How to Handle an Employee Who Ignores the Chain of Command

by Jackie Lohrey; Updated September 26, 2017
Manager interviewing a good looking applicant

Change is inevitable as a business grows and evolves. You’ll likely find that a once ideal, flat organizational structure and informal communication flow now creates a chaotic and inefficient work environment. However, transitioning to a more formal hierarchy and established chain of command isn’t always easy for you or your employees. While many will accept and adapt to the new chain of command, some may challenge it or ignore it altogether. Handling an employee who acts out by challenging authority requires strong conflict resolution skills.

Don’t Avoid the Situation

Just as you can’t expect every employee to agree with every decision you make, you also can’t allow an employee who ignores the chain of command to disrupt and undermine your business. Ignoring the situation and hoping it resolves itself isn’t the answer to handling an employee who ignores the chain of command. This will only cause the conflict to fester and grow. Instead, address the issue head on and take proactive steps.

Keep an Open Mind

Don’t assume that an employee who ignores the chain of command is doing so for personal gain or as an act of insubordination. Instead, approach the situation with an open mind, as the underlying problem might lie within your business. Jeffrey W. Kassing of Arizona State University, writing in the July 2009, edition of the Journal of Business Communication, says most employees realize how serious breaking the chain of command is. However, some might feel it’s necessary to expose a legitimate concern, such as a work environment where they feel dismissed, ignored or abused.

Meet and Discuss the Issue

The goal is to stop the behavior quickly and permanently. In a private meeting, give the employee a chance to explain why he feels ignoring the chain of command is necessary. At the same time, let the employee know that this behavior must stop immediately. Provide alternatives, such as submitting ideas to a suggestion box, or following established procedures to file a formal complaint or request a department transfer. Following this meeting, speak with the employee’s manager, investigate legitimate concerns and then meet with the employee again to discuss your findings.

Resolving the Situation

If you discover the employee is engaging in a power struggle out of emotional immaturity or for personal reasons, you might want to issue a written warning or corrective action. In a written warning, explain that ignoring the chain of command is unacceptable behavior and must stop immediately. Also, explain the consequences on any further violations, up to and including termination. A corrective action might include having the employee take part in interpersonal communications training and a series of follow-up progress meetings. However, if you find that the problem relates to poor management or miscommunication, you will likely need to address how to improve management and develop clearer lines of communication.

About the Author

Based in Green Bay, Wisc., Jackie Lohrey has been writing professionally since 2009. In addition to writing web content and training manuals for small business clients and nonprofit organizations, including ERA Realtors and the Bay Area Humane Society, Lohrey also works as a finance data analyst for a global business outsourcing company.

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