Org Design, Org structure

The Dotted Line on Your Organizational Chart

Expert author: Tim Brewer

What is "dotted line" reporting?

The term refers to the use of a dotted line on an organizational chart. A solid line shows the relationship between an employee and their immediate supervisor or manager. When you add a dotted line, this is a person the employee reports to on specific projects or a secondary supervisor.

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This can sound confusing, and you might wonder why there would be a need for a dotted line.

In cases where multiple departments might need to work on specific projects together, a dotted line reporting option keeps things organized. This allows you to keep everything in order in instances where staff from various departments work together on set projects or in a permanent capacity.

Organizational charts are developed as a visual way to see the lines of communication in a company. They also show the hierarchy.

A chart should be clearly drawn so that any member of staff can quickly see who oversees specific functions, and which employees are working in that capacity.

The lines on the chart show which employees work in a supervisory capacity. This eliminates any confusion for employees and supervisors. Management can clearly see which employees they oversee and vice versa.

Functionly has the ability to represent solid and dotted-line reports. In the interactive template above, you can see the HR Business Partner roles show both a solid line reporting structure to the HR Director, and also dotted line reporting structure to individual Heads of Business Units. By hovering over one of the dotted line roles, a line will indicate where the persons who holds that dotted line role is in the org structure.

Dotted Line vs Solid Line Reporting

What is the difference between a dotted line relationship and a solid line relationship in reporting?

You need to know which is appropriate to create your organizational chart effectively. Let’s lay out the main differences.

Solid Line Reporting

On the organizational chart, a solid line indicates a more traditional management relationship. The person at the head of the solid line is the permanent supervisory role for the employees underneath.

The authority of that role is determined by the company. In some cases, that supervisor has hiring and firing rights, and oversees daily responsibilities.

In other cases, the direct supervisor may not oversee termination, that’s dependent on the company. Usually, the supervisor in this role would be responsible for the performance and productivity of the employee. This may include performance reviews and recommendations for promotion, etc.

Dotted Line Reporting

The supervisor in a dotted line reporting situation is not the permanent supervisor. This can be used in several scenarios.

In some companies, you may use dotted line reporting to note a secondary supervisor. This might be a supervisor the employee should go to in the event their regular supervisor is unavailable.

More and more frequently this reporting option is used when cross-training occurs or if employees from one department also work on projects with another department. That employee may have a regular supervisor, but the dotted line supervisor would be the person in charge of their secondary projects.

Possible Drawbacks to Dotted Line Reporting

Dotted line reporting options do have some inherent obstacles. If you use dotted line reporting too frequently, you run the risk of confusing employees and management.

You need clear protocols to indicate when and why to use dotted line reporting. In other words, you need set standards to determine when secondary management roles are appropriate. You also need to make certain that communication among these separate supervisors is good.

For employees, having too many supervisors may be confusing. You run the risk of having too much work placed on a single employee because the individual supervisors may not be aware of each other’s workflow.

If the supervisors don’t work well together, they may not manage to make deliverable deadlines comfortable for the employee.

You also run the risk that two managers both task an employee with responsibilities that, when combined, are not reasonable. For the employee, this can be extremely stressful. They wouldn’t want to fail in their responsibilities for either supervisor.

If you have excellent communication and a firm policy in place to dictate when to use dotted line reporting, the option can work well.

When to Use Dotted Line Reporting

There are a few situations where dotted line reporting can be advantageous for the company and the employees. In some structures, you would have several people in management positions with teams of employees underneath each of them.

You may have a secondary manager assigned to each employee who only needs to fulfill that management duty when the regular manager is unavailable.

This scheme can work well if the managers are in good communication. It gives employees a structure so that they always know where to take issues and how to facilitate productivity at all times.

Another reason to use dotted line reporting is for special projects. You can facilitate team building with employees from several departments on the same project. In these cases, the dotted line would lead to the project manager.

The project manager does not supersede that employee’s regular manager. But they have the authority to oversee work for that specific project alone.

Dotted Line Chart

Best Practices for Dotted Line Reporting

Dotted line reporting should be used sparingly.

If employees have too many managers, it can become confusing for everyone involved. Here are some best practices to help develop a good organizational chart using dotted line reporting.

  1. Develop Guidelines. The company should mandate guidelines to determine when secondary managers are appropriate and how to facilitate the communication in all concerned relationships. You might develop a protocol where secondary managers also 'cc' primary managers on deliverables so that all managers are in the loop and can see the employee’s complete workflow, so they don’t become overwhelmed.
  2. Be Clear About Authority. Every company has its own rules in place on the authority of its managers. Employees and managers need to be clear on which manager works in the capacity to oversee their performance reviews and who to discuss time off with, etc. Secondary managers don’t usually work with performance reviews.
  3. Set Dates Clearly. For projects, the dotted line feature is a temporary relationship that would end when the project is completed. These situations work well but it’s important to be clear on the length of time for each project.

Dotted line reporting is only beneficial when it improves communication.

It gives the staff and management direction to oversee every aspect of the workflow. It should not be a reporting option that confuses or hinders progress.

Dotted line managers often need some support to help facilitate engagement. The dotted line supervisors don’t usually oversee performance reviews, bonuses, or other incentives that the solid line management usually oversees.

You would hope that employees on projects would do an outstanding job because they have pride in their work. And this may be the case. But it still helps to have some incentive and to recognize the great work your employees are producing.

In all cases, communication should be addressed. Human Resources can assess dotted line reporting relationships to see where problems may occur and develop or edit protocols to help both management and staff use this option to the best benefit of the company.

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