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Nothing working? How to escalate the issue without causing havoc

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

March 18, 2022

You’ve tried polite emails — and not-so-polite ones. Maybe, you slipped and went passive-aggressive (oops) one time. But still, nothing seems to be getting through to your coworker or manager. If you’re dealing with an ongoing problem and there’s no end in sight, it could be time to escalate the issue.

But before you rush in with guns blazing, it’s important to know how to pick your battles and get the best results. Here are a few tips to help you navigate these stormy seas!

What is an escalation?

An escalation is when you take an issue up a level from your coworker or direct manager to someone higher up in the company. A higher authority could be your boss’s boss, HR, or another department.

Here are some real-world examples of when you might need to escalate the issue:

  • Your coworker won’t stop talking on the phone, even though it’s disruptive.
  • You’ve asked your manager for a raise, and they keep saying “soon.”
  • You’ve been bullied or sexually harassed by a coworker.
  • A stakeholder, supervisor, or coworker is deliberately sabotaging your project.
  • Resources are being incorrectly assigned to other projects or departments.
  • A supplier or team member keeps turning in substandard work or products.
  • A persistent safety or compliance issue is creating a harmful environment for your team.

When should you escalate the issue?

Escalation generally means you’ll need to ruffle a few feathers, and sometimes that’s more trouble than it’s worth. However, you shouldn’t back down from a serious issue simply out of fear. As the saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs!”

Sometimes escalation is the only route forward, especially if you’ve already tried to resolve the issue in other ways. To help you make the right decision, we’ve created a checklist below.

Generally speaking, you should escalate the issue if #1 and any of the following scenarios apply:

  1. You’ve tried communicating with the person directly, and it’s not working.
  2. Ongoing issues are affecting your work or ability to do your job.
  3. The situation is making you uncomfortable or stressed out.
  4. You repeatedly feel like you’re being ignored or dismissed about a pressing issue.
  5. The problem is costing your team or the company money.

It’s important to pick the right time to speak with upper management. Chances are, you won’t be taken seriously if you go in too early making demands or being aggressive about an issue that doesn’t seem that big to others. On the other hand, if you wait too long, the issue could blow up and be even harder to manage.

Typically, you should leave escalation as long as possible and make an effort to resolve conflict independently. But if the issue involves many people or seems to be getting worse, it’s better to speak with someone who can take action.

Who should you speak to when escalating the issue?

If you decide it’s time to escalate an issue, the next step is figuring out who to go to. This will depend on your workplace structure and chain of command. In most cases, you’ll want to go up the ladder, starting with your manager and then moving up through the ranks. However, if you don’t feel like your problem is being taken seriously, there may be someone else you can go to, like HR or a higher-up in your company.

Top tip: don’t go for the highest person initially. Start with someone a level or two above yourself. That way, by the time you reach someone nearer the top, you’ll know you have a reason to be there. You may also have the support of other high-ranking people behind you.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a serious issue, such as a business-critical operation or harassment, it might be necessary to bypass the hierarchy and speak to the highest authorities.

What should you say?

Now that you know who to speak to and when, it’s time to figure out what to say. This can be tricky, as you want to make sure you get your point across without coming off as aggressive or hostile. The goal is to be seen as someone who’s trying to get a resolution, not someone who’s angry.

A good approach is to start by explaining the issue and why you feel it needs to be escalated. Be polite and concise, and avoid using insults or inflammatory language. What you need to say will vary depending on the situation, but here are a few general tips:

Be clear and concise

When you’re describing the issue, be as specific as possible. Try to provide details about what happened, when it happened, who was involved, and what needs to happen. This will help ensure that your complaint is handled properly.

  • What
  • When
  • Who
  • How

Make sure you have all the facts straight

Before you go to speak to someone, make sure you’ve gathered all the relevant information. Providing accurate details will prevent confusion and make it easier for the person you’re speaking with to understand the situation.

It’s also a good idea to have solid evidence; otherwise, it pits one person’s word against another’s — and that’s never fun or fair. Email communications, examples of work, and tracked deadlines vs planned deadlines are all good options for proving your case. Just remember not to violate anyone’s privacy.

Keep emotions in check, and be practical

It’s important to stay calm when if you decide to escalate the issue. Getting angry or emotional will only make things harder.

  • Use “I” statements:  this will keep the focus on the issue, and not you. For example, “I feel like I’m being ignored,” rather than “You’re ignoring me.”
  • Avoid personal attacks: insulting the person you’re speaking to will only make them less likely to want to help you.
  • Choose the right channel of communication: face-to-face is often better for tough conversations. If you’re a remote worker, choose video call so that the person you’re speaking to can see and hear you, which lowers the chance of miscommunication.
  • Have an actionable plan: next, explain what you would like to see happen as a resolution. Try to be realistic, and be prepared to compromise if needed. Finally, thank the person you’re speaking to for their time, and ask any questions you may have.
  • Keep a record of everything: whenever possible, keep a written record of the issue and any conversations you have about it. Documentation can help if things go south and you need to take further action.

Escalation message templates you can steal

Here are some examples to help you get started.

First escalation: casual reminder

  • Hi, I’m having trouble getting a response to my emails. Is there someone I can speak to about this?
  • I’m concerned that a project is behind schedule. Can someone help me understand what’s happening?
  • I feel like I’m being ignored and am not being given the opportunity to contribute. Is there anyone I can speak to about this?

Subsequent escalations: email template

Dear <name>, I hope you’re well.

My name is <name>, and I’m working on <project name>.

I’m writing to you because I’ve been experiencing problems with <issue>, and I would like it to be escalated.

The problem started on <date> when <event> happened. Since then, it has <effect/frequency/evidence>. I have tried to speak to <person> about it, but so far, they have been unable to help.

I would like for the issue to be escalated to <level> so that someone with more authority can help me resolve it. I am happy to provide any additional information you may need.

Thank you for your time and support,


Key things to remember:

  • Structure your letter as follows: a friendly greeting and introduction, a description of the problem, the impact of the issue, a request, and a friendly closing.
  • Keep the tone friendly but firm.
  • Be polite and stay on topic.
  • Don’t be accusatory; focus on the outcome you want to achieve.
  • Avoid taking too long to gather critical information and evidence. If you need a few days, that’s okay, but try not to let the alignment period drag on. Anything over five days could be considered too much.
  • Always assume all parties have the best intentions. Escalations should be seen as a tool for improving things across the entire business. Don’t use them as a weapon!

Final thoughts

Conflict of any kind is difficult, but it’s especially tough when you’re dealing with it at work. You’ll have to get through some difficult meetings and potentially deal with the emotional difficulty of other people’s reactions — which might not be in your favor. On the other hand, if you remain silent, things could get a lot worse.

Choosing to escalate the issue (or not) is a tough decision, whichever way you slice it. But sometimes, it’s necessary to take things up a level. Just remember to be professional, calm, and respectful at all times. Good luck!



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