I have been hired recently as an outside Tech Manager for the very successful team. The vacancy has been opened for some time for internal resources, but the company has chosen me. My immediate boss has been working with my new subordinate for a very long time together - so naturally my subordinate has started to "ignore" me and go to my boss directly, over my head. Since I am new to the environment and still learn the process, I was OK with it - well, now it gets increasingly frustrating. My direct emails to my subordinate are ignored by him. Any time he has a meaningful question, he goes directly to my boss. My boss does not want to have any conflict - I am sure his intentions are good.

The most interesting part is my subordinate is a true "knowledge keeper" of technology processes in my department - so any idea of firing him is absolutely impossible. Besides that, he does all his assignments and he is a very competent.

Am I stuck in this vice?

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    Why is your first instinct to fire him? You said yourself he is competent and does all assignments. Did you talk with him about him going over your head to let him know what you expect, etc. – Brandin Mar 19 '15 at 23:39
  • Is one of his assignments to document and share knowledge? – user8365 Mar 20 '15 at 0:31
  • Incentives matter. Presumably you were hired because you provide more benefits than costs to the organization. Are there any of those benefits which would suggest to the employee in question that engaging with you would be of benefit to them? – Eric Lippert Mar 20 '15 at 0:39
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    "My direct emails to my subordinate are ignored by him." As soon as the first email was ignored you needed to get the guy in and get to the bottom of what happened. You cannot allow this situation to develop. – TheMathemagician Mar 20 '15 at 11:36
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    If your boss continues to answer his questions and avoid conflict, then what is the problem? You may not have any authority, but you apparently don't have any responsibilities in this situation. Why not work with people you can actually help? – user8365 Mar 20 '15 at 16:24

Dial back the aggression a little bit. I do not know the full story but threatening to fire someone because, from their perspective, they have been filling in for a vacant role is a bit of an overreaction.

You need to chat to your boss first one-on-one. Go in to the meeting asking about "clarifying your role". Make sure you both understand what your responsibilities are. Make sure you understand the history of the project(s) in question.

As part of this, ask about the subordinate. Maybe your boss is happy with the subordinate dealing with him/her. Maybe your boss is happy with it for now but wants to transition it to you. Maybe your boss sees your subordinate as an unnecessary distraction. Maybe your boss sees this as important for some issues but not others. Make sure to put forward your desire to have the subordinate deal with you as you see it as part of your responsibilities and come to an agreement.

Once you have this, have a one-on-one conversation with your subordinate. Before you mention the meeting with your boss, try to understand why the subordinate is going to your boss and realize there may be a very good reason. They key here is to assume the best of people but plan for the worst. If you go in looking for a fight, you will get one. If you go in assuming the person has the best of intentions, you will come across as far more reasonable and supportive.

For example, he/she may be used to doing this (as it sounds like in your case). This is something, hopefully, you can transition out of over time. He/she may find it more efficient, bypassing layers of management or talking to people already familiar with the problem. In this case, you need to make an effort to be as effective as your boss. Many people think of a management role as something they can laud over others or something they can bludgeon others into submission with. It is exactly the opposite. You need to demonstrate benefit to your subordinate. If talking with you gets better or faster results than your boss, he/she will naturally want to talk to you.

Alternatively, it may be some less positive reasons. Going straight to higher management may be seen as a sign of higher status or importance. It may be a sign of disrespect. Perhaps the subordinate wanted your position and this is a weak form of protest.

Alternatively, maybe it is just sheer ignorance. Maybe no one has told the subordinate you are now responsible for this or to stop talking to your boss. It may be obvious to everyone except for him/her.

If you have to, pull out the result of the conversation with your boss on the matter but only if you have to. It works much more effectively if you and your subordinate can come to an agreement.

Similarly, your subordinate needs to realize that you have been placed in that management position. It sounds like the company has made you responsible for that area and your subordinate needs to work with you on this, not around you, as evidenced by the cooperation of your boss.

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    On the bludgeoning comment I've always told my bosses past "Your job as a manager is to do whatever I need you to do to allow me to be effective" Most managers don't make companies money, rather they make it so the people who do make the company money can do so effectively. – RualStorge Mar 20 '15 at 20:45

He is ignoring you as you are failing to manage him (your job). He's been there a long time, is proficient at his role, and maintains a good relationship with your boss, what exactly are you doing with him?

You need to take control, if he doesn't respond to you go to him and discuss why, demonstrate that you are there for a reason, it sounds like he's ignoring you as he can't see why your here, change that.

Firing him will just show you have no control, and you'll lose others on your team.

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  • I don't understand the downvotes. The last sentence makes sense, as do the preceding paragraphs. – rath Mar 20 '15 at 4:19

It seems that you are concentrating on process and your role, while this employee is concentrating on getting the work done.

Your job as a manager is to make sure people get their work done. It seems you are doing that with zero effort because this guy is getting his work done, competently, without you doing anything.

I wonder whether you have actually done anything that makes this person feel you are helping them getting their work done. The person apparently has the impression that you are not doing any such thing.

So you should really ask yourself: What are you actually contributing to the company? It looks like you are not serving any purpose, at least not with this guy. If a decision were made that someone should be fired, can you give us any reason why it would be this employee, and not you?

