can I ask for a raise when I haven’t been doing a great job?

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my current job for almost a year now with a gross salary of (redacted at letter-writer’s request, but close to national average). I also started grad school 2 months after employment, so I haven’t been the strongest performer at work and my relationship with my boss is tense. At the same time, I like the job and I really really try to do a good job, except that the company itself is a small business and there is no HR policy about anything whatsoever. To cut it short, I’ve asked for an evaluation from my boss and he said yes. I fear his feedback would be negative, but I plan to learn from it.

In case his feedback isn’t great and I improve on the areas he tells me, how soon after this evaluation is it a good idea to ask for a raise? The main reason is that our taxes were increased, so my paycheck was cut by another $200/month. It just seems unfair after a year of employment and lot of hard work, to start making less, not more! What do you think?

Also, we have an informal policy to go to lunch all together (there are only 10 people in the office) every Friday. It’s not mandatory but at the same time… it is. You can’t really make excuses all the time not to join the group. So, there is a fixed expense of $40 – $50 a month for these lunches. This is not compensated by the company. Now I’ll be making less each month with this new tax increase. Should I raise this at my evaluation meeting with my boss, and ask the company to cover this lunch expense for me? I’m really annoyed by it, I don’t want to have to pay for it every week and now be making less money. What would you advise?

If you’re not performing very well and you get a relatively critical evaluation, you really shouldn’t be asking for a raise any time soon. Raises are recognition that you’ve been contributing at a higher level than when your salary was last set. A weak evaluation means that you’re not meeting expectations at your current level. That’s a serious thing — that has to be fixed and your performance brought up to the bar set by your manager before your job can feel secure at your current salary. From there, you’d need to perform at a higher bar than that — over a sustained period of time — before you could reasonably ask for a raise. You’re looking at something around a year of high-level performance before you could credibly ask to have your salary increased.

You say that you know that you haven’t been a strong performer and you have a bad relationship with your boss. Those are not the conditions that lead to raises. You have to earn a raise through your performance, so that’s where your focus should be this year. Revisit this in 12 months.

As for asking the company to cover the cost of your weekly lunches with coworkers, no, don’t do that. They’re not going to cover it for you without covering it for everyone, and if you ask, you’ll come acrosss if you don’t understand business norms and possibly as if you have an inappropriate sense of what you’re entitled to from your employer. However, if you don’t want to spend the money on these lunches, why not suggest less expensive alternatives to your coworkers — either going less frequently, or bringing food from home, or not holding it against people if they opt out?

Regarding the taxes … Don’t raise this as a negotiation tactic. The amount your company pays you for your work should be based on the market value of the work you do, not your tax situation, and the amount you pay in taxes is between you and the government. I’m assuming that you wouldn’t have been okay with your employer lowering your pay when taxes were cut in the early 2000s, right? Similarly, you can’t expect your employer to raise your pay now that taxes are going in the other direction.

Ultimately, what I’m hearing in your letter is a bit of a disconnect between what you want and the reality of the situation you’re in. You’re probably not in a position to be making any financial requests of your employer. When you’re not performing well, you don’t have any leverage to ask for more money. If you want more money, you need to first earn it.

Right now, it sounds like your focus needs to be on proving to your manager that you should have the job, to say nothing of more money.

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. OP*

    Thank you for your honest feedback, Alison! I was thinking along the same lines except the lunch thing. Now I’ll definitely re-think even asking about lunch compensation. I will not ask for a raise at this point.
    Although, I was going to ask my boss what kind of performance he would like/expect to see to consider a salary review in the future. If I can meet his expectations while being in grad school with this crazy schedule, maybe I’ll try to ask for another evaluation in 6 months after this one. Otherwise, I’ll have to let go.
    I’m just personally upset about the tax increase and just the fact of having to see a lower figure on my paycheck after a whole year of work.

    1. Jamie*

      I wouldn’t ask about performance he needs to see in order to get an increase. That sounds like you’re willing to put in more effort if there was more money on the table – but need that as an incentive to improve.

      It may not be the case, but it may well sound to your boss that you don’t understand that your need to earn the raise through performance before asking for it.

      I would stay far away from any compensation discussion until you’re on solid footing performance wise. Although asking for feedback and using it to improve will help toward that end. That’s a good idea.

      1. OP*

        Thank you, Jamie! I didn’t look at my question that way but I now I see how it can sound wrong. I guess I’ll just ask about improvement and consider performance better than that what he would look for.

    2. Eric*

      The tax increase isn’t your employers fault either. It was a temporary reduction in the social security deduction, the increase was predictable (even the amount).

      1. Sam*

        Exactly. This wasn’t a tax increase, it was the end of the ss reduction. Can’t be too surprised; President Obama always said it was temporary.

        (Personally, when the tax “holiday” went into effect, I started adding an extra 2% to my 401k. When the regular deduction resumed Jan 1, I reduced my 401k investment. My paychecks look exactly the same.)

    3. BW*

      As Alison said, the tax issue is between you and the government. Your employer has no control over taxes. Take it up with your state and/or federal congresspeople and senators. If you can, take advantage of ways to reduce your taxes like pre-tax payroll deductions offered by your employer. It is upsetting to see less money in your check, but it is what it is. You can take control of that by adjusting your budget and finding way to save money in other ways.

