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What to do if one of your top employees suddenly couldn’t return to work.

Bonnie Johnson, Marketing Associate

January 7, 2021

3 Min Read
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Your key employees’ return to work is never guaranteed—so how does your operation plan to cover for retirements, illness, accidents, or turnover? Succession planning enables business continuity and success during changing times.

Small businesses, whether it’s a farm operation or another industry sector, make up the majority of businesses in the United States. Behind these businesses are employees vital to everyday operation and success.

Have you considered what you do if one of your key employees suddenly couldn’t return to work? Whether it be an accident, illness, or a personal circumstance, they may not arrive in the workplace tomorrow. Alternatively, staff may resign unexpectedly or be approaching retirement.

Usually larger organizations plan for key employee unplanned long-term absences, and this will be part of identifying risk and mitigation strategies. Similarly, all sizes of businesses should plan for this type of occurrence to ensure there is no loss of productivity and your operation continues effectively.

There are many other benefits to continuity or succession planning, including identifying skill development needs, ensuring staff talent is recognized, and identifying staff which are ready to progress to a new role.

When planning, it’s important to consider questions such as:

  • Which roles are key and may be difficult to fill?

  • Which employees have the knowledge and skills to cover each key role?

  • Who may soon consider retirement or take leave?

  • Which roles have a high turnover? (You may also like to consider why)

  • Who is likely to be promoted? 

With regular absences, such as annual vacation and sick time, you may already be more prepared than you think. If you have staff trained to cover roles during these times, they may be the first employees to step up. If not, training should take place to ensure staff can carry out more than one role. So employees don’t feel threatened, clearly communicate how the business and the employee benefits when staff is cross-trained.

If you don’t have formal procedures documented, ask staff members to create step-by-step instructions for their work. Make sure these are updated regularly. One important issue to consider—do you have an up-to-date record of your staff’s computer passwords? Knowing all staff passwords is essential for unplanned absences.

For changes you can foresee such as staff retirement, identify staff which are worthy of promotion. If the retirement is planned, start training and transition early.

If not planning to fill a role from within, make sure you have an up-to-date position description; it may be the opportunity to involve the retiring employee in the recruitment process—no one knows their job better than they do!

You are a key employee in your operation. What if something happens to you? Although it’s another cost, have you considered insurance? If in a business partnership, could each partner carry out each other’s duties? In the very least, do you have someone trained who could take on your essential duties?

The importance of your key staff (including yourself) can’t be underestimated, and using continuity or succession planning will ensure your business continues to operate successfully into the future.

Should you have vacancies to fill, consider using to target the right employees for your farming operation.

The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of Farm Futures or Farm Progress. 

About the Author(s)

Bonnie Johnson

Marketing Associate,

As Marketing Associate at, Bonnie Johnson works on both internal and external communications, email marketing, company branding and market research projects. Bonnie was raised on a farm in Northeast Iowa and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa and her Masters from Iowa State University. Bonnie has been with since 2010. is a leading online career site and human resource service provider for the agriculture, food, natural resources and biotech industries.

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