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Where Is the Place for Irreplaceableness in the Work Environment?

This article was written by in Career and Work. 21 comments.


Yes, irreplaceableness appears to be a legitimate word. Even if it weren’t, there’s a good chance you could infer its meaning without doubt. It wouldn’t matter if the word actually appears in a dictionary. Now that that’s out of the way…

My former boss was laid off last week. It had only been a matter of time. Some time after I left that department to work in my current location, her department was moved to another building to take advantage of efficiencies with another group that performed similar services for the company. The truth is that there was a lot of redundancy in this function around the entire company, and once the departments were combined, it made sense to streamline the management.

I feel horrible that someone I’ve known for many years has lost her job. The reason I left, however, was because she wasn’t a very good manager and I was not learning anything from her other than what not to do.

My current boss, K., gave me the news of the “rightsizing” of my former boss late last week. K. mentioned that this was a perfect example of how one must make one’s self irreplaceable. At first I agreed. Irreplaceableness means that one has job security. When times are tight for a company, and they must decide who to let go, they will start with anyone whose job is redundant, anyone who performs poorly, and anyone whose functions can be assumed somewhere else.

coworker replacementSome time after our initial conversation, I couldn’t get the idea of irreplaceableness out of my mind. Something didn’t sit right with me. I began thinking, and that can be dangerous. I contemplated how one must create the belief that one is irreplaceable.

To become irreplaceable one must drive against forces that help a team work efficiently and smoothly together. In my department, we cross-train as much as possible, so people are free to take vacations at almost any time. We work on enhancing our procedural documentation and process flowcharts so that at any time someone with moderate knowledge and training can step in and muddle through some of the more complex tasks (and so we can ensure the proper controls and quality reviews are in place). If someone were to disappear off the face of the planet, it might take some time, but the group would recover.

Here is one way I reduce my irreplaceableness for the benefit of the group. My skills with Microsoft Excel are above average in comparison to most of my coworkers. I was happy to present a few classes on some of the software’s more useful functions. These classes allowed my coworkers to rely on me less, reducing my irreplaceableness, yet this approach still seems like the right thing to do for my own worth.

To be irreplaceable in this environment would require keeping secrets about how I get my work done. Even if I’m quite good at my job, an expert with great personality and attitude, if I work as a team player I will always be replaceable. So will everyone I work with.

Recently, my company’s CEO, the head of this large corporation for the past couple of decades or so (and I realize I’m being ambiguous) decided to retire. His decision actually came several years ago, but it was more recently that he made specific plans and set an exit date. He was a well-admired and recognized CEO throughout our industry and led this company through some rough times (before I was an employee) and oversaw significant growth (after I became an employee, not that this fact is relevant). He succeeded with goals where previous CEOs of this company perhaps failed.

Yet, even he was replaceable. The Board of Directors decided the new CEO would be someone from within the company, and quickly put a succession plan into place for a smooth transition from one CEO to the next.

If even the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company can be replaced, it almost seems arrogant to think that I, or any other employee of this large company, could be irreplaceable. Even striving for such a goal would be antithetical to cultivating good working relationships with colleagues.

Photo credit: hagerman

Updated February 10, 2011 and originally published May 8, 2008. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar SomeGuy

I think the biggest milestone in one’s career is when you finally realize that you are 100% replaceable. It’s a part of the bigger realization that “life goes on” which often happens when someone really close/important to you dies and you realize that except maybe in your little microcosm, nothing has changed and life is still humming away.

The way to become “irreplaceable” at work in terms of being the last to go is not to horde information or responsibilities. It is to be a top and consistent producer, to be smart, savvy and adaptable. It sounds mean, but it’s a little like the story about the two friends getting chased by a bear. The one friend starts putting on running shoes and the other says are you stupid you won’t be able to out run the bear with or without running shoes. The friend says “yes, but I only have to be able to out run you”.

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avatar Customer's Revenge

I hate people who try to become irreplaceable, and I hate employers who force employees to do this. Do you love lawyers and realtors and accountants? A good part of the reason they’re around is because they’ve made themselves artificially irreplacable and it’s lame.

