Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: Part I
by Rick Brenner
Although skip-level interviews have their place, they can be dangerous, explosive, and harmful to the organization. What are the dangers?
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) at age 24 in army uniform. Photograph taken in 1916. Tolkien was best known as the author of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Frodo, Bilbo, and Gandalf are characters (variously) from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
A skip-level interview is a dialog, usually private, between an employee and the employee's supervisor's supervisor. Skip-level interviews can be initiated either by superiors or subordinates. When they're used properly, they provide benefits to all concerned. For example, when a subordinate is troubled by the policies or behavior of the subordinate's supervisor, a conversation with the supervisor's supervisor enables the subordinate to register concerns and seek corrective action if appropriate. Alternatively, when supervisors want a more complete and unfiltered view of the operations of groups within their areas of responsibility, conversations with subordinates of their direct subordinates can provide them with a fresh perspective.
Nevertheless, with these benefits come hazards. Some risks apply to skip-level interviews initiated by supervisors, and others apply to skip-level interviews initiated by subordinates. Here's a short catalog of some of the risks associated with supervisor-initiated skip-level interviews. In what follows, the subordinate is Frodo, Frodo's supervisor is Bilbo, and Bilbo's supervisor is Gandalf.
- Fishing expeditions
- Some supervisors use skip-level interviews to gather information they intend to use in termination proceedings against their direct subordinates. For example, if Gandalf suspects that Bilbo isn't actually present during periods when Bilbo is expected to be at work, Gandalf might interview Frodo and ask a series of questions intended to determine whether Bilbo's work hours have been in line with Gandalf's expectations.
- If Frodo feels free to talk about whatever comes to mind, the interview can be valuable. But if Gandalf seems interested in anything in particular, Frodo will sense it, which puts at risk Bilbo's effectiveness as a supervisor. Whatever agenda Gandalf has, Frodo might detect it, Some supervisors use skip-level
interviews to gather information
they intend to use in
termination proceedingseven if Gandalf words his questions cleverly. Indeed, even if Gandalf asks no questions, but merely steers the interview toward the topics he wants to cover, Frodo might detect Gandalf's agenda. Skip-level interviews must therefore be agenda-free. Gandalfs everywhere would do well to listen, rather than speak. Supervisors who bring agendas to skip-level interviews are likely to exacerbate any problems that already exist, at best. Worse, they might create problems where none existed.
- If Gandalf habitually brings agendas to skip-level interviews, Bilbo has few options for defending himself. He can brief his subordinates about skip-level interviews in general, and about the dangers of prior agendas. He can warn his subordinates that if they detect Gandalf's agenda, and decline on principle to supply information that supports it, they might be at risk themselves. On the other hand, they cannot get much protection for themselves by offering flimsy, false, or dubious support for Gandalf's agenda. Their safest option is to earnestly try to support Gandalf's agenda, but to offer only information they know to be factual from first-hand, concrete evidence. If Bilbo has earned the loyalty of his subordinates, they will likely be grateful for this advice.
We'll continue this exploration next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. Order Now!
Your comments are welcome
Would you like to see your comments posted here? Send me your comments by email
, or by Web form
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful,
and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend
Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive
of past issues. Subscribe for free.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout,
as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in,
anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Devious Political Tactics
- Devious Political Tactics: The Three-Legged Race
- The Three-Legged Race is a tactic that some managers use to avoid giving one person new authority. Some of the more cynical among us use it to sabotage projects or even careers. How can you survive a three-legged race?
- Devious Political Tactics: Cutouts
- Cutouts are people or procedures that enable political operators to communicate in safety. Using cutouts, operators can manipulate their environments while limiting their personal risk. How can you detect cutouts? And what can you do about them?
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part I
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Understanding the risks of these tactics can motivate you to find another way.
- Devious Political Tactics: Divide and Conquer, Part II
- While most leaders try to achieve organizational unity, some do use divisive tactics to maintain control, or to elevate performance by fostering competition. Here's Part II of a series exploring the risks of these tactics.
- Failure Foreordained
- Performance Improvement Plans help supervisors guide their subordinates toward improved performance. But they can also be used to develop documentation to support termination. How can subordinates tell whether a PIP is a real opportunity to improve?
See also Devious Political Tactics and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates.
Contact Rick for details at rbrenner@ChacoCanyon.com
or (617) 491-6289, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout
are available in six ebooks:
Reprinting this article
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline?
Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Risk Management for Leaders
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in risk management and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at risk management from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- Cognitive Biases and Workplace Decision-Making
- For most of us, making decisions is a large part of what we do at work. And we tend to believe that we make our decisions rationally, except possibly when stressed or hurried. That is a mistaken belief — very few of our decisions are purely rational. In this eye-opening yet entertaining program, Rick Brenner guides you through the fascinating world of cognitive biases, and he'll give concrete tips to help you control the influence of cognitive biases. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- MITRE, in Bedford, MA: October 21, Monthly Meeting, Boston SPIN.
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
- On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program:
- The Politics of Meetings for People Who Hate Politics
- There's a lot more to running an effective meeting than having the right room, the right equipment, and the right people. With meetings, the whole really is more than the sum of its parts. How the parts interact with each other and with external elements is as important as the parts themselves. And those interactions are the essence of politics for meetings. This program explores techniques for leading meetings that are based on understanding political interactions, and using that knowledge effectively to meet organizational goals. Read more about this program. Here's an upcoming date for this program: