Would you panic if a key employee left your school or district?

That should never happen from a business situation, as shortsightedness can cause massive problems for an organization.

One of the most inefficient ways to save money in the short term is to not replace employees in mission-critical functions throughout the school or district. Mission-critical tasks are exactly that. Too often, complacency can turn tragic.

There are many cases where the district relies on a single long-term employee to perform a critical task, whether it be web maintenance, network management, or payroll. Often, that employee has seen their backup person retire or leave and a new backup was never appointed. Maybe providing the training wasn’t a priority—that is, until the employee leaves or retires. Sometimes an employee, sensing the dire situation his or her exist would create, asks for more money.

I have seen several situations over the years where the single remaining programmer or system administrator has gotten ready to leave and the administrative team has scrambled to come up with additional compensation to keep the person in place. Sometimes that works, but not always.

In other cases, a serious injury or the exit of a difficult employee takes all of the district’s system passwords away. I know one case where it took the district more than a year to fully recover all of its systems.

Luckily, there’s a way to eliminate these potential crises: cross training among employees. Here’s how.

Step 1: Compile a list of mission-critical tasks. For each item, it should be clear who is primarily responsible and who the second and third line of defense are. This is particularly important when an organization is looking to reduce staff.

Step 2: Make sure the backup staff have been properly cross trained. You might ask a backup to occasionally fill in for the primary staff member. This allows them to refresh their training at a time with little pressure, as the primary staff member is there to serve as a safety net.

In a few highly technical areas, asking a second employee to do advanced network repair or systems administration might not make fiscal sense. In those cases, you should contract a vendor. However, the vendor must commit to regularly interacting with district staff so they are familiar with the district’s systems prior to an emergency or staffing crisis. Be sure that your IT team keeps an emergency list of system passwords in your safe or other secure location.

Cross training can save the district in productivity by continuing functions while staff are out for vacation, illness, or training. It can motivate staff to learn deeper skills or expand into a new area. It helps staff prepare for future challenges and promotion opportunities as well.

Leaders need to ensure that assignments are set so all important roles are served by multiple staff and the necessary training is provided to all involved.

About the Author:

Steve Baule, a former Midwestern school administrator, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at UW-Superior.

Add your opinion to the discussion.