      Not wanting to spend $40-50 on eating out is a personal financial issue. The lunches are not mandated by your employer even if you *feel* like they are mandatory. This is a choice you have between office politics and your personal budget. You do have options like not going at all, declining every once in a while, suggesting less expensive alternatives, and being careful about what you order when you do eat out.

    4. Just a Reader*

      Really, don’t mention money at all. All of your posts are signaling that you don’t care about your job/doing a good job, only what you earn, which is likely coming through loud and clear to your boss.

      You should also look into changing your tax withholding to put more money in your pocket. I would recommend getting some advice on this as you don’t want to owe money at tax time, but you may currently have more than you need taken out, cutting into your take home pay.

  2. Nameless*

    I am curious to hear from HR/employers on when do they realize they made a bad hire and what do they do after realization? OP mentioned she started grad school 2 months after accepting employment, at some point the employer might wonder, why didn’t you tell us you were planning to go to grad school?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Good managers address the problem forthrightly, see if it can be fixed in a reasonable amount of time, and if not, transition the person out.

      Bad managers let the problem linger and allow it to affect the work and the person’s coworkers.

    2. OP*

      In my defense, I don’t consider myself a bad hire or a poor performer. However, I have not been able to give 100% at work because of my decision to do grad school. I was hired in February and started school in May part-time. Now I’m full time taking 9 credits.
      Frankly, I’m tired at work and can’t focus as much as I should and that’s where some of my mistakes come from. Yet I perform quite well overall, don’t screw up things and don’t make major mistakes. I would like to be a stronger performer though.

        1. The IT Manager*

          What Zed said! I feel you. My doctor was understandably shocked when I explained that while working full time and going to grad school full time I was averaging 4-5 hours of sleep a night. It sucked. I had a deadline to finish imposed by my employer in order to remain employed otherwise I would not have been a full time student. Can you cut it back? Because really in addition to my work suffering, school suffered too and I did not get as much out of it as I could. If you cut back on school, you could probably achieve a better quality of life.

        2. OP*

          The reason why I’m taking 9 credits in grad school is access to health care. I’m actually from Eastern Europe (which some already guessed from my English) and when I arrived to the States, I didn’t have any health insurance. My current employer offered a plan which I enrolled in and dis-enrolled from because it was very expensive.
          When I was accepted in grad school, I found out that they offered a great comprehensive health insurance for quite little money. So this was my option to have access to health care. Also, I would like to finish grad school within a reasonable time.

          1. BW*

            Employer health insurance deductions are usually pre-tax and reduce the amount of income the government uses to calculate your taxes. You’d have to do some math to figure this out, and it’s too late now probably if open enrollment is over, but even though your employers plan is more expensive up front, using it may actually result in less of a net loss in your paycheck, because of the reduction in your taxable income. This is something to think about for your next open enrollment (usually at the end of the year). There are calculators online for this sort of thing.

            It’s been a long time since I was in school, so I don’t know what is available now, but make sure you take advantage of any tax deductions available to you for educational expenses when you fill out your 2012 tax returns.

          2. Zed*

            I completely understand – health insurance is really important and really, really expensive. Universities do typically have very good insurance options available for full-time students, so I can’t blame you for prioritizing that, although please know that having access to an employer-provided plan always makes you very fortunate.

            However. You may not be able to manage full-time graduate school and a full-time job. Not everybody can, and that’s okay. Or you may be able to manage, but without putting 100% into either endeavor, resulting in a less-than-stellar work history and less-than-stellar grades. If grad school means that you are sleeping 6 hours or less a night and are therefore so tired at work that you are making mistakes, that’s a problem, and your employer will probably not sympathize with the fact that you (a) want cheaper health insurance than they are offering and (b) want to finish grad school faster.

            1. OP*

              It does suck quite badly to be honest. I plan to survive through this semester and make a choice later this year. Maybe my employer will allow me to be part-time or work from home or something. But you’re right – you end up just not giving 100% to both endeavors.

              1. Zed*

                I wish you all the best! I hope you can find a solution that will let you be insured, do well in school and work, and (most importantly) stay healthy.

  3. just laura*

    Where is the line for talking about a small cost-of-living raise? Obviously, OP doesn’t deserve a merit-based raise, but the former might be possible…?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d be wary of asking for even a cost-of-living increase when you haven’t been doing a good job — it’s too likely to come across as oblivious to the performance issues or not understanding that they’re a problem. As a manager, if I had a low performer ask for a cost-of-living increase, I’d be thinking, “I’m not even sure you’re going to have a salary for very much longer, let alone an increased one.”

  4. Sarah*

    $200/month seems very high for a payroll tax increase. Have you checked to make sure they are withholding at the correct rate? The increase that I am aware of that effects everyone is the 2% Social Security increase.

      1. Sarah G*

        My check decreased by over 4% of my gross salary. And I make below the national average. I wonder what gives? I just got my first 2013 direct deposit today, but haven’t received my pay stub yet, so I’ll have to see how it breaks down. I know my insurance premium went up a little, but very little if I remember correctly. This decrease in net pay is really going to hurt.

        1. Sarah G*

          Oh wait, I just remembered that I took the $2500 max deduction for my medical flex account, so that’s a big part of it. Phew! I was panicking for a moment.

          1. BW*

            Exactly! Use those pre-tax deductions to your advantage if you know you will spend that money on medical (since you use it or lose it). I make twice the national average. My decrease was about $80/month (or $40/paycheck). My deductions for insurances, 401K, transportation, and medical flex stayed about the same as last year. $200 seems really high. A friend of mine, who makes more than I do (but still less than 6 figures) is seeing about $200/month less and that includes other increases to her elective deductions.