You’re hired to benefit the organization and you should do that. If you can help others learn skills, you should. At the same time the company should show loyalty. It’s in the company’s best interests and yours.

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avatar fathersez

Everyone has to be replaceable. All of us would eventually either become too old to work or pass on.

I suppose it would be a relative. We just have to try or aim to be less replaceable than the next guy.

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avatar willstan

Flexo,
Thanks for the insight. I am in the same boat with you.

I have several militant coworkers in management positions that all seem to be excelling in their careers. They are abhorred by coworkers and they truly believe that the can not be replaced.

I have diligently worked for the same company for 21 years. I have gladly shared my knowledge in the Excel, Word and general computer arena. Coworkers in my building know I have an MIS background and usually come to me or call be before they call MIS because they know that I can usually resolve their issues more timely. They know that I will show them what I did so they can solve the problem in the future on their own.

I strive each day to be a strong Christian witness and to treat coworkers as I want to be treated. This is difficult while working for my present employer. I have been juggled to many different departments and have been forced into a position that I don’t want to have. To reward me for my dedication, they cut my pay by a third in my last job reassignment.

I have been criticized in my prior job performance evaluations for doing to much work for my coworkers. I was told to dictate to my team members each day what they must do. I feet is ignorant and demeaning to tell team members what to do when they are efficient at their work and know what to do. My feelings are that you get down in the trenches and dig out together. This concept has gained me much respect from my peers, but no monetary recognition.

The long and short of it is that I have been pursuing a new career for about two years with no luck. I am sticking with the current employer until I am blessed with a better opportunity.

I understand where you are my friend. Hang in there. I am praying that you will be rewarded as well!

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avatar jON

The other problem with being “irreplaceable” — aside from what you’ve identified — is that if you somehow succeed in making yourself irreplaceable, you’re doomed to sit in your current position forever. Upward mobility is nil when a critical function of your organization relies 100% on you as an individual.

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avatar Heidi

I agree with the jON above – if you make yourself irreplacable in your current role, they you can say ‘buh-bye’ to promotions.

Everyone is replacable – good team members who are eager to learn and share what they learn will have a nice career arc. Those concerned with making themselves irreplacable will be slaves to thier current positions until they retire.

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avatar fortworthcheapo

jON and Heidi hit the nail on the head. Flexo’s reasoning for not liking “irreplaceability” is certainly sound, but it is more altruistic than anything else. If you are absolutely satisfied with where you are in the organization and want to REMAIN there forever, then “irreplaceability” is fine. I’ve worked with lots of folks in IT who want nothing more than to do their job, be experts at it, and stay in th same position for as long as possible. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I find it a little boring, so it’s not my bag. I also find it a bit unwise because there’s rarely such thing as forever in IT anymore – jobs come and go. So focusing solely on the tasks that are valuable to your position only can, in fact, be very detrimental to your career.

If, however, you would like to be seen as a leader, a team player, a good mentor, all the POSITIVE things that are fairly universal in the workforce, then you’ll share information as Flexo’s doing by teaching others.

Cheerio specialists!

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avatar UH2L

Most of us are more irreplaceable than our companies realize. We have knowledge and with time, have gone through a learning curve that is not always easy. Many companies don’t realize this and they get rid of employees as if they can easily be replaced by somebody new. Also, many employees leave with highly sensitive knowledge which is very valuable and can easily be divulged by the unscrupulous.

I just started a new job a month ago and what I find is that there are a lot of people in our company who have a lot of special knowledge that is not being transferred to anybody new. So when these people retire or pass away, the company will get set behind a lot. Companies are generally too focused on the short term and making money today to be bothered with establishing a firm foundation of knowledge by transferring it properly for the future. Part of this may be due to people intentionally trying to become irreplaceable though.

