Figuring out what you should and shouldn't do can be tricky, but there are two situations where you shouldn't hesitate to go over your manager's head:
The question becomes more complicated beyond those two situations. What if nothing illegal is occurring but your manager is simply a bad boss? People often wonder if they should talk to someone higher up if their supervisor is a jerk who drives away good employees, someone who lies to others in the company, or who is incompetent.
In these cases, here are the questions to ask yourself to determine whether you should go over your boss' head:
1. How serious is the complaint? If you escalate something that's relatively minor, your complaint likely won't go anywhere, and could reflect badly on you. Managers aren't perfect after all, and many companies give their managers wide leeway in how they manage, so complaints need to be fairly serious before they'll intervene.
If you complain about something that appears minor or petty, you'll call your own judgment into question. Instead, escalation should be saved for truly significant problems, like a manager who is regularly abusive to staff members, or whose incompetence is causing the company to lose clients.
2. Is your complaint about a pattern or a one-time problem? Patterns are what count here. Short of really horrific details, a single instance isn't usually going to be seen as egregious enough to warrant going over the boss' head.
3. Is the person you're planning to talk to someone who (a) has a record of taking employee complaints seriously and (b) will ensure that you're protected from retaliation by your manager? This is crucial. The person you're approaching should be someone who is open to listening and has a track record of fairness and good judgment, rather than just blindly backing managers. In addition, the person needs to be insightful and skilled enough to ensure your manager doesn't retaliate against you for speaking up. If the person you're considering approaching doesn't fit this profile, the unfortunate reality is that your complaint might do more harm than good.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.