My hiring experience as a submarine sonar operator in the Norwegian Navy

This is a transcript of a lightning talk I gave at a company "all hands" get-together. I tell the story of my "hiring experience" as a sonar operator on a submarine in the Norwegian Navy. To tie it into work, I included a little hiring-related lesson at the end.

As some of you know I spent a year on a submarine. This is the story about how that came about.

Norway has compulsory military service, and I wanted to make the best of it. At my assessment & induction meeting I picked the Navy for three main reasons:

Everyone that enters the Norwegian Navy starts with six weeks basic training on the same base. We received training, a fitness regime, and lots of tests. I remember scoring 2/7 on my hearing test, and thought my chance of becoming a sonar operator was now over.

At the end of my basic training I could finally apply to a specific branch of the Navy. As I had expected, sonar operators on submarines required hearing score of 7/7. But, what I hadn't expected was that every branch of the Navy required at least 3/7. I didn't qualify for anything! Yet, I was told I had to pick something, and I thought I might as well shoot for the stars. I applied to become a sonar operator, and was accepted. I spent the next six weeks on a more specific submarine training course.

At the end of the six weeks we got to choose which submarine we wanted to serve with. I had the highest score in the sonar operator test and normally this meant I would get first pick. But, the officer in charge seemed a bit hesitant and asked me: "wasn't there something wrong with your hearing?" I didn't want to lie. But I also didn't want to disqualify myself. I took a slight gamble and answered him with a question: would I have managed to get the best score on the sonar operator test if there was?

I guess that satisfied him, because instead of freezing my bottom off in Norway the following winter I was on the first Norwegian submarine to ever attend a NATO exercise in the Mediterranean.


When I wrote up this story I realised it confirmed a lesson relevant to hiring: sometimes people will disqualify themselves from applying to your job because they don't fulfill all the requirements in your job ad. If I had qualified for any of the other options available at the end of my basic training I would have applied to that instead.

So, I nearly didn't apply to become a sonar operator since I failed the proxy requirement "has perfect score on generic hearing test". However, the real requirement was "can learn to classify boats by their sound under water", and it turns out I was pretty good at that!

By putting unrealistic or inaccurate proxy requirements in your job ad you are likely to get miss out on good candidates. You will be more successful at hiring if you make sure what you put under the Requirements heading in your job ad are actual requirements, and leave anything negotiable under the "nice to have" section.

Let's finish off with an example. If you're hiring a driver it might make sense to require candidates have a valid driver's licence. Throw in a line about advanced driving qualifications too, if you're hiring a getaway driver. That candidates must be martial artists and have a passing likeness to Jason Statham is heavily in "nice to have" territory though, unless you are the casting director for the next installment of The Transporter franchise.

Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Kristian Glass for providing valuable comments that improved the conclusion in this article.

1

They split my hearing range in low and high register for each ear, so four in total. I had poor response to one frequency in each of these "quadrants", but otherwise normal hearing.

Author: Stig Brautaset

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