Career Lessons from the Football Replacement Refs Situation

One of the great thing about the onset of the fall season is that football is back.  Now, I realize for some of you, it’s not a big deal. In fact, it may be an annoyance, as some spouses/significant others might find their attention swayed by the game many weekends.  For me, it’s a fun pastime, even though I have less free time these days.

Anyway, the draw for me – and suspect most people – is the actual game action.  Not to mention being a part of a fantasy football league, which is fun :) But one part of football that I had rarely thought about was the referees.  They have always been a necessary part of the game, but not in any way the attraction. They were just there to facilitate the game being played within the rules.  They were never noticed unless they messed up.

Well, at the beginning of this current pro football season, the regular refs were not on the field.  Locked in negotiations for a labor deal, they didn’t have the right deal in place at the beginning of the season.  Thus, they were replaced on the field on an interim basis by “replacement refs”, as commonly described by fans and many in the media.

The thing is, the replacement refs were not the “real” refs. Their work on the field, in the view of those aforementioned fans and the media, was often considered to be sub-par compared to the usual standard.  When questionable calls started to influence the outcome of games, many people got highly critical.

When progress was made on the labor deal, and the real refs came back, people were happy.  They actually got an ovation at their first game back.

I took away a few lessons from this:

1) Sometimes, the people you take for granted can be more valuable than you think.

This can apply in business, or even life in general.  With the business perspective, think of an employee who does work that is counted on by everyone, but whose position isn’t really seen as what’s bringing in revenue or a senior leadership role.  That person may be taken for granted, and not really thought of as essential.

However, when this individual is out on vacation, extended leave, or quits – work starts to break down.  People who took “old reliable” for granted, or didn’t value the role itself, find themselves scrambling to cover for him or her.  They quickly start to realize how much they really relied on that person.

Bottom lineno matter what your role in a company, try to do it exceptionally well, while differentiating yourself and becoming indispensable.

2) A negative situation can snowball quickly

In the case of the replacement refs, they clearly weren’t the real thing.  However, this wasn’t something that caused the average fan much angst.  But when a few sketchy calls were made in important situations, and started to potentially impact results, people took notice.  Blame was assigned as people got up in arms.

It snowballed within a few weeks, to the point where these people were viewed highly negatively by many.  They were quite unpopular, it seemed, with many fans, journalists, and maybe even people active in the game.

The thing is, what exactly did they do wrong? They didn’t create any possible labor disputes between the real refs and their employers.  It was those other groups who couldn’t come up with a deal.  Their inability to do so was the real issue, and where the real blame for the situation resided.  The replacement refs were just a byproduct of those apparently unsuccessful negotiations.

Yet, they became the target.

Bottom line – when things go bad, things can quickly snowball.  Fingers can be pointed unfairly, as life isn’t always fair. Be street smart about recognizing the potential for such things to happen.

My Questions for You

Have you ever experienced a situation – while working or otherwise – where a person was generally taken for granted, but his or her true value was discovered later when gone?

Have you ever situation where things went bad quickly, blame was assigned, and stuff got out of hand?



  1. says

    Hardly anyone ever thought about the refs other than the occasional controversial call before this season. Even then the refs normally got it right even if there were fans from the other team that insisted it was wrong. There are so many people and things like the refs in our daily lives that we do take completely for granted.

    • Squirrelers says

      Lance – yes, I agree that there are many folks we often take for granted. Makes us appreciate them, once we think about where we would be without them.

  2. says

    “Have you ever experienced a situation – while working or otherwise – where a person was generally taken for granted, but his or her true value was discovered later when gone?”

    I think this happens ALL the time. People will only put up with being undervalued (and undercompensated) for so long. I’ve seen it constantly in corporate America.

    • Squirrelers says

      DC – always good to appreciate others when deserved, whether professionally or in our personal lives!

  3. says

    Absolutely. When I was a practicing advisor I saw SO MANY advisors who took their secretaries for granted. I would always laugh when the secretaries for these people quit. What did they expect? You take someone for granted they’re going to go away sooner or later. I always treated mine like gold and had only one turnover in 16 years.

    • Squirrelers says

      AverageJoe – yes, actions do have consequences. This applies in so many situations, and can often apply when people are taken for granted. The situation with the refs was interesting to me in particular, since most people would tend to complain about calls rather than talk about how well the refs called a game. Once they were gone, the tune changed!

  4. says

    I noticed a little in the past that after I left a job people would tell me that I was missed and that things aren’t the same. Of course, that was when I was in high school and working was more like hanging out while earning money.

    I notice that stuff more with ex girlfriends lol. The last one always kept talking about the grass not being greener, yet she ended up breaking things off, only to start calling me again telling me how it was a mistake. Not the first time it has happened, but I get a kick out of it after the initial shock and feeling of crapiness goes away.

    • Squirrelers says

      Ornella – yes, many people do take others for granted. It happens more often than we think, and I’ll bet that to some degree we all do it at one time or another.

  5. says

    I have experienced a similar case in one of the companies that I worked with before. There were instances when the administrative staff’s efforts were taken for granted by everyone only to realize her importance when we had a major email outage or router failure. Let’s just say we lost our sh** when our lead email admin left for greener pastures.

    • Squirrelers says

      Dominque – yep, it’s often people who are taken for granted that prove to be indispensible at least for the short term. Places can come to a slowdown without them.

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