Were You a ‘Non-Essential Worker’? How to Avoid the Label

No thanks to the rest of you!

By John Yoest Published on July 20, 2020

…he will separate the people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32b)

“Only Essential Employees need to report to work, you non-essential losers need not bother to come in…” Okay maybe this isn’t exactly what the “essential employee” announcement says.  But it’s what many people hear. .  

Your work is non-essential?  What an insult.

If your manager or the organizational chart put you in a box with this label, it’s an uncomforting and deeply personal slight at your professional competency. Perhaps it’s no fault of your own that the job description changed so suddenly, but this might be an opportunity to reflect and consider how to avoid being seen as non-essential ever again. It is time to take control of your life by becoming  indispensable, either in your current company or elsewhere. To do so, you must understand the mindset of managers facing unpleasant cuts. 

The Great Divide

In times of great turmoil when the ship is sinking managers ask, what (or who) gets thrown overboard? Managers get paid to make these life and livelihood decisions. To stay off the human resource chopping block, we all need to know where we fit in. Workforce development offices slot us all into essential/non-essential. This humiliating loss in human dignity is depicted in nearly every Dilbert cartoon, where it’s funny until we become Dilbert.  

And this perception matters. Research has actually documented that the key reason staffers quit is not feeling appreciated.

The staff divide is often listed by HR managers into ‘core’ and ‘critical.’ But this is too confusing. It is easier and more humane to label each of our work tasks into either ‘core’ or ‘support.’ In times of struggle, management prioritizes the company core and outsources the support.   

Back Office / Front Office

“If it’s not core, then it’s going off-shore,” is the thinking of strategic decision makers. The back office and its staff are dispensable. The Alert Staffer must know what his manager gets graded on.  Because core is what the customer values; it is of first importance. 

But, core for one company is support at another and support at one company is core for another. How can we tell the difference?  

The Front Office is where the customer interacts with your company to receive a product or service driving revenue to the company. Everything else supports this transaction.

Andrea Gabor explains in a story of Jack Welch, in The Capitalist Philosophers. Welch speaks of the difference between the ‘critical’ and ‘support’ parts of a business:

In the late 1980’s, during a period of intense competitive ferment, [Peter] Drucker was summoned back to GE … “Make sure that your back room is their front room,” recalls Welch. It was a statement that helped define Welch’s approach to a wave of outsourcing.

“In other words, don’t you do guard services at your plant. Get someone who specializes in guard services” to do them for you. Get rid of in-house printing, in-house conferences services, any business that isn’t the core of your focus. (Gabor 2000)

These support workers may not be less talented — but are less valued by management.  

Here are three job options that are most likely to keep you in the essential worker category:

1) Sales:  Revenue generation is the measure of an organization. This is where cash is moved from the buyer to your company. Get as close as possible to the transaction.

2) Customer Service:  Company products must be picked, packed and shipped and serviced. Be in this logistical chain connecting your organization to the end user.

3)  Customer liaison:  Even if you are in manufacturing, volunteer to be the link in or with the ‘creatives’ in your company. As Peter Drucker said, “Marketing and innovation produce results, all the rest are costs…”

The further one gets from the customer the less essential and the more dispensable the staffer becomes. Close to the customer makes for an essential employee. 

Jack Yoest @JackYoest  is a consultant and assistant professor of Practice in Leadership and Management at The Catholic University of America in The Busch School of Business, in Washington, D.C..  He is the author of The Memo: How the Classified Military Document That Helped the U.S. Win WWII Can Help You Succeed in Business.”

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