When You Have No Choice but to Break the Chain Of Command

Estimated reading time: 7 mins

I have already discussed how the importance of respecting the chain of command like a pro. But what if you have no other choice but to break the chain of command? In this blog post, I will be looking at the impact of bypassing the chain of command and when you should use it.

Disrupting with an Urgent Message

Most organisations have a chain of command to ensure accurate and efficient communication with organised and orderly business operations. Chain of command also allows for proper allocation of time as well as resources. Disrupting this chain of command can make the entire business suffer. In the American and British business culture, organisations are usually built in a hierarchal structure and they strictly follow established chain of command. High-level managers, executives and owners allow their direct subordinates to communicate and execute the company directives to their teams as the job roles entail.

In an ideal scenario, everyone from the top down must adhere to the agreed chain of command. However, there will be instances where individuals will have to bypass the chain of command, initiating business communications with people who are two or more rungs above or below them. In urgent situations, this type of bypassing does occur. Below are some examples:

  • An area operations director overseeing multiple centres bypassing one particular centre’s manager to engage with the frontline office staff directly.
  • A frontline staffer shooting out an email to the corporate head office about an issue that was never mentioned to the staffer’s direct line manager or supervisor.
  • An owner who hired a management, bypassing them frequently to convey directives and give directions to the teams and assistants.
  • An employee in the centre bypassing corporate management hierarchy, directing staff per his/her will, believing that following the chain of command will only delay matters and deadlines would not be met.

While there are instances where these practices are difficult to avoid, ignoring the company chain of command frequently will lead to a whole host of problems, potentially throwing the entire organisation into chaos. 

The Usual Bypassing of Chain of Command

It is not uncommon for employees with a workplace issue or concern to bypass his or her direct supervisors, addressing the matter directly with the boss’s boss or even above him/her. An example of this would be an employee bypassing the immediate line manager or supervisor to communicate directly with a higher-up who was a former boss with whom s/he had a strong working relationship. It is possible that this employee, wilfully or by habit, continues to seek counsel without talking to the new line manager in the loop. It is also possible that the employee feels his/her supervisor is incompetent in their job or inexperienced to provide enough direction. Whatever the case, you should avoid violating the company policy unless your immediate supervisor cannot be contacted. This will be considered a bad business etiquette and such behaviour will create issues for your immediate supervisor.

Dipping Down

In situation where an owner, senior-level manager or executive ‘dips down’ to contact their subordinate’s team, it will also be considered bypassing the chain of command. Below are some of the reasons why an owner or boss might do such a thing:

  • The boss has little or no confidence in the abilities of his or her supervisor to effectively perform the job. This then results in the boss directly engaging with the supervisor’s subordinates.
  • The boss may be overreacting to all minor issues, believing that even the smallest of problem should be fixed as soon as it arises.
  • The boss craves social management style, meaning that s/he likes to mingle with all employees and help them out.
  • The boss has a huge ego, which means that s/he usually oversteps his or her boundaries, flexing their authority and power unnecessarily.
  • The boss may be completely oblivious or unaware that s/he is creating problems for his or her subordinates.

In most cases, the owner or boss will not inform the supervisor that s/he is communicating directly with the team.

When Employers Do Something Illegal, or Against Policy

Now this is where breaking the chain of command can become mandatory and the only ethical thing to do. Finding out that your employer or your direct boss is doing something illegal can be quite traumatic. If you think the entire management is breaking the law, one option will be to simply quit and find a better job where people resect the law. However, it might be that only your supervisor or your department is the culprit, and this is where you will have to bypass a few heads to reach the right person. Your conscience or even your own financial situation might decide what you would do and you might consider sticking around, trying to fix the matter. But before you try to break the chain of command to reach your boss’s boss, you must consider the following points to protect yourself and others at work:

  • Make Sure You Have Your Facts Right. Your very first step depends on the facts you are dealing with. Consider all variables, including:
    • What possible unethical or illegal conduct might be involved?
    • What violations of law are taking place?
    • How many people from the management might be involved in this wrongdoing?
    • Is this act considered illegal in the state/country the employee is employed?
  • Reporting Matters to the Right Person. If there is a reasonable belief that your manager is doing something unethical or illegal, such as exhibiting racist behavior, you should first try to bring it to his or her boss’s notice. Try to exhaust the chain of command within your organisation. Hopefully, the company will investigate the matter and take necessary actions. In case no one in your chain of command responds then you might want to pursue a government agency to file a formal complaint. Be assured that if the government agency conducts an investigation, it will usually not reveal what made them target the company or if there was someone in the company who tipped them off. In case you believe your employer is violating the labour laws, a state labour agency will be the place to go. For example, the employee is not paid for overtime, s/he should make a complaint with labour department for the country where s/he works. In most cases, a serious action will be taken against the employer. On the other hand, if an employee notices another employee being mistreated, it is better to talk to that employee and suggest s/he make the complaint to appropriate agency. Employer misconduct includes mistreatment of employees, but is not limited to that. There can be larger issues, including widespread false advertising and fraudulent activities. Many companies these days have contact person you can reach out to report an offensive or illegal behaviour by an executive. In case, there are no options available, it might be mandatory to blow the whistle to the regulatory authority or police.
  • Never Assume you will be protected by whistle-blower laws. Being protected by whistle-blower laws will not mean life will not get difficult for you. An employee will definitely be at a risk for retaliation because of such behaviour. There is not much that will really stop the employee from losing his or her job or experiencing at least some kind of adverse action. Therefore, potential whistle-blowers might decide to keep their job and would prefer that to going through length litigation. My advice would be, no matter what you do, be sure to keep all your actions documented in the form of saved copied of emails and notes at meetings. Do not beat yourself if you are unable to fix the situation. Chances are that offenders and violators at work are experienced at such things and know how to keep their tracks clear. If you have done your best, just decide to remove yourself from the trouble and look for something better.


Breaking the chain of command at work is something that can make you think twice. What is important is that you understand the criticality of the situation and whether your action will make a difference. Instead of becoming an accomplice in your boss’s illegal activities, try to take charge of the situation and distance yourself by reporting to the higher management or even outside your company. If it is your supervisor’s incompetence or lack of knowledge that worries you, it might be a good idea to speak to his/her boss to find a solution. But do not break the chain of command for petty issues. This will just make others at work respect you less. The more respect you give to your company’s organisational structure, the more respect you will get in return.

Have you ever faced a situation at work where you had to break the chain of command? How serious was it? Did your issue get resolved when you bypassed protocols? Share your story with us in the comments section. I think you would also like this blog post on how you can deal with indiscreet bosses.

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1 thought on “When You Have No Choice but to Break the Chain Of Command”

  1. What of an employee conflict situation that remains unresolved? Chain of command is followed, a meeting is had where the ‘issue’ is discussed among those who have the conflict, yet nothing improves? The same boss is contacted and informed about the continuing problems to no avail? Nothing is done? Secondly, what of a boss who now makes that issue a ‘public’ reprimand by bringing the entire staff into a meeting to discuss the conflict between two employees because the employee in question reporting the original problem saw no results of following protocol? I would think that having a meeting, involving other employees in the discussion who have nothing to do with the issue could be construed as a public reprimand- What good does it do to make an example of an employee in front of others for going a rung up after the initial problem was brought before the supervisor twice to no avail? To my sense of fairness, after two times to no avail, it is time to go up a rung!

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