An employee I am managing sent an e-mail to senior management claiming that my expectations are too high, I am assigning too much work for his skill level, and that I am too strict about workplace regulations (like reporting absences).

The reason for going over my head seems to be personal. I can respond by telling management about the employee's track record (particularly the negatives), but I am not sure if this is the best approach.

When an employee goes over your head to your bosses, what response is best to minimize future consequence and any damage to my reputation?

  • Can you give examples of harrassment and strict? If this is getting into a legal matter, it's off-topic for this site.
    – user8365
    Nov 20, 2013 at 13:56
  • "for hierarchical organization to work reliably in a software related industry, it would better be designed to support information transfer over at least one level of management, ie ensuring that manager routinely communicates directly to subordinates of their subordinates. This ensures that important knowledge doesn't get stuck at particular level of management..." (quoted from here)
    – gnat
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:00
  • harrassament means , "more expectation", "keeping strict eye on my activities", and "always give more work than I can do as I am less experienced"
    – user5377
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:01
  • 3
    "this guy did not like that his superior note his absence without informing his superior." My understanding of this is that the subordinate didn't like being called out for missing work and not informing his boss. If the subordinate is going over the boss' head about something like this, I expect he's going to get himself in more trouble, unless there are relationships we aren't aware of.
    – GreenMatt
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:04
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    Hey user, welcome back to The Workplace. Based on your comments I'm going to include the info from the comments and make the English a bit more clear to get you better answers. If you think I missed something, please feel free to edit it and improve the question anywhere I failed to!
    – jmac
    Nov 20, 2013 at 23:47

5 Answers 5


As a manager, myself, I actually welcome this. I'd rather have my people complain upwards than either let an issue fester, complain about it within the team and decrease morale, or take it outside the report chain. I keep the senior management aware of the work of the team and my own actions regarding any major issues, so there shouldn't be any really large surprises.

I expect my management to treat this case like any other issue where they are reviewing my work and giving me feedback. If I've messed up, I want an honest, clear insight on what I did wrong and what expectations I failed in. If I haven't messed up, I expect that senior management will agree with me, and support my decisions and behavior with the employee.

There are times when issues regarding performance can get very heated and quite difficult to resolve. With something like that, I expect that my management will let me take ownership of the situation as getting my team to perform and providing incentives or disincentives is my job as a manager. But I expect to be able to ask for input and guidance, and to occasionally have my manager to just be a listening ear. I don't know of a single hard performance case that isn't a bit emotionally grueling for the manager of the low performer. At that point, I expect that my management will be there to be a bit of support - I don't need handholding but in management you have to be careful who you vent to, and how you express yourself - your own management is one of venues where you can be honest. If I can't have that with my management, I will find a new job - that's table stakes as far as I'm concerned.

My biggest expectation here is that we are a team - my supervisor and I. Just as much as I am on the team with my own direct reports. We're trying to get things done together, and there should never be a time where my manager turns around and points the finger at me as the first response.


Edit: as commented below, my answer was geared towards the employee who was feeling harassed by his manager. That answer has been moved down and the following is an answer to "how do I, as a manager, respond to senior management when they ask about an employee who reported to them that they're feeling harassed by me?"

First, gather your facts. Write down any information you have about the instances when you spoke to the employee, starting with the time you informed them that a "no-call-no-show" was unacceptable.

Then, write down anything you've changed since that time that might indicate to the employee that you're "giving more work than he/she can do" or "keeping a strict eye on his/her activities". Compare it to your behavior prior to the incident - is it possible that you are giving him/her extra work? If so, is there a reason (other employees were on vacation, crunch time on a project, etc.)? Is this employee receiving additional scrutiny in the wake of the missed day? Are other employees receiving additional scrutiny as well? Are you holding this employee to higher standards than you did prior to the incident? Are you holding them to higher standards than other employees in their position?

Once you've gathered all your information, you should be prepared for a meeting with the senior manager. You need to go into this meeting calm and collected - regardless of how frustrating it may be to hear what your employee might have said, you need to show that you don't take things personally and that your goal is to improve the relations between you and your employees. Have responses prepared to explain why your employee said what he/she said.

Have a plan in place for how to deal with the employee moving forward - are you going to invite the senior manager to sit in on future one-on-one discussions between you and this employee? Do they want to be CC'd on emails between the two of you? If management is worried that there will be retribution (such as you piling on work, or assigning work that the employee is too junior to complete), then you need to assuage their fears and assure them that your actions will be beyond reproach.

