Cross-training—having employees perform a variety of activities in different roles in different departments across the company—is often advocated within companies as a best practice for a number of reasons.
Cecillia Barr, writing for BFS Capital, offers the following benefits:
- Stability: Having multiple people capable of filling a role can mitigate against employee absence or departure.
- Flexibility: If disaster strikes in a particular department or function, you can bring in employees from other groups who know what to do to pitch in.
- Efficiency: Employees learn where their role fits into the organization and have a better perspective for spotting opportunities for process improvement.
- Value: Employees learn a variety of skills relevant to the company.
But Barr also writes that there are several potential downsides to cross-training.
Barr notes that employees might take it the wrong way if someone new is brought in to start learning their job or taking on some of their responsibilities. The natural conclusion could easily be that they aren’t doing their job well.
Related to the issue of employee morale, cross-training could lead to unhealthy competition in the workplace. “If employees feel as if their jobs are being threatened, they might go to unethical extremes to make sure they keep their position,” says Barr. “It could also lead to gossip circulating around the office, employees putting personal problems above their work, and possibly even blackmailing.”
Employees might see cross-training efforts as having additional responsibilities piled onto them for no additional compensation.
Loss of Focus
Cross-training requires balancing the importance of deep, specialized knowledge with being a jack-of-all-trades. There may be a place in your organization for both types of employees, but it’s not necessarily the case that everyone should be cross-trained.
There are certainly benefits to cross-training employees. It can provide redundancy in case of turnover, facilitate internal networking, and give employees a broader perspective of the business and their role in impacting its success.
However, it’s important to also consider the potential downsides. Not all employees want to perform jobs they weren’t hired for, and a compulsory cross-training program can lead to employee resentment, burnout, and poor morale.