Looking Deeper into the Cave




With the events surrounding the Thailand cave rescue that has occurred this month, I was reminded that this international team is made of people that are much more than what we read on their resume or LinkedIn profile. Their experiences enabled them to be productive team members and they were not learned on the job or in a classroom.

Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris went to Flinders University Medical School and then specialized in anesthesia. He has substantial experience in hyperbaric and wilderness medicine as well as search and rescue operations. These are all excellent points if we were hiring him for a job in a hospital passing gas (anesthesia). But what qualifications made the cave diving experts on scene first and the Thai government request Dr. Harris specifically (Lunn, 2018)? It is what he does in his free time that made Harry the person to get into the cave to evaluate his “patients”.

Harry spends his holidays underwater and most of that inside unexplored or remote cave systems or wrecks (Steinbuch, 2018). This unique skill set is not developed overnight. The projects he has been involved in have required him to refine his ability to manage complex logistics, redundant systems, and evaluate worse case scenarios. Even a weekend cave dive in easily accessed systems will require complex time and resource management skills as well as an ability to recognize changes in the dynamic environment. Communication skills with light and hand signals are backed up with waterproof paper and pencil. Communication takes time so decisions have to be made efficiently before communicated effectively to the team. In this situation it is not a patient’s life at risk, it is your own.

When is the last time you asked a job candidate about their hobbies? Did you do it to evaluate cultural fit or were you looking deeper to see if they have a skill set not seen at first glance? Do the practice skills you need inside the office while away from the office? Some things I think about when listening to hobbies include:

  • Is this a solo activity where they constantly apply intrinsic motivation to improve physical or cognitive skills?
  • Does this team sport help them develop verbal, non-verbal, or general leadership skills?
  • What soft skills do we need that they apply in their hobby?
  • Is a “Just Culture” promoted in this recreational or competitive community?

If we continue to use Dr. Harris as our example, cave diving requires a substantial commitment to improve physical and cognitive skills. The ability to stay off the bottom of a cave and not cause complete blindness from particulates in the water is developed and improved continuously. Marking guidelines to ensure you have a direct exit from the cave as well as problem solving equipment challenges or failures are examples of the cognitive skills involved. “Experts make good decisions more often because they have a much bigger library of experiences to refer; they are also normally keen to learn and increase that library.” (Lock, 2015).

A significant portion of the work involved in a cave dive is in the preparation before the divers hit the water. They must decide who is leading the team and operational constraints of the dive. How far are they going? How much of their breathing supply will they retain for the exit and emergencies? They may decide extra safety measures need to be taken or that emergency services (hyperbaric chamber) should be notified ahead of time that they are taking on some physiologic risk (decompression sickness).

Soft skills are hard to evaluate in the workforce but for many caves the land is not publicly accessible. Learning how to approach and negotiate with a land owner may mean the difference between a successful project or coming up with a new plan.

The “blame culture” is something that permeates every field but if attempts at moving towards a “just culture” are being made by the sport and the individual, you really have someone that will perform well as a true team player (Lock, 2012).

Interviewing new potential teammates is one of the most critical activities we perform in HR. Thinking about who someone really is when they are not in the hiring spotlight may help us decide exactly who we might need when things go sideways.



Lock G. (2012). Safety Culture - diving in the zone. X-Ray Magazine. https://www.xray-mag.com/content/safety-culture-diving-zone

Lock G. (2015). Decisions, Decisions, Decisions... X-Ray Magazine. https://www.xray-mag.com/content/decisions-decisions-decisions

Lunn, RE. (2018). Thailand Cave Rescue: the Brits give a press conference. X-Ray Magazine. https://www.xray-mag.com/content/thailand-cave-rescue-brits-give-press-c...

Steinbuch, Y. (2018). Aussie doctor hailed for role in Thailand cave rescue, NY Post. https://nypost.com/2018/07/09/aussie-doctor-hailed-for-role-in-thailand-...



The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

Add new comment

Please enter the text you see in the image below: