Replacement Refs: It’s a Lesson About Getting the Right People on the Job


The NFL’s replacement refs are on the hot seat.

The regular refs are locked out, so NFL games are now refereed by replacements who were teachers or working at Foot Locker just two months ago. They have had a rough start.

After multiple controversies in the first three weeks of the season, Twitter was ablaze again after Monday night’s football game. The Seattle Seahawks won the game after a “Hail Mary” pass turned into a nightmare for the Green Bay Packers and coach Mike McCarthy.

His comment after the game: “I have never seen anything like that in my time in football.” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick surely faces a fine for grabbing a ref for an explanation (that he never got) after a close field goal on Sunday.

The wrong kind of attention

The replacement refs are in a job that, when at their best, no one notices. They aren’t supposed to change a game, but to make sure the rules are followed and that it is played fairly. Today, they are becoming the symbol for workers who are “out of their league.”

New England coach Bill Belichick trying to get an explanation from a replacement referee at the end of Sunday’s game against Baltimore.

This phenomena is not limited to the NFL.

The same happens when we lower the salary range below market and can’t hire the right people, when we promote internally even if the skill gap is too big, or we don’t offer the right training for the new system. In the NFL, problems and errors are witnessed by millions of people so there is no chance of it going unnoticed. We aren’t so lucky.

How big is the gap?

The lack of skills and experience in key roles affects the service we offer, new customers, sales and growing the business. Yet, these skill gaps may not create a controversy that requires immediate action.

There is the age old discussion about how to elevate HR in the business. How is it done?

I was reminded last week that it comes down to individual talent. This business leader told me that in the past HR handled requests and operational matters, but things have changed. Their new HR business partner is invaluable.

“She understands the business and we respect her advice. We seek out her opinion on lots of non-HR issues too. She certainly has influence with us.” Her capability and knowledge have totally changed their view of HR and his team and the organization are better for it.

Even if not in the headlines

I also recently learned of a Sales Manager with lots of experience in leading teams that sell products. Yet, he struggled to transition to the company’s new strategy of offering services. New opportunities were missed, the sales experience was too transactional vs. consultative, and his team lacked the knowledge to make this shift. The CEO realized later than he had hoped that the gap was too big and their business suffered for it.

Luckily, you probably won’t have millions of people watching your every move or players tweeting your phone number so everyone can call and complain. But, there still may be talent gaps that are costing you big time.

Who’s out of their league in your business?

This was originally published on PeopleResult’s Current blog.

  • Julie

    This is so true Patti! In my industry, I see it daily. People who aren’t in the branding/marketing space trying to save money by doing their company’s branding/marketing on their own, by imitating others or going by their gut, which sometimes their gut is right. Just because you read enewsletters, etc., doesn’t mean you are a digital marketing expert. 

    Side note, my son played football this weekend and the refs were not very good. He said to his coach, “They must be replacement refs.” Everyone cracked up. 

    LOVE this post! Thanks so much for it! Very timely!

  • Sheribrowning

    Great and timely post Patti – and a great reminder that while our talent gaps may not have the same visibility, they can have the same kind of negative impact.

  • Bmilhizer

    So many talent nightmares to play armchair quarterback on here — training, succession planning, market competitive rewards. Where to start? 

  • Martha Duesterhoft

    Love the analogy! It seems company’s limp along with employees that are not up the job challenge and almost work around them to compensate for their deficiencies. I suppose it takes something dramatic, like what we witnessed last night, to prompt action.

  • Marta Steele

    I feel bad for the poor refs. Talent gaps squeeze the organization, customers and the employees who just aren’t a good fit. Sometimes by no fault of their own.

    • Patti Johnson

      Thanks, Marta. Not their fault & the more noise, the tougher its going to get for them!

  • KMErickson

    Great post Patti and I love the linkage to talent.  Organizations need to invest in a combination of succession planning and continuous feedback to help people excel in the day to day, as well as build their capability for the next opportunity.  Those who don’t may not fail on national tv like the NFL has (ouch) but, will certainly fail in the eyes of their customers, and, their employees.

    • Pjohnson

      Thanks, Kristi. Agree – just because its not on TV doesn’t mean it isn’t visible.

  • Ongig

    Creating a talent gap in your company — ESPECIALLY in essential roles — can be detrimental to your business. And you’re right, we’re lucky these mishaps aren’t being broadcasted on a national level. But one way HR can avoid these mis-hires and skills gaps is to ensure their job descriptions are seriously up-to-date with necessary skills. Don’t waiver you stance on what your expectations are for candidates. In the long run, that higher salary will save you more money than the cost of rehiring, retraining, or missed opportunities!

    • Patti Johnson

      Thanks – agree! Make sure that the roles and salaries are lined up to find the right people for the job.

  • Barbara

    Great post! Often organisations recruit new talent on the basis of potential rather than expertise and may in fact be the replacement for a more experienced worker. They may grow to fit and fulfil that potential at some point in the future. The problem is that this happens over months or years so there is a talent gap in the meantime  I have known of situations where the talent gap has caused significant financial loss – deemed part of the learning curve! Talent gaps appear in some situations to be self-inflicted wounds tolerated by leaders who create them in the first place.