In theory, this can all be laid out in an email. However, a meeting allows you to show that you're taking the allegation of harassment seriously, that you've considered the situation in depth, and you've come up with a solution that you think will benefit the company and the employee, while giving them the opportunity to add their own ideas or suggestions for improvement.

Original answer (geared toward employee)

It honestly sounds like your supervisor isn't doing anything wrong here. From what you're saying, you missed work and didn't call in. In many businesses (typically retail and food service) that's a fire-able offense. Instead, you stayed on - and proceeded to go over your boss' head to complain about it.

Now your boss is thinking "this is a potential problem employee", which explains him "keeping [a] strict eye on [your] activities". Are you misusing any time at work? Taking more breaks than strictly necessary? That might explain why he's also having higher expectations and giving you more work to do. Alternately, he may just feel that you should be performing at a higher level than you are, so he's giving you the work he expects you should be able to complete.

I think you need to have a sit-down with your boss. You should probably apologize for your missed work day, apologize for going over his head to complain to senior management (I would assume he knows), then tell him that you feel like he's giving you too much work, and see if you can find some middle ground.

  • 4
    How did you understand that the asker was in fact the subordinate?
    – Fabinout
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:18
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    The OP commented to say "always give more work than I can do as I am less experienced", so I assumed the asker was the subordinate.
    – Adam V
    Nov 20, 2013 at 14:43
  • 2
    That was in quotes - presumably quoting what the subordinate is saying. The question is asking what the superior's response should be. Nov 20, 2013 at 19:15
  • 1
    @DJClayworth - This smells of I was wronged so I am going to pretend I am the mean dbag manager and get a response that confirms my Bias Nov 20, 2013 at 20:38
  • @DJClayworth - fair enough. I can update the post to answer from the manager's standpoint as well.
    – Adam V
    Nov 20, 2013 at 20:43

There will be questions from time to time from people in the opposite situation: An employee having problems with their manager, whose expectations are too high, who is assigning too much work for the employee's skill level, and who is too strict about workplace regulations (like reporting absences). That employee's complaints can be justified, just as your complaint can be justified.

It seems your employee thinks he's being treated unfairly, and that he couldn't convince you to stop the unfair treatment, and therefore went over your head. That's a sign that something is pretty bad. Your job as the manager is to first assess objectively whether the employee is right or wrong. And if he is right, change your behaviour, fix the problem, tell your boss that you fixed it. If he's wrong, talk to him, explain why he is wrong and make him accept it, fix the problem, tell your boss that you fixed it.

Something that you might want to reflect on: How come that your first reaction is to worry about future consequences and your reputation? Shouldn't you first worry about doing your job right, and talk to that employee? Where does your assumption come from that he complains about you for personal reasons? When an employee complains that you treat him unfairly, the obvious reason would be that he feels treated unfairly, not that he has any dislike for you.

  • or it is a sign that the employee is incomptent and thinks ordinary expactations are too difficult.
    – HLGEM
    Jun 26, 2014 at 16:59
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    Yeah, your answer seems...* Accusing.* When I read this question, I thought it was a very good question for a new manager. You seem to be saying "Quit asking questions and do your job." -- OP would like to do his job the right way, hence his excellent question here.
    – user20914
    Jun 26, 2014 at 18:03

It may be best to follow the lead of your supervisor.

If you are appropriately informed of the employee's complaint (that may be seen as "whining"), you should thank her/him for telling you. Then you have some options. You can and should tell the employee that you've been informed about the complaint and that you'd like to discuss the matter privately.

You can limit the time of the conversation and limit the discussion to the specifics of the employee's issues. Listen before responding to his or her issues, without feeling the need to be defensive. Or, you can begin by telling the employee that the institutional hierarchy of this and most every other company depends on transparency and good communication. This translates to direct conversations with one's immediate supervisor, even if the alleged problem is with that supervisor.

Criticism can be positive and professional without reaching a personal level. Everyone should be open to an assessment of his/her performance. This places the burden of proof, so to speak, on the employee, who then must present the subject of the complaint in a non-hostile manner or appear out of control and less capable of conducting himself/herself with expected professionalism. If the opposite occurs and the employee reacts in an irrational way, you win without saying anything further. The person has just proven that he/she does not possess the self-control that is necessary to be successful in the workplace.

I've been in contentious situations in which I've literally had to say nothing beyond hello and have seen people quickly degenerate into ranting, red-faced fools for everyone to see. After those little performances, no further problems ever arose.


It appears that the OP is 'caught in the middle': a 'subordinate' has complained to corporate officers that a team lead/project manager is second-guessing him. For various reasons this looks like a software team. While not strictly relevant, what might be an issue is that the someone in an 'engineering' role is being expected to manage his time as might a retail clerk - in at 8:00 AM and out at 5:00 PM. It sounds like there are other issues here as well, but they aren't itemized.

