The following story bears comparison with the underlying reality of modern-day recruitment especially with respect to selection and high performance.
I joined the Merchant Navy and went to sea shortly after my eighteenth birthday. The interesting thing about the seagoing career was that once you were ‘certificated’ (qualified) shipping companies did little or no selection at all…nada, rien, zip! If you had a Board of Trade qualification for a specific rank and a company needed that position filled that was it. You pretty much got the gig – especially if working on ‘foreign flag’ ships.
In the worst cases, hiring would take place from a ‘Crew Pool’ managed by the seafarer’s union. A company would present a shopping list – one box of Able Seamen, half a box of Fitters, a brace of Cooks and partridge in a pear tree! And there you were – an instant crew, never seen, never vetted, all banged up together on a little steel box – and with absolutely none of today’s modern networking and entertainment gizmos.
Upon acceptance you were committed to six months or more on some unknown ship that could be anything from brand-new to a forty-year-old rust bucket with a riveted hull, an alcoholic captain and a crew that had invented a whole new range on the Asperger scale!
Pirates and faint praise
Ocean navigation was done by sextant and when more than five hundred miles offshore you were limited to communicating solely by Morse code via long-wave radio – no voice communication at all. And before all you millennials start joking about eye patches, hook-hands, wooden legs and going “Arrrgh, Arrrgh” – this was only the 1970’s! Even the SS Canberra, pride of the P&O passenger fleet and fifty thousand tonnes of rust, thrust and lust with three thousand souls on board, navigated the globe using a sextant and a wind-up clock!
The technical document that recorded your ‘sea time’ was your Seamen’s Discharge Book – a name I was never entirely comfortable with! At the end of each voyage your ‘appraisal’ (registered in the Discharge Book) could only be either, ‘Decline to Report’ or ‘Satisfactory’. Now there is a commendation from your boss to get you all fired up and engaged – six months of hard graft away from everything you hold dear and the highest accolade you can get? Satisfactory!
A life on the ocean waves…..a home on the rolling deep
On a cargo ship, with forty to fifty strangers randomly hired and thrown together in a confined space, in an environment cut off from the normal world, strange stuff happens.
First, it should be noted that a basic level of performance took place. Ship’s crews had certificated qualifications (although this in no way meant they were competent) and they had experience (logged solely as ‘time at sea’ – and a lot of that experience was gained in the bar).
And that was it. A relevant certificate and ‘time in rank’ was all you needed. What you got with this hiring system was never high performance. Shipping companies breathed a sigh of relief if their particular fleet of Marie Celeste’s made it from one side of the world to the other without creating a planetary disaster. What you got as a shipping company, if you were lucky, was average performance and not appearing in embarrassing news headlines. In reality, what you often got was poor to appalling performance. At the mild end of the scale would be breakdowns, maintenance problems, even stolen cargo but at the more extreme end there would be an Exxon Valdez or Costa Concordia.
There would also be interpersonal problems ranging from heated arguments to mild or even grievous violence. In the very of worst cases there has been the use of knives and even overnight ‘disappearances’ on ocean passage. Not the sort of thing your average HR manager needs to pop into Marketing & Sales to sort out…! On one occasion, after a crew fight in Guatemala, I was given that key decision we all eagerly anticipate in our careers – “did I want to stich up one guy’s lip or the other guy’s forehead”?! Did I mention we were also our own doctors?
Strangely, being forced into such closed, remote environments with complete strangers on a regular and frequent basis teaches you awareness and tolerance of others and increases emotional intelligence – except, that is, for those occasional fights, stabbings and disappearances over the ship’s side in the dead of night. But hey ho, all part of the maritime life’s rich tapestry!
Three cheers for Darwin…!
So much for the introduction. The key part of this story concerns my last four years at sea in the North Sea offshore oil and gas industry. Here I saw an interesting development in the natural selection of people.
The environment was extremely dangerous, especially if you were engaged in moving oil rigs or towing huge structures around. It was dangerous in summer but orders of magnitude more so in winter and bad weather. Not a winter season went by without some form of serious incident. Over four tours one winter we lost a crew member every trip to injury. The chief officer who was my opposite number for our ‘1on/1off’ way of working, was washed overboard and died. Deaths and serious injuries were not uncommon.
From a recruitment perspective shipping companies in offshore oil and gas employed pretty much the same basic hiring practices as described earlier. However, because of the extreme danger of the environment the crew themselves exhibited an extremely high (and entirely instinctive) process of ‘natural selection’.
Because of its dangers the offshore oil & gas sector primarily only attracted officers and ratings who intrinsically had the right attitudes, attributes and temperament for the environment. And no, the ‘right stuff’ did not mean people with questionable mentality and a death wish. It was quite the opposite. The type of people who sought out this environment understood the risks intimately, but they exhibited attitudes and characteristics entirely suited for this world. There was a high level of ‘fit’.
They needed to have the highest order of competences and experience in the profession. However, and much more important, they needed the right attitudes – often they were working on the edge of what was possible (or reasonable). Even the most junior seamen were constantly making fast, critical decisions on deck in the middle of the night without recourse to the ‘rank’ hierarchy. High tolerance and very high levels of trust in each other were required. With 20 tonne rig anchors sliding around on deck and wires under hundreds of tonnes of tension your life literally depended on those around you.
Consequently, crew selection was both Darwinian and peer driven and little to do with the company HR department. Under Darwinian selection if you were not skilled enough the North Sea and the work itself usually found a way to ‘deselect’ you – often via hospital first. Under peer selection if you were not of the ‘right stuff’, if you were not competent, if you did not protect your mates, if you could not be trusted in dangerous situations, then those around you would ask you to ‘go away’ – or words along those lines…!
Maybe worse things happen in organisations!
When comparing the recruitment approach described in the opening paragraphs with the approach taken by many of today’s organisations’ it is, in many cases, not hugely different from the maritime world of old. Many organisations use qualifications and experience as the foundation of their selection process. They then often rely heavily on face to face interviews and the interviewer’s skill at ‘recognising talent’. They have no real idea if the person will truly ‘fit’ their particular organisation. Whether they will have the right attitudes. Whether they will buckle under pressure. Whether or not they will support their colleagues. Whether they are just ‘extras’ in the play or engaged actors.
Who knows, they might even be the sort of person who, metaphorically, throws colleagues over the ship’s side in the dead of night!