when should you go over your boss’s head?

In a disagreement with your boss, is it ever acceptable to go over your boss’ head to his or her own supervisor? While in most cases, your employer will instruct you to work things out directly with your manager, there are times when it makes sense to bring the issue to someone higher up.

Figuring out what you should and shouldn’t do can be tricky, but there are two situations where you shouldn’t hesitate to go over your manager’s head:

* If your manager is doing something illegal. If he or she is embezzling or violating labor laws or other business regulations, you have an obligation to alert someone higher in the hierarchy.

* If you’re being illegally harassed or discriminated against. If you’re being sexually harassed or treated differently because of your race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or other protected class, you should report it to your employer. If your manager doesn’t take it seriously, or if your manager is the person at fault, you should address the issue with your company’s human resources department—or, if your company doesn’t have an HR department—address it with your manager’s boss.

The question becomes more complicated beyond those two situations. What if nothing illegal is occurring but your manager is simply a bad boss? People often wonder if they should talk to someone higher up if their supervisor is a jerk who drives away good employees, someone who lies to others in the company, or who is incompetent.

In these cases, here are the questions to ask yourself to determine whether you should go over your boss’ head:

1. How serious is the complaint? If you escalate something that’s relatively minor, your complaint likely won’t go anywhere, and could reflect badly on you. Managers aren’t perfect after all, and many companies give their managers wide leeway in how they manage, so complaints need to be fairly serious before they’ll intervene.

If you complain about something that appears minor or petty, you’ll call your own judgment into question. Instead, escalation should be saved for truly significant problems, like a manager who is regularly abusive to staff members, or whose incompetence is causing the company to lose clients.

2. Is your complaint about a pattern or a one-time problem? Patterns are what count here. Short of really horrific details, a single instance isn’t usually going to be seen as egregious enough to warrant going over the boss’ head.

3. Is the person you’re planning to talk to someone who (a) has a record of taking employee complaints seriously and (b) will ensure that you’re protected from retaliation by your manager? This is crucial. The person you’re approaching should be someone who is open to listening and has a track record of fairness and good judgment, rather than just blindly backing managers. In addition, the person needs to be insightful and skilled enough to ensure your manager doesn’t retaliate against you for speaking up. If the person you’re considering approaching doesn’t fit this profile, the unfortunate reality is that your complaint might do more harm than good.

I originally published this piece at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Anony*

    The only employee I had go to my boss went to complain about his rating in his year end review. He thought I was being completely unfair and his performance warranted a better rating. He completely failed to hear all the warnings signs through the year that I was unhappy with his performance, which I had made clear to him and was well documented… including his pretty rough mid-year review 6 months earlier.

    Poor guy didn’t realize that my boss was pushing for me to manage him out due to all these issues. I actually took a hit in my review for not being more aggressive in writing him up… She often argued with HR’s position on what action we can take for specific offenses, she is very aggressive once someone proves themselves a problem instead of an asset.

  2. Anonymous*

    I would caution anyone thinking about going over their boss’ head to think long and hard about it first. I’ve seen this done quite a few times throughout my career and almost never successfully. Often you get immediate satisfaction because you put the CEO in an awkward position. How does it look when you appeal to him because you’ve been wronged (and probably told anyone who would listen about it) and he ignores you? He’ll give you a small victory but it’ll come back to haunt you eventually. When layoffs happen, guess who will be at the top of the list?

    Unless your allegations are black and white, most company will always side with the manager unless a pattern develops (as they should). And allegations are almost never black and white. In my opinion, you’re usually better off looking for a new job or a transfer if you clash that badly with your boss. I would certainly never go over her head because of something petty like I got a 4 instead of a 4.5 on my evaluation or he won’t move me off 3rd shift. It would need to be some type of clear theft (not just office supplies) or repeated abuse/harassment for me to even consider it.

  3. Kris*

    The only time I’ve ever gone over my boss’s head he was blatantly disregarding a law that he just didn’t like. As bad as this would be in any sector I work for the state and it is part of our job to enforce these laws.

  4. Tax Nerd*

    I’ve gone over my manager’s head twice, including once today. The first time, I was familiar with some obscure IRS ruling, and my manager wasn’t, so I went to the partner, because I wanted to get it right. Thankfully, that manager was fantastic, and didn’t hold it against me at all. (Being right helped.)

    Today, it’s that my director is okay with sending out draft tax returns that are signed and not watermarked as draft, and I’m not. I want them unsigned and watermarked until a final copy is issued. My butt is on the line for preparer penalties if it’s my signature that makes it way to the IRS too soon, but so is the tax partner’s, since he has to deal with the client if there’s an issue from the IRS. I like my director, but they have more faith than I do that clients will remember what’s a draft and what isn’t. It’s still nerve-wracking. (We’ve discussed it several times, and never come to an agreement, so I hope they don’t feel blindsided.)