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  • You are one tough cookie :) I don't necessarily agree with you on this one but your perspective is certainly worth looking into. Which is why I upvoted your answer. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 20 '15 at 20:07

For the future, your first mistake was in allowing this happen because you were new. You totally gave away any authority/influence you have. It is harder to get it back after you give it away.

Next, the first problem is not the subordinate, but your boss. He is the only one who can salvage this at this point. He should never have allowed the person to go around you.

So the first thing you do is go to your boss and have a heart-to-heart. Tell him that in allowing this person to bypass you, he is making it more difficult for you to manage this person. Ask your boss to please send this person back to you anytime he directly contacts your boss, no exceptions. Then ask your boss to help you get better at answering questions by providing you the information he would have given the employee in a separate email. That way you will have the information when the employee goes to you and you will start to build the knowledge that you need to be effective in this organization.

Part of the political dynamic going on here is that he is prossibly upset at not being chosen for your position (or at a friend not being chosen if he didn't apply). You said it was open internally and they did not hire anyone. Talk to your boss about whether this person was interested in the job and if so, why he was not chosen. Ask what prevented them from hiring internally. You can't fix a problem until you know what the problem is. If he wanted and got turned down for the position or if he thought someone else internally should have gotten the postion, he may very well be deliberately trying to make you look bad in which case the moves are different than if he is genuinely doing this to speed of the process from his perspective.

Think how you would feel if you had worked somewhere a long time and someone from outside was brought in with no knowledge of the systems and made your boss. Even if you had not applied for the job, you would likley resent working for someone with less knowledge than you have. That's just how human nature is.

So part of the challenge is that you have to get this guy on your side (and the rest of your team as well), because he is someone respected in the organization and whose opinion of you matters a great deal.

This means you need to talk to him. You need to completely hear him out without being defensive. You need to ask him what he needs from you. You need to find out why he is going around you and how you can fix that. You need to know whether he wants to be promoted and, if so, to what postion. You need to know his background and you need to make sure that he clearly understands that you respect his professional abilities (even if his attitude leaves something to be desired.). You need to find out, in short, what needs to change and how you can help turn this guy's opinion of you around.

You may hear some unpleasant things when you ask. It is cricial to not get defensive and to think after the meeting about whther there is any validity in what he says. You should probably have this conversation with others on your team as well. If they all say the same thing, it is very possible that they perceive the problem to be you. You may need to make some changes in how you manage them. I don't know you and I don't know them, so it is hard to say if this will happen. It is more of a warning that it could and to be mentally and emotionally prepared for it to happen before you start having such conversations.

Remember if he says something you don't like, the worst possible move to make is to get angry. He has the respect of this organization and you have not yet built that same level of respect. In any angry confrontation, the organization is likely to come down on his side.

Now as far as the employee ignoring emails you send him, that has to stop. You need to tell him that when you ask for something, he needs to respond directly to you and that if you ask something, he needs to respond by the date in the email. You have to make your exceptations crystal clear. Now make sure any emails do have a respond by date in them and if he does not respond by that time, you go directly to his desk and ask him why he has not responded. I would do this is in a separate conversation only after trying talking to him about what his concerns areand talking to the boss about rerouting anything the employee sends him and seeing if that doesn't help change your relationship before you take this step.

If after all this, he still won't change, then you need to discuss more serious steps with HR (you should be fully aware of what steps you need to take at this company with a perceived problem employee in any event). Truth is that while many people can be turned around when a relationship gets off on the wrong foot, some cannot.

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  • At the first company I worked for, their employee handbook clearly stated that insubordination is a firing offense. Ignoring the supervisor's emails qualifies as insubordination. If I were the subordinate's OP, I would have a one-on-one meeting with the subordinate where I would point out to the subordinate that he has not responded to a single email of mine. I would tell him that his failure to reply amounts to obstructing the discharge of my responsibilities and if this continues, that I'll make a note of it in his record pending further disciplinary action. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 20 '15 at 20:03
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    @VietnhiPhuvan If I were the subordinate, then I would make sure that I quit and made sure that the bosses knew it was because of the OP. Do you think the organization values someone off the street just because they are in a managerial position over a proven high business value contributor? You have to tread lightly in this situation. – Kik Mar 20 '15 at 20:11
  • @Kik You're making a good point. I presume that the OP is a capable individual and that the OP can show his own effectiveness on a day to day basis. We'll start with the OP requesting that the boss re-routes the subordinate's requests back to the OP. The stuff about the subordinate's ignoring the OP's emails cannot stand. I have worked for a few bosses that I hated but I have always put my feelings aside when it comes to business i.e. I replied to their emails. – Vietnhi Phuvan Mar 20 '15 at 20:20

What's to prevent you from going to your boss, and have your boss forward your subordinate's requests to the right party i.e. you? Give your boss the rationale that you don't want your boss to be doing YOUR job for you in addition to his, that you are quite capable of handling it and if you need advice, that you won't be shy about asking him for advice.

As for you being new on the job, the newness is wearing off with every day that passes, right? :) We all have to stop being new at some point in time, and the right time might as well be now.

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  • The longer you let this go on, the worse you look. Week one, the boss thinks, well Joe is new and it is faster to get the information from me, after the first month, the boss starts wondering why Joe can't answer any of this, after the third month, the boss starts wondering why he needs Joe's job at all. – HLGEM Mar 20 '15 at 18:36