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.
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More articles on Devious Political Tactics:
- Devious Political Tactics: The False Opportunity
- Workplace politics can make any environment dangerous, both to your career and to your health. This
excerpt from my little catalog of devious political tactics describes the false opportunity, which appears
to be a chance to perform, to contribute, or to make a real difference. It's often something else.
- 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: A Field Manual
- Some practitioners of workplace politics use an assortment of devious tactics to accomplish their ends.
Since most of us operate in a fairly straightforward manner, the devious among us gain unfair advantage.
Here are some of their techniques, and some suggestions for effective responses.
- 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?
- Gratuitous Complexity as a Type III Error
- Some of the technological assets we build — whether hardware, software, or procedures —
are gratuitously complex. That's an error, but an error of a special kind: it can be the correct solution
to the wrong problem.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.