    My staff occasionally goes over my head, which they will hear about in their upcoming performance discussion. I don’t have to be right all the time (though it’d be nice), but the first time I do something differently than the way someone else does it, or tell her something different, she discusses it with them instead of me. It’s usually a case of reasonable people having different opinions, but that she brings it to them first instead of me just rankles. (I’ve told her to bring it to me first, but most of the time she doesn’t.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You might also try talking to whoever they’re going to, and asking that person to ask, “Have you talked to Tax Nerd directly about this yet?” And then directing them to do that if they haven’t.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        That’s what I do and nine times out of ten, the answer is “no.” I then tell the person they need to talk to their boss first, then come to me if they don’t get an answer.

  5. Anonymous*

    Thank you for this article; I wish I had seen something like it a year ago. Even with documented support for my allegations (bullying, incompetence, unprofessionalism), my boss’ boss and HR sided with him. I wish I had just moved on – which I did soon after realizing nothing would change – and never said a word. It’s a hard reality to face, especially when you feel you are “right,” but it is what it is.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      This is similar to what happened at my company about 2 years ago. A dozen people went to HR to complain about a manager (he was well known throughout the company as a bully. He’d done it at his previous company, too.) It resulted in a big division-wide meeting with the director yelling at everyone and saying HE is the one who will decide who works here or not. Of course, they left this manager free to go on ahead as he had been doing. Several of the group involved found other jobs, the rest made it on the list of people to get rid of through harrassment, or layoff if the harrassment didn’t work. All of these people are gone now.

      And wonder of wonders, the manager got canned about 6 months ago.

      Seriously, all the best people are gone. Most have found less dysfunctional places to work.

  6. The Other Dawn*

    I’m struggling with advising a friend of mine right now. She started a new job in December (lateral move from her former job) and things aren’t going well. She has barely any work to do after four months (think: start time of 8:30 am and she’s done by 10 am, spends the rest of the day filing), her boss generally has an attitude and has said to her that talking to her “is like talking to a wall”, and there’s been some training issues (boss starts to train, gets called away, then forgets about her). She has 12 years experience in the industry and her last job enabled her to have her hands in everything due to the very small size of the company, so it’s very frustrating for her that she is being treated as though she has no experience at all. When she asks for more work the boss says she wants to make sure she has everything “down pat” before giving her anything else. She’s made a few mistakes along the way, but the last one was two months ago and it was minor. When she asks other employees if she can help with anything, she’s reprimanded and told not to do that because that person will become lazy.

    I’ve advised her along the way as to what to say to her boss and to make sure she talks to her before going to the boss’s boss. I’ve now told her to go to the boss’s boss; however, I’m unsure as to whether she should do that. My head says she should talk to him. I don’t want her to be seen as being lazy and then eventually being managed out, because the boss won’t give her any more work to do, but on the other hand, having worked with the boss’s boss before (he’s my former boss), I know it’s likely he will severely ream out the boss and that will in turn will make my friend’s life more miserable. I’ve also told her that if things don’t improve after going over her boss’s head, she should start looking for another job. She’s only been there for four months, but she was in her former job for 12 years so I don’t think it would be seen as job hopping.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      Actually, she should start looking for another job now.

      Having a job turn out “not as expected” is a valid reason for leaving after even only 4 or 5 months.

      Getting fired for “not meeting expectations” is never good, though.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        Yes, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. Having worked with the boss’s boss before, I highly doubt anything will change for the better.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree with Long Time Admin that she should start looking. Whether or not she should go over her boss’s head would depend 100% on what that person is like (and whether they meet the standards I laid out in the original column), but this doesn’t sound like a situation that’s going to magically change.

      1. sam*

        I agrees, she should start looking.
        Has she addressed her concerns or lack of work with her boss? If so, she might want to try different…more effective approaches. Perhaps your friend needs to be a little more assertive.
        If she doesn’t like to approach people or is reluctant to address concerns she might run into a similar situation if she finds a different job.

        What happened to the “B” experiment Dawn?

  7. R*

    I worked at a hospital once and there was a manager who was doing a really poor job. The unit was understaffed and was always a mess. It was this way for months and it was eventually found out that the manager was swiping narcotic drugs from the sharps containers. Apparently for months the nurses and other staff on that unit had been trying to tell upper management about it, but nobody believed them. In fact, the clinical director accused the nurses of lying and said they needed to stop spreading such “rumors.” Eventually somebody from upper management caught him in person and at that point he got sent to rehab. Unfortunately, in the process, he fired a lot of good nurses that had worked at the hospital for years. They say management is a tough job, but it almost seems like job security because you have to make A LOT of errors before they will do anything about it.