      2. OP*

        For me it was around $90 which is still a lot. I could pay my electric bill or a phone bill with that amount. I also didn’t know it was coming so my budget is still based on the old amount.

        1. Kathryn T.*

          I understand that you didn’t know it was coming, but the fact that it was coming was a matter of public record and all over the news. It’s not like it was a secret.

    1. Dan*

      Yeah, I was going to say the same thing. The only tax that went up for everybody was the payroll tax — 2%, as you note. Taxes did go up for the very wealthy, but if you’re making close to the national average, you’re far, far away from that figure.

      BTW, even if the OP is sore about that, the payroll tax stimulus has always been billed as a short term temporary thing. Being sore that it has been removed is a bit… naive, I guess. Personally, when I budgeted, I just ignored it, figuring that when it went back up, I wouldn’t miss it.

      1. Laura L*

        Technically, the tax cuts from 2001 were supposed to expire in 2010, but were extended once or twice because of the recession and would have gone back to 1990 levels if congress hadn’t passed the bill it passed on Dec 31.

        Which is to say, I can see why someone might forget that the tax cut was temporary. Or even forget that it had happened at all.

    2. Ashley*

      This. I think everyone is exaggerating the impact the 2% has on their paychecks. Yes, it is a significant amount, but it’s only around $70-100 for the people that I’ve spoken to, who have all said “It’s $200 a month less I’m making.”

      Also, as another commenter said, it was always meant to be temporary. Not that it helps put money in your pocket, but it’s just things returning to normal after we had a bit of relief.

      1. twentymilehike*

        Not that it helps put money in your pocket, but it’s just things returning to normal after we had a bit of relief.

        I’m feeling the frustration about the payroll taxes, also. And I wanted to piggy back on this comment. If anything, I dearly wish that things would go back to normal. In the time that our payroll taxes were reduced 2%, our cost of living increased more than 2%: gas, rent, food, electricity (in my city, electricity rates increased 15% at the first of the year), and so forth. So technically, things really aren’t back to normal, and if you live on a shoestring budget trying to make ends meet, then that 2% is a huge impact.

        For example, DH and I are now taking home an amount less per month that is almost equivalent of a car payment. Today I had to drive home in rush hour traffic, in a stick shift, trying to “two-foot” it, using the hand brake, not hit anyone, just to keep the car running. For some, 2% is spending money and staying home one night a month instead of hitting the bar. For others its whether or not the car stays running or the heat stays on. I would expect that a sympathetic employer would either offer COLAs as appropriate, or they would be honest about their lack of finances and not be surprised when employees look elsewhere. Sadly, our expenses keep going up, but not everyone’s wages are going up. It’s frustrating.

        WHICH leads me to … I’d like to hear more on this comment: Where is the line for talking about a small cost-of-living raise?

        Is this something that you can ask for? I don’t know much about COLAs, as I’ve always had performance-based raises … except the last four years where no one at my company has gotten a bonus or a raise because the company is so tight right now. I’m really REALLY contemplating asking for one (with your blessing, Alison … even though I’m still reluctant!), but could I phrase it in terms of a COLA? How would that work? What would make more sense for someone who is (IMO) a high performer? I’m just not sure how to get more, when they complain that there isn’t a lot there … The alternative would be to leave, but I know they wouldn’t be thrilled.

        Anyhow, sorry for the book of a comment!

        1. Jamie*

          IME COLAs are given across the board to everyone – because ostensibly everyone has been hit by the same cost of living increases.

          I don’t know how one would make the argument that they need a COLA when others aren’t getting them.

          And the thing is, when a company is really tight financially asking for any kind of increase is risky as you risk them thinking you don’t understand the financial situation. If it’s your job to understand where they are financially that can be a problem.

          1. Katie*

            I think the bottom line is: if you aren’t performing up to snuff, you shouldn’t bring up increasing your compensation for whatever reason.

        2. Sarah*

          If 2% of your pay is equal to amount of a car payment and you are living on a shoestring budget, then perhaps you have some budgeting issues you need to look into. I make very little money and this 2% increase does not have much of an effect on us at all, because 2% of very little is a very small number.

          1. twentymilehike*

            If 2% of your pay is equal to amount of a car payment and you are living on a shoestring budget, then perhaps you have some budgeting issues you need to look into

            FWIW, the 2% of our combined pay is approximately $150, add that to our income, and subtract what it costs to keep the current car running would make replacing the car an option; Yes, I have car shopped and yes, I can put myself in a reasonable car for less than $300 a month. Also, FWIW, I do not have “budgeting issues.” I make a reasonable income, but happen to live in a really high cost of living area (there was a post a while back where in the comments there was a discussion about being “trapped” in CA because it’s to expensive to move, but to expensive to live).

        3. Ask a Manager* Post author

          If you’re a high performer, I think you can bring up cost-of-living in the context of making the argument for a merit raise, when pay has been frozen for a while — i.e., I haven’t had a raise for three years, I’m doing an excellent job, the cost of living increase has meant that I’m actually earning less in real terms than before, and I’d like the company to consider increasing my pay to reflect my performance.

          So it’s not the main argument, but it could be part of a larger one. But otherwise, as Jamie says, they’d need to be doing it for everyone.

