“Is there anyone here on staff who you think is non-essential? If you had to give up one name, who would it be?”  — Conan O’Brien

During emergencies, managers often feel compelled to order employees to stay home because of the emergency situation, but then go on to exempt “essential employees designated for mandatory operations.”


Are there any non-essential personnel in your organization? Anyone so useless that their position and work are simply unnecessary? If so, it shouldn’t take an emergency to identify them. If not, which should be the case, then why call them out as non-essential? Why subject them to the indignity of having their work, and so them, declared unnecessary?

“Essential” is the Wrong Description

Every person in every organization is, or should be, essential. The question should not be about what work, and what person, is essential.  The question should be about what work is urgent. What work is so urgent that it cannot be put off until the emergency passes? What work must be done immediately if the organization is to avoid failing at its mission?

Time management consultants are fond of invoking the “Eisenhower Decision Matrix.” It is based on distinguishing between tasks that are urgent and non-urgent, and between tasks that are important and unimportant. While there is no evidence that Eisenhower used this time management tool, he did say in a 1954 speech that “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” So, are urgent tasks unimportant?

No. Urgent tasks are tasks that are time-sensitive, tasks that, if not done as scheduled, cannot be remedied later. Many urgent tasks start out as important but non-urgent tasks. Delayed, they remain important but become urgent.  Consider filing your taxes.  On February 14, they are important, but doing something for Valentine’s Day is urgent.  On April 14, filing your taxes is still important, but now it is urgent.

“Excepted” and “Emergency” Employees

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) does not use the term “essential”. Instead, it refers to “excepted” employees to describe employees that would not be subject to a furlough in the event of the periodic, self-inflicted emergency we know as a government shutdown. Specifically, “excepted employees include employees who are performing emergency work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property or performing certain other types of excepted work.”

In addition to “excepted” employees, the OPM also refers to “Emergency” employees. “Emergency employees are those employees who must report for work in emergency situations—e.g., severe weather conditions, air pollution, power failures, interruption of public transportation, and other situations in which significant numbers of employees are prevented from reporting for work or which require agencies to close all or part of their activities.” Interestingly, the OPM makes a point of reminding federal agencies that “emergency employees are not automatically deemed excepted employees for purposes of shutdown furloughs.”

Avoid Failing at the Mission

When deciding which employees are “emergency employees”, it is first necessary to have a firm understanding of the mission. It cannot be “continue as normal” because, emergencies, by definition, are not normal.

The mission may be to continue production at scheduled rates. This may be urgent if production missed during an emergency cannot be made up later, after the emergency passes. In that case, what personnel are required as “emergency personnel”. The tasks that are deferred are not declared unimportant or nonessential, simply not urgent.

Keep in mind that there are not urgent departments, only urgent tasks. Predictive or preventative maintenance can be deferred until an emergency passes; responsive maintenance, i.e. breakdown maintenance, cannot. At a personal level, you can put off an oil change for a couple of days with no ill effect, but not a flat tire.

At a societal level, we often think of law enforcement personnel as “essential personnel” in an emergency. Certainly, personnel responding to the emergency are emergency personnel. So are the law enforcement personnel who patrol the streets. An unpatrolled street cannot be made up for by patrolling it more often after the emergency has passed. A detective, on the other hand, can resume efforts to solve a crime after an emergency has passed, although perhaps a little less effectively if clues have gone cold.

Preparing for an Emergency

Emergencies happen. Although not normal, they should not be unanticipated. Whether a power outage, a blizzard, a flood, or a pandemic, every organization can anticipate the emergencies they may face. The challenge for those organizations is not to determine which personnel and what tasks are essential—they all are or should be. The challenge is to determine which tasks remain urgent during an emergency, and what is the best way to get those tasks done during the emergency.

In some cases, that will mean identifying emergency employees—employees who need to report to work to perform those tasks considered urgent. In some cases, it will mean identifying emergency methods for completing urgent tasks—working from home, for instance—and providing the means to do that. And in some cases, that will mean completing the important and essential tasks in advance of the emergency, so that they do not become urgent.

Most importantly, preparing for an emergency requires understanding that the circumstances that create a business emergency also create personal emergencies for each employee. So, identify urgent tasks and emergency employees carefully and judiciously, freeing up as many personnel as possible to deal with their personal emergencies. Then, when they return to work, they will be focused on the job at hand, which makes everyone safer.