UH2L

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avatar BK

Thanks for this post Flexo. Like you I share my knowledge with my coworkers and have saved my company a couple $$ on training because I was able to provide it in house. Everyone is replaceable but when you have great skills and work ethic, its also just as easy to find another position in the case of rightsizing :)

Your former boss, I wish her well, from the reasons you left, that may NOT be her strong point and she may have difficulty landing another managerial position

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avatar Tim

I’m with Someguy on this one. The sooner you realize that you are replaceable, the better so you can be financially prepared for it if the day ever comes. The biggest mistake an employee makes is to think that he/she is irreplaceable and suddenly realizes he/she is in fact replaceable….well, except my wife, since her old work has been begging her to come back for the past three years and increasing the incentives to do so. but then again, she wasn’t rightsized, she quit for other ventures. i hate the word rightsized. do they ever increase hiring during a rightsizing, because that is in fact what rightsizing means, to ensure you have the optimal work force. oh well.

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avatar FMF

I’m 100% with you. Everyone can be replaced.

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avatar Aryn

It’s not so much a matter of being “irreplaceable” – everyone is ultimately replaceable – but a matter of how much it would cost to replace you. If you do something very well and are well respected by your colleagues, then the company has to consider how long it would take to find someone comparable, how much they would have to pay them, and how long it would take them to earn the respect of your team.

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avatar Sean

I have to say that I think this is a very antaganistic look at the term irreplaceable. If instead of looking at it as having a certain set of skills that no one can come in and do instead of you. Then yes, you will be stuck in the same position doing the same thing and over time you will definitely become infinitely more replaceable.

That said, the fact that you are driven to teach others your skills and continue learning new skills is what makes you an asset. Those are the types of skills that you can’t interview for and are harder to replace in a newer, younger, cheaper worker. When management is looking for people to lay off they are hopefully less likely to replace the leaders in a group than they are the ones who just go about their job hoarding their knowledge trying to become irreplaceable.

Being valued for your work and skills is what should mark someone as irreplaceable, because you are too valuable to the company to be replaced.

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avatar Jesse

I think most people have the wrong idea when it comes to “irreplaceableness.” 99% of people go about this by becoming the “expert” on ONE thing and making it so that for people to know anything about that one area, you must be around. This is completely wrong…there will always be a way to replace the pigeonholed person.

The only way to make yourself truly irreplaceable is to be an absolute top performer. This doesn’t have to mean working MORE, it means working better/faster/more efficiently.

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avatar MS

If you’re irreplaceable, they will look for ways to replace you. If you’re valuable, they will look for ways to keep you.

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avatar Paul

“The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.”

Charles de Gaulle

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avatar Mrs. Micah

I see it less as “irreplaceable” and more as “super-valuable.” In my case, I’m the one who knows the most about computers in our library circ department. So I make myself useful to the boss by helping her out with computer issues or just teaching her simple stuff (like you do with Excel).

While some seem to be critiquing the laziness (as it were) of being irreplaceable, it seems to me like something you’re constantly working at. You’re developing more skills, moving to new positions, and being damn valuable while you do it.

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avatar Brainy @ Pants in a Can

I think the folks saying that becoming irreplaceable equals a lack of promotion opportunities are a little off base.

I’d say that I likely fall into the irreplaceable column at my workplace and as it has been recognized more and more by my employer, my wage has increased significantly.

Sure, it’s not a really a “promotion”, but in the end, for your typical office worker, more often than not, it’s about the money, not the title.

Now here’s to hoping I’m not replaced. ;)

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avatar Richard

It is unlikely that anyone is truly “irreplaceable”.Even the President is replaceable, and every four years to boot. Your best plan is to stay current in your field and while working, start training for your next career/job. Most of us are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and eventually you get boxed in. You have only one place to go and that is out. So, save and invest wisely, don’t take on too much debt, prepare for the worst, and try to enjoy each day as it comes..and goes.

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avatar Nirav

not being irreplaceble allowed me to take 3-6 week vacations.

if my just was redundant, i’d quit before they ‘rightsized’ me!

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avatar Alexis

There’s a pretty big catch — when it comes to most jobs, employees are expected to work in a team. Failure to do so makes you just as replaceable as letting someone in on the secrets to getting your job done. I think another comment has already mentioned the aspect of hitting a milestone when it comes to realizing that you are 100 percent replaceable at your job. It encourages a sort of freedom. My job may be my livelihood, but I try not to let it define me, and as a result won’t suffer from an identity crisis when it’s time to throw in the towel.

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