It’s Not My Job


Is the response “It’s not my job” to a request, from an employer, to undertake a chore an injunction to better job prospects or the reflection of an unacceptable work ‘attitude?’

As a general proposition, not adopting the ‘attitude’, conveyed in this phrase, may be defensible from a moral, legal and ethical perspective. It is not a good attitude to respond in the manner described, if the response is delivered as curtly as it appears to be.

If, on the other hand, efficiency, safety and legal responsibility are the desired outcomes in the workplace, the ‘attitude’ expressed in the above phrase is probably the best expression in a safe and responsible workplace, albeit delivered politely and carefully.

Calling it unacceptable or using it to characterise a worker’s attitude as negative may be an extreme, outdated and parlous position for managers and bosses when judging the character or attitude of a worker in the workplace who responds thus: “it’s not my job”.

In an earlier period of industrial development, in a country such as Malaysia, the ethos behind not adopting this ‘attitude’ in the statement was considered a virtue. It was all for one and one for all. Division of labour was not a particularly thought out or a planned strategy in industry. It was not even a glint in the mind of entrepreneurs.

Do we desire efficiency as a process or efficiency as an outcome?

In Malaysia, as in most developing economies, jobs and job allocation was a class driven and top down undertaking as far as responsibility and safety in the workplace was concerned.

At the middle level were the semi-skilled clerks and middle managers ultimately responsible to their imported expatriate managers above them for output, productivity and efficiency of their labour charges below them. In turn, the managers above clerks and middle managers were responsible and reported to a head office and a board five days away by ‘air mail’.

Victims of industrial accidents were ‘pensioned off’ or conveniently relegated to industrial limbo where they awaited fate’s intervention for a reversal of their fortunes.

These days, we live in a more litigious, safety conscious work environment where responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the corporate personality, however abstract that entity may appear to be.

Division of labour is more specific and skills based. There may be ghosts of the indentured labourer within the ranks of imported foreign unskilled labour to whom this particular code (never say “it’s not my business”) may still find currency, but not for long. And we had better be prepared for the fullness of that change.

The law does discriminate where responsibility and safety is concerned in many respects. The fact that there are not many cases to refer to, in domestic courts or tribunals, that are seminal on this point, should not be an indication of what lies ahead. Responsibility for industrial safety is law.

With the advent of the NGO as observer of our conduct as individuals and, as a nation in observation posts across borders and political lines, the forced ‘multi skilling’ of labour (extracting as much as is possible for less pay from a single worker) may well be a thing of the past for its tendency to still embrace the never say “It’s not my job” ethic.

Do I get to enjoy the remuneration, comforts, privileges or other benefits that go with performing someone else’s duties? If not, then why should I be burdened with his responsibilities? The burden/benefit dichotomy is important in understanding this principle or the rejection of it.

Joy image

Joy image courtesy TMan77@freeimages.com

Take, as an example, the very menial lowly paid position of the cleaner in an office building or factory. These days, cleaning companies (like all other businesses) have a legal responsibility to ensure their workers are adequately informed of the dangers of exposure to the chemicals they use in their work. So too are producers of consumer products under an obligation to provide notices and warnings, on their labels, on cleaning materials such as detergents and solvents.

Workers, in this particular area of our example, must be informed of the dangers and risks associated with exposure to dangerous chemicals and be advised of the need for protective clothing and be provided directions as to how to apply and handle dangerous goods, however benign these may appear at first glance.

In addition, there is the overriding obligation on the employer to ensure the use of protective clothing in these circumstances as it is an obligation that is imposed on them by law. That’s the cleaning company’s and supervisors job and their obligation to the worker.

Now, let’s adopt the principal (or ethos) that goes with the “it’s not my job” attitude for effect and examine the possible outcomes if we were to adopt the virtuous position of never saying “it’s not my job”.

Joe Clerk, on his way out of the factory or office, notices the coffee room, toilet and general work area in an untidy and generally unsatisfactory state. As he attempts to leave the office, the manager screams out at him “Joe, why is the place so dirty?”. His response : “It’s not my job”.

Bear in mind, this is but an example, to demonstrate the application of the principal in this phrase and examine its consequences in the workplace in the vice/virtue dichotomy.

“It’s going to be your job if you want to return to work on Monday” is the manager’s response. In a place like Malaysia, and even in developed countries like the USA, where Unions are private business and worker protection legislation not really effective, that response becomes an immediate red flag to Joe Clerk. It is an unadulterated threat to his employment prospects which supports adoption of the virtue side of the argument in the “it’s not my job” attitude. If not a ‘virtue’ then at least it becomes a question of self preservation and survival.

Joe hastily returns to his desk, goes to the broom closet and takes out the bleach, ammonia, n-Hexane (a solvent that causes nerve damage) Halogenated organic solvents, such as methylene chloride, and does the work that is otherwise “not his job”.

Over a period of time, it becomes economically convenient and cost effective to scare a worker (who lacks this ‘work ethic’ or virtue) into making it his job to do someone else’s. Turn it into a virtue and a cost saver increasing the bottom line for the company.

The manager is then lauded for his performance, the company saves a little money, till a lawyer issues a writ against the company for his client’s illnesses directly attributed to this work ethic of ‘doing someone else’s job’ and not saying “it’s not my job”.

Joe Clerk has developed lung, skin and eye damage as a result of coming into contact with a cocktail of highly dangerous and corrosive chemicals he is not familiar with and lacks the skills and training to handle.

He was, after all, doing something so simple as engaging in cleaning, which although not a part of his skills base, is as could be argued, something very common for most of us to undertake with little difficulty. Well, at least that’s the argument.

It may not have occurred yet, but with the growth of litigation involving medical negligence and other torts, arising out of negligence in the workplace, it won’t be long before the cost of doing business based on an outdated exploitative work ethic will be forced to change, in places like Malaysia, impacting on the economy.

Of course, where more benign chores such as turning off the lights, delivering a note or typing a memorandum are concerned, it is certainly not a bad practice to encourage ‘team spirit’ where load sharing is concerned. After all ‘many hands make light work’ and it is not a bad thing to, on occasion, do a job that’s not yours. In concluding, it is balance that we need to concern ourselves with. The examples provided here are somewhat simplistic but it is hoped they make the point.

Consensus and the dignity of the worker are two paramount principles to observe when trying to solve the problems that arise in a changing work environment in a changing world.

If we were all, on the one hand, to adopt the strict legal attitude to the workplace, then there are bound to be gaps and breaks in the line of production affecting all of the output of production and efficiency in an economic environment. That too will produce an intolerable situation in the workplace and in production lines with undesirable consequences across the board.

The main issue is this: Do we desire efficiency as a process or efficiency as an outcome? Somewhere between lies the answer.

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Management planning and strategy requires good managers to factor into the equation that which produces desirable economic outcomes with meaningful workplace relations (motivation), economic efficiency (reducing waste and cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, increasing output) and the bottom line of profitability. Motivating workers who will make that call of doing something that is “not my job” can only come about through cultivating loyalty and not through threats of job losses. None of these situations and objectives can properly exist in a vacuum unless we live in an unregulated society.

Reliance on age-old phrases, which sound good in theory but disastrous in practice, is not the way to go.

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