The Ins and Outs of Backfilling Positions for Your Small Business
Alan Levenson August 08, 2018
According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, employee absenteeism due to illness can cost employers up to $84 billion annually. These costs are indeed higher when you factor in lost productivity due to employee termination, vacation, pregnancy leave, or the search for better opportunities.
So, how do small businesses cope with the temporary unavailability of mission-critical staff?
While you may not always be able to forecast when you’ll have to suddenly fill a position, having a proper backfilling strategy in place can help minimize or even avoid disruption to workflows or production processes within your organization.
What’s Backfilling in Employment?
Backfilling is the filling of a job position that becomes open after an employee takes up a new role, goes on a justified leave of absence, or quits/loses their job. A new employee with the skill set and qualifications of the departing one fills the vacancy in the meantime.
Backfilling ensures continuity of work processes, minimizing costly disruptions and possible downtimes. You may backfill when an employee is:
- On parental leave: Keep in mind that an employee does not lose their employment status or statutory rights when they go on parental leave, and they’ll be coming back to their usual duties and responsibilities once their leave is over. Similarly, it’s illegal for an employer to fire an employee based on their pregnancy or need for maternity leave. So, make it very clear to a potential replacement that their role is not permanent.
- Ill or on vacation: When a worker goes on a holiday or is sick, they may leave a skill gap that only backfilling can address. Managerial positions and specialties are prone to that problem because employers do not usually build strategic redundancies for these roles.
- Terminated: If an employee is terminated or quits their job, backfilling can produce a short-term or even permanent replacement.
Backfilling may involve contingency planning before the need to fill a vacancy arises in your organization. The following strategies can help:
- Pinpoint at-risk positions/employees: Identify roles that have no redundancies. Typical scenarios would include a small business with only one certified accountant, a web development company with just one PHP programmer, or a restaurant with only one qualified head chef. Likewise, identify positions that are likely to fall vacant soon, such as when an employee has announced that they or their partner is pregnant, or you’re considering firing a worker due to incompetence.
- Develop a skills database: Recording the skills of each member of your workforce helps satisfy a backfill demand as soon as it comes up. The database makes it easy to compare the available skills with the required abilities at any point in time. For example, an employee who has left sales for another department may still have the competencies needed to fill a vacant position in the sales department in the future.
- Cross-train: Cross-training employees help develop some in-house redundancies in readiness for backfilling when a worker goes on a vacation or extended leave. You could cross-train salespeople in contact center roles (and vice versa), for instance. Training subordinates for superior responsibilities, such as managerial roles, can also work.
- Outsourcing: You may need to hire a contract replacement to backfill in case of extended employee absence, for example, due to parental leave or severe sickness/injury.
Backfilling Benefits and Alternatives
Backfilling has many advantages, including minimizing hiring costs if a qualified replacement is sourced in-house. Likewise, cross-training reduces employee onboarding time and expenses. It can also increase employee retention, as skilled workers look forward to taking up more significant responsibilities in an organization.
However, the approach can also lead to costly redundancies (i.e. training and paying multiple employees for the same role without increasing their overall productivity). Similarly, backfilling tends to wait until it’s too late to replace an underperforming employee.
Some employers choose a more forward-looking approach to employee replacement, such as conducting informational job interviews regularly even when no positions are open in their organizations. Others hire part-time staff to take up short-term responsibilities at lower costs.
Small businesses backfill job positions to minimize interruptions to workflows. The strategy helps organizations cope with the uncertainties associated with filling emergency job vacancies. It’s just a matter of determining if it’s the right approach for your unique business.