The critical difference between a valuable and an invaluable employee

By Michelle van Schouwen

Do you have an employee without whom your business could barely survive? One whom, when she walks into your office and asks to talk, you hold your breath and hope she’s not about to tell you she has a better job offer? One whom you’d trust with your checkbook, no questions asked?

You may be in over your head. It can be wonderful to have great employees, including those whose skills are rare or unusually developed, who are smart, loyal and incredibly productive. But always remember, where employees are concerned, “one,” “invaluable” and “trusted” are three of the most dangerous words in small business.

Here’s why – and what to do about that nearly irreplaceable employee. We’ll address the three dangerous words cited above.

ONE: if your outstanding employee has unique skills or knowledge within your company AND would be very hard to replace (or if it would be hard to bring a new employee up to speed in time to spare yourself grief) you need to make a change. You should: 1) Attain and maintain some of that knowledge in a reliable and permanent form (such as a digital knowledge bank or guidebook) and 2) prepare for a possible eventual second such employee…or at least have alternatives lined up.

To create the necessary knowledge bank/guidebook, document the most important specific knowledge, processes and skills this employee has. If feasible, cross-train a second employee (or yourself!) to at least some level of competence in these areas. Determine how – and with whom – you can supplement this employee, or, if he should quit suddenly, how you could bring someone in to do the work immediately. You might need to consider and cultivate contractors. You might also want to determine who in your area might be good for the job., now, before you need to hire. Cultivate your network before it becomes a business emergency to replace that employee.

INVALUABLE: Some experts suggest that your company should not have as a key offering any service that only one or a few people can perform. Consider whether you would be able to continue providing the services you offer now if a key person(s) should leave. If you foresee a problem with business continuation in that scenario, alter your course enough so you don’t end up in trouble should any key employee(s) want to make a change. Alternately, provide the employee(s) significant long-term incentive to stay, up to and including equity. But first, read TRUSTED, below.

TRUSTED: How many stories have you heard of sports or rock stars being robbed blind by managers? How many about bookkeepers embezzling from a small business to pay for a gambling habit? How many employee non-competes have been broken as staffers take valuable clients (or other employees) with them upon their departure? The lessons are several: Trust but verity, as Ronald Reagan famously said. Have checks and balances. (I’ve read that Oprah still signs most of her own checks.) Check in frequently with your employees (and partners, if any) and strive to keep in touch with what they are thinking and feeling. If you are an overly trusting person, beware of that characteristic in yourself. Sure, many people deserve your trust. Others, sadly, do not. It’s not always easy to tell them apart.

In short, a valuable employee is a wonderful asset for your business. An invaluable one is as much a liability as an asset, and you are wise to monitor and manage your “need” for the presence of any one individual at your company. It’s okay to be inconvenienced when a great employee walks out the door for the last time, but it’s definitely NOT okay to be ruined.


Michelle van Schouwen enjoys an “Act 2” career as principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her new work on climate change mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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