When and How To Escalate Issues at Work To Get Results


Escalation can mean many things in the context of business, but from the viewpoint of most employees the meaning is similar – there is an issue that is unlikely to be resolved with the current staff working the problem and needs attention from responsible members with greater scope of authority.

Escalate problems when normal business practices will not be successful before impacting critical path. Prepare a status summary with the critical information (who, what, where, when, why and how) and identify your proposed plan of action before escalating the problem to senior leadership.

Escalation is a difficult line to walk and for this reason most employees view escalation as a sign of failure. When they escalate too early or for issues viewed ‘not important enough’ they receive feedback that they need to have more ownership and solve the problems themselves.

Employees over-correct in response and continue to hope that the best-case scenario will miraculously happen. Problems fester longer than they need to and get more severe before they are inevitably discovered or impact another milestone.

The longer problems go on they turn into major fires that require major diversion of resources to resolve and employees get criticized for not escalating sooner.

When You Should Escalate a Problem

The term ‘escalate’ is used with a wide variety of meanings in business, but they all fall under three general themes:

  • There is a signal something bad may be happening and members need to mobilize a response to investigate and take appropriate action.  The issue will be escalated to give awareness to the necessary staff.
  • A project or action item is behind schedule.  The issue will be escalated to the next level in the organizational structure to ensure the risks are known and necessary adjustments are made (to either catch-up the delayed item or to modify the schedule).
  • Exception requests to deviate from established business procedures that are not part of the standard guidelines. An action or decision is required that is outside the scope of authority of the current members working the issue.

You can see that all three themes have the common element of raising the issue to the attention of the member that is empowered to make the decisions required for the situation – the level will vary according the specific details and actions necessary. This could be as simple as an employee getting their boss to approve additional overtime hours or it could be an action needed by the highest of company executives.

Escalating business issues should always be connected to risk management within your team. Nearly 60% of projects experience delays and delays are a major source of cost overruns and increase burnout, but not all issues are the same. Each situation needs to be evaluated for its potential impact and how well it is understood to determine the correct response. Reference the list below that begins with the highest impact (highest risk) items and moves down the spectrum to common everyday situations that should be handled without escalation.

  • A real problem exists that directly impacts your objective. For example, the prototype unit was dropped during testing and is irreparably damaged.
  • A real risk exists where a check or protection was not in place as expected. For example, temperature control is critical for the process but you find the temperature monitoring system disabled for an unknown period of time.
  • A critical-path item is behind schedule for a major project where the required completion date is immovable. For example, in preparing the halftime show for the Super Bowl everything must be complete on-time, the event schedule will not change.
  • A potential problem exists but the size or scope of the issue is unclear. For example, we are catering a wedding and receive notification of a recall for the main ingredient but at the current time no one knows for certain if our product is affected.
  • A high-visibility item is behind schedule. For example, your boss’s boss committed to complete a deliverable by Friday and you learn that a required item will not be done in time. Perception is an important business reality so do not let them get blindsided and lose credibility.
  • A potential risk exists but the impact is uncertain. For example, you identify a torque wrench that is out of calibration during a regular check but you don’t know when it went out of calibration nor do you have traceability to when or where it was used.
  • A previously escalated item is again behind schedule. For example, you previously escalated an issue and received a re-commit date from the owner, now you learn that the deliverable will also miss the re-commit date.
  • A due date will be missed for a regular/routine item. For example, you need to publish a weekly report but the database is down.

What Is Escalation?

Escalation is a central concept to business process management and exception handling and is particularly applicable in manufacturing industries. Business procedures are structured to handle the nominal conditions governed by statistical process control and regular operation.

However, invariably there will be circumstances and events that deviate from these defined conditions and require decision authority that is not delegated and retained at the leadership levels of the organization. Escalation is the term used to describe these exception requests.

The Escalation Process Explained

Because escalation involves members that are not deeply involved with all of the details, the first step in the escalation process is to bring the new parties up to speed with a situation report:

  • What is the issue? Is an incident in progress? Do we have a high-risk situation? Or do we have a time-sensitive opportunity?
  • What is the impact? Why are we concerned about this issue?
  • What do we know and what additional information is needed? Summarize the information into digestible chunks (data/trends are helpful) and also state the unanswered questions with current progress.
  • Who are the stakeholders? Who are the key parties that need to be involved with the issue, including the current team working the case.
  • What have been our actions? Set the context for the present situation with a brief history/timeline of what led to the current state.
  • What is the desired outcome? What are you asking for with your escalation? What is your objective/what are you trying to achieve?
  • Why is it being escalated? What is needed from the escalation members that can not be delivered by the current team? Do you need approval for your decided course of action or are you asking the escalation member to decide what to do? Do you need assistance or are you communicating the status for awareness?

A good summary makes the issue understood by the person receiving the escalation and is very effective to drive action with stakeholders in other departments.

Expert Tip: Keep the content about the facts and the business impact, don’t point fingers or assign blame for how the situation reached this point. All effort needs to go towards resolving the business conditions first and then circle back to debrief in an after action review.

