The Human Resource: The irreplaceable employee

Over the years of working with various management teams, I have heard time and time again about how this employee or that employee is irreplaceable. Each leader identifies with one key employee above all others they believe is a keystone to the success of the business, or a functional area, or a department, or a team.

Employees often strive to become this irreplaceable employee and win favor with leadership and secure their future with the company. However, is any of this real or simply perceptions that can negatively impact the actual future and success of the company?

Before I answer this question, I want to examine the concept of being irreplaceable from another perspective. Each employee in the organization is placed in a position that contributes to the overall success of the business. Over time, that individual gains soft, technical, and professional skills and experience, but they also acquire and expand the depth and breadth of their intellectual knowledge about how the business operates including the culture, the politics, decision making, and how things really get done.

Recognize that your soft, professional, and technical skills are required and necessary to perform the role as established by the business. Each role has essential functions, and tasks that need to be performed with correlating education and experience requirements to be successful in the role.

If the business hired a person who was successful in the role, then they can repeat this success in the future with another qualified individual. This continuous process is how organizations acquire and release talent as they evolve and grow. In this context, every single employee, from the lowest level position to the President, CEO, and Board of Directors can be replaced.

Back to the question I presented earlier. Employees gain intellectual knowledge about the business, and this knowledge becomes a form of intellectual property of the organization that is extremely valuable. Therefore, when determining an employee is irreplaceable, understand that it is of critical importance to transfer this knowledge from an “irreplaceable” employee to other members of the organization before they leave the company so this intellectual property is not lost.

What is the practical application of this information for both management and employees? First, no one is irreplaceable. Second, an employee can enhance their value to an organization by increasing their intellectual knowledge about the business itself, how it works, how it operates, and what activities contribute to established goals.

This is more than executing the tasks associated with your role, it is contributing your skills and abilities to the organization beyond core expectations. Third, and this is for managers, understand that you must view the capabilities and contributions of the workforce differently if you are to be strategic in organizational development, workforce management, and succession planning.

Many managers make the mistake of protecting these tenured employees from corrective action, accountability, and separation because of ineffective strategic planning of the workforce and succession activities to embed knowledge transfer into the execution of organizational development.

If you have “irreplaceable” employees, I suggest you reflect on this perspective and identify it for what it really is, a management failure. Develop a strategic plan to transition the intellectual capital from this indispensable resource to other organizational resources so the business is not paralyzed now or in the future by the departure of one of these “irreplaceable” employees. It is not a good feeling to have your operations paralyzed by a departing employee that was not identified as possessing critical intellectual knowledge of the business.

The most effective strategies embed knowledge transfer into the organizational development of the workforce and succession planning activities. If you failed to do this, then develop a transition plan for any key employees to protect the organization and get started on an enterprise-wide effort to incorporate these practices into the workforce through appropriate succession planning.

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About Warren Cook

Warren S. Cook is a co-founder of SymbianceHR and leads all client-consulting engagements. He is a human capital strategy management subject matter expert with more than 20 years of experience as a strategic business partner, project manager, and people leader across private and public sectors organizations. Warren is responsible for all client-consulting engagements from initial needs assessment and compliance review through delivery of customized complex human capital strategy solutions that meet the client's business goals. He has a proven track record of providing executive coaching and guidance to business leaders and human resource professionals at all levels including the C-Suite of Fortune 100 companies. Warren combines his human capital, project management, and business management experience with a philosophy of solving business challenges through the strategic implementation of policies, processes, and procedures to deliver sustainable solutions that demonstrate ROI, mitigate and manage risk, and empower organizational success. Warren is the author of “Applicant Interview Preparation – Practical Coaching for Today” and holds a bachelor of science degree in human resource management, a master’s of business administration in project management, and a master’s of science degree in industrial and organizational psychology. He is also a SHRM Certified Professional.

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