When I was a kid, I ignored most of my parents’ dinner-table talk. But this night was different. My dad was sharing with us about a coworker who, during a staff meeting, proclaimed that he was “irreplaceable.” The coworker’s boss slapped his hand on the table and exclaimed, “All of us, myself included, can be replaced!”
The outburst didn’t mean much to me back then other than a break in the monotony of hearing the details of my father’s work life. But now that I’m in the working world, the memory reminds me of the reality of employee life. You may think you’re special to an organization—and you very well could be—but that organization may not feel the same.
The sports world is notoriously unsentimental when it comes to retention. Teams want a player who is the best, and they are ruthless in continuing their search for the most qualified talent at appropriate prices. Longtime fan favorite loses a step? Stalwart player has a bad season? Rosters aren’t permanent, and team owners and general managers are quick to replace players.
One of the statistical tools that sports teams use is called value over replacement player. This statistic measures the contribution that a specific player makes to a team and compares that person with the average player for a given time period. If a specific player scores 20 points each game and the average player who is a conceivable replacement garners only 15 points, that makes the higher-scoring player valuable.
While you might think it would be difficult to shoehorn chemists into such measurements of value, bosses of all kinds have certainly tried. Medicinal chemists will nod in recognition at foolishly metric-based systems, in which the boss expects you to produce a certain number of new medicinal compounds no matter how well or poorly they might perform in assays. It’s a great way to show that you are working hard compared with your coworkers (“I made 500 compounds in the last year!”), but I think everyone recognizes the tension between quantity and quality.
In the famous case of Annie Dookhan, a Massachusetts forensic chemist who was processing crime scene samples without actually doing the required tests, she was working at three times the rate of her coworkers. Where were her supervisors, and did they wonder how she was achieving such productivity? Were there questions about the quality of her work? Her “value over replacement forensic chemist” numbers likely seemed high—until she was found out.
I rebel against attempts to measure and quantify the work of individual chemists, even as I understand that organizations need some way to measure merit and, say, hand out raises and bonuses during performance reviews. I am most concerned about the unquantifiable contributions that chemists can make to an organization, especially as members of a team. The person who frames a scientific problem in a way that allows decisions to be made or remembers an important paper that explains a mystery in the laboratory can be a vital contributor to a group of scientists.
I have heard senior scientists attempt to warn younger employees about the downsides of relying on these kinds of contributions to demonstrate their value to an organization. In the vernacular of sports, being a good locker room guy isn’t enough—you still have to score points. That really rankles me.
Senior managers need to challenge their measurement systems, especially at performance review time. Is there a way to judge employees on not only their individual achievements but also the overall success of their groups? Let’s not forget that we continue to be in a pandemic environment, where bosses need to carefully weigh the different contributions of those who are able to be at work versus those who may be stuck at home, juggling virtual classes for their children. It’s not a surprise that some of the large technology firms discarded performance reviews this past spring when things were most chaotic. Perhaps this year offers us a break from these metrics and forces us to view our value to organizations in a different, more holistic manner.
My dad’s boss was right. We are all replaceable, but that doesn’t change the fact that we are all unique.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS..