Monday, July 21, 2008

Going Over the Boss's Head: Like Swimming With Sharks While a T-bone is Strapped to Your Butt

Before I get into discussing the issue of whether you can -- or should -- go over your boss's head, I'd like to share a little story with you....

Once upon a time there was a young woman named Letitia Hood. Because her hair was a vibrant auburn color, and she was a bit vertically challenged, she was known in her office as Little Red Riding Hood -- or "Red" for short.

Red was a diligent worker. So diligent, in fact, that she felt she deserved a promotion and a raise. But her boss, Jack Wolfson (know as "Wolf"), believed that Red still had some work to do before he could grant her wish.

One day, Red became very frustrated with Wolf, and decided to pay a visit to Granson Mayer III, who was Wolf's boss. She thought that if she just explained to Granson Mayer III (known as Grandma) that Wolf was being short-sighted, she could get the raise and the promotion, and everyone would live happily ever after.

But Grandma, having been in the business world a long, long time, knew that he couldn't grant Red's wish because that would be breaking the management code of honor, which states that no employee can ever, ever go over a boss's head. (It just isn't done.) He did not, however, share this information with Red.

"Thank you for coming to see me, Ms. Red. You've given me a lot to think about. Please return to your cubicle. I need time to ponder your request," Grandma said.

Red, believing she had victory close at hand, nearly skipped back to the elevator that would take her to the lower levels where employees labored. But as she left the elevator on her floor (13), Wolfson emerged from his office.

"Well, hello Red! How are you today?" he said, grinning widely.

Red noticed that Wolf's teeth seemed a bit larger on this day, but she felt so optimistic from her meeting with Grandma that she smiled in return and said, "Well, Wolf, I'm just terrific! Thanks for asking!"

As she started to continue on her way, Wolf said, "Wait, just one minute, Red. Can I see you in my office for a moment?"

At this point, Red felt her beautiful auburn tresses begin to stand up on the back of her neck. But she ignored the feeling, and instead said, "Sure!"

She entered her boss's office, where he gently -- but firmly -- closed the door behind her.

Later that day, a co-worker went looking for Red to ask her a question. But he could not find her. He searched the lunchroom, the conference room and even asked another female employee to check the women's restroom. But no one could find Red.

Days later, Red still was missing. Her lunch remained uneaten (and frankly, began to smell) in the offfice refrigerator. Her frumpy sweater, used when the air conditioning chilled her delicate shoulders, hung forgotten on the back of her chair.

After a while, someone new moved into Red's cubicle, donated her sweater to charity and dumped her wilted ficus into the trash. Her rancid lunch was swept away, and her e-mail bounced a "recipient not found" to anyone who tried to reach her.

Soon, no one mentioned Red's name aloud, referring to her only in hushed tones and usually only late on Friday afternoons when the bosses had already left for their golf courses and lake houses.

It was often the new employees who would bring up Red's name, having heard whispers about her. Older employees would tell the tale of Red, how she had visited Grandma with her request and then been lured into Wolf's office. The moral of the story, the elders warned, was this:

"No one goes over the boss's head and lives to tell the tale."

Red's story is just that -- a story. But it is one that rings all too true with many people who have tried to go over the boss's head and ended up losing.

Why? Because managers -- even if they don't really like one another -- will stick together. They won't tolerate an employee trying to "undermine" their authority. Such mutiny is seen as not only detrimental to the management ranks, but disloyal to the company as a whole. So, as in Red's case, trying such a strategy can be extemely risky.

Sort of like jumping into shark-infested waters with a T-bone strapped to your butt.

But if you do decide to go over your boss's head, make sure you have a very clear idea of why you're doing it and what you want to accomplish.

You're going to need documentation to take to your boss's boss to prove your point, and you're going to have to be very clear, professional and unemotional.

But here's the most important point: Never take this step unless you are prepared to lose your job. Because that is a very real risk. You might not lose it immediately, but once you've gone over the boss's head, there is a real chance that your boss will not want to have a thing to do with you -- and neither will any other manager in the company. So, you may find yourself on a career track to nowhere in that company. In other words, even if you win the battle, you may lose the war.