    I had a friend who worked at a small non-profit and he told me of departments where the manager was so poor practically all the staff left and had 100% turnover. They still didn’t get rid of the managers and they are still there. Why don’t upper management clue in at times Alison and change the managers?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      When they don’t, it’s because they’re incompetent themselves, or are calculating that the person is worth more than the harm they’re causing.

  8. Anonymous*

    My boss is a dishonest snake in the grass. He is on the down low and has exposed himself to my coworker who is also gay. My manager has often ask my coworker to perform sexual favors at work. I want to report this to HR but am affraid of losing my job. My manager also falsely records his time. He is at work only about 15 hrs a week yet records 40 hrs. I have worked with this person for almost ten years. He is very cleaver and always seems to have upper managent support. Should I continue to turn the other cheek or report him.

    1. Sam*

      Has he been doing this the entire time (almost 10 years) you’ve worked with him? Do you have proof to backup your allegations?

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, he has been falsely recording his time the entire time I have worked with him. He writes his time in and everyone else uses the time clock. Several years ago another male coworker stated to me that he was doing things that made him very uncomfortable. He told me that he mentioned it to a gentlemen in upper management during a golf game and the gentlemen stated… if it happens again, pick up a gate rod and knock the —- out of him…I wont fire you. My co-worker was transferred soon after. I am currently trying to encourage this new person to write a letter to HR telling what has taken place. My co-worker is affraid of losing his job, so without his willingness to go forth, I dont know how to prove it.

  9. tiredofit*

    Hi my boss just seems to always flip at me. I am quite an animated person and earlier she went mental at me accusing me of being nasty to aanother colleague when I hadn’t. Then screamed at me about other things infron of an office full of people. Now she’s making me go n room with her and another member of staff who is her favourite basically they flirt all day so I’m

  10. tiredofit*

    In for a right old time. My colleague messaged me tellin me that my boss acted really badly and couldn’t believe it etc so I know she is in the wrong. She wouldn’t let me respond it was after work time so I went as it was as though she was going to try and fight me then screamed. Yeah walk away you won’t come in tomorrow!!!! I don’t want too! What do I do?

  11. Jessica*

    I am a recruiter that works in a corporate office. The office is set up for centralized recruiting with all recruiters in cubes. Recently, my director report has made it a habit to walk around every 10-15 minutes to check on what each person is doing. Since we are so close together when questions arise about work we get up to discuss the problem. However, the manager has now requested that we stop talking to each other and have questions or concerns to send an e-mail. I was okay with following what she requested until she pulled me into her office and passively started telling me that my co-workers were complaining about me talking and being out of the office. Side note: I was on PTO recently for a few days because I get married next month and I was only talking asking questions about work like I always do. I am a great employee and have never had complaints from my customers….but now she is making me feel like I am a bad employee.
    What should I do?

  12. Christopher*

    I have a question. How do I go to my Distraict Manager about my boss and how my bos is not properly training me and always against me? Such as siding with customers and getting mad at me when I do not ask questions, but when I do ask questions she gets mad and tells me to figure things out for myself or use common sence. What common sence? It would be common sence to answer questions I have until I have no more and am at her performance (Manager level) Questions such as, How do I find certain information to be able to feel out a sheet we need or how do I find information to do a certain thing. My boss says everything is in my notes, but I have way too many notes and am not allowed to down size them, I have expalined I have too many notes to dig through to find answers but I am not allowed to down size them I was told.

  13. Lu Olson*

    I transferred to another department within the company. Prior to the transfer my supervisor sent me an email indicating she confirmed my PTO hours with the Compensation Department; I would receive two weeks vacation on my anniversary date. My paycheck shows only 40 hours. I brought the discrepancy to my supervisor along with a copy of the email from 8 months prior. She checked with Compensation..they sent her the policy and said I only receive 40. I spoke with Payroll and was told my Supervisor could send a Payroll Exception granting me the 40 hours. They asked that I have her call them. After her call she told me nothing came of the conversation. This is not true because Payroll told me they explained the Payroll Exception. I know she is ignoring the situation because she doesn’t want her boss to know of the mistake. It is not fair to me that they are reneging on what is down in black and white. I am losing 40 hours of vacation! She has a bully type personality so I will pay the price if I go over her head!

    1. Savannah23*

      You have evidence though that she slipped up….document it and file a report it what I would do. You could also have her boss get a conformation from the payroll. Also if you can record any meetings and conversations on your phone that helps alot as well.

