While a “flat” organizational structure has become trendy in recent years, traditionally, most organizations have a hierarchical structure with employees reporting to managers, who report to directors and on up through vice presidents, CEOs, and boards of directors. Within that broadly consistent structure, there is a considerable amount of variation in terms of how detailed management is. Some managers are very hands off, while others are micromanagers.
So, what are the best practices when it comes to escalation within a company? When is it appropriate to escalate to a boss? When should it be required to escalate? When is it inappropriate? What’s the balance between micromanagement, effective dispute resolution with other business functions, and employee discretion? In this feature, we address these questions with the help of some current HR managers and industry experts.
Of course there is a great deal of variation in the level of autonomy that is appropriate to delegate to employees. The decisions made depend on a number of factors, such as the nature of the work, the level of experience of the employee, and the worker’s personal propensity for independence.
That being said, most managers would generally prefer an employee who can exercise an appropriate level of discretion and independence, without overly relying on the need to escalate minutia. Similarly, most employees generally prefer an environment in which they don’t feel micromanaged—where they have a manager who will “let me do my job.”
Experience, Guidance and Judgment
Notwithstanding the preference on both ends of the manager-employee relationship for independence, managers are and should be a resource for escalation based on their general advantage in experience and knowledge in many organizations.
“One of the main circumstances when an employee should escalate an issue is when the issue is above their level of authority,” says Teri Shern, co-founder of Conex Boxes. In fact, she says, in these cases, it’s actually better for employees to escalate the issue than to try to deal with it themselves, because they likely don’t have the experience or knowledge of how the situation should be handled.
“Managers should inform their employees of these types of situations in order to avoid any misunderstandings, and if there are situations where employees are confused as to what should be done, it’s better just to ask a manager for advice in my opinion,” says Shern. “This is how they’ll learn when to escalate a situation and when to deal with it themselves.”
Magnitude of the Issue
Even when an employee is capable, competent, and confident, there are some issues of such fundamental importance to an organization that they need to be escalated due to their sheer magnitude.
“Employees should feel comfortable taking work-related issues to their superiors,” says Lauren Blair, a Chicago-based lawyer with FreeAdvice.com. “That said, the litmus test for when it’s appropriate to escalate an issue is whether the issue meaningfully impacts the business financially, legally, or in terms of performance and productivity.”
Similarly, employees should consider an—admittedly cynical—element of this reason for escalation. Escalation to a superior can be a wise course of action for employees when a decision involves sensitive or high-stakes issues for which the employees themselves do not want to shoulder the responsibility of the decision.
For example, a frontline employee at a retail store might feel that an unruly patron needs to be asked to leave but may worry that the owner would be unhappy with that decision. Escalation to a manager provides some cover for the employee.
HR and Ethics Issues
Aside from business-focused decisions in which escalation is simply preferred, there are also situations in which escalation should be considered mandatory. Blair has over 25 years of experience in litigation, employment law, and providing HR legal counsel. When it comes to HR and related issues, she recommends appropriate policies be in place with respect to escalation.
“From a legal standpoint, employees should be instructed to escalate any issue that relates to discrimination or harassment in the workplace or to any other conduct that potentially violates company policy or local, state, or federal law,” Blair says. “Many employees are reluctant to complain about such issues due to concerns about reprisal. But the laws in most jurisdictions require companies to have a complaint system in place.”
Blair adds that employers are also required to have a clear statement in their employment handbooks that retaliation against whistleblowers is prohibited and will result in discipline against the retaliating employee.
Most organizations are hierarchical, with a pyramid structure, meaning that managers oversee different employees and job functions of relatively equal seniority. This means that managers are a natural point of escalation between similarly situated subordinates.
For example, a regional sales director would be an appropriate point of escalation between two sales managers within her region that have conflicts over territory. Or, a fulfilment manager supervising both the packaging and shipping departments would be well positioned to address disputes between those two functions.
Aside from their seniority, managers in a hierarchical structure are obvious choices for conflict resolution when the sources of conflict are two subordinate departments with competing priorities. The manager overseeing those subordinates is responsible for the bigger picture and therefore able to balance those competing priorities in the context of the larger department.
“It is most appropriate to escalate a conflict to your boss when it is both insurmountable between the parties involved and negatively impacting you in a significant way,” says George Santos, director of talent delivery and head of marketing at 180 Engineering. “For instance, you should escalate when a co-worker’s inability to reach a mutual point of understanding with you is making your situation at work uncomfortable and negatively impacting your engagement or well-being.”
In a typical career-oriented workplace, managers generally want a team that can think and act independently. Similarly, employees generally prefer not to be micromanaged. That being said, there are many situations in which escalation up the chain is appropriate or should even be considered mandatory. Understanding that balance is an essential part of the employee-manager relationship.