Who’s in Charge if You’ve Got an Emergency?

Emergencies can appear out of nowhere, even during a pandemic. One day you’re operating under the “new normal,” the next day a subject matter expert calls in sick or the program manager is dragged into a meeting just as a situation arises that requires a decision. Who do you contact? It’s good to have a clear chain of command in an organization or their decision-making process when a problem arises.

I have yet to have a “paragraph emergency” in my career. That said, occasionally situations can arise that require someone else to make a call you are not authorized to make. These situations typically involve:

  • Spending or budget decisions
  • Policy decisions (“Are we allowed to do or say X?” or “Is that request within our contract scope?”)
  • Customer requests, which often will cost money.
  • Personnel situations. This could be a simple disagreement between coworkers or a situation that required disciplinary action.

I’ve rarely seen a technical writer empowered to make decisions of this nature unless they were running their own business. However, occasionally my CEO at Zero Point Frontiers would leave me in charge just to test my mettle or mess with my mind.

Before you need to defer to someone farther up in an organization, you might ask some basic questions:

  • Does the situation have to be addressed right now?
  • Who is asking for the decision?
  • Do you know enough about the situation to know what your leader’s answer would be?
  • What would the consequences be if you make a “wrong” decision on your leader’s behalf?

If the answers are yes, yes, no, and severe, it’s worth your time to understand how your organization handles decision making and whom you can ask to make the call. Obviously the more you know about the situation and the organization’s thinking or policies, the more likely you will be able to make a good decision without permission. For example, if the company has a strong “make the customer happy” ethos, you might be better off saying yes to something that would cost a little more money. On the other hand, if the organization is in cost-saving mode, a decision that will increase costs is more likely to result in a no. Regardless, the larger the organization, the more formal decision making is, and the more likely that you’ll regret making a call on your own.

Let’s assume, however, that the question or situation is urgent but beyond your knowledge, abilities, or authority to answer. In that case, you need to find out how soon an answer is needed and who in the organization is empowered to make the decision within the time allotted. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of trying to reach your immediate supervisor by phone, email, or text. Sometimes your leader is unavailable due to illness or other emergency. The easiest and most direct solution might be going to your supervisor’s leader or the next person up the chain until you run out of people to ask. The next easiest solution is to ask the person making the request or demanding a decision to wait until someone who has the authority to answer can respond. They might not like that answer, but if the decision is major and you are clearly not authorized to make it, they will have to wait.

The important thing for the enterprising technical writer caught in these situations is simply to know your limits: answer for the things you have enough knowledge or authority to answer. Some people might say, “Better to ask forgiveness than ask permission.” I have rarely seen that philosophy work out well in a bureaucratic corporate environment. You might have to caveat your response by saying, “X isn’t in the office right now, but I’ve spoken with her about this and she indicated her response would be Y.” Most importantly, after the discussion is finished and the decision made, inform your leader of the discussion and your decision! Keeping your leadership informed is a good thing: they hate surprises.

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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