Urgent and Important Issues Require Immediate Response

Take immediate action to bring the situation under control and prevent additional damage when urgent and important problems are actively in progress. When the room is on fire you either need to get out of the room or put out the fire, not call 911 and wait for instructions.

Keep raising the alarm and communicating in parallel to the escalation members but inaction is almost always an incorrect choice at this stage. You may need to skip levels if you are not able to reach someone in a reasonable amount of time.

Important But Less Urgent Items Can Wait For Further Guidance

For items that are important but less urgent the general guidelines below summarize the typical procedure found in most established organizations.

  • Confirm mutual understanding – the most common reason for delayed items is simply that the two people had different expectations of what was needed.

Expert Tip: Before escalating, direct person-to-person communication is the best way to ensure full understanding. A face to face meeting is best but a phone call can also work – IM or email is not enough.

  • If escalation is still needed, summarize the issue and bring it up with the next level. In most cases the ‘next level’ will be your boss but the ‘next level’ may also be: a senior person you are working with on the project (internal or external to your department), the project leader or team lead, or a supervisor or manager responsible for the matter in question.
  • Be clear in your objective when escalating. Are you asking for help? Do you just need a re-commit for the delivery? Are you simply communicating a status?

Expert Tip: Never assume that escalating an issue changes ownership to someone else unless the handoff is specifically discussed and agreed to by the recipient. In most situations escalation adds resources to work a problem but does not change the original owner.

Many departments work across layers in the business organization, notably teams that work with everyone like Tech Services or Quality. A best practice for escalation is to always communicate in parallel to the same level in both departments. If your manger is in the loop then the manager of the other department should also be informed at the same time.

Be sure to ask your boss if you are unclear about how escalation is handled in your current role and responsibilities. Most leaders have their own expectations and pet peeves from previous events, even if they are not written down. Have the discussion with your boss about how they like escalation events to proceed, and do it before you are in the middle of a situation.

Escalating an issue can be a stressful and sometimes heated conversation.  If at any time it becomes unprofessional the best approach is to remain calm and focus on the issue and actions. Don’t fan the flames by making statements that could be construed as personal attacks, and of course, inform your boss about the events.

How to Escalate Issues to Senior Leadership

Every company and every boss has their own expectations for when escalation is appropriate and how they want that escalation to happen. Some companies expect their members to solve problems on their own and give wide latitude in their decision making authority. Of course there is also the extreme micro-manager situations where bosses expect their employees to do only what they are told.

The vast majority of workplaces are in the middle with established precedent or even structured guidelines. Experienced employees have a good understanding about what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds for their job function.

  • The issue you are planning to escalate is likely going to cause a delay of the project or significant budget overrun.
  • The issue is consuming considerable unplanned resources from your team or other members.
  • You have communicated the issue to the responsible team (or team members) and have tried to find a common solution with the other party involved.
  • You have already tried different strategies to fix the issue or contain the risk but were unsuccessful to mitigate the impact.

Escalation Do’s and Don’ts for Leaders

Do provide escalation guidelines for your team. If your team is struggling with knowing when to escalate and when to continue working the problem themselves, set the criteria as “It takes two to escalate” meaning both sides agree that escalation is necessary. Problems arise from conflict and with conflict there are two (or more) viewpoints or sides.

When peer-level disputes reach the state that both sides agree that it will not be resolved without escalation then it is usually the correct decision. This criteria prevents a member from repeatedly crying to mom and dad as an escape valve to avoid their own decision making responsibility. Mutual peer accountability helps to drive sincere handling of the issues and maintain professional discussion of the concerns while at the same time empowering all members with the knowledge that help is available when needed.

Don’t let your team’s mantra become “When in doubt, escalate”. When teams abdicate responsibility for solving their own problems you will find yourself in never-ending firefighting of low priority tasks. Be mindful of how your actions will influence your team in the future, will they rely on your authority to overcome obstacles or will the confront the situation within their own scope of authority to find a solution?

Do ask “Who should own this problem?” to drive the right behavior in the organization. If the problem really originates with another area then they should also be involved with the resolution. For example, if a raw material suffers from chronically late deliveries the purchasing team responsible should be involved with some ownership and responsibility for the impact to the production operations. If not, similar situations are likely to continue unchecked.

Don’t step in and solve every problem escalated by your team. Look for situations to do a little as possible and just provide a small nudge for your team to have a learning and growth opportunity. You don’t want to be the hero for your team, you want to empower them to solve the problem. Look for the lowest level of involvement for yourself and expect the highest level of performance from your staff. Not because you are lazy, but rather you want them to challenge themselves and stretch for higher performance.

Do Balance “Do It Now” vs “Do It Right”. Every business situation involves trade offs and escalation scenarios are more prone to go against company values due to the perceived urgency. Don’t let an easy solution compromise your ethics because your reputation is your most value career asset. Once you demonstrate to others that you will cut corners when it is convenient for you it is difficult, if not impossible, to reestablish trust.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of ExpertEmployee.com. Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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