Here's What to Do When an Employee Goes Over Your Head


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Monday, March 18, 2024

Employees taking their issues to a more senior manager rather than you can be highly problematic. Here's what you can do to deal with the situation.

Article 5 Minutes
Here's What to Do When an Employee Goes Over Your Head

There are many obstacles and potential frustrations you may find yourself having to overcome as a manager, one of which is when members of your team take any concerns or questions they have to the person above you in the leadership chain, rather than coming to you directly.

It's particularly frustrating when your team members circumvent you and approach your superiors instead. This behavior may indicate issues such as a lack of trust, an ineffective management style, or even manipulative employees. It not only disrupts the flow of communication but also risks leaving you uninformed about critical matters.

Such actions could signal various problems within your team and potentially lead to further issues for the business. If employees aren't honest and transparent in their communication with you, you may find yourself out of the loop on important updates, client requests, or complaints.

So, what steps should you take when your direct reports go over your head?

Make sure you understand what's happening

Firstly, it's essential to have a full and accurate understanding of the exact nature of the situation before taking any further action.

When you discover that a member of your team and your manager have been in conversations that you're not privy to, your first assumption might be that the employee chose to take this course of action and willfully excluded you.

However, it's possible that your supervisor was the one who instigated it, possibly because they're evaluating your performance and want to hear from your subordinates. To avoid any misunderstandings and potentially awkward situations, make sure you have all the facts before taking any further action.

Before taking action, understand the situation fully. Your initial assumption might be that the employee willfully excluded you, but it's possible your supervisor instigated the conversation, perhaps to evaluate your performance.

Ask your manager to direct issues back to you

If it becomes clear that employees are going over your head to discuss matters they should be raising with you, it's reasonable to ask your manager to direct these issues back your way so you have the opportunity to deal with them productively.

However, it's important to approach this carefully, as there shouldn't be any implication that you're trying to cut your supervisor out of the conversation or hide anything from them.

Make it clear that you want to be the first port of call for everyday workforce discussions, but also that you're keen to maintain open channels to escalate any issues to senior leadership, should it be necessary.

Once you have the facts, politely ask your manager to redirect such issues to you, making it clear you want to be the first point of contact while maintaining open channels for escalation if needed. This helps deter manipulative employees from circumventing you for improper reasons.

Consider why it might be happening

This can be a frustrating situation to deal with, especially if you're concerned that it could be reflecting negatively on you as a manager, but it's important to remain objective and remember that employees could have valid reasons for not coming straight to you.

Someone who is low on confidence or struggles with conflict, for example, might feel more comfortable raising any issues they have with a neutral party, rather than approaching you to get into a potentially difficult conversation.

It could also be the result of a simple misunderstanding. An employee might think a question about their role or the company that doesn't relate specifically to their day-to-day work might not fall under your responsibilities, for example, and would be better put to a more senior manager.

Consider why employees might be going over your head. A lack of confidence, avoidance of conflict, or simple misunderstandings about your role could be factors. Don't take it personally – use it as an opportunity for growth.

Speak directly to your employees

When it comes to addressing any underlying issues that are causing your team members to go over your head, having direct and productive conversations with the people involved is likely to be the best course of action. Speak directly with the employees involved, creating a positive atmosphere that encourages them to open up about their reasons.

It's important to take the right tone so the employee doesn't feel like they're being attacked or disciplined. Try to create a relaxed, positive atmosphere that encourages the individual to open up about why they didn't feel comfortable coming to you in the first place.

You can then work cooperatively to come up with new processes and solutions that will make similar situations easier to manage in the future. Make it clear that members of the workforce can help to improve the business as a whole by engaging with their managers and tackling problematic or controversial issues head on.

Listen objectively to any negative feedback you receive – it may be difficult, but it offers valuable insights into improving your management style. Work collaboratively with your team to develop new processes that make future concerns easier to address directly with you. Emphasize that engaging managers helps improve the business, and tackling issues head-on is preferable to enabling manipulative employees who go over your head.

Any negative feedback you receive during this process might be difficult to take at first - especially if you feel it's inaccurate or unjustified - but bear in mind that every piece of criticism is an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your employees, and to become a better manager.

Turn your frustration into growth

In navigating the challenges of managing a team, encountering instances where direct reports go over your head can be both disheartening and enlightening. It's in these moments of frustration that we find opportunities for growth and improvement, not just for ourselves but for our teams and the organization as a whole.

By approaching these situations with a clear understanding of the underlying dynamics, a willingness to communicate openly, and a commitment to addressing concerns directly, we can transform these obstacles into steppingstones toward stronger leadership and more cohesive teamwork.

Remember, every challenge presents a chance to learn, adapt, and ultimately become a more effective manager. Embrace these opportunities, and you'll not only overcome the immediate hurdles but also pave the way for a more transparent, trusting, and productive work environment.

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