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What is a Subordinate?

Michael Pollick
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Whether you call it a pecking order or a chain of command, when it comes to a corporate hierarchy, everyone serves somebody else. Depending on which rung of the ladder an employee occupies, however, there are others who may have to serve him or her as well. The same employee of a company could be viewed as a co-worker to some, a boss to others, and a subordinate to his or her superiors. A subordinate generally reports to at least one superior or boss in a corporate managerial structure, even if he or she is considered a superior in his or her own department.

This role is to perform duties or accept delegated responsibilities assigned by a superior. An office manager, for example, may assign routine paperwork to another employee in order to concentrate on an important project of his or her own. Because the relationship is superior/subordinate, the employee has an obligation to perform the assigned task. This is not the same relationship as a co-worker asking for assistance or a personal favor. There is a certain level of respect for a superior's position that motivates the other worker to accept the task or responsibility.

An employee on the bottom rung of a corporate ladder may be considered a subordinate to virtually everyone else, but eventually he or she may be promoted to a position with some managerial responsibilities. The lower ranking employee often observes a superior's average workday in order to learn what skills would be necessary to advance. Bosses and the workers they are superior to may have very strong working relationships, or they may not mesh well as a team. Personality clashes between them may also make their working relationship difficult, since the lower level employee may feel undervalued, while a superior may feel that those under him or her do not respect his or her authority.

The relationship between a subordinate and a superior may also be regulated by company policies. Because a certain level of respect and distance should be maintained, managers are often discouraged from fraternizing outside the office with employees who work under them. Too much familiarity could lead to charges of favoritism or leniency in the workplace. By restricting social contact, many company leaders hope to keep relationships on a professional level.

There is also a great deal of concern about romantic relationships between subordinates and superiors. Even if the relationship itself is consensual, there is a risk that the superior may expose the company to a sexual harassment lawsuit if the relationship ends badly. Employees with such a direct professional relationship are often discouraged from forming personal relationships in order to avoid potential complications in the future.

A subordinate is not by definition a lesser employee, just one who answers to at least one supervisor, boss or superior. Many company employees both report to others and have workers report to them, especially those who supervise workers on a production floor or hold other middle management positions. Shift supervisors may have bosses, and those bosses may have managers, and those managers may answer to vice-presidents and so on. One of the best ways to become a better superior is first learning how to be a good subordinate.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon353522 — On Oct 30, 2013

Is it advisable for a supervisor and a subordinate to share an office?

By anon337267 — On Jun 04, 2013

I have a question please. What should happen when authority has been delegated to a junior director when there is a senior director? Should the junior director hand over the delegated authority to the senior since in some cases, since such delegations might lead to having to give directives or orders? Thank you.

By Leonidas226 — On Nov 22, 2010


I think your democratic qualms about workplace politics may be well-intentioned, but such a system could never work. The founders of a company are the ones who originally took the initiative and risk to get the company started and are thus in control of its assets. It is their decision to award whomever they want to with different privileges and responsibilities of leadership. Although this may often lead to rifts at work, it is a necessary reality.

By hangugeo112 — On Nov 22, 2010

I find it backward that people are often promoted to leadership positions based on how well their superiors like them instead of on the basis of how well they perform as leaders. This results in many leaders that are selfish and difficult to follow, but who are, however, superb at brown-nosing and using obsequious tactics to climb the corporate ladder. Shouldn't leaders be appointed on an electoral basis? I think this would make the work experience much more pleasant and democratic.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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