Witness Marks

Vintage compass lies on an ancient world map.

I recently listened to the S-Town podcast which is a brilliant, investigative look into the real-life goings on of an eccentric genius from Alabama. It’s really fantastic and I urge you to listen to it. Intriguing and heartbreaking in equal measures, magnificently edited with completely unexpected plot twists.

At the very start of the first episode, the host, Brian Reed, talks about Witness Marks in the context of antique timepiece repair.

Brian explains that when someone attempts to fix an antique timepiece they are unlikely to be the first person who has had the pleasure to look inside and fix that particular item. It is possible that many people before them have attempted to work on it, dating back many, many years, in some case, centuries.

Those people might have moved stuff around, taken stuff out, put stuff back in, replaced old cogs with new sizes, styles and shapes and so the inside of that timepiece may not resemble anything like when it was first made. All with an aim to repair whatever was broken at the time.

Most of these antique timepieces don’t come with manuals, and there probably isn’t any information on the internet about what it should look like, or a service book of what work has been carried out. So the person repairing the item has to use Witness Marks amongst other things to make assumptions on what work might have been carried out.

Witness Marks might be grooves, scuff’s, spots, lines and the like, that are inside the timepiece and that may give an indication of what might once have been in place to create those marks. For example, a scuff against a rim or a wearing-down of a cog tooth that might have been significant in some way, maybe to determine an earlier flaw, a repair that didn’t work, or an initial part that has been subsequently replaced with something else.

This had me thinking.

In HR, unless we join a start-up and get onboard at the time the company is first established, then we’ll likely be following in someone’s footsteps; other HR people will probably have come before us. And if the business has longevity, then someone will inevitably follow in our footsteps too. That’s life, right?

If we’re lucky, we’ll get a handover from the outgoing HR person who’ll explain some stuff, as much as you can in maybe a week or a month, but then we’ve got to figure the rest out on our own, unless that person stays in the business in a different role or is happy to remain in touch, but even then, they’ve got new jobs to focus on so the help may be impractical.

We obtain the basic stuff right away; how difficult is it to recruit, whats the absence rate like, whats the turnover like and for what reasons do people leave, what kind of HR work am I going to be involved in, what sort of training takes place.

That’s the basics. You get this stuff quite early on.

But then, most people newly appointed into HR roles start to delve a little deeper. Once they have found out what happens in that business, they start to focus on why things happen that way, and they start to discover some Witness Marks.

Then the HR professional comes up with some solutions and whilst mapping it out, or are actually in the throws of implementing that solution, they come across a few challenges and well, what do you know, more witness marks. You get to understand (or at the very least you start to assume) what the challenges are or have been.

We are learning this stuff from those who have come before us, and those who come after us will likely learn that way too.

I guess, the message i’m trying to get across in this post is that we often don’t know what our workplaces looked like before our predecessors were in place, what challenges they really faced or conditions they worked under, and our successors are likely to be in the same position when they take over from us too.

We don’t know what the watch was like inside when those who came before us were in place, and those who take over from us will look inside at a (probably) different watch too. They’ll discover the Witness Marks that we’ll leave behind.

We can only deal with the timepiece/workplace for which we are the custodian of, for the period of time that we are in place. Unless good reason, we really should respect what’s gone on before us, and we are obligated to leave our workplaces in a better position ready for the next person.

Otherwise, what value did we really add during our time? We can and should, do our best, all the time.

Now, go listen to S-Town. It really is great.


We used to be a little more patient. We could wait for things, take our time, pay our dues. We don’t seem to be able to do that anymore. I’m referring to the royal ‘we’ of course.

Not to sound like Uncle Albert, but I remember some of those valuable lessons taught to me when I was younger. If you want something, you’ve got to save for it. You can’t just walk into a big job, you’ve got to earn it. You want to do that job well? Then take your time and do it properly.

Allowance of time appears to have decreased. Everything is urgent.

Information is immediately available, social media, the internet, smart phones, all played an important part in removing barriers to time but not without consequences.

We live in a selfie generation, the “fake it til you make it” world and the need to have everything now, now, now and regardless of cost. 

But development takes time. Learning and embedding new skills takes time.  

