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Making a plan to cover for employees when they're gone

Columnist Dean Swanson says in business, absence doesn't make the heart grow fonder; it causes panic.

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If the past few years have taught small business owners anything, it’s the unpredictability of life. If your small business weathered the pandemic, you are understandably concerned about shoring things up ahead of the next crisis.

CEOs have told me they struggled most with staffing the operation when employees are gone for an extended period of time. If you are already in business or just starting your own company, you’ll want to adopt a few tried-and-true practices to guard against the unexpected.

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Tiffany Delmore, a SCORE content partner andco-founded SchoolSafe.org, a company helping to develop safer educational environments, has a few practical suggestions that will give you a ready-made backup plan. These practices can help you keep your small business humming along smoothly as unanticipated events arise.

As you implement these, keep asking yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Do this without becoming morbid or panicky.

Prepare for the unexpected through cross-team collaboration. No single individual should hold the “keys” to anything you need to keep your small business running smoothly … not even you. In our age of high-tech, cloud-based solutions, there’s been more than one small business to face setbacks because no one thought to get Bob’s login credentials before he took off to a remote location with zero cell service.


Similarly, at least one other person (preferably two or three) should know the ins and outs of Bob’s daily work routine. True, they may not be as highly skilled as Bob, but they at least hold a comprehensive understanding of how he gets his job done. Be sure to put a plan in place for every key position in your organization. If you have not yet begun a regular, thorough program of cross-team collaboration among your employees, the time is now.

Keep job descriptions and all associated procedures up to date. No small-business owner wakes up one day and suddenly decides to make it impossible to replace an underperforming employee. Similarly, no one plans to have a sudden illness or another unpredictable life event bring their operation to a grinding halt. Instead, dangerous over-reliance on a single individual typically builds up over time, often unintentionally.

Additionally, a some employees find confidence in the unhealthy reassurance that their position and personal performance as indispensable. Stated bluntly, your small business may have hired someone reluctant to surrender keys, passwords, knowledge, experience and other vital information. This reluctance is why it’s wise to pay close attention to any resistance you encounter when implementing cross-team collaboration.

Job duties and responsibilities often change with the passage of time and turnover. Make collecting specific information your people use to do their jobs a regular part of your managerial duties. While little will change month to month, do the inventory anyway. Reassure staff that in addition to providing for their future vacations, you are also making sure that you are compensating them adequately.

Maintain a prominent group calendar. While you can’t possibly foresee the unexpected, you can be annoyingly meticulous about tracking anticipated absences. Further, you can ensure that you remind everyone who plans to be out and when. Many small business owners mistake collecting that information for themselves but fail to share it widely. Frequently, there is an underlying assumption, especially in smaller businesses, that everyone “just knows” what’s happening.

Even if you’re 100% sure everyone is on the same page with anticipated absences, publish them widely anyway. The most straightforward means is to create a digital company calendar accessible from any device, anywhere. Review planned absences weekly to confirm and remind others if you hold team meetings. Public posting may prompt one of your employees to ask who will cover specific tasks you hadn’t previously considered.

Support and encourage your employees in times of crisis. This recommendation may seem to fall outside of operational procedures. Yet, it’s vital to the long-term stability of your small business.

One of the most effective ways to build up employee loyalty is to structure your company so that you can support your people. Supporting them should they face the death of a loved one, catastrophic illness, or other major life events.


When your people know they don’t need to add job-related worries to their list of concerns in times of crisis, you free them up to focus on urgent matters. Your other employees are sure to take notice and are likelier to pitch in to help when they sense your commitment to the team.

Dean Swanson is a volunteer Certified SCORE Mentor and former SCORE chapter chairman, district director and regional vice president for the North West Region.

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