Some employees can’t be replaced. Here’s why you should hold onto them—and how.
When it comes to business, everyone is replaceable—or are they? Leonard Glick, professor of management and organizational development at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business at Boston’s Northeastern University, says no.
Three abilities or achievements make an employee invaluable to a small business owner:
1. Specialized skillset.
Some employees have certain technical skills that are hard to find, such as great diagnostic problem-solving skills or profound knowledge about a relatively obscure or emerging topic. “A company may be lucky to have just one of these people,” Glick says. For example, a small architecture firm may employ one LEED-certified professional knowledgeable about green building techniques and regulations. If that person departs, the firm may need to hire another employee or train a current team member to step in—both time-consuming and costly endeavors—or it risks losing green jobs.
2. Cultural cornerstone.
This highly engaged employee is a role model for the company’s culture: conscientious, productive, insightful and willing to go above and beyond for customers. “If that person left, and people suspected it was because he didn’t like how the company was being run,” Glick says, “it would be a leading indicator of a problem.”
Glick’s favorite example of such an employee comes from his time working at a digital technology company with an egalitarian culture and very few rules, one of which was that everyone had to show an ID badge at the door. One day, the company’s president and CEO forgot his badge, and the security guard didn’t let him in. Instead of berating the guard, the CEO sent a company-wide email commending him on following the rule.
3. Organizational knowledge.
A phenomenon particularly common among long-term small business employees is implicit knowledge that’s been learned over the years but not documented: How did we handle a similar situation that worked out well? What does that customer really value? Why did we lose that bid years ago?
If this person departs, “you may end up, at a minimum, duplicating something—or worse, getting something wrong,” Glick says.
While Glick believes that these employees are irreplaceable, he also notes that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The more irreplaceable employees a business has, the more vulnerable it is and the more it will suffer when employees depart—whether it’s for another offer, a serious illness or injury or even death.
The best safeguard? “Make sure everyone is always learning, and that everyone’s job contains something they aren’t fully competent in,” Glick says, whether that learning takes the form of trial and error, mentoring, reading or formal courses.