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.

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