        4. CH*

          Here’s the thing: it isn’t just the 2% increase in Social Security taxes–it is the higher cost of living, the fact that my company isn’t giving any raises this year because the economy still stinks, the fact that my health insurance premiums went up while they increased my deductible so I had to increase my contribution to my flex spending account. Oh, and my daughter’s college tuition keeps going up but her scholarship doesn’t. Add these together and you’ll see why most of us are feeling squeezed and a bit depressed.

      2. BW*

        If you;re living paycheck to paycheck, $70-100/month can make a big difference. Although if you have a lot of discretionary expenses like a daily trip to Starbucks or eating out regularly, it’s easy to make that up by adjusting your spending.

  5. jesicka309*

    OP, about the lunch thing – perhaps consider going along to the lunch, but not ordering food? You could always go along, order a coffee or drink or small side or something and have that while they eat? You will still have to spend a little money, but it could save you a bit of money in the long run. You would have to order something though, otherwise it will make the others uncomfortable, and as the meeting is expected, you can’t just not go.
    If they ask, you can always deflect with something like, “Oh, I made the most delicious pasta last night and I have leftovers! I’m really looking forward to it.” So you’re not being rude by not having food, you’re just so darn excited about the pasta/casserole/gourmet sandwich etc. you made at home.

    1. Erica B*

      Why can’t the OP just say that she can no longer afford to go out every week for lunch? She could even comment about how grad school has tightened her budget. I get paid bi-weekly, and I know on my off week I can’t afford to go out to lunch. I do treat my self on paycheck Friday, but it is my choice.

      While it’s a leisure,and not work, my book club often meets at a local restaurant/bar and depending on the week depends if I have the money to buy anything. If not, I get a water and it’s a non-issue

      1. Another Laura*

        THIS! I get tired when people comment about such issues. We had a company fundraiser for t-shirts whose proceeds went to some charity or another. When approached about purchasing, my co-worker said “sorry, my budget doesn’t allow for it this month, but it is a phenomenal cause.” DONE. end of story. i was proud of her!

        No shame in being smart with your money!

      2. OP*

        Thank you for this idea, Erica! I’m actually thinking of saying something along the lines of “I hope you won’t hold it against me but I can’t afford to have lunch with you every week, I have to cut it down to every other week”. I know that girls I work with also can’t afford it all too well and we’ve all switched to ordering soup and small french fries which is brings the bill down to $4 instead of $10 -$11 for a sandwich/salad + drink. But I’ve always worked in large corporations before and wasn’t sure how to handle it one-on-one with your boss in a small firm where there is no real policy.

        1. Jamie*

          If that’s the case for the others I bet at least some will be relieved you spoke up. And there is no shame in sticking to a budget and if anyone looks down on something so sensible that’s their problem. Not yours.

          1. BW*

            Jaime is wise. Since your know other people are struggling with it, they may be relieved someone spoke up, and decide to speak up as well. Everyone is feeling the tax increase. Maybe the group will decide to do it less often or meet but not go out as often and do a BYOL meeting instead.

        2. KarenT*

          If you don’t want to make waves, you could make it sound like you are disappointed (it sounds like you genuinely like your co-workers, so this wouldn’t be being fake).

          Something like “I won’t be able to join you for lunches as my budget is tight right now. I’m really disappointed as I love spending time with you all.”

          You could also tell them you’ll join them once a month instead of once a week, or suggest coffee meetings instead.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Offering an alternative suggestion is always good. It “proves” this issue in indeed about cost and not about the people you are with.

        3. AC*

          At our office, we sometimes do small potlucks for our small group of 10-12. Once we had a fiesta-themed potluck, where each person brought 1 item ( rice, beans, tortilla, salsa, chips, veggies, chicken, etc.) and we all shared! Another time we did a sandwich themed potluck (bread, meat, lettuce/tomato/onion, pickles, cheese) and that was also a fun way to eat as a group. It’s cheaper than going to a restaurant, but is a fun alternative.

  6. Stephanie*

    Outside of poor performance, AAM + readers, are there other times you’d recommend not asking for a raise?

    My situation: I have been working at a company now for a little over a year. I do good work, and I have almost completed a certification program that the director of our department recommended in the evenings to get better acquainted with the field.

    Our company has switched to a focal once-a-year performance evaluation, and it is coming up at the end of this month. Normally, I’d be comfortable asking for a raise based on this past year, but I will be going out on maternity leave in 2.5 months. I know that me being out for 12+ weeks is going put a burden on my team (we have like 5 other women out on maternity leave in our department right now!), but I have also been working really hard this past year.

    1. Jamie*

      Where are you at in terms of market? If you were hired under market and are a high performer it’s justifiable, IMO to ask after a year. I did.

      Just my opinion, but I wouldn’t let upcoming maternity leave factor into a discussion about salary evaluation. It’s a not a favor to let you take maternity leave and FMLA is unpaid – and any PTO you use is earned at your salary rate. I’ve never dealt with this personally, but I don’t think the maternity leave should preclude the discussion if you feel an increase is warranted.

      1. Jamie*

        Oh, one more thing – I would never base a raise request based on working hard. That’s expected – its about your results not the effort.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Totally agree with Jamie — both about not letting the maternity leave be a factor and about basing your case on results, not effort.

      (Part of me might be secretly relieved if someone asked for a raise right before going on maternity leave, as it would be a good sign she was planning on coming back.)

