Respecting the Chain of Command – Like a Pro

Estimated reading time: 4 mins

Maybe you have a difficult boss or maybe you think it’s a good time to break the rules, but chain of command doesn’t just hold water in the military. Chain of command is an important tool in the hierarchy of a business and one that should be respected by employees. Teaching and understanding why the chain of command exists and why it should be enforced is important. Before jumping up the corporate ladder, consider these reasons to use your chain of command.

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Following the Chain of Command Shows Respect

Not every decision your boss makes is going to be appreciated. In fact, many will seem counterproductive or even ridiculous. That being said, going to the next boss in line or taking your complaints higher up the ladder won’t endear you to your immediate supervisor. It will just create tension and distrust.

The chain of command is important step in creating trust and respect with your immediate supervisor. Ultimately, they are responsible for making sure you are productive and happy at work. While there are situations in the form of harassment or ethical breaches that it is advised to ignore the chain of command, it most situations, your immediate supervisor should be kept in the loop of concerns or issues you have in your job.

Ignoring Chain of Command Reflects Poorly on You

Jumping the chain of command not only looks bad to your immediate supervisor but also to the person you approached. CEOs, VPs, and COOs don’t have time to field every employee complaint. Their time is valuable and they rely on managers and supervisors to take care of employee issues. Using their time to discuss departmental issues will only leave a sour taste in their mouth about you as an employee. Discussing issues with your supervisor shows that you respect them and trust that they will act when necessary.

Chain of Command Covers You

Even when you try to follow the chain of command, sometimes issues are not resolved. It may be necessary to skip to the next higher supervisor or perhaps the ramifications of your issue are bought down on you rather than the boss who was informed. In either case, following the chain of command during your initial complaint ensures that you have documentation that you attempted to follow the chain of command.

The Chain of Command Enacts Change

The chain of command wasn’t just put in place to field complaints or complicate change. The chain of command actually promotes change by raising concerns in an orderly fashion. Imagine if every employee just arbitrarily decided who to contact when change is needed. While some people may contact the right people, many will just create more confusion by trying to involve employees that can’t help with the issue.

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The chain of command gives order to workplace issues. Your boss may know who needs to be contacted but if they don’t, they will turn to the next higher person until the proper employee is found. This system streamlines the process so that issues can be resolved quickly without involving unnecessary parties. While an employee may think they know who needs to be contacted, often supervisors have a better idea of what employees perform which tasks.

The Chain Goes Both Ways

Respecting the chain of command doesn’t just mean showing respect for your superiors but also for those working under you. Showing disrespect for the proper channels will only encourage your employees to do the same. Why would they come to you when you so easily ignore your own boss?

The chain of command isn’t some archaic, cruel way to torment employees; quite the opposite actually. The chain of command encourages employees to have a closer relationship with their supervisor and enact change through a single system. Without the chain of command, the workplace would quickly get overwhelmed with complaints and calls for change without a unified way of addressing them. Unless there’s a serious reason for ignoring the chain of command (see below), discussing concerns with your supervisor creates a relationship of trust and respect while getting things done.

But Not in Every Circumstance

There are special circumstances where everything above doesn’t apply. And you need to know this. The chain of command has to be bypassed when you face a situation that is illegal, fraudulent or harassment. If you see your boss with hands in the cashbox, respecting the chain of command isn’t appropriate here. Witness a senior manager sexually harassing a co-worker? This neither. In most cases, and in most countries, these activities must be reported to a the security team, HR, the cops, an industry regulator or a higher authority. Whistleblowing in many industries (such as Financial Services) is mandatory, and could be against the law if you don’t.

17 thoughts on “Respecting the Chain of Command – Like a Pro”

  1. Steven Chavez

    What should I do if I have gone to my boss about him allowing my employees to go above my head and directly to him?

    1. Hi Steven – has your boss explained why he allowed this to happen? Did he encourage your employees to go directly to you? This could undermine your authority and damage the respect your employees have for you. But consider, is there a reason why they didn’t involve you? In your shoes, perhaps I would ask a direct question to your boss. I would try not to appear upset or paranoid, but concerned there is a problem you’re not being consulted about. If there is an issue, I would want to hear about it so I have a chance of solving it. Hope that helps Steven

    1. Yes Will, I don’t see why not as long as you tell your supervisor you are doing it. Is this a dispute about the way you are being treated? Or is it an executive decision?

  2. When a business gives into pressure and fails to support loyal employees acting in good faith, the lack of reciprocity often results in employees ignoring the business mission in favor of measures to protect themselves. The breakdown in support for the business is due to: Weak Chain of Command or Lack of Trust between mangagment & rank/file. WHICH IS THE BETTER ANSWER?

