The Myth of the Interchangeable Employee

Calling employees “resources” has been ubiquitous for quite a while now.  It is pretty much taken for granted that the department that will deal with payroll, employee relations, and benefits will be called Human Resources.  The label is somewhat troubling because it indicates interchangeability of people.

Another rabbithole that companies can fall into is using the tagline “no one is irreplaceable” when a valued contributor leaves a team or organization.  While meant to inspire the team that hope is not lost and they will be able to continue on to an equally successful outcome, it most likely will backfire in dramatic ways.  Employees begin to question the extra time spent, the extra effort, and their motivation.  They wonder how much their own work is valued if a well-respected peer who leaves the organization is almost immediately thrown under the bus.  They also rightfully question the leadership abilities and decision-making skills of someone who would publicly make such an inflammatory assertion.  Why work for someone who thinks I am completely interchangeable with someone fresh off the street?

While every team member can be replaced in the long term, it does not happen without great expense and impact on the progress of a team.  If business continuity items like knowledge sharing and good documentation are not in place, the loss of a team member can even be a death blow to a project.

So, maybe engineering team members are not so readily replaceable or interchangeable.  The theory must have some valid origin somewhere then, right?  I argue it is almost a universal fallacy.  To make my point, I invoke the memories of my first regular job in high school.  I was a dishwasher for a Sizzler-style steak and buffet place for 30-40 hours a week for an entire summer.  Besides reminding me why I should invest in my education, it was also an exercise in figuring out how to work with radically different people who happened to be on the same shift as you.  It was disgusting, toilsome work but never really boring.  The biggest reason was the variety of personalities I was teamed up with during busy lunch and dinner shifts.  These personalities included:

The Daydreamer: This fellow may very well have been puffing the reefer before work each day.  Lots of staring off into space for minutes at a time.  Keeping a steady flow of conversation and feeding him work rather than letting him be the front-end of the process kept him engaged and productive.  Attention to detail wasn’t always there, so you sometimes had to subtly grab his output from the end of the washing line and drop it back in the sink.

The Drama Queen: This avid Cher fan was a hand-waver, complainer, and all-around grouch.  He was also very, very good at his job.  Dishes flowed through quickly and came out CLEAN.  You could talk to him about his interests or not talk at all–they were equally good options–I just learned to avoid minefield topics that would make steam come out his ears.

The Combat Veteran: This Vietnam Veteran was going through a rough patch.  He was working toward becoming a truck driver and was always looking ahead to that.  He worked a short while and then disappeared.  I never really figured out how to work with him other than to work harder to make up for his not wanting to be there.

The Motorcycle Head Trauma Guy: This fellow was engaging and entertaining.  He told a lot of stories, most of them entirely inappropriate.  They all made a lot more sense once he told the story of his motorcycle accident with resulting head trauma.  It was not apparent to me that he had lingering issues other than the fact that he did not have much of a filter.  He was not around long, but he was memorable.

The Jazz Singer: This man was built like an offensive lineman with a catchy voice like a jazz singer.  He was always pleasant and nearly always singing songs, some real and some apparently jingles made up on the spot.  He wasn’t the fastest co-worker, but his infectious energy made me work harder and faster and made the time fly.

This motley crew came with both joys and frustrations, but it was eye-opening to see personalities in a rawer, more transparent way than you typically see in an office environment.  Each team member’s background brought unique challenges and skills.  While dishwashing might be considered unskilled labor, there are a number of skills and tricks necessary to succeed.  For example, with a firm grasp of mechanical principles, I could disassemble, re-assemble, and troubleshoot problems with the wash/sanitize machine faster than most of my co-workers.  However, probably the most valuable skill I gained was learning how to interact with different personality types–how to avoid angering some, how to motivate others, how to divide up work to keep things moving smoothly.  I am not suggesting that people should be inspected and manipulated; rather, that legitimate relationships have to be built with co-workers to build a happy workplace.

Avoid the trap of treating employees and co-workers interchangeably.  Building relationships and learning team members’  unique skill sets and personalities is critical to achieving synergy within a team.