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.

  • Donna Svei says:

    Nice counterpoint Scot. It’s consistent with my experience. “Indispensable” people do make employers very nervous and they don’t like being nervous.

  • Zack Pike says:

    Scot – You’re right-on about companies looking to widgetize their workforce… Especially their most indispensable employees. But I have to disagree with your advice to “get really good at the widget of your work.” People who really are indispensable to an organization are already really good at the widget piece… Indispensability brings that extra 20% that the company didn’t know they needed, but that they can’t live without.

    Being a really good widget makes you a commodity, in my opinion. There are a lot of really good widgets out there, and they’re all going after the same jobs. So what makes a really good widget stand out against other really good widgets? Answer; price and convenience. I know none of us want to compete on those two points.

    I agree, companies are threatened by indispensable employees… But do we really want to be working for those companies? If you really are one of those select few who hold that indispensability (and there are very very few), then you’ve got choices.

    • Interesting. Well, I’ll contend that the direction you want to take your career is to not get indispensable, but continually increase your job skills and produce results. Companies will live with that, but they are scared of what happens when indispensable people might leave. The control is the wrong direction (for them…).

      I would agree that if you get really good at a widget of work, you become a commodity. That is precisely what a company wants to do to get work done the most efficient and cheapest way — standardize the job, compare market rates, pay what makes sense for the market and select from many candidates.

      Rather than shying away from being a commodity widget, I’d embrace it — just pick which widget you want, knowing that the pay and benefit range is different from a janitor widget to a CEO widget and the path to both requires acquisition of skills and results to get there. Companies will force the widgetization of the work force — they already have. So what is our counterpoint? If one pursues employment security rather than job security through indispensability, then I’d say it makes sense to get really good at your widget and build job skills to move up to the next level widget to get there. I’d rather have a choice of finding a job at 50 companies who all get what the X widget does and hires for it — because in the interview, I can show both my job skills and my results compared to others doing the interview.

      Do I really want to be working for those companies that widgetize their workforce? Maybe. They have at least figured out how they want the work to be done, how the parts interact with each other, and have common assumptions about the job skills I would bring to their workplace.

      There is, I think, an assumption in your comment that being really skilled at a widgetized job is somehow a bad thing. I’m not so sure that is the case and would love to hear your view on that.

      • Zack Pike says:

        Thanks for the response Scot – Good points. To answer your question, I definitely don’t think being really good at a widgetized job is a bad thing… It’s a good thing! That’s why this post is so intriguing to me. If you are getting ready to enter a commodity type competitive career environment, then you better be damn good at what you do and have the results to back it up. I agree with you here.

        But the “radical” in me yearns for more. To me, it’s not enough to be really good at the widget. I, and others like me, believe in leading the company to see that there’s more than the widget. When you force everyone to be the widget, you lose innovation, you lose new ideas, you lose the really good employees who are hard to deal with but will lead the company to new, exciting, revenue producing results.

  • Scot, I understand your point about many companies wanting a widgetized workforce; however, there’s plenty of companies who don’t. Start-ups and more entrepreneurial companies rely on flexible employees who regularly wear multiple hats. Even within larger companies, some areas like product development, product management, marketing, research, and even IT rely on employees having a lot of cross-functional and ever-changing skills that go above and beyond their job description. The hallmark of a truly great employee, in almost any position, is adaptability.

    While companies may be looking for widgets. Employees need to remember that widgets are inherently interchangeable and quickly become obsolete. Widgets don’t and can’t adapt. Technology and job requirements are constantly changing. Employees who don’t branch out, capitalize on opportunities, and embrace change run the very real risk of becoming the obsolete widget. Since widgets aren’t universal, they can’t very well move between machines. You end up with a person whose skills are hopelessly out of date or end up specialized out of existence.

    Bottom line, it may be in the best interest of some companies to have a highly widgetized workforce, but it isn’t in the best interest of the employees to pigeonhole themselves. The best advice is to be excellent at your job as described, but don’t stop yourself from going above and beyond. Ultimately, the best thing for you and your employer is success – that means getting things done and done well. Fear of going beyond your widget scope should never be a factor.

    Your advice concerns me and I hope that your readers will think long and hard about who it really benefits.

    • Tammy — all good points. I never said employees shouldn’t or won’t adapt if they work in a widgetized job in a company — they must. You do that by consistently expanding your job skills and producing results — opportunities will come your way.

      For example, ten years ago, a Project Manager could just be a project manager. Now project managers have to have experience with the entire project methodology life cycle – including the software development life cycle for IT projects, implemented the methodology multiple times in practice, and having a PMP certification gives you preference to most hiring managers compared to those who don’t. If you didn’t constantly adapt, implement new job skills and pay attention to your career, yes, you would now be much less employable if not, in fact, obsolete.

      What you are describing as needing doing — branching out, capitalizing on opportunities and embracing change — is what I mean about consistently expanding your job skills to help make you more employable. And, as you note for larger companies, needing cross-functional skills for areas like product development is, in fact, part of the job skills you need (and is, most likely, on the job description).

      I think we are agreeing much more on this than it might have appeared to you.

      The problem is that there are a lot of people out there who think they are indispensable to their company – and don’t do the very things you and I are describing to help their employability. That is the thinking that needs to go. Not the thinking that says, “I need to look at what the reality is about my job, the skills I need to learn, and where I can take the job I am in to improve my employment security.” That is where both you and I are coming from.

  • Xor says:

    Every widget job can be replaced by computer. If a person can only do widget jobs, he/she is simply not employable at all.

    • A computer can’t replace everything — even a computer program has to kick out errors and that takes people to fix. But, yes, these types of jobs certainly opens up the possibility of other people working for less or outsourcing. It’s not a computer, but it might as well be.

  • […] That myth is reinforced by career pundits constantly writing about "how to make yourself indispensable" so you won't get laid off. Well, that's all pure bullshit. If General Electric or any other company's management decides to shut down the office you work in, you're gone. Simple as that. No amount of indispensable will save you. […]

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