In organizations large enough to have multiple levels of management, a common practice is to establish a “chain of command.”  The origin of the chain of command concept is often attributed to the military, but is used extensively in business also.

According to Wikipedia, a chain of command is “the line of authority and responsibility along which orders are passed within a military unit.”  The chain of command begins with the highest-ranking official – often known as the “commander-in-chief.”  The commander-in-chief will have subordinates, who are superiors to their subordinates, who are superiors to their subordinates, and so on.

The Wikipedia entry details a very important aspect of the chain of command:  “In general, military personnel give orders only to those directly below them in the chain of command and receive orders only from those directly above them.”

So, let’s take a look at what the chain of command would look like in a mid-sized procurement department.  The chief procurement officer (CPO) would assume the role of “commander-in-chief.”  Reporting directly to the CPO would be vice presidents of procurement.  Reporting directly to the vice presidents of procurement would be procurement directors.  Reporting directly to the procurement directors would be procurement managers.  And reporting directly to procurement managers would be buyers.

Organizations that employ the chain of command concept often strictly stick to rules for communication between levels, much like Wikipedia describes how it works in the military:  “A service member who has difficulty executing a duty or order and appeals for relief directly to an officer above his immediate commander in the chain of command is likely to be disciplined for not observing the chain of command. Similarly, an officer is usually expected to give orders only to his or her direct subordinate, even if it is just to pass an order down to another service member lower in the chain of command than said subordinate.”

As such, a buyer will not be communicating with a procurement director.  A procurement manager will not be communicating with a vice president of procurement.    And so on.

Proponents of the chain of command structure in business see these benefits:

  • Managers don’t get undermined by their superiors who might become involved in their responsibilities, often armed with incomplete knowledge of situations
  • Higher-level managers don’t get dragged into work that their lower-level managers should be doing or conflicts that they should be handling
  • Lower-ranked employees don’t receive mixed or conflicting messages by attempting to serve two superiors
  • A chain of command structure can create an environment of empowerment for middle managers, which can enable an organization to recruit more talented managers who generally don’t like to be micromanaged

Those are certainly valuable benefits.  But they are a little too textbook for certain real-world scenarios, especially if followed overly rigidly.

This point is particularly true in business functions where ethical behavior is a higher concern, like procurement.  A subordinate can witness unethical behavior from his or her superior but, with the chain of command allowing only communication with one’s direct superior, the chain of command can serve to suppress the uncovering of unethical behavior to the point of actually encouraging it.

Consider this scenario…

A manufacturer has two procurement teams:  Raw Materials Procurement and Operational Procurement.  Each procurement team has its own director and both directors report to a chief procurement officer.

The Operational Procurement team is split into two groups:  Strategic Operational Procurement and Tactical Operational Procurement.  Each group has its own procurement manager.  And each procurement manager supervises five buyers.

A buyer in the Strategic Operational Procurement group witnesses Jim, the procurement manager of the group, accepting gifts and money in exchange for awarding business to a certain supplier.  The buyer knows that the supplier was not the best choice for the organization – its prices were higher than its competitors, its service worse, and its products of lesser quality.  There is clearly unethical behavior going on.  Additionally, all of Jim’s employees regard him as a “monster.”  He berates them for no good reason and takes every opportunity to intimidate them.

The buyer requests a meeting with the director of Operational Procurement to discuss some “concerns within the department.”  The director of Operational Procurement refuses the meeting, saying “Jim is the manager of the Strategic Operational Procurement group.  Any concerns within the department should be discussed directly with Jim.”  The director is following the textbook process of the chain of command.

Well, what is the buyer going to do?  Tell Jim that he’s behaving unethically?  Yeah, that will work out well.

This is where the chain of command reaches a very tragic – and unnecessary – dead end.  Because the textbook chain of command is in place, Jim’s unethical behavior is likely to continue unabated.

Now, there’s a strong possibility that, if you’re reading this, you might be a leader in a chain of command structure.  And you might be worried.  And you should be, especially if you are higher up on the chain of command.

One of the reasons you should be concerned is that, in a chain of command, your subordinates’ values appear to reflect your values whether they do or not.  In the foregoing example, the director of procurement would appear to have values that consider the accepting of bribes to be hunky-dory.  If Jim is a slimeball and the director of procurement doesn’t want to be involved in conversations that may reveal Jim’s behaviors, do you know what that makes the director of procurement in the eyes of many?

If you guessed “a slimeball,” you are right!

Now, I’m an unapologetically opinionated person.  But are these points mere “opinions of Charles” or should they be embraced as a standard way of thinking?

Well, let me share another disturbing, non-procurement example.