  7. Just me*

    I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, OP, but your paycheck being smaller isn’t your employer’s fault or concern. You sound very childish with the assumption that you deserve a raise over anyone else simply because of taxes. Everyone else had taxes decrease their paycheck too, so asking for one based in any part on that is a mistake. It could put you in a bad light with your employer.

    Although it feels like you’re taking a paycut after a year’s work, you aren’t. Your employer is paying you the same amount, but the gocernment is now taking more.

  8. Katie the Fed*

    I don’t get it. I really don’t.

    I always thought poor performers were people who didn’t realize they were poor performers. If you know you’re a poor performer, OP, then why wouldn’t you do better? What am I missing?

    1. jesicka309*

      Sometimes you can just focusing on other things in your life (as the OP says), and be doing the minimum amount required at work. It won’t get you an ‘outstanding’ review, but you’ll get middle of the road reviews.
      I know for me right now it’s not worth my sanity to aim for outstanding. The effort required to get there takes too much of a toll on my personal life and mental health. SoI’m comfortable just treading water.
      That being said, I’m not asking for a raise either. :)

    2. Chloe*

      There are many reasons for being a poor performer. Outside work stress. You hate your boss. The job isn’t right for you. Your colleagues suck. Things like that can impact on your performance in a material way, and you can’t find a way to overcome it so as to improve your performance, then as much as you know you’re not doing a great job you might not be able to do much about it.

      I have to say, a lot of regular commentators on this site have a pretty hard-ass attitude. Everyone who writes to Alison is human like all of us, doing the best they can to get by with what they have.

      Not every situation is as black and white as a lot of people seem to think.

    3. OP*

      Katie, I try to to do better every day. I recognize where I fall short and I try to fix. At the same time, in the past year, my boss only told me about 1 thing I had to improve and I did. Other than that, I just find faults myself by comparing my work with other people’s and improving on it.
      This evaluation is so critical because I feel like I could be doing better but I really don’t know what my boss is going to say because my relationship with him isn’t great.
      I am also tired a lot at work because I cut my sleep down to 6 hours to be able to do homework for grad school.

  9. CatB (Europe)*

    Being an Eastern European myself, I can understand where OP is coming from. And I sympathize. She’s not only struggling with (a) work and (b) grad school, but – depending on how long she’s been in the US – it may very well be also (c) adjusting to a whole new culture, which (in many newcomers’ experience) is The Mother Of All Headaches.

    What may have come across as naive or entitled to some US-born readers might very well not be that at all, but remains of the culture (work-related, life-related) she’s coming from.

    For example, in my experience it’s not unheard of asking for COL increases irrespective of performance (excepting maybe the cases of gross underperformance, but I’ve seen people on their way out requesting as well, and many employers don’t think its inappropriate, they just refuse it).

    Also, many requests involving personal reasons, that would be unacceptable in the US, are acceptable or at least do not raise eyebrows in my country. Europe is perceived as “social” and as such employers are expected to do things for their employees that in the US would be out of question.

    I do not know if this is the case here, but that might be a reason for many other newcomers’ plights.

    1. Sandrine*

      Well, I’m from France so I get that post, but… I’m so “obsessed” about the US I can say I have a rather accurate vision of it from my European point of view, culture and work wise.

      Accurate as in “I know this will/won’t work for me” , I mean. And boyyy do I know it wouldn’t. I don’t think I should get everything handed over a silver platter and I do believe I have to work my ass off for what I get.

      But quite frankly, I often feel that some stuff are “slap in the face” situations, and I know I couldn’t quite handle that more than three months, if that.

      So I think I’ll just continue to play the happy tourist every once in a while :p

      1. CatB (Europe)*

        You’re fortunate, then, to be in close touch with reality. Sadly, many do not. They just take the plane Stateside, expecting the experience to be tourist-like or to be somewhat home-ish, only with better living standard (1000x more so for many Eastern Europeans). The culture shock is like a sledgehammer on your forehead. I experienced it kinda second-hand-ish (my sister-in-law got the Diversity Visa back 2002, and their first 2 or 3 years were soul-grinding. They adjusted, but it wasn’t easy on them…)

        Dans ce cas-la, alors, on peut comprendre un peu, n’est-ce pas? ;-)

        1. Sandrine*

          Ah, oui, on peut!

          I actually love visiting. Everything is vibrant, I love many, many aspect of the various cultures in the US, but work culture ? Nuh huh. One thing that gets to me, for example, is about vacation and breaks. Sure, I can’t take a break willy nilly here either and have to ask my boss, but I get breaks. And vacation ? Two weeks in a year would pretty much have me cut my head off in frustration (not literally, mind you XD ).

          Maybe it’s better for people who do live in Eastern Europe. But for someone in, say, France or Belgium, no way :P .

          I love Alison’s “NO BS” approach though. I’m pretty sure I could forget about everything else if I worked in the US with someone like her!

          1. CatB (Europe)*

            Quite the same here, Sandrine. Not just vacation / breaks / perks, but also the employer – employee power dynamics, too. The whole “is it legal? 99,5% yes!” setup I see in the questions here is mind-numbing for me. Many of those questions would receive a loud “NOO! For Christ’s sake, NO!” here. No, you can’t fire someone because they refuse to sanitize hands. No, you can’t fire someone because they refuse to show up at an off-hours company party. That re-balances somewhat an otherways un-balanced power dynamic.

