Chain of Command

A Graduate Assistant is a university employee, and as such has a supervisor, who in turn has a supervisor, all the way up the chain to the Chancellor of the university, and even the president of the University of Wisconsin System. When questions, concerns, or conflicts arise that require the attention of a supervisor, employees should contact their immediate supervisor first. For a Research Assistant, this might mean taking a question or concern to the Principal Investigator of their lab. For a Teaching Assistant it might mean taking a question or concern to the faculty instructor for the course in which they are leading a discussion section. Employees generally should not skip steps by going over the head of an immediate supervisor to the next level of management. Direct supervisors have the most knowledge of the circumstances involved and are usually in the best position to help find a solution.

There will be times when the Graduate Assistant’s immediate supervisor will need to call on higher authorities, such as the department chair or even the associate dean or dean of the college. There also might be rare occasions when it is appropriate for an employee to consult someone higher up first. For example, if a Graduate Assistant has a serious complaint about a direct supervisor, such as an allegation of bullying, it would be appropriate to discuss that with the department chair rather than with the direct supervisor.

Employees who skip steps on routine matters without good reason tend to be taken less seriously, and often will be asked to return the question to the appropriate level. For instance, a teaching assistant who directs a complaint about a room assignment to the provost of the university likely will not receive an answer, but will be asked to direct the question more appropriately. When in doubt, assistants should seek guidance from others about the appropriate person or office to contact.

Sometimes employees do not like the answer they receive from their direct supervisor, so seek a second opinion from the next level of supervision. Assistants are cautioned to be careful with this approach, which can appear to be insubordinate and should be justified only by serious circumstances. For instance, if a supervisor refused to take a legitimate safety concern in a lab seriously, the assistant who raised the concern might have an obligation to communicate with someone at a higher level to protect others in the lab. However, they are advised to do so respectfully and diplomatically, in order to preserve their relationship with their immediate supervisor. A discrete conversation with the program’s Graduate Representative or the department chair can sometimes help assistants better understand a supervisor’s decisions.