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When People Become Sacred Cows

Recently we were discussing best practices in a leadership conference and the topic of “sacred

cows” came up. The reference was to when an employee has been with an organization so long that the employer starts to treat them as if they were beyond reproach. For most of us that have worked in small business, we have seen this happen. The founder of the company feels loyalty to someone that has been with them “since the beginning”, to the point where the individual becomes untouchable in that their actions are rarely questioned, even if there is obviously something wrong.

This scenario happens so frequently in small businesses that it’s worth a discussion of the downfalls of this behavior. While loyalty truly is a wonderful thing, the problems that occur when ‘sacred cow’ status is bestowed include some of the following:

  • Inefficiencies develop. Usually in this situation, the individual has taken on responsibilities as the company has grown past the point of their abilities. In my former business, we would see it with clients when one of the first administrative employees took on the bookkeeping, and continued to be allowed to do it long past the time when an actual Controller was needed. A change was necessary, but the owner didn’t want to appear disloyal. Problems would occur, and eventually action would be taken, albeit much later than it should have been. During that delay, inefficiencies would develop.

  • Growth is hindered. A team can only perform as well as their slowest player. While others can work hard to try and balance the lack of performance, ultimately the slower player will always hold the organization back. It’s inevitable by definition that there will always be a slowest player, but when the player should obviously be replaced, then the lack of forward motion becomes something you are allowing. Keeping an employee in a role where they are obviously underperforming, regardless of their history with the company, is a disservice to the organization as a whole.

  • Other employees are affected. Sadly, many business owners will justify their actions in keeping the ‘sacred’ nature of a long-term employee's position by saying that they don’t want to show disloyalty and hurt morale. The truth is that other employees always (yes, always) realize earlier than the owner that something must be done. They are the people that must work around the sacredness, so they are the ones that the issue bothers the most. By keeping an under-performing employee’s position sacred, we hurt the team.

  • And worst of all, we lie to ourselves. Part of this issue usually starts with the belief that the individual has been with the organization so long that “we can’t live without them.” The truth is that everyone is replaceable at some level within the organization. Yes, things will be different, but there is always a way to get the work done, no matter who is in the role or what the position may be. In fact, even we as owners are replaceable. We need to be honest with ourselves in regard to judging performance. Underperformance, regardless of the longevity factor, can’t be allowed for an extended period of time.

These are just a few of the issues that occur when an individual starts to be viewed as “sacred” in their role at an organization. What other issues do you see? I would love to hear more. Please comment where you found this post and tag me. All observations are welcome.

Until next time, I wish you the best in your business!

Mark Goldman



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