            OTOH, I know that most of the questions arriving on Alison’s blog are statistical outliers and not the norm. That skewes the outsider’s view on the US labor market. I bet there are American SME operators, for example, who pitch in big time for an employee in need, just as I saw here in Romania. We just don’t read about that, that’s all.

            Alison’s “no BS” approach has the merit of being quite universal: no matter the country or culture it works. Then again, I know hosts of companies where that approach would likely not work just because it wouldn’t fit into the culture. That’s just how human psy works.

            1. Lily*

              Alison had a post on family firms and the decision they have to make on whether to emphasize performance or relationships. I wonder if European firms can be said to emphasize relationships? I am pretty sure that the European civil service does!

              1. CatB (Europe)*

                IME, in my country SMEs and mom-and-pop shops tend to lean towards relationship at the expense of performance (sometimes knowingly so). But there are also the local MNC offices and large, national companies, where things tend to be somewhat more “American-ish”, that is they push for performance first.

            2. Lily*

              The European governments are more social, but there are groups of people (even working for the state government!) who get no vacation, no sick leave, no insurance, low pay and short contracts. So, the benefits are not quite universal.

          2. Jamie*

            There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about working here. Just because not everything is legally mandated doesn’t mean it it doesn’t happen. Between vacation and comp time I get about 4 weeks a year PTO – that I don’t take more than a couple days is my choice. My husband has 8.5 weeks PTO because he’s been on his job for 25 years.

            I have never worked at a place that didn’t offer breaks. Typical across many industries is 2 15 minute breaks (paid) and one half hour lunch (unpaid) for non-exempt personnel. It’s much more open with exempt personnel.

            It seems that people assume that because some crappy thing is legal that it happens all the time. It’s legal to offer zero vacation time. I’ve not seen that in one company, ever, because it may be legal but it’s not smart and you won’t keep people. The same with minimum wage. You don’t have to pay more than that – but you’d go out of business overnight if it was all you offered because you wouldn’t get employees.

            Per the census bureau there are more than 6 million employers in the US. Within the legal framework there are 6 million + policies and perks packages. Some suck – some are extremely generous.

            Yes, we tend to get less time off than other countries, as a whole. And we tend to take less of what we’re entitled to. But that’s a difference and not necessarily a cultural flaw. I’m not saying that’s how you presented it, but it comes across that way a lot from various commenters.

            IMO our system may not be perfect, but it’s not the mess it’s portrayed as much of the time. If we had a magic wand and all borders were open and we could chose any labor system under which to work, I wouldn’t be the only one who would opt to stay in America. People flock here daily trying to get a chance to live and work here – it’s not some draconian prison.

            I’m kind of an amalgam of different parts of the American experience. My maternal grandmother’s family goes back to the Mayflower and the latest arrivals in that line came in 1716. My maternal grandfather’s family came here from Ireland at the turn of the 20th century – and my dad was born in Germany and so on his side we’re first generation American’s.

            Across 300 years my family came here and everyone came for a reason and so far no one has wanted to leave. I’m one of millions – most of us came from somewhere else and most of our ancestors came here to make a better life for their families than what they had at home.

            There are wonderful aspects to all cultures – and I would never presume to say that it’s better here than it is elsewhere or that other countries should do things our way. But, the same holds true for us in that maybe our way of doing things wouldn’t work elsewhere – but while it’s not perfect it is a system under which a lot of us are carving out decent lives and contributing to successful companies and just because some things are legally mandated doesn’t mean they aren’t available and even more common than not.

            1. CatB (Europe)*

              Spot-on, Jamie! That’s why I said that the questions arriving here give a skewed view – we read about the problematic instances, not so much about the “good” ones.

              There are parts of the US working environment that would have me banging my head on the nearest wall, just as there are such parts in the European setting that would have *you* wondering. No one culture is “better” – they’re just different.

              But it’s this difference that fascinates me no end…

              1. Jen in RO*

                I’m always envious about sick days. I don’t know if it’s in the law or not, but I can’t just call in sick. I have to go to the doctor to get a note. If I go to the civilized place (private clinic paid by my insurance), I have to make one extra trip to my family doctor to get a stupid stamp on my medical leave paperwork. If I go to my family doctor, I have to wait for an hour in a room filled with sick kids (since she’s a pediatrician). I’d rather go to work and cough my lungs out!

                (Which is why the whole discussion on the American flu was weird to me. Our bureaucracy surrounding medical leave would make me go to work even if I suspect I’m infectious, as long as I’m not too sick to get up.)

            2. BW*

              I was shocked and appalled when a friend of mine took at job that did not have breaks, not even for lunch. She is allowed to run to the cafeteria to grab something but has to work while she eats at her desk. For a while they had switched to 10 hour shifts too! I had no idea there were no federal laws around offering breaks until then. My state mandates that employees be given breaks.

              I’m still kind of appalled thinking about it. This is a huge telecommunications company, not some small time employer with coverage issues and crappy benefits overall.

              1. Jamie*

                Out of curiosity I hit the DOL website – what is with Illinois having in it’s statue mandated breaks for those who clean hotels, but no one else? That’s so oddly specific.

                But you’re right, and if people aren’t getting proper breaks or meal periods they should check their state laws – because most (although not all) states do have regulations.

                Although not mandated in my state, I work in manufacturing and I can tell you with total certainty any place I’ve worked would have had a mutiny on their hands if they had discontinued breaks.

            3. twentymilehike*

              It’s legal to offer zero vacation time. I’ve not seen that in one company, ever, because it may be legal but it’s not smart and you won’t keep people.

