Absence of Key EmployeesTuesday, May 10th, 2011
Who are your key employees? Why are they so important? Is it because they are vital to the running of the organisation? If so, what happens if they are absent? Will your organisation really come to a standstill? If it does, what will happen to your outstanding orders? And what will happen to the remaining employees? Oh dear, we seem to be heading towards a Doomsday scenario, so let us look at this issue more realistically.
Fortunately there is ample evidence to indicate that, if employees feel that their role is vital to the organisation, the less likely they are to have time off unless it is unavoidable. Nevertheless serious illness does occur and key people may well be tempted to accept a job with other employers. This issue therefore does demand consideration, so you really should address some of the above questions.
Most organisations cover themselves with insurance against losses caused by fire or burglary and probably back these up with procedures governing fire precautions, data backup, locking of filing cabinets and doors to protect valuable assets. You should therefore adopt the same approach to protecting yourself against the damage that is likely to be caused by the absence of a key employee. Insurance may be useful to a point, but it reduces the suffering rather than resolves the problem. And a degree of protection may be obtained by taking steps to help maintain the good health of key people, for example by ensuring that they take holidays and do not overtax themselves, though this is more a pious than a practical suggestion
The first consideration therefore is – who are key employees? They are not necessarily the hardest working or keenest or most co-operative workers, therefore you need to take great care to be objective when addressing this question. Take a list of all your employees and consider each name. If that person were to fall under a bus, could you cope? The answers may surprise you. The employee who mixes the glaze formula, the one who sorts software problems, the person who handles the payroll – any of these may cause a far greater problem than the absence of the chief accountant or engineering manager who are likely to have competent support staff who can cover for a while at least. You need therefore to consider both how you would deal with a relatively short-term absence, and what you would do if the person were to leave suddenly to go to another employer or to that great employer in the sky.
What would you do if one of these employees went absent? First you would need to ascertain as best you could how long the absence is likely to last. If the employee has died suddenly or has left to join another employer, the absence is permanent. However, if he has had an accident or become ill then you may have to ask the employee for permission to make an approach to his or her doctor for a report to enable you to assess whether the absence is likely to be for weeks, months or even years. You should also ask the employee or a family member to hand over any work files, keys, computer disks, organisers, laptops or anything else that may contain essential information together with passwords.
Employees who work with the absent person should be told about the absence and its likely length since they may have to take on additional duties. Also you will need to take steps to deal with outstanding appointments and assess the progress of projects and other important work. This should enable you to produce an action plan. You may for example have to distribute some of the absent employee’s duties and responsibilities and, if the job is more management than specialist, transfer another manager to oversee the work or even recruit a temporary executive. However do not miss the opportunity of having the executive’s deputy or someone else from within the organisation take on the role for a limited period in order to gain experience.
You may have to contact customers, suppliers or other outside bodies who have important relationships with the organisation, first to keep them informed in case they make contact and are bemused by the absence of the person they are used to dealing with, and so that they can be told of any alternative arrangements. Second, you may have to work with them to rearrange conferences, delay product launches or sign contracts.
Obviously this would be a sudden overload on the organisation’s resources, therefore how better it would be if contingency arrangements were in place to deal with such a situation. A first move towards this would be to identify key employees and make clear to them the problem their absence would cause the organisation and their colleagues. The way you give your explanation is likely to affect profoundly the degree of co-operation the employees offer. A stark instruction that they are to take certain actions in order to safeguard the organisation if they are absent is likely to make them feel that they are not trusted and, even worse, might cause them to suspect that they are to be disposed of, in which case they may safeguard themselves by moving to another employer. Conversely if they are given an honest explanation they may appreciate that their value is truly recognised and join in the exercise readily.
All key employees should be brought to understand that they are required to regularly backup and store important material in a secure but accessible data storage medium. This should include information that they keep on laptop computers and electronic organisers as well as written material that they may take off site. Passwords should be recorded and retained in sealed envelopes in, say, the company safe, the bank or the home of the chief executive. Their diary information should be kept readily available and understandable.
Ideally every employee should keep his or her boss fully briefed about what is going on and in turn every boss should make sure that this is done. However, this is easier said than done, therefore a more practicable solution would be to hold weekly staff meetings at which everyone briefs the boss and each other about progress and plans. Every key employee engaged in projects should be required to write a weekly report so that anyone having to take his or her place would be able to acquire a full understanding quickly and easily and thus be able to maintain continuity. Indeed, key staff should be required as part of their job to submit a written report each month setting out progress on projects, the problems that have been dealt with and those that remain to be resolved. The thinking behind some of the reported decisions should also be explained. These reports should go on to describe the next stages of projects, how they are to be tackled and what problems might be anticipated. Finally a note should be made of tasks that need to be carried out such as checking on someone’s progress, reviewing a salary or making contact with a client about some issue. This may be an additional burden on key people, though some may already do something similar such as maintaining project planners, “to do” lists and records in diaries and notebooks.
To be realistic, few organisations have been brought to a standstill by the sudden absence of one key person, but many have been seriously disrupted. So develop safeguards and make sure that it does not happen to you.