my boss’s boss never talks to me but makes decisions that impact me

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.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 10 comments… read them below }

  1. Nate*

    This seems odd to me.

    It’s a difference of five hours a week. It seems like a somewhat trivial point to make from the COO’s end. If you are making $15/hr, that’s the difference of $75/week. Your company is hardly breaking the bank here on boosting your hours (unless there’s other benefits).

    I would actively shop for work elsewhere. From what I gather from your post, you seem interested in a pay bump anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I wondered that too, but since the OP said it would make the difference between him being able to stay or not, I’m assuming it’s a somewhat significant amount of money … or that benefits don’t kick in at 35 hours but do at 40.

  2. GoOctopus Job Search*

    For my personal experience on these kind of issue, it’s dangerous to talk to COO over your department manager. Take a look at the title of this blog : Ask a manager.

    Great tips, Alison.

  3. Letter Writer*

    Original letter writer here. Thanks so much for answering me! I’m also rereading what I wrote – I sound kind of whiny! Oops. My apologies.

    I understand what you’re saying about the chain of command. You said that “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.” That’s what concerned me – while I’m sure I could go to her with any major ethical problems, she was doing nothing (that I could see, anyway) to promote openness or sniff out problems on her own. I’m glad to hear this isn’t an extreme case.

    I found out today that the answer was #3 – it appears that my boss was not entirely forthright about the situation. He had told me repeatedly that he wanted me on board for 40 hours and was trying to get me as much as possible. Today in our weekly meeting I asked for feedback about my performance using techniques that this blog has talked about, and it led into a larger discussion where he said that the COO didn’t really care about my hours, as long as it came out of the IT budget. He’s now willing to switch things around enough to keep me at 40 hours. (He knew I was looking at options. I consciously tried to keep it professional and stay away from ‘give me what I want or I quit’ threats, but that is essentially what the situation boiled down to.)

    By the way, that was the most productive meeting I’ve ever had with him. Thanks a million! I’m never going into a meeting without a written agenda again.

    Given his track record, I won’t be shocked if my job just as suddenly goes back to 35 hours at somewhere in the future. I’m going to continue looking around at jobs, since I do suspect I can find a job that is both a good situation and better paying, but not with as much urgency. I won’t be taking it to the COO!

    Thanks again!

  4. Kimberlee*

    Useful stuff. :)

    Also, the 5 hour difference might not be all that’s at work here. Maybe the company has benefits that they have to start giving to people at 40 hours… there are plenty of workplaces that keep people right below those thresholds for that very reason.

    And 5 hours is still 5 hours! Maybe there is a temp that comes in and does much-needed office work for 5 hours a week. Maybe they’re already over their budget on salaries and are needing to make cuts; then any increase would be unacceptable. 5 hours seems negligible, but in many cases, it’s not. I agree with AAM: if you think talking to the COO directly would help, talk to your manager about it and consider maybe a joint meeting with the three of you.

  5. Letter Writer*

    Original letter writer again.

    Because several people have speculated about it – the five hours a week difference meant about $300 a month. I do have full benefits at 35 hours a week, no changes there. It’s not a huge sum, but it’s enough to be significant to me.

    Given a do-over, I’d rephrase my original letter a bit. The $300/month does matter to me financially, but I was also insulted by being treated like a second class employee. It felt very arbitrary and like a power play saying, in effect, that I’m not a valued employee, and that irritated me to no end.

    I really wish my boss would have explained it as ‘Well, I really don’t have space in the IT budget, and I’m not having any luck getting them to expand the IT budget either.” I wouldn’t have been thrilled about that (who would?), but it wouldn’t have felt insulting. And then the goal would be clear: prove that I’m worth having around full time! Instead because he let me think the COO was the bad guy, I thought it was pointless to try.

    If that changes your thoughts on the situation, do let me know.

  6. Nate*

    Well, it certainly is great that you got to sit down and discuss your vantage point. It’s even better that things turned to your favor!

    Going forward, I think that your situation is a good tell as to how someone can become ensnared and drained by ambiguity. I have seen so many coworkers and friends be bogged down by not resolving ambiguity about their present circumstances…

  7. anonarealius*

    I’ve managed small (less than 100 staff) and it’s tough to be in the middle. You get the no from above but know what they need below. Although it’s funny now, let the games and spin begin wasn’t even close to amusing then.

    jmho The boss has spin down but they delivered. They may have stuck their neck out but how it was accomplished isn’t the OP’s concern. If I got the take-away right, the OP got what they wanted not necessarily in the manner they wanted it, so they’re still looking elsewhere.

    jmho Seems like this is more about communication. The OP wants to be valued, respected, not feel second class in addition to hours. The boss heard hours. Did the boss only hear hours because that’s what was said or did they only hear hours because they didn’t listen?

    jmho might be time for a heart to heart talk about job expectations. If you’re after respect, threats won’t do it. If you’re looking to be valued, that’s complicated because of what’s known. Just as there are 2 sides to every fence, going out of their way to prop up an employee looking for another job isn’t always a win. Sure, you can recognize the good but separating the behaviors is tough esp when you have an audience snickering how that valued employee can’t wait to quit.

    When you push and pull, you have to realize the other persons point of view exists and that can be hard to change, even contagious regardless of accuracy.

    My 2 cents: If you show a commitment you have a better chance of winning and (kind of) whining will be in the past. Focus on what you have in front of you, put emotions and politics to the side and play to win.

  8. Maria*

    i have another problem quit similar than that over that girl, i think sharing information & consultation is very crucial part of the fulfillment of the projects.

    i work in a remote area, my boss never lake to share information, or consult me he only give me orders, instead he talk with & share information with my co workers, he like the other more than me, as i’m hard worker, and do my best, but he never allow me to say some thing, never call me during meetings, always meet & share things with the other colleagues, i’m the only lady all the others are men even the boss, please consult me

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