To be hasty, often results in cutting corners and the corners cut are normally things we regard as unimportant, only later we will almost always discover, that they were actually very important.

This brings me on to my point.

In 15 years training and coaching HR professionals, I have seen a trend. There is a desire for the “quickest way to the top” for many. By top, most are aiming for a HR Manager level role, as if any role not at that level is not good enough. Every role has an important part to play.

And you can see how this trend is affecting the credibility of the HR function, when HR Manager positions upon further examination are actually operating at a level lower than the title would suggest. You can see HR Director level roles similarly being affected in the same way.

My advice is the old adage, “don’t run before you can walk”.

Learning the core skills in HR is vitally important. Learn how the payroll works, what the context of the culture is, why the terms and conditions are the way they are. Take your time to really understand this stuff – it’s not trivial. 

Speak to people and treat the allocation of your time as an investment. Enjoy lengthy, unscheduled conversations where you’ll learn stuff you might never have thought you needed.

Build time in to your plan, and in to your career aspirations, for time spent wisely will undoubtedly help you progress.

Resisting the desire to reach the ‘top’ overnight doesn’t mean you lack ambition, but it does mean that you want to be the best HR professional you can be. 

Take time, thoroughly learn the skills, enjoy the ride, and take the right opportunities at the right time – you’ll be glad that you did.

10 More Questions To Ponder About The Future World Of Work


So i’ve been watching Westworld recently and it is brilliant. If you like cowboys, robots and rebellion, then this is the programme for you!

Whilst watching, I started thinking about how the future world of work could be impacted by some of these ‘pie in the sky’ ideas such as artificial intelligence, automation, using evidence to form the basis of decision-making and the like. Because, you see, they aren’t such pie in the sky ideas. The rate of advancement is impressive. The future might be here sooner than you expect. Exciting and frightening in equal measures.

So what do we need to start thinking about? Well, lots of things.

Back last year, David D’Souza wrote a great article for the CIPD with 50 questions about the future world of work which I suggest you read.

I’ve written ten more questions. Some silly, some serious. Most of which i’ve pondered myself. If you want to answer, great, send me a link or email them to me, i’d be really interested in hearing what you think. Or alternatively, maybe they will just make you think.

David’s had a go at answering them too, and his answers are below, so here goes…

1) If you could teach a robot how to do your job and do it better than you, would you, really?

David : I would resist it if I thought it was the end of my employment – and do it if I felt it would free me up for better work. I think it’s highly improbable that a robot could do my job because I’m special and everybody else’s job can be replaced but surely not mine.

2) If automation meant less people were needed and so redundancies were required, and you would receive a big bonus for managing the redundancy process (as well as keep your job at the end of it), what would you do?

David: Yes, if I felt it were a necessary step for the organisation to take I would want to be involved to ensure the process was carried out well, fairly and with dignity. I wouldn’t take a bonus (that would be my job) and I wouldn’t allow anyone else to pick up a bonus for their work either. Redundancies are, at times, a necessary evil. They aren’t to be celebrated.

3) Should robots be able to join a union? (I think I’ve stolen this one from somewhere, if so, sorry!)

David: At the point they are intelligent enough for that to be a question then whether they can join a union will be low down their list of priorities (and ours)

4) Could a Chief Executive be employed as a ‘dependent contractor’ one day?

David: If we reach that point I think the Chief Exec role would have fundamentally changed from what we currently recognise.

5) Will/Do we really need to share the same organisational values with our colleagues?

David: You need a shared purpose and people need to act in a way that is broadly congruent to that purpose and to the norms of the organisation. We aren’t clones so it will never be an exact overlay – but the more people pulling in the same direction the better.

6) Would the Premier League Transfer Window system (spot talent, negotiate transfer fee with current company, negotiate contract with employee, transfer takes place) work in the world of business?

David: I’ve written a post on this…What if employees ACTUALLY were an asset? Deadline Day


7) If we run out of avocado, will workplaces resemble a scene from the Walking Dead?

David: I hate avocado. I have no idea what consequence this would have

8) Do we have enough wires for all the AI?

David: An off switch might be more important

9) Will evidence-based hr/management be considered just another fad?

10) At what point will we accept the future has become the present?

David: I have no idea what this means. I’ll have to rewatch Kung Fu Panda