When Is It OK to Break the Chain of Command at Work?

Though it may seem like it at times, the chain of command within an organization doesn’t exist to make higher-ups feel more important or powerful. Rather, it’s necessary for ensuring everyone is working together toward the same goal, and the work is carried out as efficiently and effectively as possible. It’s in your best interest to respect the hierarchy if you wish to remain employed. However, there are situations you might find yourself in where breaking the chain of command is not only warranted but absolutely necessary. So, when is it OK to go above your boss’s head?


When there are safety concerns

Obviously, your personal safety and that of your coworkers ultimately supercedes the need to maintain the chain of command. Safety issues within the workplace are not to be taken lightly, and it’s important to report them as soon as possible. If after notifying your immediate supervisor the problems go unaddressed, it may be necessary to escalate the issue up the ladder. Just make sure to exercise your best judgment as not all safety concerns rise to the level of chain breaking. Mold starting to grow on the drop-tile ceiling is clearly not as immediately threatening to everyone’s safety as a carbon monoxide leak. Sometimes safety concerns can be life-threatening, and though there is still a chance you’ll get backlash for insubordination, that’s not a sufficient reason to not speak up.

When there are violations of company policy or law

Employees are expected to follow the company's policies and procedures, as well as the law. If you become aware of any serious violations of company policy or law, you should consider reporting it to your supervisor. However, if your supervisor is involved in the violation, or if you have good reason to believe reporting it to your boss would not lead to action being taken (or perhaps action being taken against you instead), it may be necessary to escalate the issue to a higher authority. Breaking the chain of command in this situation should be reserved for only the worst offenses. Catching someone taking a few pens home from the office or surfing the internet on company time doesn’t make the cut. Nobody likes a tattletale, and you don’t want a reputation for being the office snitch.

When there are communication breakdowns

For communication to exist, a message must be both sent and received. It can’t just be one or the other. While the chain of command is designed to facilitate communication within the organization, sometimes there are breakdowns. If you’re not receiving important information from your boss, information necessary for you to do your job effectively, efficiently, and in line with company objectives, you might eventually have to seek help from higher-ups. Additionally, if your supervisor fails to convey your concerns up the ladder when the situation calls for it, you’ll need to consider doing it yourself. Regardless of the situation, you should always attempt to resolve the breakdown in communication with your immediate supervisor before escalating to someone above them.

When there is a need for conflict resolution

Conflict resolution is another instance where breaking the chain of command may become necessary— especially if the conflict is between you and your superior. If you’re unable to work it out on your own, you’ll most likely need to seek help from a higher authority within the organization.

When there’s a need for innovation

Sometimes, the chain of command can hinder innovation. If your boss is resistant to change (which is quite common), you may find it difficult if not impossible to find an audience with them that’s receptive to your creative ideas and suggestions. In these instances, you may need to look for someone in a higher position to present your case to. If the ideas are truly innovative and will benefit the organization overall, you can justify breaking the chain of command. 

When there is a need for career development

Employees should have opportunities for professional development and career advancement within the organization. If you feel you are not receiving those opportunities and you have already attempted to resolve the problem with your boss, you may end up needing to break the chain of command to address the issue. In such cases, you’ll need to speak to a higher authority to explore the potential for upward trajectory on your career path and/or to receive feedback on your performance.

Breaking the chain of command at work should not be taken lightly. It’s essential to consider the potential consequences and follow proper procedures when doing so. If you feel the need to go over your boss’s head, you should do so in a respectful and professional manner, and maintain confidentiality throughout the process. By doing so, you can help to improve the organization and ensure a better working environment for everyone involved.

Search for your next job now:


Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market