Of course, anytime your boss is doing something unethical or illegal, you really have no choice but to take it to the next level, leave, or do both. Not only is this a professional obligation, but if the boss is doing something that serious, then you don't want to be associated with it.

The decision cannot be made lightly. Some people have done it and gone on to be productive employees. But remember: You've got to make sure that what you might lose isn't greater than what you might gain.

What do you think about going over the boss's head? Can it be done?

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Walter Akana said...

Hi Anita,

You’re absolutely right! When you go over your boss’ head to address a problem, you must be ready to lose your job – or wish you had.

Years ago, Peter Drucker pointed out that it’s critical to manage your boss and make him or her look good! I think that’s still true. So, before you decide you need to go above your boss’ head you need to first determine what you could do differently to get what you want – and see if there is a win-win way to get it.

Hope you’re off to a great week!

Christian DE NEEF said...

As a former director of a (small) consulting practice in a (large) corporation, I have kept to the principle that being able to talk to your boss's boss is a RIGHT! All my employees could access my boss, a vice president, and I actually encouraged and sometimes organized it, because for many of them it was quite a threshold.

Of course it can (and actually will, over the duration of a career) happen that you end up with a boss that can't adapt to your particular character traits, mediterranean style, red curls, popularity with the other team members, or whatever (or would it be the other way around, that you have trouble adapting to the new boss?).

In any case, whenever you end up in a conflicting situation with your boss, or when (s)he is just ignoring you, you should be able to approach someone higher up in the hierarchy. Ideally, someone that is not your boss's direct superior but somewhere else in the hierarchy, meaning (s)he has authority/influence but no command/control. But if needed, well, just go to your boss's boss, and... make sure your boss knows about it! No one likes to be bypassed, but its worse when you have to learn so from the wrong person...

Anita said...

Well, I'm off to a great week because you've posted such a great comment!:)
You're right...having a "me" only attitude can really be detrimental to your career success. It's often frustrating, but when the boss is happy...everyone is happy, right?

Anita said...

Excellent points. I'm wondering if this is where a mentor within the company could also be of great help. Not only for giving you a sound strategy on how to approach the problem, but to also smooth the way or perhaps act as a liason. I don't know, however... maybe a mentor would not want to get involved.
I'm impressed that you encourage employees to go to a higher up, but I think you're the exception to the rule!:)
You would think with the number of corporate scandals we've had, more companies would put a system in place to deal with employees who needed to go over a manager's head.

Walter Akana said...

Hi Anita! Hi Christian!

Great points! I do agree that you need to have access up the hierarchy, and I also agree it needs to be proposal driven with everyone’s best interests in mind.

I recently coached people in a big company that allow access up the hierarchy and encouraged folks to find and use mentors. It is a great way to open up communications and provide support for dealing with sensitive issues in proactive and win-win ways!

Thanks for the terrific discussion!

Anita said...

As we all know, no company policy calling for openness will work unless it comes from the very top. So, the more CEOs we have that are willing to keep an open door and encourage communication at every level, the better.
Thanks for adding to our conversation today. It's very illuminating!

Shawn said...

Only go above your boss when everything else has failed. But even then, take time to think about what you’re trying to accomplish. If it’s likely the boss or the situation isn’t going to change, you might be better served to instead plan your exit strategy.

Anita said...

You're right. You can't just think short-term (getting what you want), but have to think of long-term (how the action will impact your future). It's not something you want to do on the spur-of-the-moment, or in the heat of anger.
Thanks for joining the discussion.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion. My friend is in such situation.He need to go higher up in chain to get help for full time role within the firm while currently long time consulting. Direct boss likes everything but don't have role to offer, which appears bit strange as if candidate is that great, positions can be created or can help candidate by directing for jobs within their network instead of advising to look on job board! Somehow not helping that well as people came after him got roles in other dept. When Boss's Supervisor is advising having open doors, should you just go and advise boss post your meeting or ask boss's permission first? Intentions here is just to get done what you want and not to undermine boss's authority or disappoint anyone.