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How to Terminate an Employee With an 'Irreplaceable' Skill Cross-training employees on every job in your organization ensures that you'll never be held "hostage" to a difficult, if skilled, employee.

By Doug and Polly White Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


About two years ago, we worked with an owner who wanted to fire a difficult employee, but felt that he couldn't. The employee was the only person in his company who knew how to perform some key parts of the production process.

Related: Have to Terminate an Employee? Here Are 5 Best Practices.

The business owner said he felt like a hostage, even as this important employee continued to act out and disrupt the workplace. The situation came to a head when the employee cursed at the employer and told him off in front of other employees. The employer had to take action.

Obviously, buiness owners cannot let an employee be publicly disrespectful. That undermines the owner's ability to manage, and will almost certainly lead to further incidents of bad behavior.

While our example is particularly dramatic, this situation happens more often than you think. We have worked with several employers who have hesitated to discipline or terminate employees who had a valuable skill set they feared losing. And our advice when employers find themselves with a disrespectful or disruptive employee is always the same: Act on the behavior regardless of the employee's value.

If this means termination -- so be it. The route may not be easy, but everyone is replaceable.

To lessen the pain, below are six tips that may help.

Use short-term coverage tactics. What have you done when the problem employee is on vacation or out sick? Use those same tactics to cover for your employee once he or she is gone. This may not be a long-term solution, but it will buy you some time.

Throw resources at the problem. Can you or someone in your organization figure out how to do the job? Mastering the task may initially take twice as long as usual, but it can be done. Working nights and weekends or paying overtime for a few weeks may not be desirable, but it will help you bridge the gap.

Enlist former employees. If someone else in your organization has done this job before, the answer is self-evident. Do whatever it takes to get this person to train you or another employee. Again, this option may mean someone working nights and weekends. It may mean paying twice the normal rate for a while. But this path is worth it if it solves your dilemma.

Find someone with the same skill set. Chances are, the problem employee is not the only person in the world with this skill set. Do other companies use the same equipment or software? At a minimum, hire a consultant who can teach you or another employee how to do the job. Again, even if you have to work off-hours and pay high prices, the money is well spent.

Related: 4 Steps to Take When a Key Employee Quits

Approach vendors for help. If the problem involves operating a specific piece of equipment or software, approach the company that sold it to you. The vendor may be able to train you. You might also be able to hire one of the vendor's employees to train the replacement. At a minimum, the vendor can point you in the direction of someone who can do the job.

Once you have solved the short-term problem, don't repeat the mistake. Make sure that you cross-train someone in your organization on every job. This will require you to document the tasks your organization does and keep records on who's qualified to do each job.

Document your processes. In addition to implementing cross-training, write down the specific steps required to do every job in your organization. Documenting processes isn't sexy, and no one is going to pay you a nickel more because you have done it, but there are several major advantages to doing this work.

First, it will protect you from being held hostage by a problem employee again. And, as your company grows, you can communicate to your employee the way you want things done. Documenting processes will ensure that things will be done consistently across your organization. Finally, process documentation provides a basis for continuous improvement.

Related: 5 Ways You Might Be Failing Your Employees

Propagating improved techniques across an organization is much easier if everyone is doing a job in the same way.

We've seen many small businesses held hostage by a problem employee. Our advice is to bite the bullet and do the right thing. These tips will help. Once you have weathered the storm, make sure that you are never in this position again, by cross-training employees and documenting processes.

Doug and Polly White

Entrepreneurs, Small Business Experts, Consultants, Speakers

Doug and Polly White are small business experts, speakers and consultants who work with entrepreneurs through Whitestone Partners. They are also co-authors of the book Let Go to GROW, which focuses on growing your business.

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