What to Do When an Employee Goes Over Your Head

Find the root causes—and address them—when a worker goes around you

By Jenny Cohen March 27, 2020
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What to Do When an Employee Goes Over Your Head

​You've been called into a meeting in your boss's office where you're told that one of your own employees has gone over your head—with a complaint about you.

It's easy to take a situation like that personally. You may feel angry that your employee made you look like a bad manager, or you may feel like your authority is being undermined.

But this can also be an opportunity to learn how to become a better manager.

So where to start?

"The biggest thing they need to ask themselves is, 'What am I doing that may be contributing to this problem? Is the problem with my employee, or am I creating this dynamic?' " said Robert Tanner, principal consultant and founder of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a consulting firm based in Lacey, Wash.

A recent survey from staffing firm Robert Half found that about half of employees said they left a job because of a bad manager.

What situation is so extreme that an employee is prompted to go over a manager's head?

A common reason is a misunderstanding about the employee's role in the organization. Perhaps she doesn't understand what her manager expects from her, or feels she isn't going in the right direction. In that case, a manager may want to ask that employee to write-out a job description of what she perceives are her responsibilities, so that the manager can better understand the basis for her complaint. This exercise may also help a manager realize she isn't challenging an employee enough, or hasn't thoroughly explained a task or responsibility, which may have caused confusion and resentment.

"Oftentimes, when I see this happen, it may be due to a lack of role clarity if what a manager expects of an employee is not clear," said Traci Wilk, senior vice president of people for The Learning Experience, an early education company based in Boca Raton, Fla.

A manager should also reflect on his management style and how it works—or doesn't work—with employees. An employee with technical skills who has been recently promoted to her first managerial role may not have the communication skills to successfully manage subordinates, which can cause frustration and make employees feel they have to go around their manager with issues. It could also work the other way: Employees who work on technical projects may not have the skills to successfully talk about issues with a more social manager.

In both cases, a good manager can look at the personality differences and find a way to communicate that better suits the employees' styles. Tanner compared it to being a parent who adjusts his parenting style to each of his children's different personalities. What may work for one may not work for another.

Sometimes, it's a manager's boss—the one a disgruntled employee sought out—who can find a way to diffuse the situation.

"Some of the greatest support to discourage end runs is a boss who supports that manager," Tanner said.

A supportive boss may say to the employee, "Have you talked to your manager about this? I want you to talk to them first," Tanner said, adding that it's important to follow up with the manager and the employee to see how things transpired.

Upper management can also identify if this is a systemic problem within the organization and not a one-time thing. Perhaps an organization is under stress to produce results, or there's an issue with workplace culture that's causing employees to repeatedly go around their managers.

In these cases, an outside consultant may be able to analyze leadership and organizational issues and come up with solutions, Tanner said.

Companies may also prevent manager runarounds by ensuring that communication flows freely through all levels of the organization. Company-wide employee-engagement surveys or meetings that encourage discussions at all levels can create open communication that airs grievances. Employees may be less likely to go around their managers if they feel they're being heard.

"In an ideal scenario, there's a healthy flow of communication and feedback up and down and sideways throughout an organization," Wink said.

Jenny Cohen is a freelance writer based in Detroit.

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