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The Most Dangerous Business Cliché

"Everyone is replaceable" is not only dehumanizing—it's flat-out wrong. Can you find a substitution? Sure. But that's not the same thing.

As someone who keeps a list of the business clichés that I dislike the most, there is a new contender for frontrunner. No, it’s not “out of pocket,” “best of breed,” “rock star,” or another one of those overused phrases. This one is more biting, and more dangerous too. It’s also wrong. So here it is: “everyone is replaceable.”

The Thinking Behind “Everyone is Replaceable”

It doesn’t take much to imagine where this cliché comes from. It can be an effective shield (or weapon) when there is a perception that employees begin to think too highly of themselves or make unreasonable demands. In a 2016 New York Times interview by Adam Bryant, a CEO recalled working for his grandfather:

“He used to do this thing called the bucket test. He would be arguing with one of his employees, and he’d call me in and say, “Get a bucket of water.” So I’d bring the bucket of water to the room, and he’d say, “… put your hand in the water.” Then I’d take it out, and he’d say to his employee, “See that hole … left in the water? That’s the hole you’re going to leave when you leave here.”

In addition to tamping down employees, “everyone is replaceable” can be used in justifying certain corporate behavior that requires a level of dehumanization. It’s easier to lay people off, reduce their wages or benefits, pass them over or fail to invest in them if these actions or inactions occur in the context of them being replaceable parts of a machine.

Why It’s a Myth

Unlike parts in a machine, every person is unique. Consequently, simple logic dictates that no person is replaceable.

Yes, when an employee leaves a company, the company can find another to perform the functions performed by the former employee, but substitution is different than replacement. Think back to grade school, when a teacher was out sick and a substitute teacher would take their place. Even if the substitute followed the same curriculum, as great as that substitute may have been, did it feel like a true replacement? Of course not, because your teacher was unique, and your personal experience with your teacher was equally unique.

Each employee responds to training differently. Each employee has a different background, experiences, personality, strengths, weaknesses and ideas. Over time, each employee builds and strengthens unique relationships with other members of the team while also challenging other team members in their own way.

When an employee leaves a company, the company is forever changed because of the multiplicative impact made by the employee not only while working for the company, but also upon their departure. Perhaps the company will be better or worse off as a result of that employment and departure, and perhaps the degree of change will be great or small. Either way, the company will be different, and that difference must be part of the calculus when companies make decisions geared toward retention or termination.

The Impact of Believing the Myth

The perils of treating employees as replaceable can be learned the easy way or the hard way. Employees who feel that they are viewed as replaceable will reciprocate that feeling, causing their employers to have issues with retention, hiring, productivity, loyalty and reputation. Employers seeking to avoid these issues celebrate the individuality of their people, including by focusing on employee retention, job satisfaction, career advancement and diversity.

Creating and sustaining a culture of irreplaceability should be adopted and modeled by the CEO and at all levels of leadership. At The Colony Group, we invest our time and dollars in programs that are designed to understand, accommodate and utilize the personality and unique “genius” of each of our team members. Our career paths are designed to acknowledge both the standard and non-standard aspects of an individual’s progress, as are our performance reviews and compensatory systems. Most importantly, we practice appreciation. We give and receive appreciation with intention.

One day, the myth may become a reality. One day, artificial intelligence may replace humans in the workplace, at which time the analogy of parts in a machine will be realized. But before we start assuming that this already is happening, it’s important to note that, in order to make people replaceable, AI will have to be as intuitive, creative and original as the real thing. That is not the current state of “artificial intelligence.” Until that time, don’t be fooled. So long as people are unique, they are not replaceable.


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