Do You Have An Employee Holding You Hostage?

Tim Sackett Succession Planning, Tim Sackett

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about cross training – not that I don’t think it’s not important to have back-ups (because I do believe that’s important) but for the simple fact cross training tends to de-motivate both parties and cause undo stress.  Let me give you a typical scenario – Peggy in benefits does an outstanding job, provides great customer service, has deep knowledge, and if you lost her, you would be in a world of hurt (sound familiar?). Marge is your FMLA administrator and in a previous life did some benefits work. She’s also a strong performer.  As you go through your workforce plan, you determine losing Peggy could be a real service threat to the organization and you really have no back-up. Easy enough, Marge has some capacity, so the answer of course is that we’ll just have Peggy cross-train Marge on her job, and problem solved! Voila!

Not so fast, Sparky!

Hostage This is where everything tends to fall apart. This is where you find out who doesn’t play well with others. This is where business stops being business and becomes personal – Cross Training.  A recent article in Forbes – Don’t Let Your Business Be Held Hostage by David Carr explains it this way:

Sometimes the loss of a valued employee causes disproportionate damage to the organization even in the absence of any malice. “I remember one company lost a really crucial admin–she was out the door within two weeks because her husband got transferred, and she had no choice. And, man, things just fell on the floor! Because nobody knew what she knew,”

“Anytime someone else has superior knowledge about your property, they can hold you hostage,” says Michael Rosenbaum, principal at Rosenbaum Advisors in Arlington Heights, Ill. “The issue is not that you should have superior knowledge on everything–because you can’t,” he adds. But you can look for ways of managing the risk.

So, how do you keep yourself out of these scenarios?  I mean, let’s not kid each other, it’s our job in HR to go out and get the best talent.  We would hope that everyone of our employees is so great that they become “indispensable” right?!  True – but we/HR have to mitigate the risk to the organization – and help those running departments/divisions/etc. to see that risk and give them solutions.

Let’s go back to our example with Peggy and Marge, and how we could cross train effectively to ensure both are rewarded for making this happen:

  1. Communicate – This could really be steps 1 – 5. Let’s be honest, we do a bad job of really telling our people why we are doing this.  Be open and honest, explain the risk of Peggy getting hit by a car. They are adults, they’ll get it. Also, let them know that the organization understands that this can be uncomfortable, showing someone else your job and potentially making yourself less valuable (this is how people truly feel – so putting it on the table isn’t a bad thing), and work through those emotions.
  2. Plan – Make a plan of what areas need to be cross trained and to what level it needs to be done (i.e., do they need to be experts, or be able to pick it up in an emergency). Also, have exact timing around when it needs to be accomplished or surprisingly you’ll notice they just never have time to get it done.
  3. Follow Up – With both sides continually, throughout, follow up.  One side might tell you everything is going great, while the other will tell you that “she isn’t showing me anything” – again this is just part of the communication process.
  4. Perform – Schedule a week on the calendar where the cross trained person has to do the job – it’s really the only way you’ll know if the person can or can’t and will ensure the one learning actually understands how important it is to pay attention and learn.
  5. Reward – Both sides for cross training should be rewarded, both the teacher and the learner. This doesn’t have to mean an increase in pay, although many organizations do use compensation.  Just make sure both are rewarded equally – this sends a message to others that it’s good to give as it is to receive.

Lastly, this isn’t really a step, it’s more of a warning. Ask yourself one question – who in your organization are so indispensable that if we lost them today we would be dead in the water?  Got the name(s)?  These people are holding you hostage – maybe not facetiously – but make no bones about it that they can turn in a New York minute.  As a HR Pro, it’s your job to help your organizations mitigate risk – if you aren’t doing anything about this, you yourself are part of the problem. So, go give Peggy a hug, tell her this might be uncomfortable, but for the good of the whole, this has to be done.