Indispensable employees are rich targets for replacement

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Nov 08

Being “indispensable” at work is the punditry hallmark of keeping and saving your job. After all, if you are indispensable, losing your services would be a big blow to the company — so keeping you should incent company management to treat you well.

But, for a moment, flip the viewpoint from that of the indispensable employee to the management team surveying the field and seeing indispensable employees. What does that indispensable employee represent? A threat.

A threat that your leaving will cost revenue — and profits — to the company. A threat of your knowledge walking out the door and impacting efficient operations. A threat that what you do is done well, but unknown, so you would be difficult to replace.

Yes, indispensable employees are a threat to management. Management weapons, then, move into execution mode to wring the indispensable out of the organization.

Job descriptions get standardized

Job descriptions are how you hire people into an organization. If your job doesn’t have a job description, it means the company doesn’t have a good idea of the job skills needed to do your job. Plus, job descriptions help a company decide what pay and benefits the market is willing to pay for someone doing the job in the job description.

If you have a job description, how much you do outside of it becomes a sign that the right skills (and, of course, pay) is used to do the work.

Processes get standardized

Indispensable employees have one common characteristic: they have a lot of undocumented knowledge in their head. That is why leaving is so damaging to the company: not only can they not replace you, but they don’t even know what and how you did the work.

The first step in getting that knowledge out of your head and into documents is to map the work processes in a company. Processes, though, are usually not enough; one must get down to detailed procedures so another person will at least be able to do the basics of what you do and learn all the rest of the context around the work on the job. Is it the same thing as you doing your work with all that knowledge, experience, context (and all the stuff still in your head and not documented…)? No.

But, it will do.

Indispensable employees get widgetized

Back when I went to school, widgets were a useful convention to describe something being made — as in, Company X produces widgets for sale.

Now widgets are technology pieces that get plugged into something to make that something better. The sidebar you see on the right of this site on many pages is a widget that gets plugged in to the web site.

Companies want widgets to plug in to do the work to help companies meet their business goals. Do we need a nurse widget? Let’s go get one and plug it into the department. Need a Business Analyst widget? Go get one and plug it in. Need a researcher widget? Go plug one in.

Companies are having work turned into widgets that people get plugged into for their jobs. Indispensable employees are not widgets.

Instead of indispensable, get really good at the widget of your work

All of this is rather harsh. Indispensable people have a lot of ego wrapped up in indispensability. They can’t understand how a company can take away all that stuff they know and replace it with someone else who is cheaper, less experienced and clearly not as good as what the indispensable employee does. They never figure out that indispensable employees are threatening to companies and that companies have reacted to that by building work widgets for people to plug into for their job.

Instead of indispensable, your employment security — not job security — is better served by having great job skills, knowledge and experience at whatever your work widget is for you. Then look for places to get plugged in.

Do you really think you are indispensable?

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.