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There seems to be some debate on this question- but does the role hiearchy give a user access to records (OWNED BY or ACCESSIBLE TO) by the users who are below them in the role hiearchy?

I think it would be accessible to. The idea is that if i can see some records via sharing rules, my manager in the role hiearchy should see them too.

Can I get an expert to weigh in?

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From the documentation:

The role hierarchy enables users above another user in the hierarchy to have the same level of access to records owned by or shared with [emphasis added] users below. Consequently, users above a record owner in the role hierarchy are also implicitly granted Full Access to the record...

Understanding Sharing

  • In addition, this is true in case of Standard Objects. In case of custom objects, "Grant Access Using Hierarchies" has to be explicitly set to true in OWD. – Shailesh Deshpande Apr 25 '13 at 12:20
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Role hierarchy is for Owned by.

That being said the Role Hierarchy can be used to define sharing rules for private objects. A lot of admins will use "Role and Subordinates" to enable record access to an entire team or business unit which makes it look like the role hierarchy is doing the sharing by default.

This is why you cannot edit a record and change its owner at the same time. The owner needs to be defined for the sharing model to be applied.

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