Recently, through my own work experience and those of my clients, I have come across several occurrences where an employee is clearly reporting to the wrong person in the organization. Whether because of personality conflicts, politics, budget manipulation, or because the employee is being treated like a bone to throw somebody, it’s a mistake for an employee to report to the wrong person and spells trouble for everyone involved. Like divorce, which hurts men, women, and children, a flawed reporting line hurts the manager, the subordinate, and everyone else. Situations in which I most frequently see these problems are in times of transition, joint ventures, virtual or de-centralized organizations, Mom and Pop companies, organizations where power is consolidated in a few higher-ups or where a lack of trust prevails.
In a recent case, a new Finance employee was made to report to the president’s assistant because, as it was explained to me, it would have caused jealousy if she reported through Finance and the president was looking for an opportunity to make his assistant feel more important. I don’t deny that there are some issues to consider in this situation, but having the new employee report to a person outside of her department, who knows nothing about her responsibilities, was doomed. Within a couple months of her employment, she was already loudly complaining that her boss didn’t understand her job tasks, her boss was frustrated that she had no authority to influence her subordinate’s day-to-day work load, and the Finance colleagues were irritated that they had to go outside the department in order to provide training and feedback. I predict the situation will only get worse as the new employee’s performance review will be conducted by someone who doesn’t understand what good performance looks like and her merit increases are doled out by someone who doesn’t have budgetary responsibility for the financial impact. Good job, whoever thought that one up.
In another recent case, a new senior position was created in a non-profit that reports up through local government. In an effort to influence the new important manager, the government agency agreed to pay him as an employee. The non-profit grabbed the offer to spare themselves the expense of the sizable salary. And thus began the tug of war over the employee who was housed in the non-profit’s office when he wasn’t being hauled over to explain his activities to the local agency who felt they deserved some accountability since they were paying the bills. When you hear of situations like these, you have to shake your head and ask, “What were they thinking?”
Other examples abound: a marketing employee who reports to a senior technical person who has no expertise or interest in what she does, a young go-getter who is forced to report to a semi-retired old guy because the CEO wants the old guy to feel like he’s still part of the team, a new highly-educated person who has to report to a mediocre employee with seniority because otherwise the mediocre employee would “throw a fit.” Not only do these situations compromise the potential success of the company, they are really bad for the beleaguered subordinates and can lead to disengagement, disappointment and potentially a premature departure. It is very sad to see an employee become rapidly disillusioned by an garbled reporting line when it could have been avoided.
One would hope that the human resources staff would speak up in cases such as these, but in my experience, they often underestimate the potential damage and “just want everyone to get along.” There are times when an ill-considered attempt to avoid conflict can introduce more conflict. In many cases, the decision-makers don’t listen to human resources anyway.
In my opinion, we don’t pay enough attention to the importance of a reporting line in someone’s success, or failure, or plain happiness in his or her position. Surveys tell us that employees report that their boss is the #1 most important factor in their attitude toward their job. Further, having a bad boss is the #1 reason that employees seek different employment. How more clear can they be? Bosses matter.
If you are curious if you have a problem in your particular organization, or are wondering if you yourself might be reporting to the wrong person, or are thinking that someone is reporting to you who shouldn’t be, here are some guidelines that I have observed to be important:
– An employee should report to the manager who has functional responsibility for the employee’s work. In the case of the marketing employee above, is the technical manager responsible for the success of the marketing efforts? Or is it really the responsibility of some central marketing person? Sometimes marketing, finance, HR, and support staff are shunted off into different divisions with the notion that “embedding” them will lead to efficiency. That only works when the division head truly accepts the responsibility for their work, and I’ve seen it often fail, particularly when the support staff are inexperienced and feel adrift without a manager who can mentor them.
– An employee should report to the manager who has financial responsibility for the employee’s salary and ancillary costs. You’d think this would be obvious, but this part gets ignored a lot. Decisions about whether or not the employee gets a raise, gets a company car, or gets to go to a conference should be made by the person who has budgetary responsibility for the effect of those costs. In other words, the manager should not be spending someone else’s money when he or she doles out perks or raises.
– An employee should report to the manager who will write his or her performance review and direct his or her day-to-day work. Again, this seems obvious, but I’ve seen situations when employees are “assigned” to a mid-level supervisor but their performance reviews are written by someone who doesn’t observe them daily. This recipe for disaster usually results in one: the supervisor is frustrated by a lack of control over the performance review, the employee is mad when his or her best efforts don’t make it into the review, and the writer of the review doesn’t have the knowledge to write a useful review.
– An employee should have one solid reporting line to one real live person, or to put it bluntly, no dotted lines ever. This is one of the most common and problematic mistakes I see made. A dotted line is often set up to placate someone or give him or her the illusion of influence over someone else’s employee. The direct-line manager often ignores the dotted line, the dotted-line manager thinks it’s the same as a direct line, and the poor employee is left to sort out the confusion. Decision makers should be tough enough to make it clear to everyone involved who is really responsible for the employee’s work, performance, and development. Dotted lines are for wimps.
– An employee should never report to a non-employee, such as a consultant or board member. An employee deserves to know exactly where he or she fits in the organizational chart. That chart serves a useful purpose in diagramming who has authority and responsibility for what. Organizations with screwed-up organizational charts are screwed-up organizations. If you can’t produce a coherent organizational chart, you shouldn’t produce one at all. Just take up praying that it all works out.
– Only senior employees should report to a committee or board. Significant experience is required before an employee is capable of navigating the potential pitfalls of this situation. Board members are often at odds with each other, vacillate between inattention and micro-management, and are poor judges of quality performance. That’s hard enough for CEOs to handle—let’s not put less experienced employees in such a fraught spider web.
Because a boss is so important to an employee’s happiness in his or her job, it’s worth reviewing reporting lines from both the employee’s and the manager’s point of view.
For employees: study your company’s organizational chart and ask the following questions:
– Is it clear who I report to?
– Is there a good reason I report to that person, or is it because of a dumb reason?
– Does that person direct my day-to-day work, write my performance reviews, and determine my salary?
– Is this person the most logical person in the organization for me to report to?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, you and your manager are in trouble.
Note that I am not asking if you like the person you report to, or if that person is an effective manager. That’s a question for a different day (See “Do You Have the Right Boss, Individually?”).
For managers: run through a similar triple-check to see if you are positioned correctly to support and develop someone who reports to you:
– Do I have decision-making authority over this person’s day-to-day work?
– Do I have decision-making authority over this person’s salary?
– Do I have decision-making authority over this person’s performance review?
If the answer of any of these is no, you and the subordinate are in trouble.
© 2016 Jennifer K. Crittenden