How – and When – to Escalate Issues at Work

The workplace interactions you have by way of email are difficult to anticipate and master all at once.

You’ll have emails pop up in your inbox which vary in their importance. Some will be about the team potluck you should attend next week, and others will be about urgent issues your end-users experience at the present moment.

Perhaps the most difficult situation to navigate by way of electronic communication is escalating the issue that nobody on your team has the guts to. Communicating new issues to your manager(s) is an important facet of email interaction you’ll have interest in becoming skilled at.

This article is about effectively using emails to escalate issues at work.


The Two Factors of Successful Email Escalation

Email communications are the lubricant to all the in-person interpersonal communication that goes on in your organization. Emails are sent to gather requirements, to set meetings, and to ask for updates on incomplete work. Emails are versatile, and are only limited by how creative you are in employing them as tools.

In addition to the many other purposes you use emails for, you’ll find yourself needing to involve higher-ups in the email chains you have about issues that arise. A common practice is to carbon copy (CC) the people who hold interest in knowing about the issues you’re actively trying to evaluate and solve.

Escalating issues by way of email is a nerve-wracking approach. You’re sometimes left wondering when the right time is to CC important people in the emails that you send. Other times, you’re left regretting involving a higher-up too soon.

Emails are effective tools to escalate issues when, at minimum, these two factors are met:

  1. You escalate issues to the right people

  2. You escalate issues at the right time

An escalation to people who hold little interest in the issue being solved will prove to be ineffective at quickly mitigating those issues. Your email would get forwarded and passed around until it reaches to right person.

An escalation which is too early however, will be wasteful of resources and time. If it is found that you didn’t exhaust serious effort prior to escalating the issue at hand, those whose time you demand will feel cheated.

When escalating an issue to those who hold positions senior to yours, remember to evaluate who the right people are, and when it is the right time to move forward with that escalation.


Whom to Escalate Problems To?

In order to find who to escalate an issue to, a good place to start is to remind yourself who:

  1. Assigned / manages the task(s) at hand

  2. Holds an immediate stake (their work being dependent on yours) in the task being completed

For example, your manager may have assigned you the task which is currently being plagued by issues. However, an important end-user may have been the source of that task’s birth.

That specific stakeholder may have discovered a bug in the user interface of the software you’re tasked in maintaining, for example. In discovering the bug, that end-user may have connected with your manager, who would have then assigned the bug for you to fix.

In that scenario, it would be wise to include both, your manager and the end-user in question in your communications about the issue / delays  you have in fixing that bug.

Keep in mind what each party cares about most. Your communications to both parties don’t have to be the same, and seldom should be. A rule to follow here is to CC those who assigned you the task at hand (managers) in the stripped down communications you send to stakeholders affected by the issues in play. In such a case, you’d send your manager an email about the issue, and include them on any communications you send to stakeholders about the same issue.

Sometimes your manager may prefer to be the person who communicates issues to stakeholders, and other times they may prefer that you do so since you’d know more about the specifics at play. Keep your ear to the ground in terms of what your manager prefers in these scenarios.

Your manager would not only care about the time it’s taking to solve the issue, they’d also be concerned with the specifics of the technicalities at play. Thereby communications sent to them often need to be more detailed and technical by nature. The stakeholder(s) in question may simply care about why the bug is taking long to fix. It is thereby wise to speak a language they quickly understand when you interact with them. Ensure your communications respect the interests of those you escalate your issues to by telling them things they care most about.


Don’t Escalate Too Soon: Let People Try Their Hand at Solving Issues First

Though this may be a redundant point, ensure you give your colleagues enough time to try their hand at solving the issues that come up prior to escalating.  Nobody likes an early escalator. By escalating issues too early, you not only send those tasked with solving these issues into a frenzy, you also tend to waste your managers’ time.

You should try your best, for as long as you can afford, to work out the issues you are having only with the people who have a direct hand in solving those issues.

It’s simply unfair to escalate issues prior to allowing those in contact with those issues to try their best to solve them first. You’ll be communicating that you don’t trust them to solve the issue at hand, and it’d seem like you’d be letting your panic get the best of you. Others may interpret you to be turning your back on your team and sucking up to your higher-ups by being the first to break the story and editorialize the information you present to benefit yourself.

Those who are responsible for solving the issue at hand would feel cheated by your early escalation. They’d wish you gave them more time to come up with possible causes for the issue, and at least become more knowledgeable about possible next steps.

By escalating issue too soon, you’ll be tasked with going through the tasks you should have done independently, with your higher-ups babysitting you. You’ll seem unprepared with the information you and your team present to higher-ups.

The colleagues you interact with should feel comfortable receiving your emails without there being a chance that your managers will find out about the smallest issues at hand. Prior to involving higher-ups, do your best to ensure those working on the issues at hand are prepared to interact with those higher-ups. Always opt for the option to let your colleagues save face by giving them as much time as possible to solve issues and prepare their communications.


Interacting with Higher Ups When the Issues Are Being Solved

Sometimes, time comes to escalate issues even when you and your team members are actively trekking toward a solution. Time may be a factor, and anticipating a missed deadline often involves letting all who hold interest in your work know about the delays.

When the issues are actively being solved and the solution is known:

  1. Explain the issue

  2. Be sure to state that a solution is known

  3. Provide the evidence you have for the solution

  4. Communicate what steps are being taken to solve the issue

Your overarching goal in communicating about issues which are actively being solved is to provide information as well as a sense of comfort and control to the higher-ups you escalate your issue to.

You should be calm and methodical in your approach. Anticipate many questions from higher-ups which are not tuned into the detail of your everyday tasks. Be patient with them, and ensure all roads lead to how the issues are being solved, and when they’ll be solved by.


Escalating When You and Your Team Can’t Solve the Issues at Hand

This section will also pertain to colleagues who refuse to solve issues (by ignoring your emails, or taking too long to get to your requests). 

An issue without a known solution is often a high priority task. You may know what steps need to be taken to reach a solution, but your position may not allow for those steps to take place.

During such instances, you’ll need to include higher-ups and ask them to help you solve the issues you’re facing. It is important that you are prepared to guide those to whom you escalate issues, toward the right direction.

Though you may not have a solution, try your best to think about what steps need to be taken in an effort to get your team closer toward one. How can the people you’re escalating your issues to help in this regard? What powers do they have that you don’t?

Below is a framework of what your email should look like:

  1. Solicit helpfulness rather than discipline

  2. Explain the issue at length

  3. Provide a general strategy at mitigating such issue (and where specifically the higher-ups can help)

Remember, even if issues at hand are caused by people not doing their job, don’t seek to motivate your higher-ups to discipline those who aren’t doing their work. Simply ask for help in getting what you need from those who aren’t doing their work.

For instance, ask your manager if they can have a word with the manager of the department you’re waiting for data from.  

Attempt, as best you can, to avoid the blame game. Ensure that you give no signs of being an emotional communicator of issues in an effort to show that you are only worried about mitigating rather than instigating.

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Disclaimer of Opinion: This article is presented only as opinion. It does not make any scientific, factual, or legal claims. Please critically analyze all claims made and independently decide on its validity.