Can Being Indispensable Hurt Your Career?
As odd or as counter-intuitive as it sounds, it certainly can. Especially for lower-level and younger employees, it can serve as a bar to changing jobs, at least in the specific context of changing jobs internally.
Depending on the company, its human resources rules and its management culture, your superiors may be able to hold you back from internal promotions or worthwhile lateral moves, by citing how critical you are to the functioning of their department.
Theoretically, excellent performance on the job should make you eligible for promotion. However, except in those situations where a promotion in place is possible, this normally involves your taking up a new position elsewhere in your firm. Meanwhile, if you truly are an outstanding performer, and especially if you have become invaluable or indispensable to your current superiors, they understandably will be reluctant to let you go, since this will damage their own performance. This is particularly the case if your current department otherwise is weak on talent, or if your current managers are themselves not particularly adept at their own jobs.
After developing an integrated system of sales forecasting models for the old Western Electric subsidiary of AT&T, this writer was transferred in a lateral move. The models were to become the key driver in a revamped sales forecasting process, which itself became the responsibility of a new department, to which this writer was assigned.
In short order, this forecasting process expanded to encompass an organization numbering over 50 persons. However, the work done by this added staff was purely derivative, essentially an extensive reformatting and repackaging of the core forecasts that this writer had produced working largely unaided.
Noting that many of the people doing such merely derivative work in this bloated organization enjoyed higher-ranking job titles (and thus, presumably, higher compensation), I made a strong case for receiving an equivalent promotion in place. The unsatisfactory answer from my superiors was that, despite excellent job performance, I was ineligible for any such upgrade simply because of my young age and relative inexperience. Then, when I sought a transfer, this initially was blocked on the basis of my being a critical performer with unique skills and knowledge. Luckily, through networking with a friend in an organization that had even more political clout, I was able to escape this situation.
Unfortunately, there is no easy, universally applicable solution to the problem of getting locked into a job or rung on the corporate ladder as a result of becoming indispensable in your current role. This is more an issue of thoroughly researching a company's culture and human resources policies before taking a job, to reduce the possibility of finding yourself in such a bind.
As discussed in our article about retaining technical experts, forward-thinking employers are concerned about this issue, and have taken measures to create opportunities for promotions in place and other rewards for valuable contributors who ideally, from the firm's standpoint, should continue with their current job descriptions or work duties.
As tempting as it may sound to the frustrated, one should never become disruptive or let your work performance slide in order to lose your status as indispensable. This only will damage your reputation and your prospects for advancement in the long run.