A reader writes:
I’m the junior half of a two-man IT department, and my boss’s boss (the company COO) does not talk to me except when I’m fixing her computer (which is often). I had a 30 minute “hi, who are you?” meeting when she joined the company, but in a year of work that is literally the only time she’s expressed interest in knowing who I am or how my job’s going. Is that normal? I particularly wonder because my boss is a notoriously bad communicator. Even when he has a valid point, he rants and whines. You’d think she’d want a second opinion from someone else who knows the technology and can put stuff in perspective for her once in a while.
To make things worse, my boss and the COO are having a power struggle over my hours. My boss and I are highly in favor of rearranging the IT budget to allow me to work 40 hours a week, but she claims the company can’t afford more than 35 per week for my position. Would it be undiplomatic of me to go talk to her directly? I’ve asked my boss if I should, but have only gotten non-committal “it wouldn’t make any difference” type answers. I feel like I have a right to talk to the person who’s making decisions about my job, but I’m worried that it’d look like I’m going over my boss’s head, and I’m really not sure if I want to dip my toes into a turf war between the two of them.
Unfortunately those five hours a week really do make the difference as to whether I can afford to stay in this position long term or not. It’s a good job for me and I’d like to stay, but I’ve been looking at other jobs to see what my options are. I’ve submitted maybe ten applications this month and have had three interviews, all of which would pay 30-100% more than what I’m making right now. I haven’t had an offer yet, but I’m confident I’ll get there eventually.
So, in this situation is it appropriate for me to go advocate for what I need to stay in this job, or should I just go look for another position that I’ll like?
Well, there’s a chain of command for a reason. (It’s worth noting that some organizational cultures don’t adhere to much of a chain of command, but since most do, I’m going to assume that’s the case at your company — an assumption that’s backed up by the fact that the COO doesn’t interact with you much … something that’s not particularly unusual, by the way.)
So, chain of command. Picture this: You’re a manager, and you’re working to convince your boss of the need to do X. You’ve talked to lots of other departments about it, you have a big-picture view of the company’s needs and why X is a good idea, and you’re using your expertise to make that call. Then you find out that someone who reports to you — who doesn’t have the same big-picture information as you do — has gone over your head to talk to your boss about X and gave her the impression that X isn’t that important. Now, this would be great for your boss if your employee is right — but in this case, your employee didn’t have access to the same information that you do and happened to be wrong. So now you’re frustrated that your employee just inadvertently undermined X. If you’re good at your job, you can undo the damage, but you’re going to be annoyed that you have to — and once you do, your boss is going to be annoyed that your employee took up her time with something that he was off-base about. Part of your job as a manager is to hear your people’s ideas and concerns and filter them for your manager, through the lens of your presumably greater expertise and presumably bigger-picture understanding of the landscape, which streamlines what comes to your manager so that she can spend more of her time on other things.
Of course, that assumes a competent boss, with legitimate reasons for preserving a chain of command. There are also bad bosses who enforce a chain of command for a totally different reason: This category of bosses desperately try to keep their employees from ever talking to higher-ups because they’re insecure and don’t want their own incompetence to be found out. (And that’s why good managers have ways of indicating to employees a few levels down that their door is open if something serious isn’t getting resolved by their direct manager, and will also poke around on their own from time to time.) But I’m assuming your boss isn’t malevolently trying to hide incompetence on his end, because if he was, he’d be taking a harder line with you when you suggest talking to the COO yourself, rather than being non-committal.
Additionally, there are times when you can and should go over your boss’s head, no matter what kind of signals you’re getting: when you have evidence of ethical or legal wrongdoing, when you see or experience illegal harassment, or when there are serious mismanagement issues that you’re sure you’re correct about.
But in general, when it comes to the routine running of the department, work assignments, hours, etc. — well, your company pays your boss to handle that stuff so that his boss can focus her time on other things.
So let’s get back to your specific situation. Here are the possibilities you’re facing:
1. Your boss is inept and hasn’t effectively conveyed to the COO the compelling reasons for increasing your hours.
2. Your boss has effectively conveyed the compelling reasons for increasing your hours to the COO, and she simply disagrees — or she does see the merit in it but other priorities trump it (an always under-appreciated explanation).
3. Your boss actually doesn’t care that much about increasing your hours and, rather than being candid with you about it, he’s blaming it on the COO because that’s easier than making himself the bad guy.
If it’s #2 or #3, your going over his head to talk to the COO isn’t going to help. If it’s #1, that’s where your best bet of having an impact lies — although the COO still might be annoyed. At that point, it depends on her working style and how open she is to people a few levels down going outside of the regular chain. She might totally welcome it, or she might shut you down, or anywhere in between. I have no idea which it is. (Personally, if I were in her shoes, I’d gladly hear you out but would be non-committal because I’d want to talk more with your manager.)
In any case, if you do decide to do it, I strongly recommend that you not go behind your boss’s back. If you want to meet with the COO, say to your boss, “I’d really like to talk with Ann directly about this, but I don’t want to go around you. Are you okay with me doing that, or should I drop that idea?” And unless you get an explicit “yes, that’s fine to do,” then you probably need to drop it — unless you’ve seen other times where Ann really seemed to welcome this kind of back-channel thing (which she very well might).
And last, there’s this: I can think of several instances where I, as a manager, got really useful information because someone discreetly went outside the chain of command and talked to me behind their boss’s back. But I can also think of cases where someone attempted it and I was left thinking, “This person has no idea what they’re talking about.” The difference, every time? The people who did it successfully really knew their stuff and had established a track record of credibility. So some of this is about knowing your own standing, and making sure that it’s strong.