The question, as posted, is 'What should I tell senior management?'. This suggests the OP's first concern is how he is being perceived by his own managers. From the senior manager's perspective, two egos are in a cat fight - one writing code and the other managing a project. This implies a certain amount of social distance between the 'developer' and the 'supervisor'. The supervisor seems to be trying to tell the subordinate: 'you were hired to do as you are told - don't question authority'. While the actual location isn't evident from the content, this sounds like as shop somewhere in Asia.

What senior management wants to hear is that the two belligerents have worked out how to get their jobs done with a minimum of friction. 'shall he bring all the negative points of his superior or what? ' would be a bad move - really bad. All the seniors are seeing at this point is that two employees are arguing rather than getting their jobs done.

So, at the risk of 'not answering the question', I would propose that:

  1. The OP figure out what metrics are applicable to measuring the performance of the developer. This is not likely to be clock-in and clock-out. It is likely to be the production of deliverables - code, documentation, fixes, and user support in reasonable amounts of time. This could apply as easily to other forms of engineering - chip design, architectural project, or bridge. All of these have complex mixtures of 'core design', documentation, revisions, and response to consumer feedback.

  2. Having figure out the metrics, apply them to the developer/engineer. Is he writing code, fixing problems, and supporting users satisfactorily? If so, quit provoking him with things that obviously bother him. See if it is possible to identify time issues that aren't visible during working hours, such as late night phone calls, work on weekends, or other activity that disturbs the normal 40 hour week.

  3. There is some value in introspection. Is the OP engaging in a power game just to establish or maintain 'rank'? People in engineering roles get in fights with 'line managers' all the time over dress, breaks, language, working hours, and user- or customer-contact protocols. The engineers view the behavior of managers as obstructionist - more concerned with appearances and prerequisites than getting things done. The OP could use this opportunity to figure out whether habits acquired in a different kind of organization (or family structure) are counter-productive here.

Having done those things, it is time to sit with the developer - ideally out of the office - say at lunch. Encourage and allow the developer to talk over how time is spent day in and day out - the chunks available for coding/design, the interruptions from supervisors, interruptions from users, problems that keep him busy during non-working hours, spec changes 'out of the blue', etc. Don't be surprised if the conversation digresses - if so nudge it back - gently.

From that, try to figure out what particular events would trigger someone showing up late or taking a long break - among the things that trigger the former (from my personal experience) is having only a vague understanding of what to do next. I would often sit in my recliner at home for two or three hours just thinking about how to structure something, then when the answer arrived I would mosey into work and do it. I've had plenty of supervisors complain about my arrival time - none about the quality of what I did.

If the engineer is being interrupted a lot, the OPs job is to figure out how to intercept those so there are fewer of them. This means, in particular, not arbitrarily creating more. Where are the interruptions coming from, and can they be diminished? This is often what supervisors are supposed to do - keep the decks clear so the programmers/designers/engineers can focus on getting their stuff out.

If the developer isn't really able to explain where his time goes, then there might be a competency problem. Again, this is focused on the output, not the time clock. Are deadlines missed because nothing is done or because someone else keeps changing their mind? If the programmer has to keep starting over then nothing will get done. If so, why is this happening? Supervisors would be expected to lock down requirements so that the team can work to a fixed target.

Were all those things to happen, the supervisor could report to senior management that productivity is improving and that users are getting the computing infrastructure they need.

  • 2
    Hey Meredith, always appreciate you sharing your experiences. If possible, could you try to generalize them a bit, especially when the question is field-agnostic? If the asker isn't in the software industry, it really reduces the value of your answer both to them and to future people who come across this through search engines. (Of course, feel free to share your detailed experience when the question is related to software, then it is very relevant and useful!)
    – jmac
    Nov 20, 2013 at 23:56
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    Hey Meredith, thanks for the edit, but it still seems to be pretty field-specific. While you generalized to all engineers, there is no indication that this is about engineering at all. It could be applicable to sales, or to working on an assembly line, to working in a retail shop for that matter. Any chance you could generalize a bit more? Thanks!
    – jmac
    Nov 21, 2013 at 1:39
  • @jmac - I could qualify my response as being specific to this kind of situation. In larger organizations such complaints usually get routed through HR. A lot of roles don't have the creative component or critical skills shortages, so workers would be unlikely to escalate. It would probably be better for someone with backgrounds in things like sales, finance, and production to post their takes on it, but they don't show up much on TWP. Nov 21, 2013 at 4:23

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