  14. sandy*

    I work at a company where a former co-worker is my boss
    I was told during a meeting with department heads someone said something not true about my job performance.
    my boss told me and when I asked more questions was told to shut up and not to go to the administrator and ask him any questions or I will be fired because he does not like that.
    I feel my good name might have been slandered and want an answer to why this lie was said but was told to keep quiet.
    I went to administrator and was told not to worry about it.my boss asked me if went to the administrator and I lied and said no and she said good because you be will be fired if you do.
    does this sound normal or is it just me

    1. Savannah23*

      Hey I am kinda in the same boat…my parents say that I should file a report for being threatened. I am still not sure. Wishing you luck!

  15. Savannah23*

    So I work at a Retirement Home and I have asked my boss several times for just one sunday a month off. I have noticed that he and five other employees get two off. I am a college student and am off to attend school three days out of the week. I went over his head and tried to get help through the manager. I then was called to a meeting with my boss and his assistant. My boss closed and locked the door and his assistant expressed how disappointed she was that I did what I did and that is showed that I did not trust them. I told them that this was not the first time that I asked. My boss said he did not want drama and that I knew what happened to the last two employees. He told me that his hands were tied and that we are short employees. He tells me to go home early and clocks me out himself. The next day I was texted that I was not needed for the 16 or 21 because we had a shortage of residents. Many of my family members say that I should file a report against him. What do you think?

  16. Anonym*

    Well, this is all very interesting. As a manager myself, I have had the unfortunate experience of working with a very subjective Boss who treats his position like a fiefdom. I agree with the assertions here that going over your bosses head would only cause you more problems in the long run since the person that hired him into that role in all likelihood did so because they felt they could trust them, and in most situation like that, the relationship lines between upper level managers and VP types is blurred to the point of non existence.

    So basically, they know where their own boss’s skeletons are buried. And where your boss has leverage over his or her own boss like that, don’t expect them to support you or even do the right thing.

    I personally have experienced an AVP placing false information on my performance records multiple times. In all those instances I went to the person that hired him and raised the issue, doing so tactfully, gauging their reaction while trying not to sound directly accusatory, despite how blatantly obvious the falseness of the information was. What I got in response was redirection (his bosses favorite word too – “always redirect when you can” was what she loved to say back then) – through unrelated questions.

    For example, I would say “how was I rated in this objective category as not meeting when the measures clearly say the rating should be based on XYZ and my results show I exceeded?” – And the response would be “So you think you performed better than all the other managers here?”

    Usually when you get a response like that to a straight forward, black and white issue, you know what camp the person over your boss is on, and it’s clearly not yours. The sad thing is, if they would take a few minutes and discuss things with the person and ask them why they did this, that person would in all likelihood fess up to it, especially if they knew they had nothing to fear from their own superior seeing as they were already severely compromised to them.

    SO, alas, these things happen more frequently and directly than any HR person is going to ever openly and comfortably acknowledge.

    In my view it is the direct result of people not mature enough to handle a lot of power and authority, having that power and authority entrusted to them simply because they were good at something technical. If a company makes such a poor decision early enough, and offers little training or oversight, and there are no spot checks and accountability built into its process, you end up with well intended people sliding into a chaotic jumble of dealing, compromising and CYA actions that ultimately turns them from honest people into the kind that have no choice but to take such actions to protect themselves from the world discovering what they have truly become as a result of the very success they earned.

    In all those situations, your best option is usually to leave the company. Senior leaders don’t have the time to babysit bad managers, and the structure of most companies requires them to trust and depend on some of the very people who commit these acts.

    Getting HR involved is also a very tricky deal, because not all HR personnel are equal. Some HR personnel believe their job is to protect the company, and for them protecting the company is helping the managers cover their bad deeds, and fire whoever has an issue. While some more honest HR personnel believe their job is doing the right thing. The difference really is in the culture of the company and the person running the HR department. Remember, HR personnel have goals too, and something as inauciouse as being accused of not supporting a horrible and evil manager can be career suicide for an HR personnel. They have to worry about their own jobs too, so if they have a strong and honest leader who fosters and values those traits, then you will find support in that most unlikeliest of places, HR.

    But if they don’t, then don’t be surprised if the HR personnel secretly starts assisting the manager in trying to get you fired. After all, it’s the manager who will have to take a survey on how HR supported them during their issue as much as you, although if they succeed you won’t be there to give any feedback.

    It’s sad, but the decks are severely stacked against anyone of lower rank, including managers who are mistreated by higher managers. How you deal with it will depend on the work environment, culture, Support staff (HR), and relationship you have with the immediate two people above you.

    In my situation my boss was caught red-handed and my allegations proven. Anywhere else he would have been fired. He is still my boss, and he is still doing the things he was doing two years ago. I hope that tells you something.

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