              I find it interesting that that is your experience. I have never had a job that offered any benefits before the one I’m in now, and even now, my only benefit is that I get 5 vacation days a year, and paid holidays. My dad has been at his job for 25 years and they don’t offer any benefits whatsoever, not even paid holidays, paid vacation time or health insurance. Where my dad lives, that’s pretty much the standard in the area … they still start people at minimum wage.

              I’m not disputing that statistically, you’re probably right, I’m just intruiged by the amount of varation in people’s experiences. It also reminds me of the blue collor v white collar parents post, where my thoughts were that personally, I was more willing to accept less compensation because I didn’t know that I had any other options.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                What field are you in? And what field is your dad in?

                (We need to start requiring that info in all comments here, because it’s so often relevant! It should be a field in the comment form!)

                1. fposte*

                  The NPR story this morning had somebody stating that 40% of American workers don’t get sick days. I’m thinking–hoping–that some of those 40% get combined PTO rather than no days off, period, but it’s still a startling number.

                2. Jamie*

                  That could be they don’t have specific days alloted to “sick days.”

                  I don’t get sick days – I get vacation days, but if I’m sick I just call in and it’s not a problem – I still get paid properly. There just isn’t a number of sick days set aside – oddly enough we have far fewer call ins than places I’ve worked where you did accrue a set amount of sick time.

                  There is something about the honor system and treating people like adults that keeps people honest.

                3. twentymilehike*

                  We need to start requiring that info in all comments here, because it’s so often relevant!

                  Good point!

                  I’m in manufacturing, specifically in the aftermarket motorsports industry. My dad is in manufacturing also, specifically in electronics (ie circuit boards for things like medical equipment). I’ve heard a lot that in his field, they have moved a lot of the factories to areas where labor is super cheap (ie: BFE Mojave Desert, where the cost of living is pretty low). A lot of his coworkers aren’t highly educated, but could be considered skilled tradespeople.

                4. twentymilehike*

                  In reply to fposte …

                  The NPR story this morning had somebody stating that 40% of American workers don’t get sick days

                  I totally believe it … it seems pretty normal to to get sick days or PTO in the service industry, and it also seems like a lot of factory workers don’t get these “perks,” also. It seems to be more common with either lower-level, part-time or blue-collar types of jobs .. which I’d imagine there are a lot of if you look around at how many stores and restaurants are out there. And then count the self-employed, who I would assume can opt to “give” benefits to themselves or not.

                5. Jamie*


                  Stats from the Bureau of Labor from last July on benefits like paid leave, insurance, and retirement plans.

                  It can vary quite a bit. I’m in manufacturing as well and in what this article defines as a mid-sized company and we offer health, 401K, vacation, and life insurance to all employees – including entry level minimum wage.

                  One thing I found particularly interesting in light of as recent discussion here is that larger employers pay on average 77% of an employees insurance premiums and smaller employers 63%. When you consider that larger employers tend to have lower premiums due to group size that is why you can typically get much better and less expensive insurance with your larger orgs.

                6. jesicka309*

                  YES! Field and location, so we know straight away whether someone’s view is skewed by the country/region they work. :)

    2. BW*

      I was wondering about that when the OP posted she is not from the US, and it sounds like she arrived recently. My first thought is maybe what she’s suggesting is more of a cultural norm where she’s from. Based on her responses, I don’t see her as entitled at all, more like she just doesn’t know how things work in the US and it sounds like she may have not been around when payroll taxes were at their present rate, before the decrease. So she is used to always having the lower rate and would not know how to address a higher tax rate – that this is not something anyone in the US would use as a reason to ask for a raise.

  10. Elizabeth D*

    This letter is about wants and needs but not about what is earned and deserved. I find this very off-putting and find myself thinking the letter writer has distorted expectations. Tax issues, health care, and lunch decisions are entirely personal responsibilities. Is this a cultural gap? I am really surprised, and stumped.

    1. FormerManager*

      I suspect more cultural. The OP is from Eastern Europe. Friends of mine from Europe who’ve worked in European countries have said that employment laws are more worker-centric. For example, some countries ban employers from using job candidates’ Facebook pages against them whereas here hiring managers can do so provided there’s no EEOC issues.

    2. OP*

      Likewise, I disagree that healthcare is a personal choice when you’re legally employed. I’m required to be on top of things at work, be productive, smiling at all times and give my 150%, but if I get sick, it’s nobody’s problem? I think I would be more productive if I knew I was cared for by my employer through health insurance. In this case, I know my University provides this option if I’m enrolled full-time.
      I’m glad Alison posted my question because some of the replies opened my eyes about what expectations are in the U.S. and how I should think about some of my needs/wants and that I am probably a bit naive about some.
      Yet I can’t disagree more about health insurance. I am a human being, after all, and I absolutely deserve access to healthcare especially if I work so hard and contribute to the employer’s profits and I pay taxes to the government. This is how I view this.

      1. Jamie*

        I understand that you disagree that healthcare should be a personal choice, but you really can’t disagree that it is because that’s how it works here.

        I can imagine it’s a big culture shock and I’m glad that this has been helpful in helping you realign your expectations with the cultural norms here. The sooner you acclimate yourself to how the system works and how you can best meet your needs within it the happier you’ll be…because while you may believe you deserve access to health care – and that’s a very common pov – it will just breed resentment if you continue to focus on what should be rather than what is.

