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Subordinate keeps jumping over my head…

Dear Office-Politics,

I am assistant manager in a hospital setting, employed here for 10 years. Get along well with my director. However, this young girl who started here about 5 years ago as a part time person, became very close with my boss. Now 5 years later she is doing special projects for her and this person is going over my head to talk to my personal about issues or changes.

I told my boss that I should be included in anything that goes on in this department, and she is only a project person. She agreed. We recently opened a new radiology unit and this person is somehow taking over all the new issues. She has a big head, the girls do not care for her. I don’t know how to handle this, my boss thinks she is so smart. She also, tells her all the things that go on in the department. I don’t trust her! I don’t want to lose my job however I want to stand firm with her and my boss..

Stepping on my turf

dr. gregory ketchum

Dear Stepping on my turf,

Well, let’s talk about this young whipper-snapper and see what we can come up with that puts you back in the driver’s seat. As your Office Politics consultant I’d start by asking you a few questions.

1. What Have You Done Thus Far: You’ve been there 10 years and Ms. Big Head has been there five. How have you dealt with her thus far? What, if anything, has worked?

2. What’s your relationship with your boss like? You say that you get along well and that your boss agreed that you should be included, but is that happening?

3. What made you decide to confront this now?

4. Where do you believe the problem lies? With Ms. Big Head, with your boss, with you, or some combination of all the above?

There are many different ways you can approach this situation and knowing the answers to my questions would help us determine the best routes. However, since I’m working without a net here, let’s put our heads together and lay out several different routes.

Take the Detective Columbo Approach:
First things first, let’s talk about the style that you adopt to resolve this matter. Remember Detective Columbo from the television series? If you’re like me and over 30 (honestly, I’m just barely over 30!) you’ve likely seen at least one episode.

What made Lt. Columbo so successful so that he could solve the crime every single episode (if only we could always wrap up our own problems in neat little bundles like that!) was the style with which he approached others. He always showed great respect and asked questions in a way that put him in the role of student. His questions were matter-of-fact and he had a way of challenging people’s stories, but without putting them on the defensive. For example, he’d say stuff like, “When we talked earlier I came away with the impression that you were at home the night of the murder and yet now you say that you were at a friend’s house. I’m a little confused. Can you help me understand this?”

This is the approach I want you to take. I recommend you practice it with a friend or with your dog for that matter. Heck, I practice a lot of stuff like this with my dog Spunky. She’s a very understanding Shih Tzu and never gets in my face when I try the Columbo approach with her. On the other hand, she never confesses either.

Get Straight with Yourself First:
I firmly believe that we all have some piece of responsibility for the situations that we find ourselves in. I don’t mean that we create these situations, but rather that we may be doing (or not doing) something that is adding to the problem. Usually it’s our own fear that ties us up in knots and gets in the way of taking decisive action. Ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Getting fired? That doesn’t sound at all likely given the situation as you describe it and the fact that you’ve been there ten years. Write down a list of fears or other emotions that may be blocking you and talk them over with yourself or with a friend. Once you’ve done that you’ll have very solid ground below you. It’s amazing what strength you will find by confronting your fears.

Define What You Want:
What is it that you really want in this situation? You say that you want your boss to “include” you in matters as they relate to your department. Is that all you want? My guess is that you’d like your boss to stop allowing Ms. Big Head to level-jump and treat you like you’re invisible. Yes? Write down what you want and prioritize the most important thing that you will ask for. You have a right to ask for and expect this young thing to respect your position as her manager.

Step #1 – Take It Up with Your Boss, Columbo Style:
You can approach your boss from several different perspectives, such as:

“Hey Director, when we spoke about Ms. Big Head recently we agreed that I should be included in developments in the department and yet I still see Ms. Big Head (you probably don’t want to call her this to your boss’s face, but you know who I’m talking about!) bringing information to you about the department and I’m not being included. I’m a bit confused by this as I thought we had worked this out. Can you help me understand this situation better?”


“Hey Director, I’ve got a bit of a challenge on my hands that I’d like to get your input on. I’ve got this employee who doesn’t seem to respect my position as her manager. For example, she will skip over my head and take problems straight to my boss (that would be you, Ms. Director), which leaves me in the position of not knowing about issues that impact my department. It also creates a management problem for me in that the other employees see her going around me and wonder why they can’t do the same and also why she gets treated differently. I value Ms. Big Head’s contributions, allowing her to continue to go around me creates an unfair situation for the other employees. What are your thought on how I might handle this?”

You see the method to my madness? Since your Director is contributing to the problem by allowing Ms. Big Head to jump over your head you want to engage her in the solution, but without putting her on the spot.

