Cross-training employees to ensure continuity in your organization

Key Points

  • Cross-train employees on key roles
  • Perform regular refresher cross-training
  • Have an action plan for when employees are unable to perform key tasks

As I’ve stated in previous posts, I listen to podcasts and audiobooks.  One of the podcasts I listen to is a comedy show, I’m not going to name the show or the people involved for the reasons following.  The show consists of two hosts, in the beginning, one host would also produce the show by running the board.  As the show became more successful they brought on a full-time producer.  This producer also worked as a producer for several other shows that the host (his employer) also hosted or co-hosted.

After several years of producing all these shows and gaining knowledge of how all of the production occurred, the producer was offered a job with another company and took the job.  This left the comedy podcast and all other podcasts with no choice but to have the host resume his dual duties of host and producer.  Unfortunately, the host did not stay current on the workflows and equipment upgrades and has been struggling to produce all of the shows.

This is what I’m going to talk about in this post, the importance of staying current in all aspects of your operations.

U.S. Navy Submarine “Dolphins”

In the U.S. Navy when a sailor joins the submarine service they must go through extensive training before ever stepping foot aboard the boat.  But the training doesn’t stop after boarding, once a member of a crew they then begin their sea training which lasts about one year.  During this time they learn all aspects of the boat and must pass tests to earn their dolphins.

After a sailor has earned their dolphins they will continue to cross-train with all aspects of the crew to stay current.  And if a crew member has served on shore duty for an extended period of time they will be required to “re-qualify” with a senior member of the crew by doing a walk-through check.

All this is important because, during a disaster in a submarine, a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death.  Having everyone trained to respond ensures even if the sailor responsible is unable to perform their duties there is always someone who can step up and handle it.

A business’s “Dolphins”

Most businesses aren’t going to have the same life-or-death stakes as a submarine crew, but this kind of general knowledge of your operation can benefit any organization.  Having employees and management able to step in and perform tasks when someone becomes suddenly ill means your operations take a lesser hit and can stay competitive in the market.

Let’s say for example your office has multiple teams with lots of redundancy except for customer billing, the function is handled by just one person because there is barely enough work for that one person.  Well, that person just got COVID-19 after Becky came into the office and spread it around after her family reunion.  Now you have no one to bill customers and your revenue stream just dried up.

Now if you had cross-trained your employees and management there would always be someone who could be pulled from one of the other more well-staffed teams or a member of management to take over the customer billing.  Sure the billing might take longer since it’s not that person’s primary duty, but it would get done and revenue would keep flowing until the primary customer billing employee returned.

I’ve actually seen this play out with a previous employer.  Normally there were two of us on duty but this day one person was out sick and our manager was out of the state attending to a family matter.  While my primary role was phone and computer-based, I was also expected to pick up cargo from customers which meant that while on the road I would be unable to answer the phone and update the computer-based systems.  What did we do?  Upper management decided to have the social media manager work the phones and computers while I was gone.  So for the almost two hours I was on the road I was on my phone talking this person through how to perform my job while trying to drive in rush hour traffic.

This is just another example of how if we had had employees from outside our department cross-trained on at least the basics of our job they could have stepped in and managed things for the two hours I was gone.  Also, I wouldn’t have been unsafe and driving distracted by having to stay on the phone the whole time.  And just so no one thinks I’m throwing this person under the bus, they did a great job, it was just a bad situation.  I admit I had a few comments about the whole situation when I got back but those were about management’s handling of the situation, not this person’s performance.

Since employees were not cross-trained how would I have handled that situation?  Well, there were three members of upper management on site, one of whom was the one who made the call to put the social media manager in my palace.  This upper manager had no meetings that day and was walking around the office talking to people and even left early as this person did most days.  If I were to have made the call, that person would have been going to pick up the cargo from the customer that day to ensure all other operations remained staffed by knowledgeable employees.

Minimal cost cross-training

I understand that most organizations see cross-training as an added expense, but the importance of cross-training can’t be overlooked.  How much more would it cost you if a key task was suddenly not performed?  You also have to look at the effect that not performing tasks has on your customers and by extension your reputation with your customers.  Yes, the immediate financial cost might be less than the cost of cross-training, but the long-term cost of customer loss due to dissatisfaction would be far greater.

Maybe the majority of your teams are so well-staffed that the likelihood of everyone from that team being unable to work is so small that it’s worth the calculated risk.  But if you have any smaller teams where that risk greatly increases you should cross-train other employees on their job.  Designate one or two people to cross-train on those positions and one day of the month have them spend the day cross-training and refreshing their skills.

Cross-training is also important within teams, even if all members of the team perform the same tasks, if there are any specialized tasks that one or two team members perform outside of the group task, then make sure to regularly cross-train designated team members to avoid downtime.


Going back to the example I gave at the beginning of this post, if the host had cross-trained on all the aspects of the producer’s job, then when that producer left the host could have stepped into the producer role with minimal disruption.  From the time the producer joined the team the production grew in size, the studio changed, and all the equipment changed.  All the knowledge the host had for producing was out of date, and while he did his best it did show in production value.

If over the years the host had taken a day every month to cross-train with the producer, then this would not have been such an earth-shattering loss to the production.  The host would have been able to step into the producer role seamlessly and keep the production value at or at least near the quality listeners had come to expect.

Management should always have a plan for the loss of key roles.  Cross-training employees is one great way to plan for such an event.  Cross-training isn’t the only way to prepare for a key loss, but it is the easiest.

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