        And saying that you think you’d be more productive if your employer paid health care…I would caution you to never express or even hint at that sentiment at work because it’s damaging to imply you could be more productive if you were more rewarded. The productivity has to come before the reward.

          1. fposte*

            If it’s been forwards to you, that’s probably why right there. Even without crossing cultures, we’ve all had the experience of being shocked to find that there even *could* be a different way to think about something that has always been part of your landscape. Part of culture shock is how many ways things could be different that you didn’t even think could have variety.

        1. Laura L*

          Yes, this. I was going to say that I don’t like the way health insurance works in the US either (and I’m American), but it’s the way it is, so it doesn’t really matter what I think.

          I mean, I can work to advocate for the changes I’d like to see, and some people do that, but in the meantime it’s just the way it is and I have to deal with that.

      2. Jules*

        I feel ya, OP. I was considering doing grad degree but figured that I can’t justify the cost. I come from Asia and myself feel taken back by the attitude here. The culture is very different. Even office politics are different. I am here since I didn’t have a choice (unless I want to split with the hubs, while it’s tempting, I think is impractical). But I can list the things I missed since I worked in the US.

        I miss paid 60 days of maternity leave
        I miss my 15 days of annual leave
        I miss my 15 days of sick leave
        I miss my 60 days of prolong illness leave
        I miss my excellent work insurance which is fully paid.
        I miss excellent affordable healthcare (where I come from the govenment subsidy medicine and put a cap on medical costs). So I can go to a doctor for cold and get medicine for 50 dollars. So even if I didn’t have private insurance, I am not worried about falling sick.
        I miss my mandated employer contributing 11% to my pension. (I think the government implement the rule since they don’t want to be saddled by the bills (if they go on government program) once the older people retire. Private corporation want’s you to serve? They can contribute to your pension!)
        I miss my career progression (I am spoiled since I was moving upward really quickly)
        I miss not having to worry about being a female at the workplace (No manager will roll his eyes at me because “I am just a girl”, they will if I said something stupid though. No crazy girl clicks I need to pander to so they don’t talk behind my back.)
        I miss my fix 1 month bonus (in the Commonwealth countries it’s called 13th month pay, I think)
        I miss my minimum 6% annual salary increase (I am excellent performer. So I know I can hit the target each time)

        I think I am spoiled since I am still new to the US, the adjustment is still painful. There are days when I am a few seconds from getting on that plane back to where I came from and I know a lot of people would say, “What are you waiting for?”. Family commitment, they are the damndest things.

        1. OP*

          I agree with the career progression. Whoever you were prior to the emigration, forget it, be prepared for a huge downshift and to be a nobody for a good while.

  11. Anon*

    In many parts of Europe, health care is something people don’t have to worry about. As for lunches, I definitely understand the “not-mandatory but mandatory” aspects of office politics. Further, if it’s a cultural thing, the OP might be worried of not blending in or wondering if it’s part of the culture.

    Further, I can understand job stress if you find it hard to meet your needs. When you get down to it, work is about meeting one’s needs. I can understand people finding that to be a reasonable expectation. Sure, as one gets more seasoned, we realize that the world doesn’t work that way. All the same, even while working full time, many are struggling financially and it’s not because we’re going out all the time. You could be living with roommates in a cheap apartment, have the smallest phone and Internet bill (and, especially with job searching, you NEED the Internet), live on Ramen, have the good fortune to not have serious illnesses or accidents, and never spending outside of your basic needs and still be struggling. I can understand why people would think COLA is a reasonable thing to ask for, even without stellar performance.

  12. Racheal*

    It is completely reasonable to explain to your employer why certain facets of your work environment negatively impact your work performance. If your desk chair breaks one day, you feel pretty reasonable asking for a new one, right? Not because your past performance has warranted it, but because your sustained performance requires it. If you can’t focus on your job because they don’t offer a good enough health care package, you need to let them know that, even if they are unable to fix the problem. Health care is part of a compensation package, and the lack of it is essentially a salary cut–so if you aren’t making the fair market value for your position, including fair benefits, you need to let your employer know that this is diverting your attention, energy, and thereby causing your performance to suffer. They deserve to know how they can improve working conditions to attract and keep top performers. If you are a manager with a great employee whose performance is suffering, wouldn’t you want to know the underlying reason?

    This reminds me of a great post a while back on a new manager dealing with an employee who kept leaving a few minutes early to catch a bus. Some respondents claimed that the employee’s commute was the employee’s problem, and the manager shouldn’t worry about it. Sure, maybe employee’s work-caused personal problems aren’t the direct, explicit responsibility of an employer, but a manager is responsible for finding ways to improve an employee’s performance and seeking ways to continuously motivate and sustain that employee’s performance. Finding ways to make the employee comfortable and focused while at work is a good business decision. If there’s a clear way to improve the employee’s work-life balance that will help them perform at 150%, then the employee ought to feel comfortable presenting that possible solution–and maybe even responsible for bringing it up, if the employee feels like a change in working conditions will help drive the department’s overall success and profits.

    Similarly, asking for a COLA raise is often reasonable, even here in America, as are other compensation/benefits/vacation time/sick leave requests. Although the tax increase isn’t the employer’s concern, the fact that cost of living increases have decreased the ultimate value of your compensation is a valid basis for a conversation. Did you deserve pay cut? That’s a somewhat different question than whether you deserve a raise.

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