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Sunday, Sept. 17, 2006
WORKING WITH CARE
Heartbreak heaven for staff
By YOKO HANI
It's 9 o'clock on a Monday morning. A phone rings in an office and the boss picks it up. At the other end she hears the fragile voice of one of her staff telling her she broke up with her boyfriend the day before. "I would like to take a shitsuren kyuka," the staffer says. Unperturbed, the boss replies: "No problem. Take care of yourself." And with that the conversation ends.
That phone conversation is likely to occur in the future in the Tokyo office of Miki Hiradate's market-research company Hime & Company. By asking for a shitsuren kyuka, the staffer would be requesting "compassionate leave to fix a broken heart" -- and its granting would be the norm.
"Unless you are extremely lucky," says Hiradate, the firm's 37-year-old founder and president, "you will definitely have the experience in your 20s and 30s of being brokenhearted after someone leaves you.
"So, shitsuren kyuka is a [paid] holiday you take when that happens and you feel too devastated to come to the office. I introduced it after I asked young women what they wanted from 'female-friendly companies,' and they suggested these holidays."
Of course, a female-friendly workplace would offer flexible working hours and child-care leave to help women balance their lives as both mothers and workers. But Hiradate wanted something more, and when she heard the suggestion for "heartbreak leave," she went for it at once.
"Some people may just call their office and say they're taking a day off because they don't feel well, but in my company the employees can openly say they are taking a shitsuren kyuka. They are not asked anything more.
"You know, when you are brokenhearted, you feel terrible and have red eyes and the condition affects your work performance. I recommend them to come to the office after taking some rest. That's good for the company, too," Hiradate says in an upbeat tone.
As for how much rest a lovelorn lady might be allowed, Hiradate believes that the damage done by breaking up gets more serious the older you become. Consequently, her company grants one day a year off to staff in their early 20s, two days off to those in their late 20s and three days off to thirtysomethings.
Sounds nice. How many staff have actually taken the holidays since the company introduced them last year?
"Fortunately, nobody has," Hiradate says. But she swears that she herself will take her shitsuren kyuka if the need arises. "Of course, I will take three days off!" she says.
In fact, in the way it reflects women's real needs, Hiradate's shitsuren kyuka policy also aptly symbolizes the character of her business, which hinges on reflecting the women's market.
Hiradate started her Hime Club (meaning Princess Club) market-research business mainly targeting women in their 20s and 30s in 2002, then renamed it Hime & Company. The business has grown steadily while attracting such clients as cosmetics and beverage makers who create and sell products tailored to that age group.
Hiradate currently employs four full-time staff, all women, who organize and conduct market research on a pool of about 4,000 women who signed up to her "focus groups" mainly through her Web site at www.himeclub.com . She calls those women her hime (princesses) because the purpose of her business is ultimately to promote products and services that make them and their contemporaries happy, she says.
The decor in the salon of her Aoyama office is deliberately girlish, with a white fluffy carpet and pink artificial flowers twined around the spiral stairs up to her office -- as it is there that her hime often come to evaluate new drinks, cosmetics and other products.
"One day, I would like to create a big, castle-shaped department store which sells items selected by hime," she says, smiling, in the rosy room.
But to push forward to achieve her grand design, Hiradate freely admits that she relies on having the right kind of staff coming up with unique ideas.
"I started shitsuren kyuka also because I wanted to have staff who are freed from stereotype and who understand humor. I needed people who would say: 'Shitsuren kyuka? Cool. Can I take that if I get brokenhearted when it's revealed that my favorite pop star has got a girlfriend?"
As unusual as her "heartbreak holidays" may be, Hiradate says she is not just "trying to challenge stereotypes." Rather, she seems to enjoy the reactions to what she is doing.
"When we started the business under the name Hime Club, it probably sounded like a hostess club in Ginza. People in PR companies, for example, had to explain to their client companies that we were actually a marketing company. However, the impact of the name was far stronger than the usual names of marketing businesses, such as 'AA Research' or 'Woman Something.' So that way our business became widely known in the industry.
"I did that on purpose. I try to create something that people cannot help chatting about."
Hiradate's stream of new strategies seems to never stop. Another new holiday at her company is bagen hankyu (a half-day off to go to the sales) -- an idea that came from her experience of working in a big company.
"You can't miss the seasonal discount sales, especially the morning of the day when they start. Of course you can take a half day off in any company, but in a big company employees tend to do that secretly and often keep their booty in the company locker.
"But in my opinion, shopping in the sales is exciting and also fun, because you can show off your bargains and share your excitement and happiness later. It's nonsense to hide them away."
The system benefits the company, too, Hiradate says. "My company is a venture business, and I can't pay much to my employees. But if they can buy their clothes at half-price utilizing the holidays, that may help."
So what's next?
"I will try and do anything -- as long as it's legal -- to help make my staff happy," Hiradate says with a broad smile and a twinkle in her eye that suggests she already has something else in mind.