I’ve commented many times about little things that are commonplace in Jamaica that hold us back from being a much better country, in the broadest sense. One such thing that I experience, and irks me enormously is how employees seek to distance themselves from any decisions that happen in their workplaces, often with the simple phrases, ‘That’s not my job…’, or ‘It’s not by business/company…’, or ‘I don’t make the rules…’ All of these seem to suggest that discretion, which we know that Jamaicans generally love, is beyond the realm of actions. It also suggests disinterest in the overall quality of what’s offered to customers. I had another instance today at a gas station in Clarendon. I wont be coy: it’s Texaco at Osborne Store.

Now, a little background. That area in Clarendon offers the cheapest gas I have ever found in Jamaica, eg 87 grade is $130, compared to about $140 in Kingston, and a scary $155 on the north coast/Ocho Rios. I have been to the station before, and found to my surprise that they only sell for cash. I try not to move around with lots of cash, so that was a put-off for a long time. The station was recently renovated and (I think) brought under new management. However, my few forays there have shown me that staff are generally decent. For instance, I once had a double puncture and sought help there, and was pointed across the street to a repair shop, where my two flats were repaired in about an hour.

This morning, I was on a quick trip to/from Mandeville, and came back earlier than expected–no bad thing, as I saw busloads of PNP supporters headed to the National Arena for their annual conference.

I pulled into the gas station and went to a pump that was unoccupied. As I pulled in, another driver came to the same pump from the other direction. After a few seconds, the other driver pulled back and moved to another pump. No signs were on the pump or any indication that it was not in service. I waited for about 5 minutes, and noticed the attendant dealing with other cars at the pump behind me. I got out and asked “Are you only dealing with that one pump?” The young lady asked me if I wanted gas. I responded that I would not pull up for a pump for any other reason. After some discussion, she told me she ‘expected’ that I knew the pump where I was was not working and that people often park by a pump and go into the store (which is a good two car widths away and would seem to be much more easily accessed by parking right beside it). I asked how she could ‘expect’ something of me without engaging me in any way. The point passed her by. I asked why there was no sign on the pump. Then she went there: “That’s not my job…It’s not my gas station.” I explained that her attitude ought to be to make it easier for any customer to understand how the station was functioning. “People who come here know the pump isn’t working.”

So, here is my beef.

  • The attendant knows the pump doesn’t work, but somehow the station has not seen fit to advise all customers of that; custom and practice will inform.
  • The attendant did not see any need to greet or acknowledge a new customer, even to point out the above point.
  • Her sole focus was servicing from the pump where she was. She stressed that’s what was in her job description–‘only to work at pump 3’.

Clearly, whatever pay she gets, it is not going to change with how she functions, so long as she is not rude and rude or steals, I guess. How much feedback there is between the attendants and the managers and owners of the station is a matter of pure speculation. But, the impression is that anything to do with the management of the station is not seen as part of the overall function of staff. I asked if her attitude would be the same if the station was being robbed. She told me that was different. So, if it’s a robbery, she would do what was needed (presumably, not just run away, but something like trying to alert police, or protect the premises), and then it became ‘our business’. But, when she had the need to make things better for the average customer, it was not her business. You can mull that this afternoon.

This attitude is quite common in lots of establishments in Jamaica, and begs questions about how management operates in many places. To be fair to the attendant, I did not ask for a supervisor to get an idea of how things might be seen ‘up the line’. Also, in her defence, it would mean that she would be doing more work for no more pay; so the incentives are low. That said, some of the best customer service comes from those employees who see where there are gaps and fill them, temporarily, at least, and perhaps try to ensure there are permanent fixes. A simple example is a restaurant where wait staff deal with customers comprehensively, not just in the sector to which they are assigned, not least because the flow of customers in dining area can be uneven. So, if a table needs clearing, and the assigned waiter is not available, another staff member just does the necessary: what goes around, should come around.

The deeper, nerdy view of this touches on labour productivity. This is horribly low, even in secular decline, in Jamaica. Workers who are inflexible, by choice or by design are more easily dispensed with: one size hole, fit by one sized person. A simple example of how bad that can be comes from when I coached football. I taught my girls to play every position, including goalkeeper, and said that when they went eventually to high school and a coach asked ‘Where you you play?’ better to reply ‘Where do you want me to play?’ That way you have 11 chances to get on the team, not just say 1 or 2. Understand?

The bottom line to this attitude is that, given choices of where to invest and create jobs, many firms would steer clear of the kind of labour we offer. Mull that, too.

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