Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 14, Issue 5;   January 29, 2014:

Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: I

by

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 (aged 24) in army uniform. Photograph taken in 1916.

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 proceedings
even 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 Go to top Top  Next issue: Some Hazards of Skip-Level Interviews: II  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs 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. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.comSend 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.

Related articles

More articles on Devious Political Tactics:

George Orwell's 1933 press card photo issued by the Branch of the National Union of JournalistsDevious Political Tactics: Mis- and Disinformation
Practitioners of workplace politics intent on gaining unfair advantage sometimes use misinformation, disinformation, and other information-related tactics. Here's a short catalog of techniques to watch for.
Monarch butterfly (top) and Viceroy (bottom)Deceptive Communications at Work
Most workplace communication training emphasizes constructive uses of communication. But when we also understand how communication can be abused, we're better able to defend ourselves from abusive communication. One form of abusive communication is deception.
The Jolly RogerDealing with Credit Appropriation
Very little is more frustrating than having someone else claim credit for the work you do. Worse, sometimes they blame you if they get into trouble after misusing your results. Here are three tips for dealing with credit appropriation.
Three gulls excluding a fourthUnrecognized Bullying: I
Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see some bullying as bullying.
Three gulls excluding a fourthUnrecognized Bullying: II
Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized because of cognitive biases that can cause targets, bystanders, perpetrators, and supervisors of perpetrators not to notice bullying. Confirmation bias is one such cognitive bias.

See also Devious Political Tactics and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Tennis balls on a tennis court. Your fitness program can be a part of your job search.Coming July 28: Be Choosier About Job Offers: II
An unfortunate outcome of job searches occurs when a job seeker feels forced to accept an offer that isn't a good fit. Sometimes financial pressures are so severe that the seeker has little choice. But financial pressures are partly perceptual. Here's how to manage feeling that pressure. Available here and by RSS on July 28.
A beach at sunsetAnd on August 4: What Are the Chances: I
When estimating the probabilities of success of different strategies, we must often estimate the probability of multiple events occurring. People make a common mistake when forming such estimates. They assume that events are independent when they are not. Available here and by RSS on August 4.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenXEiRBfuFHUtjHrqUner@ChacpYPvvSVhUNIOeXHKoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, 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 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?

DecisBullet Point Madnession makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.