide in 2017 after being bullied by his boss, apologizing and vowing to crack down on workplace harassment.

The president of Toyota Motor Corporation, Akio Toyoda, met with the family of the man, who was 28 years old at the time of his death, and offered an apology. A settlement for an undisclosed amount was reached in April, but a statement on the matter was not released until Monday.

The employee, whose name was not revealed due to privacy concerns, worked at the vehicle design department at the automaker’s headquarters in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, since March 2016, where he was regularly abused by his immediate boss, including reportedly being told things such as “You’re stupid,“You’re an idiot,” and “You’d better die.” After four months at the office, he took a three-month leave of absence and was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, a stress-related condition that can cause depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal. When the man returned to his job, he was assigned to another section, but was reportedly made to sit near his former superior. A year later, he killed himself in his room at a company dormitory.

In a written response that Toyota sent to the family a year later, the automaker recognized a causal relationship between the harassment and the man’s leave of absence, but denied a connection between the abuse and suicide, Japanese media reported. 

In 2019, a regional labor board recognized his death as work-related, entitling his family to compensation. The car maker and the family reached an out-of-court settlement in April, but the statement regarding the issue was only made after the president of the auto giant, Akio Toyoda, apologized to the family in person. Toyoda said the company “takes seriously the fact that the precious life of our employee has been lost” and promised to “transform Toyota” by improving prevention measures while “keeping your son in our memory.” The media quoted the statement, which goes on to say that the company “will continue to work toward creating a comfortable workplace climate… and without tolerating harassment by superiors.” 

In April 2020, Toyota revised its in-house policy on penalties for abuse by superiors, among other steps, to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

The family’s lawyer, Yoshihide Tachino, told AFP that Japan remains “notorious” for poor working conditions. He said there are a lot of cases of deaths from overwork, but the number of complaints about workplace harassment is on the rise as well. 

A 2016 survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) showed that 32.5% of employees had suffered from power harassment in the past three years, and that this was the most common reason for people seeking counseling.

Some see the root of the problem in Japan’s tradition of highly authoritarian management styles and deference to those in authority. Critics also point out that workplace abuse may sometimes be used as a method to make an employee decide to quit on their own, enabling the company to avoid firing them. 

“Power harassment ruins the lives of individuals and the people around them. The company needs to make earnest efforts to improve its workplace environment,” Japanese media quoted the statement from the family of the deceased man, which was released by their lawyer, as saying. 

In order to combat the problem, last June, the Japanese government introduced the Power Harassment Prevention Act, which lays out power harassment prevention measures for large corporations. The act obliges employers to take certain steps to prevent power harassment, such as establishing a counseling system for employees and prohibiting employers from punishing staff for filing power harassment complaints. From next year, the law will apply to small-to-medium-sized companies.

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