Is Cross-Training Employees Good for Business?


The great majority of new employees are hired for a specific role within the organization. But in many cases new hires (and tenured workers) may be exposed to other functions they were not initially called on to perform. For instance, a payroll clerk may be called upon to handle some related employee benefits tasks. Or a shop floor worker, who has been trained on a particular discrete machining job, may be needed to temporarily substitute for another, absent employee.

Certainly employees, who are multi-faceted and can readily handle new challenges, are a tremendous asset to their employer – and to their own personal career aspirations. However, some employees may relish new responsibilities while others don’t.

Whether a company provides formal, structured training, or encourages learn-as-you-go on-the-job training, unquestionably employee training and education is good for business. But what happens when employees are pulled out of their comfort zone to handle unfamiliar duties? Unfortunately this occurs in companies large and small. “Fire drills” arise at unexpected times (hence the moniker “fire drill”). Unless a company has the ability to hire short-term temps to fill in the resource gaps, the situation quickly becomes “all hands on deck”.

When qualified personnel resources are tight, but the work must continue without delays, employees can and will be thrust into sometimes unfamiliar tasks. It is simply a fact of life in lean, well run organizations. Over-hiring in anticipation of new business is a costly gamble which smart companies don’t play.

Back to the employees and training. What is the best training strategy? Pre-emptive cross-training or on-the-job learning? That, of course, depends on the nature of your business. Cross-training generally refers to educating staff members on related tasks compared to their normal responsibilities. Cross training truly maximizes the value of employee resources within a particular group or department.  Not to mention it can empower employees and improve overall employee engagement.

It is certainly feasible to also provide training courses designed to educate employees on entirely new skills. Occasionally employees may tire of their job function, but are still considered an asset to the organization. Therefore, retraining opportunities can help retain valued workers.

Smart organizations encourage cross-training on an ongoing basis, and prepare new hires to expect it. The days of “private” silos of job functions are long gone. In today’s modern working environment, cross fertilization (as it’s called in some businesses) maximizes organizational performance. Employees no longer can stake their personal claim to a particular job or task. In the past, some workers would actually maneuver their job responsibilities to position themselves as indispensable and irreplaceable. Now the opposite is true. Team players are expected to train their peers and receive cross-training in return. If you are the only person to handle a specific job, then you are actually considered more of a liability than an asset. There are exceptions to this “rule”, but generally it is the case in most companies.

When might cross-training not be advisable? There are at least a few situations, primarily in businesses that require high levels of security. A friend of mine worked in a bank many years ago, where her boss had complete access to every internal system and business process — he was trained to do anything and everything in her department. When certain employees took vacation time, he would sub for them. Ultimately he used his knowledge of the bank’s operations to embezzle more than $250K over time. Periodically, he would cover his tracks by essentially breaking every security procedure in the bank through manipulation of every safeguard, check and balance.

Admittedly that scenario is extreme, but true. In the vast majority of businesses cross-training employees is ultimately very good for business and employees. Encourage the workforce to reach out to their managers and peers to begin a training regimen that suits your organization, without becoming disruptive to the day-to-day operations. You won’t regret it.