Over Their Heads

Here's when you can bypass the chain of command

You’ve always been careful to conform to the pecking order in your office. In fact, you’re a stickler for adhering to company protocol at any and all costs. So, of course, you know that a good employee isn’t supposed to break protocol by going over the boss’ head. You know that you certainly never would. But don’t say never so fast. You don’t know when you might find yourself in a situation where the rules of office politics can be broken.

“What kind of situation could that be?” you may be wondering. Say you are strongly encouraged by your manager to participate in a secret project with illegal or unethical undertones. Would you hesitate to report him or her to the big boss? Or what if you and your supervisor get into a severe dispute that human resources is unable to settle? Would you be able to request another meeting with all the relevant parties, including your supervisor’s boss?

Cringing at the thought is a perfectly normal reaction. After all, in a normal, fully functional corporate environment, disrupting the hierarchy by breaching protocol is definitely a no-no. “There are, however, certain times when circumventing the chain of command may be a rational move,” says Sandra K. Allgeier, human resources director for a Kentucky financial services firm, in the book Career Smarts: 201 Guiding Principles From the World’s Best and Brightest by Russell Wild (Clear Light Publishers, $14.95). She offers three exceptions to the rule:

Exception #1: To report illegal or unethical behavior. If you know that your boss is doing something unethical-or is asking you to participate-you should report this to the head of the internal audit department or the human resources director. Some larger companies even have chief ethics officers.

Exception #2: To settle a major dispute. If you and your boss enter a verbal altercation, consider requesting a sit-down meeting with his or her boss. Chances are your boss will feel threatened by this. “On the other hand,” says Allgeier, “it will be less threatening than his finding out after the fact that you flew over his head.”

Exception #3: To keep upper management abreast of your activity. Say you’re about to work on a project that the higher ups want to know more about. If you’ve made it a point to keep them abreast of your activity from the beginning-via copies of the status reports you send to your boss, for instance-you should be fine. Just find out what company policy is or check with the HR director to make sure.

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