    1. Hi Jim – great question. I’d be interested to know what you think. I would say that without TRUST, the chain of command is thoroughly weakened, so it is TRUST (and RESPECT) that have to be in place before the chain of command can be effective. Does that answer your question?

  3. Do you think I would have an argument with I were to say that both are vital and answerable to each other? I think that they both run concurrently. The key word I picked out in the question was RECIPROCITY, which is how a strong chain of command is maintained.

    Without proper reciprocity, you have a weakened chain of command and you have no trust. This was a question on a recent promotional exam. The correct answer to the exam was lack of trust, but I answered with a weakened chain of command. Do you think I have a chance on getting my answer added as being correct on appeal or am I just grasping at straws? I feel as if BOTH answers are correct and that is what I am pushing for.

    1. Hi Jim – no doubt there is a link – but in my opinion it is about CAUSE and EFFECT. Both are inter-dependent, but one initiates the other. Trust creates and strengthens the Chain of Command. Without trust, the chain of command isn’t effective. A total lack of trust = revolt. But also a weak Chain of Command weakens and then destroys trust. They form a virtuous spiral. Without knowing the details of your question, answer and context, it’s impossible to say that you have a definite case. If you were to push me on it, I would say that the examiners got it right.

  4. Pingback: Every Leader for Themself – leadershiplookout

  5. Have worked in Corporate, Military and Educational organizations for over 20 years, but recently came across something I had never seen before. While on vacation out of the country, my boss (CEO) sent me a few updates to various projects, but the day before my return she sent two emails to my direct reports regarding upcoming department deadlines and projects, which they had only a basic knowledge of the actual processes. The afternoon before my return she had a closed door meeting with my two reports and didn’t let me know or even copy me on the emails requesting the meeting. She preaches chain of command. However, the chain apparently does not apply to her. When I returned and mentioned my disappointment with being kept out of the loop, it was dismissed as ‘I can talk with anyone at any time in the organization’ While I don’t disagree with the statement, doesn’t this practice sow some distrust among managers and undermine those within the chain? My direct reports had never had any previous meetings in two years with the CEO.

    1. Hi Matthew – thanks for your comment and apologies for the delay in replying. This does seem odd, and clumsy/disrespectful behavior by your CEO. Your concern about distrust is understandable. I caution against paranoia though – there maybe nothing to be concerned about, or any undesirable outcomes for you. It would seem that your CEO has decided on a different way of managing and leading – perhaps she read a book at the airport about being connected throughout the organization. Who knows? I think the best way forward is to be aware of this change in style, but not get worried about it. If it does continue to fuel caution and distrust, then don’t let it be propagated by yourself.

  6. my manager just informed us that because she do not like the way the bathroom smells in the department restroom no one can use it from now on. the bathroom is not in her office and no one else has complaints about the smell. what do I do in the situation I do not know if i should follow chain of command or not. I have email proof of this new policy, she went as far as to send a mass email to the whole department. anytime someone has complained to her and followed the chain of command she has eventually fired them. what should i do.

    O i forgot to mention that she still uses the restroom, that is a public bathroom but no one else in the department can per her new rule.

    1. Thanks for your comment Hattie. Your manager is absolutely right to request this of you – if we were still in Victorian times! What a hypocrisy! This will bite your manager on the ass, as it is driving a wedge between her and her staff – for something that is ridiculous and petty. Shame on her.

      I doubt that direct management of office facilities is within your manager’s remit, so her instruction has no real weight, but I understand the dilemma that it could cause an issue if you ignore it. My advice would be to go to HR or a manager that you can talk to in confidence and ask them to intervene – is this something you could do?

      1. I can go to HR but I am almost certain that is will back fire because she is close friends with the HR Manager. Literally every time someone has complained about her they end up fired for a petty reason. So I am stuck between a rock and hard place.

        1. Hi Hattie – sounds like an awful place to work. Doesn’t appear to be a place that you can sustainably work at. Why would you or any of your co-workers strive to do a good job and get promoted, if the axe is always hanging over your head. Gotta say Hattie – get the heck out of there. Sorry I can’t be of more help – other than be honest

  7. Hi Hattie – I think this is quiet difficult job for you and you should move to another place . According to my view , you should find a sustainable working environment where you can focus more . I am becoming true to yourself .

    1. There may also be good reason to send an anonymous message the facilities manager for this issue – unhygienic bathrooms are a health hazard.

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