May 2017 Volume 14


Jemelia Davis
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This is an abridged version of The Remembrance address given by Mrs. Jemelia Davis at Neville's funeral Wednesday April 12, 2017 at the University Chapel, Mona, Jamaica.

Neville attended KC from 1952-1958. He was one of six brothers who attended between 1946 and 1958.

ON JOINING the Jamaica Telephone Company in 19??, Neville Johnson was assigned to the Stores department but was soon placed in the Personnel Unit where as it turned out he truly belonged. This latter position was the launching pad for a career that spanned several decades and culminated in his appointment as a Vice President.

In the course of his career he several times reinvented himself in order to keep pace with the changing requirements of the Company’s operations: New technologies were being introduced and as well there was constant change in the economic, political and cultural environment in which he operated. The challenges with which his professional education kept pace and which he successfully entertained were varied and enormous.

He had joined the Company with a BSc (with honours) in Economics. He later earned the MSc in Applied Behavioural Science and was certified as a Hopkins Fellow in Organizational and Community Systems and as a Snr. Professional in Human Resources. He received Certificates in Business and Industrial Psychology; Public Speaking; Broadcasting Techniques; Writing for Radio. A number of his educational and training pursuits took place in the UK, US and in other Caribbean countries. In terms of professional development over decades, no one could possibly have accomplished more.

While at the JTC/TOJ/C&W, he flourished in his area of responsibility: Several innovatively structured units were added as time went by: Recruiting, Industrial Relations, Employee Development, Uniforms, Salary Administration, Health and Welfare – to meet the growing needs of the Company as he saw them, and to enhance employee satisfaction. I recall that he placed much emphasis on staff retention and performance, sought to measure them and also to ensure that they were moving in the right direction.

Among such innovations, he also introduced recreational sports, football, cricket and netball, at the local and at the inter-company level. He himself was an avid football fan. He had been a cheerleader at Kingston College and the school’s flagbearer at certain events at the National Stadium.

His unit also very wisely introduced cultural programmes for the staff. For debates on topics of national importance, training was made available to the debaters and judges drawn from top professionals.

The shrewdly thought out cultural program also included fashion shows.

He was an innovator in the Company’s recognition of success among its employees, truly believing that an organization should show appreciation to those who contributed to its development and success. The award functions he developed in this regard were spectacular!

In addition to the annual awards he would find other opportunities for recognizing staff, as, for instance, when members would visit company locations before or immediately after a hurricane to help to protect the company’s assets. He would also remember certain categories of pensioners and would arrange for them to receive an increase on an ex-gratia basis mainly after the settlement of new Collective labour agreements.

Accordingly, and not surprisingly, the Company’s Health and Welfare programmes, in particular, were legendary. For these programmes occupied a special place in his heart as he saw the impact they could have on employee performance. Typically, he would encourage and engage: “Have some fun man! It will stimulate your brain and likewise increase your mental capacity!”

But just as importantly and in keeping with the way in which he submitted himself to professional development, NJ recognized the importance of on the job training not only for the technical staff but for all staff, managers included. He is legendarily known, as the saying goes, to have been “big on that.”

Ultimately, so developed were the Company’s Human Resources Management expertise, the JTC became a model for organizations interested in developing their own Human Resource functions. He himself was sought after and turned down a number of job offers.

On the Industrial Relations side he was a stalwart, bravely facing the labour union representing staff and eventually accepting EASA. He endured many strikes and go-slows. Some of his former colleagues still recall details of strikes involving the blocking of the gates at Cecelio Avenue. They were expected to find their way into the office to carry out certain functions such as maintaining contact with line managers or other staff and making reports to him. There have been accounts of occasions when some persons scaled the back fence adjoining the Four Seasons Hotel in order to avoid confrontation with strikers. The fat, slim, old and young alike were helping each other up and over the fence.

There were, too, his efforts to establish that the simultaneous onset of some illness among a large majority of employees, in circumstance where no national epidemic had been reported, was in fact a “sick-out” and therefore Industrial action. The formidable Mr. Jos Leo-Rhynie was one of his primary advisors on Industrial Relations matters and led that case.

Clearly, he had his ways of handling negotiations and other IR matters. Some say that he had a back-channel through which he communicated. The story is told that one of Britain’s Prime Ministers used technology to gather information from one side during difficult negotiations that would place her in a position to make offers she knew would be accepted. NJ did not resort to that technique but he had a way. Indeed, so effective was his communication system that he was able to find out what was happening in some areas or what was going to happen in others – even before the line managers found out.

He was, unquestionably, way ahead of his time. In the pre-Google days when there was no such thing as boundless information at a single click, he had many new ideas. There was NIRO – the New Industrial Relations Order that was to introduce a new way of handling relations with the labour unions and reduce the level of acrimony and strife at the workplace. A policy manual was produced and in time the results of NIRO were noticeable as both sides would come to the table with reasonable positions which led to improvement in the quality of the discussion and thereby shortened the period of dialogue.

Again, typically, following the success of NIRO, a Fun Day was introduced. Staff from all areas in the Company participated in all-day activities at Crystal Spring in Portland. The elaborate promotion of this event around the entire island is remembered by many. An event such as that would not have been attempted prior to the introduction of NIRO.

And, not least among his many accomplishments, NJ was deeply involved in the transformation activities in the Company, including the merger between JTC and JAMINTEL. Characteristically, he paid special attention to the integration of the two distinctly different cultures.

The Most Honourable Errald Miller came to the following conclusion: “NJ was the best HR professional I knew. The man created an environment in which people could be motivated to work and to develop loyalty to the company – even when their basic needs such as pay and some other benefits had not been met”.

A unique character, he displayed a passion for all his causes. Given the strong work ethic he so humanely cultivated, staff often responded with unstinting devotion, putting in many extra hours during the week and on week-ends, if necessary. Arlene Lawrence, for example, recalls the many occasions when she would be working on one of his schemes as late as 10:00 and 11:00 PM. In the earlier days it could have been the need to calculate the financial impact of granting a 10 cent increase on the weekly wages, and, later, to calculate the impact of granting an additional fringe benefit.

After NJ left the Telephone Company and, later, migrated, he continued to be involved in Human Resource Management and displayed commitment to his assignments. He conducted research and gave advice on industrial relations matters, including salary negotiations. He was well recognized for his contribution.

He became affiliated with the Greater Miami Society for Human Resource Management and with the WLRN Public Radio station as a volunteer reader for the visually impaired. We were not surprised to learn that he received many commendations for his work in this last-named area. We can well visualize his tone and the clarity with which he read.

As might have been expected, he was never less than concerned about Jamaica. Up to a few weeks before his passing he was circulating extracts from sources including a Jamaican newspaper on issues which he saw as topical on the Jamaican political scene. His friend Winston Atkinson told us that NJ would engage in telephone conversations for long periods, trying to dissect some of Jamaica’s intractable problems, such as the GDP, labour productivity, crime and violence.

Most deservingly, may he rest in peace.

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