Respecting the organizational hierarchy is not only proper business protocol, but it’s also the right thing to do.

A few weeks back a Navy Captain was relieved of his command by the Acting Navy Secretary. Apparently, attempts by the captain to get the attention of those in charge above him about a rapidly expanding COVID-19 outbreak aboard his aircraft carrier, went largely unaddressed in his opinion. He therefore, wrote a multiple-page letter to his superiors referencing conditions and seeking help including assessing his vessel as inoperable, and most alarmingly, this letter was leaked to the press. It’s not clear who leaked the memo, but that’s not the subject of what I’d like to discuss today. What I would like to offer my perspective on is the action of the Acting Navy Secretary reaching down a couple of levels in the organizational hierarchy, to take administrative action, rather than leave the decision to the person directly supervising this captain.

Many have argued that this was an inappropriate action and should have been left to the captain’s direct boss. Others have argued that it was totally appropriate given the circumstances of such an important vessel, especially with information made available to our adversaries. Here’s the reality of situations like this in the workplace. First, it’s never a good idea to violate the chain of command and complain to the more senior brass. Now that may sound a bit old school, but if you want a sure fire way to piss off your boss, go ahead and do it, and then make it worse by making it public and leaking it to the press!

Bosses want a chance to address the issue first, before looking foolish by having their direct reports go around them. Now if the boss doesn’t address the issue after repeated calls for action or help, well then it gets a bit more tricky. If you’ve got a good boss with the right kind of experience, then you will usually get the right kind of support. In fact your boss may ask Human Resources and Labor to get involved to help you address the issue. Bottom line – these disciplinary and administrative actions, especially the major and more serious ones, aren’t done in a vacuum. There is usually a process invoked that would necessitate the involvement of multiple parties and potentially a consensus-based decision, ultimately carried out by the direct superior and supported by that person’s boss.

Now let’s get to the issue of a person a few levels removed, reaching down into the organization to take an action. Has this happened? Of course. Why? Because senior management has prerogative, that’s why, especially if they feel that the person at a lower level is recommending an incorrect action based on a lack of experience, the lack of an accountability style by the person in charge, weak leadership, you name it. Is it the right move? Again, this is a bit more tricky.

Theoretically, the correct management action would allow for the decision to be made by the person’s direct boss, with support by their supervisor and from Labor and HR. Why? A few reasons. First, it’s important to show support for your direct report’s decisions and to let them learn from this experience and be decisive, rather than taking the decision out of their hands and making it for them. This also reinforces with the rest of the management team that a person’s direct boss has both the responsibility and the accountability to take corrective action when it comes to the behavior and actions of his or her employees. Additionally, if the disciplinary action is being contemplated with a craft or union employee, it’s important for consensus on the action to be achieved, because the administrative action could be grieved or follow another agreed-upon process between management and employees, and if it is, the action should be supported by all of management, so as not to “back off” and reduce the discipline during the grievance process in an attempt to “settle” the grievance. This would be a slap in the face to the supervisor and management team that tried to do the right thing up front and take the correct action.

Personally, if I felt a direct report of mine wanted to make the decision about disciplinary action and was making the wrong call, I’d let him or her know that and why I felt that way. If there wasn’t a huge consequence as a result of the decision, I might go ahead and let my direct report learn through experience, take corrective action, and then review data and actions taken over a period of time, and then provide coaching if necessary including a recalibration of the severity level of the action taken. If there was a larger consequence and/or the decision could be precedent setting, or worse yet, be visible to the public, I would spend considerably more time coaching and influencing in order to ensure that my direct report “arrived” at the right decision. What I wouldn’t do is simply bypass my direct report and tell him or her what to do. The right coaching here is to ask him or her lots of questions after they explain the situation and hear them out, including a recommended action.

I once had a peer who was notorious for calling our boss, telling him about a situation, and then asking him what to do. What a weak leader. If you have to go to the boss routinely for issues and essentially ask him or her what to do, then why on earth does the boss need you around? Take charge, present the situation, explain the facts, the possible decisions and outcomes, and then make a recommendation for action. Then the debate can happen, which is critical because that’s where a ton of learning takes place.

Remember, issuing disciplinary action is never an easy thing to do, as you are typically affecting people’s performance and ultimately their livelihood, so don’t ever take it lightly. Respecting the chain of command is not only proper protocol, but it’s the right thing to do as it’s a common business courtesy. If you’re not getting support from your boss, seek assistance from HR and other appropriate parties so that there are multiple heads in the game and discussion, as maybe the boss needs a bit more convincing at times about the seriousness of the situation and another experienced party like HR or Labor could really help.

If it becomes a life or death decision, well, then you may have to take one of those “career risks” and take a firm stand with your boss and “inform” other interested parties to ensure the right actions are taken. I’m certainly not suggesting going to the press, but seek out counsel from other parts of the company, such as Legal, and fully document the chronology of events. You may not always get the right advice, but chances are there will be other resources and a process to follow within your company to come to the right decision.