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Managing the Risk when Key Staff are Absent

Jackie Stapleton
Posted by Jackie Stapleton on 9 June 2020 12:00:00 AM

Auditor Training Online is all about rebranding the word auditor and infiltrating the world with amazing, awesome, excited people to spread the love of business and management systems. That's what we're here for.  So, come along on this journey with me as I know that it’s something to get excited about!  

When the Unexpected Happens...

Today I'm going to share with you something that has impacted us here at Auditor Training Online.  It’s quite personal to me, and to us as a team. 

It’s happened just in the last few weeks and I’m sure it’s something that you can relate to in your own business as an owner or an employee. 

The Risk was Identified

A few weeks ago, one of our key team members, our very first employee actually unexpectedly needed to take sick leave.  And this wasn’t just for a day – it’s been 3 weeks so far.  This particular team member was our very first employee here at ATOL and has been with us for nearly 5 years.  She helped to make ATOL what it is today, so there is a lot of knowledge there.  It has been a bit of a hit to our team but you know what?  We’ve survived, even thrived during this time. 

Now, if this had happened two years ago, I am positive that I wouldn’t be saying this!  Because even when she took holidays, I was incredibly stressed.  I’d count down the days until the date she was due back, stressing that if something did happen while she was away, then I wouldn't have the knowledge to fix it.  And we didn't have another team member with the knowledge to fix it either.

But because it has happened now, we are ok and the reason for that is that a couple of years ago, we actually identified that this was a huge risk to our business.   While we are not certified to ISO 9001, ISO 14001 or ISO 45001 we still have our own management systems following these requirements in place.  We still follow those principles.  Part of this is to identify risks and we do this through our business planning.  Every 6 months the team review our own business plan and we identified two years ago that this was a huge risk to the business – the knowledge that this key staff member had – all in her head!

The Actions Taken

So, there are two areas of action to take here – documentation and sharing knowledge.  We actually added a section in our objectives part of the business plan that is about Expansion of Organizational Knowledge.  The process for this is that we all review each section of the business and identify who the primary knowledge sits with and who (if there is) the backup knowledge is with.  This knowledge isn’t always internal either, sometimes it could be outsourced.  This process is essential to help me sleep at night, so we know that business can continue as normal and our students are not impacted when a key staff member is unexpectedly absent. 

The actions we took were to put on another team member who over the past couple of years has been trained in most areas where the gap was identified.  Now we’ve been able to put that training and documentation to good use and we've worked together through this and it's been amazing.  This goes to show the power of management systems, even though we ourselves are not certified, we still have our management system in place - I still follow those rules.  I'm a very rule based, compliance-based sort of person, so I love the word consistency.  We practice what we preach essentially.  This is what the Standards refer to as the risk-based approach - identifying the risks and the opportunities to the business.  It's both negatives and positives. So, the risk-based approach was identifying those gaps in the business and the risk to the business and the business continuity, as we have so many students relying on us to continue to deliver our courses, our products and our services.  We need to make sure we have a robust system in place.

This is an ongoing process - it's not just a once off thing to tick off and never look at again.  It's something that you have to continually review and that’s why we review our Business Plan every 6 months as a team. 

The important point here is that these gaps are identified.  If you don't identify it, then you just don’t know what is going on.  So if we had not identified this vital gap in our business knowledge a couple of years ago , we would have just been operating with blinkers on, like we know it’s a risk but I’m just not going to do anything about it!  Then in this situation now, we would have been stuck, and it would have impacted our students, which is not something that we DO NOT want to do.  We need to keep things chugging along and thriving. So please don't be scared of identifying those risks to your business and doing something about them.

An Unexpected Benefit

As I said, we've lost our key team member for three weeks now and we've done awesome. It hasn't been stressful and else isn't stressful? It's our key team member that is away on sick leave. She needs to be able to relax and not stress that she needs to quickly recover and get back to us thinking that we are struggling or panicking.

An unexpected bonus came out of this process that I just didn’t ‘see’ when we first identified this gap and put actions in place.  Now our team member that is off sick knows that we've got everything under control and I can comfortably say to her, and I have comfortably said to her “you do not need to rush back, so take a breather”, “If this is what was meant to have happened, you need to rest and we are doing okay”. So now she can take a step back and focus on herself now, knowing that we have everything under control.  Isn’t that a lovely thing to do for someone when they need that time?

Tacit Knowledge

Organizational knowledge is that ‘stuff’ that you've got up in your head and normally it's with your long-term employees – it can be called tacit knowledge as well.

Tacit knowledge is the stuff that's hard to get on paper - hard to document.   There needs to be a certain element of passing on your knowledge to someone on the job, so an element of training and supervision.

It’s like getting your Learners Licence.  My youngest son is on his learner's at the moment, so he can hop in a car but he needs me as the supervising driver to be there for the hundred hours over that 12 month period to pass on that tacit knowledge that I have accumulated over the last 35 plus years of driving on the road. 

We also document pretty much all of our processes in OneNote as its really easy for the team to update as we go.  Whenever we document something, we then ask whoever our backup person is here, that they review the documented procedure and check whether it makes sense and that they can actually follow and understand it.  This is best to do in a ‘real’ situation, so they are actually reading and doing at the same time.  This is how we test our procedures that we document as sometimes we think that we’ve made sense because we know the process, but you need to test it first.  So, pass it on to someone to test and make sure it makes sense.

To finalize

A few things.

Don't be scared. Identify the gaps, particularly your organizational knowledge. The stuff that's in people's heads and possibly has been there for a long time. Sometimes those people like to hold on to that knowledge as well because they think it keeps them in a job.  So be very wary of that. I come across that a fair bit and I always say you need to work to make yourself redundant.  And it doesn't mean you're working your way out of a job.  You're working your way into a better job, into a better position, you're putting yourself in a position to improve and move on to a different role.

If you're holding on to knowledge, then you're always going to be doing that same job.  So, let it go and pass it on, and then you can move on to bigger and better things too.

Note – this is an excerpt from the Auditor Training Online Facebook Live, which you can see here

Topics: The Workplace & Leadership

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