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In the Workplace, “Swim or Sink” Isn’t the Best Measure of Competence
by Aldene Fredenburg

If “The Apprentice” and other work-based TV reality shows are to be believed, the most aggressive, self-confident workers are the ones most likely to succeed. That attitude accurately reflects the beliefs of many employers. Employees who can survive the “swim or sink” approach to job training are valued over employees who are more cautious.

Unfortunately, the charge-ahead, jump-in-with-both-feet employees are not necessarily the best workers long-term. An employee who needs more extended training and more hand-holding may ultimately prove to have the depth, perseverance, and organized work habits that will let him or her succeed over time, while the aggressive, take charge types may lack the foresight, planning ability, and judgment required to excel in their jobs.

I once worked for an employer who believed firmly in the “swim or sink” concept of on-the-job training, and hired people who could jump in and pick up skills fast. Unfortunately, these same employees often had other, negative work habits, and many ended up producing careless, sloppy work that needed many revisions before going out to the company’s clients. A lot of time was wasted by these supposedly “speedy” employees, and the employer suffered a high turnover rate, which led to a vicious cycle—hiring the much vaunted “swim or sink” employees, seeing the quality of work go down, getting into trouble with the clients, firing these less than competent workers, and then hiring more of the same type of employees, while turning down people who seemed to need more detailed training.

Of course, some “swim or sink” employees turn out to be great workers; but an employer who narrows his or her vision to a small percentage of the potential workforce to avoid the expense of formal training is really risking the company’s reputation. Hiring a range of employees with a variety of approaches to learning and performing the work, and making sure all these employees receive the training they need to succeed, will benefit the company much more over time.

Aldene Fredenburg may be contacted at

Aldene Fredenburg is a freelance writer living in southwestern New Hampshire and frequently contributes to Tips and Topics. She has published numerous articles in local and regional publications on a wide range of topics, including business, education, the arts, and local events. Her feature articles include an interview with independent documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and a feature on prisoners at the New Hampshire State Prison in Concord. She may be reached at


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