The View from HR

View from HR: In the workplace, it’s better to be indispensable than special

CorrespondentMarch 8, 2014 

During a recent four-hour flight on an oversold jet, the behavior of one special passenger stood out.

Everything about her screamed, “I am special.” She verbally rode the attendants like Coach K hounds an official. Nothing was right. Not the seat, not the full flight and not the fact her husband’s assigned seat was rows away (maybe he asked for the separation?).

She insisted on moving her husband before takeoff while storming against the flow of incoming passengers. An announcement asked that everyone take their assigned seat and changes would be made in the air. Our special passenger would have none of that!

Two more conflicts with nearby passengers, along with a failure to thank the lucky man switching seats with her husband, meant she had no one left to help with her oxygen mask if needed. She once bumped her head hard and several rows around smiled. During beverage service, one attendant said to the other, “She’s asleep; don’t wake her up.”

‘Mama’s special kid’

At every turn in a variety of settings, this passenger sought special treatment. In the end, she received nothing special, alienated her seatmates and even caused a gate supervisor to invite her to leave the plane.

Personal stressors may have turned her easygoing personality into the Devil Wears Prada that day. Unlikely. She fit what some HR managers call “mama’s special kid,” someone who is special only to Mom and almost no one else. They seem unaware of their true impact on others.

Employees who wish to succeed and grow in their roles should not seek special status. Special usually means prickly, oversensitive, entitled, peevish, demanding, unaware, incompetent, insensitive, threatening, manipulative or protected. Special status can provide temporary gain or relief, but the long-term prospect for special people is usually poor.

When leaders change, customers complain or key employees leave, special employees can find themselves without an oxygen mask. As appealing as special status may look from a distance, it is a risky way to run a career.

Be indispensable

A much better path to success is becoming indispensable. If your name is on the list of people “we cannot afford to lose,” it beats any special status ever conceived. You want to be the one that gets a counteroffer when others try to hire you. You want to be the one everyone would welcome back someday. You want to be the one recognized for consistent contributions and living out company values.

A friend once said that people with both great aptitude and great attitude are hard to find and expensive. Indispensable employees deliver more each day to their employer and team than they receive. As a result, what they receive grows as well. Rewards may come late or with different employers, but they do usually come.

The world is imperfect, and some people will get special treatment. A few even seem to live on it, with only their manager’s blind spot between them and the exit door. Find your path to work and career success in becoming indispensable, not special.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit

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