Joe Paterno was once regarded as perhaps the most iconic college football coach of all time.  As he aged, he only became more and more beloved by the fans of Penn State University football and, really, the greater sports world.  He had many legendary accomplishments during his incredibly long tenure with PSU:  1966-2011!

However, his legacy – and perhaps his life – was ruined when a scandal happened within the chain of command of which he was a part.

In November 2011, one of Paterno’s subordinates – assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky – was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation.  Some of the incidents occurred in PSU facilities.

One particular incident way back in 2001/2002 was witnessed by a subordinate of Paterno’s, who reported the incident to his immediate superior in the chain of command, Paterno.  Paterno reported the incident to his superior in the chain of command, athletic director Timothy Curley.  The reporting of the incident continued to go up the chain of command but, inexplicably, didn’t result in timely law enforcement action.  Everyone was too concerned with honoring the chain of command structure to actually do the right thing.

When the scandal broke and it became clear that Paterno knew about the 2001/2002 incident, PSU fired Paterno.  While this firing enraged many fans of Paterno’s football work, there were also plenty of people who believed that Paterno failed his moral obligation to get Sandusky brought to immediate justice.  Because Sandusky was not brought to immediate justice, the molestations continued for years.  Though Paterno did not participate in the molestation of children, his textbook following of the chain of command led many in the public to conclude that Jerry Sundusky’s values were Joe Paterno’s values.

Right or wrong, that was the perception of many.  They perceived Paterno as a, well, slimeball.  And perception can indeed be reality.

Seventy-four days after being fired, Joe Paterno died.  No matter all of the good he had done in his 45-year career and 85-year life, the values of a subordinate in Paterno’s chain of command will forever be a part of his legacy.

That’s a pretty tragic illustration of the problems with a pure chain of command structure.  So, what can you do?  Do you not utilize a chain of command structure and forgo all of the aforementioned benefits?

Well, I think that there is one simple solution.

You can have a chain of command.  But, you also need an ombudsman.

An ombudsman is “a designated neutral who is appointed or employed by an organization to facilitate the informal resolution of concerns of employees, managers, students and, sometimes, external clients of the organization,” according to the International Ombudsman Association.  An ombudsman is outside of the chain of command, but is available to employees to “(1) to work with individuals and groups in an organization to explore and assist them in determining options to help resolve conflicts, problematic issues or concerns, and (2) to bring systemic concerns to the attention of the organization for resolution.”

So, in the procurement example, if Jim’s boss wants to honor the chain of command and doesn’t want to hear about Jim’s unethical behavior, the buyer would have someone to turn to if an ombudsman was employed.  In the PSU example, well, hopefully an ombudsman would have gotten the police involved and the abuse put to a stop immediately sparing the tragedies endured by so many victims.

By the way, five years after Paterno’s death, all three surviving members of the chain of command – including the de facto “commander-in-chief”, PSU President Graham Spanier – were sentenced to jail terms!  This shows that higher-level leaders in the chain of command – right up to the commander-in-chief – can be held accountable for behavior in the chain of command, even if it is many levels below them.

If you think about it, honoring a chain of command without an ombudsman to whom an employee can report ethical violations is like a leader in that chain screaming “LA LA LA LA LA…I CAN’T HEAR YOU…YOU’RE TWO LEVELS BELOW ME ON THE CHAIN OF COMMAND…LA LA LA LA LA!”  That’s kind of dumb if you can be held accountable for behavior anywhere in the chain below you, isn’t it?

Here are two very specific and strongly-worded ideas that I want you to remember:

  1. When unethical behavior occurs between two people under you in the chain of command, you are either aligned with good or aligned with evil.  Using the chain of command to block yourself from hearing about unethical behavior aligns you with evil by default.
  2. When you bury your head in the sand, you are well-positioned to be bitten in the ass.

In situations that lend themselves to potential unethical behavior – like procurement – having an ombudsman is a necessity.  The chain of command should serve to streamline communication, not to facilitate unchecked unethical behavior.

And, if you don’t have an ombudsman, maybe you should have an open door policy – with appropriate guidelines for usage – for employees two or more levels down.  The risk of refusing to hear about potential ethical problems – or the breaking of actual laws – is too great not to.

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3 is an internationally-recognized business expert, legendary procurement thought leader, award-winning entrepreneur, and provocative blogger. Charles founded the Next Level Purchasing Association in 2000, oversaw its incredible growth, and successfully led the organization to its acquisition by the Certitrek Group in 2016. He continues to blog and provide advisory services for the NLPA on a part-time basis as he incubates his upcoming business innovations. Charles is also the co-author of the wildly popular, groundbreaking book, "The Procurement Game Plan: Winning Strategies & Techniques For Supply Management Professionals."

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