When Workers Swim Less

When my apartment was in the midst of the Home Improvement Programme, I happened to meet a few workers from the construction company in charge of hacking my old toilets and changing the entire fittings. They are mostly from India, with a few from China. The supervisors are a mix of Singaporeans and Indians.

There is one worker who has a very interesting character. He has a belly, which I thought odd as he works in an industry where physical exertion is the norm, and hence it will be quite rare for workers to have such a belly. Besides, all his fellow workers are slim in built.

I found out subsequently that this worker is not very capable in construction work. He cannot follow instructions to the dot, does not have expertise in hacking, chamfering or applying screed to surfaces. He sometimes get complained by residents for trying to be too helpful, as he would create more issues in the process.

Yet he is the longest serving worker in the company, according to the RTO of the company. Why does the company keep him? It turns out this worker is able to produce cement mix in the shortest turnaround time possible. He is also the one who is willing to do much of the manual work required across different work teams, from my observation.


My mother’s boss complained to my mother some time ago about another worker in her stall. The boss had employed this young person to do the same job as my mother, but on days when my mother does not work. Her gripe? This worker is not very thorough where washing and cleaning utensils is concerned. If I remember correctly, she is also not very focused on doing her job.

Even though my mother’s boss complained about this worker, she is not so quick to want to replace her. My mother asked this question to her before and her reply was that even though the worker is tardy, on the whole, she isn’t that bad. Besides, to look for another worker will take up more time, incur more opportunity costs, and you never know what you will get.


These two examples are quite illuminating, I feel. They highlight some of the thinking employers or businesses may have.

I must clarify first that I do not have any experience as an employer. The closest in experience is in heading organizations and looking into manpower resourcing needs, and the staff culture within. In my line of work, I don’t need to worry about generating revenue, or perform tight controls over costs. Plus the two examples I wrote above are from labour intensive sectors that may not be reflective of the different industries.

But I think there are a few pointers I can draw from these two illustrations. If you are an employer or a boss, and you are reading this thinkpiece of mine, feel free to disagree and respond to my article.

What I Learnt From These Two Examples

1. In the face of competition and constraints, opportunity costs can be very real. Let’s take the case of the construction worker. A key constraint is the supply for such labour. This supply is small as Singaporeans are reluctant to take up such jobs, foreign supply is restricted through the imposition of levies on companies.

For certain industries, competition for workers can be very real. You may not be able to replace a worker readily and immediately. Bringing a new hire up to speed also requires time and resources. Onboarding has real opportunity costs, and sometimes it may be better to retain a mediocre performer rather than embark on the hiring process.

2. Coaching and development are essential regardless of the nature of industries. Gone are the days when you give training to a new hire in the first few months and then leave the new hire to adapt and adjust to the work environment. Today new and current hires should hold the expectation that their jobs will evolve over time. We should also hold the mindset that soft skills are essential in helping us adjust and navigate the workspace.

This is where coaching comes in. Coaching is not about developing skills alone. It is also about nurturing and resizing attitudes, aligning values and re-scoping expectations. It is about removing the mentality that evaluation of performance and competencies are the same. Coaching is helpful when leaders look at followers and ask the question of how the followers should look like when they assume a new position or portfolio.

Development complements coaching in that leaders should size up the competencies that need to be strengthened, creating the awareness in followers what their weaknesses are, and how to strengthen their competencies to work well for better outcomes. By better outcomes, it is not just about quantitative targets, but also qualitative outcomes.

3. Everyone, including bosses, wants to be the good guys, preferring others to deliver the bad news. This is probably farfetched and I guess not all will be like this. But I doubt someone will want to be the bad guy all the time. Bosses also may not want to be seen as the bad guy all the time too.

Yet another way of thinking about this is this: if you have a real relationship with your colleagues, any feedback, advice or suggestions can be conveyed and accepted by your colleagues as genuine. The chances of colleagues being open and willing to change is a lot higher. That is how I see it.

Conversely, any boss who does not want to deliver the bad news all the time may face backlash in the long run. Why so? Because no employees will want to stick around with such a boss, since they may not know the true value of their worth. Am I right?

4. Employees may take advantage, but sooner or later, they can get found out. Let’s flip it around. For employees who think they can skive and go unnoticed, do you think they can continue in this manner indefinitely? For me, it is a case of when, not if, they are discovered.

Let’s be honest here. Who wouldn’t like to have a bit of down time once in a while, to set aside time for lateral or creative thinking, or even just to relax a while? Our brains need down time – they cannot keep processing and working 24/7 at high speed and power. We can reach exhaustion pretty quick.

Yet for workers who perform below optimal regularly, for workers who don’t want to put in their best, to imagine that bosses or supervisors won’t notice can be rather unfathomable. Word can spread, bosses can pick things up from observations or interactions. I cannot imagine why workers would want to take the chance. Which brings me to the last point.

5. If a better prospect comes by, bosses will likely take the bite. Between having mediocre staff and recruiting more capable staff to accomplish work objectives, which would bosses choose? In the first example, while I will not know entirely why the company chose to continue employing the worker, I suspect his diligence and commitment to work is probably a key. He was the last worker to lock up work sites at the end of the day, even as late as 8 pm on one occasion.

In my second example, the worker the boss was griping about has one perceived advantage: a tight labour market. It isn’t easy to employ a part-timer who is willing to do seasonal work, and who can complete most tasks with a fair degree of competence.

Turn to other sectors, such as the infocomm sector or engineering field, and chances are more competent staff with proven outcomes will be headhunted and recruited to displace current staff if there are performance issues at hand. Sometimes bosses may have to do this as a way to manage the bottom line, or to manage the overall culture of the organization. They will need to manage the opportunity costs that may come as a result.


Do Not Stop Swimming

Whether you are a new entrant to the job market, or someone with some years of experience in your belt, or one who has deep experience in a sector, I guess it will pay to keep swimming. Don’t stop swimming and remain still – you can get carried away by the current if you are not careful.

How can we do that? For one, keep learning. Stay curious and open to what is happening within your industry, and around you. Look out for opportunities to network with people, whether in your industry or in other industries. Keep your resume updated. LinkedIn profiles seem to be the ‘in’ thing today, which give immediate access and reach to many companies across the world.

How do you keep swimming in a world where there seems to be a push to stay on top of things? What keeps you moving in the job market? Would love to hear your thoughts about what I wrote!

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