How to replace an 'irreplaceable' employee

With the proper planning, your office will survive the departure of a supposedly indispensable worker

Dear Bob ...

I know you've said from time to time that you'd rather apologize for an employee's poor manners than lack of competence. How do you feel about bad attitude?

[ Also on InfoWorld: Bob offers tips on working with another common personality in the office in "How a team should deal with a slacker" | Get sage advice on IT careers and management from Bob Lewis in InfoWorld's Advice Line newsletter. ]

The company I work for hired me to straighten out a seriously dysfunctional department. I've been working away at it and making some progress. I've worked with my managers to turn them into more of a team. I've connected the dots between their work and the company's success. I'm treating everyone like a person and not an interchangeable part. I'm involving as many people as possible in "process-izing" an organization that's lived on improvising the same work over and over again so that we can stop making the same mistakes over and over again.

But with Barney, there's been no progress -- which wouldn't be a problem if I could fire or demote him. I can't. He's the only one who knows what he knows, and what he knows is a complex subject.

Barney is an eyeball roller. If he knows something someone else doesn't and they say something that isn't perfectly accurate, he rolls his eyes in exasperation. If I give him an assignment that isn't smack dab in the middle of his job description, he rolls his eyes and makes it clear he'll be doing me a huge favor if he decides to get around to it.

Ask him to explain some of his complex knowledge to his teammates? Eye-roll time again.

He's one of my managers, thinks he's destined for greater things, and certainly believes our roles should be reversed. Under most circumstances I'd just toss the guy, but as I say, he really does know things nobody else does, and I have no lever to force him to divulge.

Any thoughts?

- Paying ransom

Dear Paying ...

Sure: Stop paying. But first, you have to lay the groundwork.

I'm assuming, by the way, that you've already been through the standard drill of explaining your expectations, describing what being successful looks like, and expressing your concerns over his information hoarding. In other words, I'm assuming you've already given Barney plenty of rope -- that is, opportunities to play ball -- and he's simply refused to be part of the solution. Here's what comes next:

Start with your manager. You're going to need a lot of support here, both in terms of budget and acceptance of risk. You'll need a budget to hire Barney's replacement as soon as you can. You'll need acceptance of risk because when you pull the plug and Barney is gone, some duties will fall through and be forgotten or mishandled -- probably fewer than you expect, but there will be some.

You'll hire Barney's replacement, officially as a staff analyst reporting directly to you. One qualification is discretion; your new hire should be clear that his/her future is to replace Barney and to keep this knowledge under his or her hat.

Once on board, your analyst's job (call her Betty) is simple: Figure out everything Barney produces -- simple to describe at least. She gets a copy of everything Barney produces and figures out how he produces it. She's free to bug Barney as much as she needs to. If Barney rolls his eyes, you let him know it's in his best interests; in the past he's expressed irritation when you've asked him to perform various types of analysis, so Betty will be taking it over. He just has to help her learn how to do it.

Give Betty three months (to allow her enough time and to make sure she was a good hire). Then reorganize, putting her in charge of Barney's organization and terminating Barney. He gets whatever termination package is customary at your company, but is escorted off the premises immediately.

That's it.

It's possible Barney will leave in the middle of this process. Unlikely -- it's doubtful he'll find another opportunity that quickly and even more doubtful he'll depart with no other job in the offing.

But it could happen. If it does, let everyone know you're counting on them to pick up the pieces and figure things out as best they can. It's surprising how many responsibilities an employee like Barney can have that turn out, once they stop getting done, to be dispensible.

- Bob

This story, "How to replace an 'irreplaceable' employee," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bob Lewis's Advice Line blog on InfoWorld.com.

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