Side view of a man talking to his boss, a blonde woman wearing a white blazer.

Is it ever OK to go over your boss’s head?

24 Apr 2019

For the most part, going over your boss’s head is deeply ill-advised. Is there ever a situation in which it’s the right thing to do?

How important is the chain of command in your workplace? In today’s shifting landscape, professional hierarchies themselves are become obsolete, but is it still a faux pas to go over your boss’s head?

Some will roundly denounce such a move as instant ‘career suicide’, while others may argue that due to the aforementioned lack of hierarchies, the difference between your boss and your boss’s boss may be quite minimal. Still, it’s a delicate situation. It can be seen as being in bad taste and your boss may end up feeling like you are undermining their authority in a big way.

Before you make any decisions, it may be a good idea to sit down and genuinely meditate on your motivations for possibly going over your boss’s head.

What are your intentions?

How innocent is your desire to go over your boss’s head? What is your true motivation here?

The reason this kind of scenario can be so difficult to navigate is that your direct manager could very well see this as a direct affront to their authority. It may even be, to their mind, that you’re gunning for their job by trying to attract the attention of the higher-ups. This is why many in the career advice space often advise against doing this – it can create a lot of conflict and resentment quickly, and those are feelings you don’t want to elicit from your superior.

So ask yourself, what are you actually trying to achieve by going over your boss’s head? Is it that they rejected an idea and you don’t trust their judgement? Is it that you want your star power to be on the rise?

If either of these reasons ring true, you may want to revise your plan. There are other ways to make your views known or make it evident that you’re one to watch, and they don’t involve skipping the professional queue.

The best way to stand out as an employee is to do the work you’re given to the best of your capacity, show initiative and be a team player. These may sound like vague platitudes, but it essentially boils down to working hard, having ideas and cooperating well with your team. If you feel like your achievements are still going unrecognised, you should initiate a conversation about this. You could even ask for a raise.

If you feel like an idea you had was unfairly rejected, you should take some time to regroup. Examine your pitch and reflect on the feedback you were given to justify its rejection. If you didn’t get feedback (which, really, a good manager should give), reach out and ask in a non-confrontational way for some. For example: ‘I was wondering if you could give me some tips on where I can improve my ideas.’

If you don’t think the response is fair after coolly considering your superior’s words, book another informal meeting with them. Thank them for their feedback and then gently explain why you still think your idea is important. They may end up having a change of heart after these steps have been taken.

So, is it ever OK?

By the sound of the above, you may think the conclusion is that it’s actually never OK to go over a boss’s head. Indeed, for many situations there are viable alternatives that are less risky. However, there is one surefire situation where you should do so: if your situation involves harassment or something unethical, illegal or immoral.

If you find out your direct manager is embezzling from the company, for example, that’s a pretty clear instance where going over their head is appropriate. If you are being harassed or bullied by your boss, you should go to HR.

These are situations in which your boss has done themselves a professional (and, frankly, moral) disservice, and are also such powder kegs that it is reasonable you would be too intimidated or afraid to confront them directly.

In all other situations, however, you should try to find another way to deal with professional issues. The organisational structure of the workplace may be changing, but human social dynamics are culturally ingrained.

Eva Short
By Eva Short

Eva Short was a journalist at Silicon Republic, specialising in the areas of tech, data privacy, business, cybersecurity, AI, automation and future of work, among others.

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