Taking Problems to Your Boss’s Boss Fraught with Peril

Dealing directly with your boss’s boss can be hazardous to your workplace health, something I know from experience.  I used to work for a very large organization. The CEO was a whip-smart and affable guy. In my first few weeks on the job, I would banter with him on the elevator, but I did not have much direct contact with him. There were many layers of management between me and the CEO.

One day just before closing time, the CEO unexpectedly appeared in my Dilbert cubicle and sat down in front of me. Heads turned. Why was the CEO on this floor? Why was he talking to one of the new hires? Was he going to fire the new guy (me)?

It turned out that he wanted my advice on an issue. We had a five-minute discussion and he seemed pleased with my input. He gave me an assignment that would take me about two hours to complete. I told him I would have it done by the next morning. Always pleasant, the CEO stood up, thanked me, and walked away.

About thirty seconds after that impromptu meeting ended, my boss called me into her office. She was not amused. She gave me a dagger-like stare and demanded to know how I could have had the audacity to “go over her head.” I explained that the CEO had come to me; I had not initiated the meeting.

However, my boss did not believe me, instead implying that there was some conspiracy afoot. She suspected that I had been secretly speaking directly to the CEO for some time in an attempt to subvert her authority. I explained that there was no plot to overthrow her. I was just sitting at my desk when the CEO dropped by. While this explanation did not sound plausible, it happened to be true.

She must have subsequently talked to the CEO because her paranoia later subsided. However, I learned a valuable lesson: appearances count and one must always be keenly aware of the chain of command.

When there is an office manager in a dental practice, employees are often unaware this business etiquette. If they do not like the answer they get from their boss, the office manager, employees quite cavalierly go over that person’s head and ask the doctor the same question, hoping for a different response. The doctor is not an appellate judge who is standing by to overrule someone else’s decision. If the doctor reverses the office manager’s decision, then the office manager no longer has any authority.

To make the system work, employees need to know that going to one’s boss’s boss is not acceptable. The doctor has to back up the office manager almost all the time. When the office manager’s word means nothing, then the doctor has the worst of both worlds: paying an office manager who is not allowed to manage. If the office manager makes mistakes or handles situations inappropriately, the doctor has to coach the office manager to help that person grow, or, in some cases, replace that individual.

The good news is that many dental practices are substantial businesses. With good managers in place who keep the practice running and allow the doctor to take care of patients, the business can survive and thrive.