I take the Columbo approach with my wife all of the time, you know, the “Honey, I thought I knew how to work the dishwasher, but I can’t get it to go. I’m confused by it, so can you help me out and do it yourself?” If you take the Columbo approach I’m sure that you’ll be successful, much more successful than I am with my wife!

Thanks for writing Office Politics.


Dr. Greg

Dr. Greg Ketchum, dubbed the “Frasier of the Cubicles” by the San Francisco Chronicle, is a former clinical psychologist-turned CEO and media career coach. He presides over an executive talent firm, providing coaching and recruiting for executives and Fortune 500 companies. A unique mix of psychology and coaching expertise gives Dr. Greg a great understanding of people and what it takes for career success. Combined with his keen insight into today’s job market, and infused with his trademark quick wit, Dr. Greg challenges Office-Politics readers to reach for career success on their own terms — and to have a good time doing it.

  1. 2 Answers to “Subordinate keeps jumping over my head…”

  2. Dear Greg,

    I have a similiar position with a person I hired and this employee was unemployed and we sent her off to training. Now she thinks she is an expert and my boss wants to keep her so he doesn’t have to worry about looking for a replacement for this specialized field which is hard to find experience people. However, my boss found out she was sending her resume out from work and now he is worried about her leaving and has trained an ex-warehouse manager who is a superuser for a WMS application. Meanwhile, I feel I was backstabbed by my boss and her and now was told that she will be reporting to my boss instead of me. She did the same thing the by going over my head to my boss with her attendance and issues. I was so upset and frustrated and kept telling my boss about this. He said it was my fault that I let this happened and got too personal with her in the beginning. Then she wrote an e-mail describing my inability and incompetence of managing her and another employee that created this chaos for me. Now my boss has demoted me to Senior PA from a Programming manager and his looking for a director to fill my spot and has stripped the manager title from me and I won’t ever be able to supervise anyone in this company unless I leave and find another company. I feel RR and betrayed by my boss especially when we had a good working relationship before this woman was hired. Now she is off on her own with no supervision and doing nothing all day but fixing non-critical issues and on the internet alot. He also noticed a high volume of internet activity with her but allows her to get away with this. I am disgusted and angered by my bosses lack of support for me when I was a manager and how she got away by working for him now. There is no way to track her time and daily activity but my project list that I have created for each It person but no progess for her projects have been improved. The more I complain about her the more negative feedback I get from my boss towards me and feel like he is covering for her. He tells me it is not my concern anymore with her. I just want to quit sometimes but can’t afford. I have now decided to look for another job where I will be more respected for my work ethics instead of a boss who rather have a lazy poeople around just to keep the position from being vacant. I feel he let her win and I got screwed by both of them. She is probably grinning ear to ear every day now and I am disgusted by both of them. What should I do? Pretend to be happy or get out.

    From disgusted and betrayed.

    By betrayed by both on Oct 22, 2007

  3. Disgusted and Betrayed:

    Fight fire with fire. Your boss is easily manipulated, (his fault). That saw cuts 2 ways. Try 2 things:

    1) Ease off. Some people cannot help defending someone they perceive as being attacked, even if that person is doing something they shouldn’t. Schmooze a little; fake it verbally and non-verbally. Either “settle in” and give it time, or if it sticks in your craw that bad, leak some subtle benign hint to the office gossip that gives everyone a reason to accept your “new positive outlook”.

    Casually drop a comment – when it is appropriate – to the tune of “Maybe I was wrong about her. She performs some very vital services here”. Then drop it, don’t even bother to check for feedback. If the boss responds by switching from the advocate role, your problem may be solved without your having to do another thing. Subtly Reinforce that from time to time.

    If this doesn’t seem to be happening, adopt a little subtler approach. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Ask Ms. Problemo her advice in an off-hand way on a topic she doesn’t agree on with the boss. Carefully adopt her approach. When the boss gets on your case about it, respond something like, “I’m sorry; I’ll take care of it. I guess I should have asked YOU about this instead. I’ll do that in the future.” Repeat as needed until you are going over her head for basically everything. Just don’t make it too obvious. Easy does it.

    Back to “Maybe I was wrong…” If the boss agrees with this assessment, then the negative light is off you, and this may be critical to your exit strategy. Stay “happy”, then;

    2) Exit, Leave, beat it. If the situation is untenable for you, after everyone is smiling at you again, start putting out your resume all over the place. If everyone is thinking, “happily ever after”, you can take your time and select your job. Good luck in your new position.

    By Bob Andrew on Mar 27, 2008

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