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February 12, 2014 Volume 14, Issue 7
 
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Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: Part III

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Skip-level interviews — dialogs between a subordinate and the subordinate's supervisor's supervisor — can be hazardous. Here's Part III of a little catalog of the hazards, emphasizing subordinate-initiated skip-level interviews.
Nemesis by Albrecht Durer

Nemesis, by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Engraving, 329 x 229 mm, ca. 1501-1503. In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the god of "retributive justice," meting out justice to evildoers and the proud and haughty. This kind of retribution differs from the retribution a subordinate might face after initiating a skip-level interview. For a Bilbo bent on retribution, justice might not be a consideration. More likely, deterrence of any further interference by subordinates would be Bilbo's goal. Photo courtesy WikiMedia.org.

As we've seen, skip-level interviews present risks to supervisors who initiate them. But there are also risks for subordinates who initiate skip-level interviews, however informal or spontaneous they might be. Because subordinates who initiate skip-level interviews almost always seek redress of grievances against their supervisors, this type will be our focus. As in the earlier installments of this exploration, we'll use the name Frodo for the subordinate, Bilbo for the subordinate's supervisor, and Gandalf for Bilbo's supervisor.

Retribution
When Frodo initiates a dialog with Gandalf, Bilbo might become worried. The less Bilbo knows about the topics of the dialog, the more worried he is likely to become. If the dialog is conducted in private, and especially if its existence is hidden, Bilbo is more likely to feel that his performance is the topic and that Frodo is attacking him.
These risks are elevated when there is ongoing difficulty between Bilbo and Frodo. And such situations are exactly those in which Frodo is most likely to turn to Gandalf for assistance. Moreover, in times of difficulty between Bilbo and Frodo, Bilbo is likely to be most alert to contact between Frodo and Gandalf.
Even if Bilbo has no definite knowledge of the content of the Frodo-Gandalf dialog, he might assume the worst, and seek retribution for Frodo's supposed offense. Retribution is even more likely if Gandalf subsequently takes any action that leads Bilbo to believe that it resulted from the Frodo-Gandalf dialog. Frodo would be wise to seek an interview with Gandalf only if he believes that Gandalf will act responsibly, with discretion, and with appropriate care for Frodo.
Peer concerns
When Frodo's peers learn that Frodo and Gandalf are meeting (or have met), they might also become worried. Like Bilbo, their level of concern is inversely correlated with their level of knowledge of the content and existence of the dialog.
For example, Even if the supervisor has no
definite knowledge of the content of
the dialog between the subordinate
and the supervisor's supervisor, he
or she might assume the worst,
and seek retribution
if one of Frodo's peers is a favorite of Bilbo, he or she might worry that Frodo is complaining to Gandalf about favoritism, and that Gandalf's response might end the favoritism. This worry might lead to difficulty between Frodo and his peer.
Frodo's peers also present security risks with regard to the interview with Gandalf. If Frodo has been open about his desire to meet with Gandalf, and open about the appointment itself, then his peers might transfer this information to Bilbo, wittingly or not. If Bilbo's performance is indeed the topic of the meeting, Frodo would be wise to be discrete about the meeting, even with respect to his peers.

The most important risks for Frodo involve Bilbo's response. Initiating a meeting with Gandalf can expose Frodo to these very real risks. Unless Frodo is relatively certain that Gandalf will take effective action that will help Frodo, the risks probably outweigh the benefits. First in this series  Go to top  Top  Next issue: Scope Creep and the Planning Fallacy  Next Issue
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