White supremacist culture likes to distance itself from the unsavory. For years, the word “plantation” described for many people an idyllic southern estate. They were oases of prosperity for a young nation, covering half the wealth of the south in 21% of the population. Popular media now presents a somewhat complete picture about this time in our history. These fine homes for white americans also brought horror and pain to Black people in bondage. This legacy of horror lives on not only in the families that survived it, but in practices that touch us all even now.
Caitlin Rosenthal is a historian who researches how management practices developed. Her research in 2018 helped counter the myth that the factory created management as we know it. Instead, modern concepts like productivity, task management, and depreciation have more brutal origins. These concepts began on enslaved labor camps in the southern u.s. and the west indies.
Productivity standards on a plantation weren’t much different than they are today. For instance, overseers placed first the enslaved people who picked crops the fastest. Their productivity standards set the pace for the other enslaved on the field. After emancipation, these practices lived on with sharecroppers and now waged or gig workers. In most industries, people became necessary (but unwanted) components of profit. We were and remain expendable and easy to replace.
The workplace I understand the most is the office. My experience in other settings, such as the gig economy or the service industry, is less recent. I know that the power dynamic, or the relationship with one’s boss is different. This essay speaks best to modern offices with employer-employee hierarchies.
What do you do when your livelihood depends on work? When housing costs money? Food costs money? Healthcare, transportation, running water, electricity. Fear of termination is paralyzing for most people without money to fall back on. For a certain type of overachiever, the solution is to become impossible to replace.
There’s a logic to this thinking, no? If you are useful, managers will think more highly of you. If they can always count on you, why would they let you go? It’s risky to think that they will have your best interests at heart. Being irreplaceable may bolster your job security, but it can also be a liability. Job security can be a huge relief, but it can also lead to stagnation. In fact, being “irreplaceable” in a business doesn’t often pay off. Consider again the origins of the employer-employee relationship. A business under capitalism exists to profit. Here are a few ways that these negative effects have a bigger impact on you than on them.
The more irreplaceable you are, the harder it is for your boss to see you in any other role. Sure, you might be the only person in the office who knows how to use a specific piece of software or file system. But is that something you’d like to do for the rest of your life? The more specialized your skills are to that business, the harder it is to move on. It’s also harder to earn experience or accomplishments year after year. As a hiring manager, I look for candidates that have a variety of experiences to draw from.
Being irreplaceable also makes it harder… for them to replace you. This can be true when taking even a few days off, much less a long vacation. If you tell yourself, “nobody else can do the work that I do,” you may be prioritizing the work over yourself. Seeking a reward for that kind of loyalty is hard in a business that’s most focused on the bottom line. It could also mean overcommitting to projects that are less of a challenge and more of an unwanted task.
So how can you show value that helps you keep your job and go after a better one?
the selective yes
Nobody can say yes to everything. People early in their career sometimes find it hard to process this advice. The key is to be strategic about it. What fresh challenges could help advance your career? What could help you build relationships or learn new skills?
When I’m facing new challenges, I often ask myself, “what do I want to learn from this experience?” Sometimes we have no choice but to say yes to an assignment. So if you have no choice, what can you get out of it anyway? Early in my career, I was… asked… to take a temporary job as an executive assistant of the leader of a multinational project. I struggled to accept. I was a project manager! I didn’t know how to manage schedules! It didn’t feel beneath me, but it also didn’t feel applicable to what I wanted to do. When I started the job, I soon found I could do so much more with it than I imagined. The experience changed my perspective in many ways. I applied project management in ways I had never imagined. And I tried to turn it down!
delegate and backup
As managers, we have to discuss leave planning with our teams. It’s important that they don’t see this as feedback on their performance. If you do have performance issues with a staff member, try to correct those first. An employee might even have performance issues because of their irreplaceability! Frame the question as, “what would we do if you took a week off?” Who could do their work?
Unprompted, we employees too can ask this of our bosses. No matter who you are, your work needs a backup. The backup doesn’t need to do it as well as you do, but they need to be able to cover your work. This means training other team members on your essential functions.
know your goal and plan ahead
Being irreplaceable is often a stand-in for stability. Unfortunately, stability doesn’t always mean advancement. Instead, be clear about your career goals. Know your strengths and your weaknesses. Work with your employer on how they can help you reach your goals. Seek feedback on where you can improve.
Even if your current job is good, it may not be that way forever. Bosses leave. Organizations restructure, merge, or change. Even teams change, colleagues come and go. And a job is still only a job. As @thetrudz writes, “my ‘dream job’ is… not working. No work. I don’t dream about labor.” Every day we survive complex systems bent on our exploitation. We are unfathomably better off than the enslaved builders of our country. But we are still exploited.
business from a distance
What I found most interesting in Rosenthal’s research is how familiar it is. She notes that some plantation owners lived in faraway places. They read the balance sheets made possible by brutality and felt no connection to it. It was a source of profit to them, not a cause for empathy. But they knew better then, just as we do now. People are more than replaceable cogs on the wheels of industry. There is a human impact to the work we do. We, the people we lead, the people who lead us, are humans all the same. It’s critical that we remember that the foundations of modern business are undeniable. We will never convert our workplaces to true equality when we leave so much of it standing. When we seek to be irreplaceable at work, in a way we’re embodying the joke about running from a grizzly bear. You don’t have to be the fastest runner, but don’t be the slowest. It’s okay to want to work hard to advance your career. Try to do it without sacrificing solidarity with your colleagues.