update: business expenses are cutting into our receptionist’s pay

This one is not a happy ending.

Do you remember the letter from the reader who was concerned that the receptionist in her office wasn’t being reimbursed for mileage while running business errands? It was adding up to about $60 a month, which was effectively cutting her pay below minimum wage. I advised her to speak to her manager and advocate for making the receptionist whole. Here’s her update.

I approached my manager, saying that the receptionist had shown me her expenses totaling $60 dollars for June, and that I was concerned about us taking her below minimum wage–I cited the Domino’s case and said that while I was sure she wasn’t the type to sue anyone, I felt like it was better not to leave ourselves open to trouble. I also told him how awesome she is and that she has to be saving us a bundle just by getting so much good work done. I really thought I was handling it the right way–I wasn’t in any way accusatory, and I didn’t throw her under the bus by acting like she’d demanded anything or threatened to quit. I just told him that she really struggles financially and might not be able to afford the trips and it would be a huge loss to us if she ended up leaving because of money.

Well, my manager just about flipped. He went on and on about how there are plenty of people who would be happy to have her job and wouldn’t complain about having to pitch in (that’s really what he sees this as–pitching in), how he really hasn’t been impressed with her work (he probably wasn’t; he seems to have a contrarian complex where he loves and coddles the slackers and hates the hard workers). A few days later, the receptionist was gone. She told me he said it wasn’t working out and he wasn’t impressed with her work ethic, etc.

It’s been almost five months, and I’m not dealing with what happened very well. I feel so guilty, thinking if I’d just phrased things differently or knew some way to calm him down, things wouldn’t have ended like they did. And I’m furious at this man–I’m normally an extremely calm person who never shows anger, but for months now, if I get thinking about this too hard, I get so enraged that I’ll find something to pound, or I’ll be thinking about it in the car and get this horrid urge to run my car into something. Sometimes it even happens at work and I have to find ways to sneak off and slam something just so I don’t explode.

What makes me angriest is that I want to leave so badly and I just can’t find anything. We live in a very remote area, and the nearest major city is grossly overpopulated. Even if someone wanted to drive 75 miles to work, there just are no jobs and too many people to fill the ones that are posted. I’ve tried, but this is my first even semi-professional job and it’s not that impressive. And the former receptionist is trying, but she was lucky to find a retail job that barely pays her enough to rent her room. I’ve made it clear that I’ll be a stellar reference and given her all my personal contact info, even offered to help her with resumes and cover letters…but it all feels like I’m offering her Band-Aids after running her over with my car.

I feel like by staying I’m condoning what he did–like I’m one of those people who listens to you say how a certain manager screams and swears at you all the time and says “Oh, well, I don’t have any problem with him”–but God knows I’d leave in a heartbeat if I could. I also had to replace the receptionist, and it made me sad that even though I came right out and warned the candidates about having to pay out of pocket for gas, too many of them said they were fine with that. It shouldn’t be fine. We shouldn’t be in a job market where this is in any way fine.

I wish this letter were different, and that I could say we both got new jobs and never looked back, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

I wrote back to this reader and said: “This is horrifying. And I feel partly responsible, for pushing you to speak up to him. (Although really, he is the only one responsible, for outrageous jerkiness.) Any chance that when you do leave you’d be willing to report him to your stage department of labor? I think you can do it anonymously.”

Her response:

He’s definitely the only one responsible. He’s a psycho. I had already decided to speak up, I just needed to know whether the minimum-wage-minus-expenses problem was something I should be addressing. I knew he wasn’t a great manager by any means, but didn’t think he’d flip like he did.

I’d definitely be willing if it were just me involved. I’ve actually asked the receptionist to make a claim now, because she’s the one affected and is already gone, but she’s afraid of the reference problem. I’m her preferred reference, but someone might call the office directly and end up talking to him. I didn’t know you could make anonymous claims, but at that point it’s up in the air whom he blames. So I’m not sure if we’ll be in a good position to do that for a while.

I do appreciate that you answered my original question no matter how it turned out. Your advice should have worked on anyone with an ounce of humanity.

Ugh ugh ugh. This is awful.

I do want to say that it’s worth speaking up when you see wrongdoing, particularly in defense of people who are less well positioned to advocate for themselves — even if it doesn’t always end well. But that doesn’t make this particular situation any better, and this guy is an awful human.

{ 123 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    That’s neo-Dickensianly horrific. “Please, sir, could our receptionist get paid legally?” “You think she should get MORE??!!”

    I’m so sorry for you and her, OP. Hopefully she’ll find an awesome new job and you will soon follow suit.

    1. Anna (and lay off the bananas!)*

      Agreed. That manager is an asshat. I mean really — not wanting to keep someone’s pay above minimum wage?

      1. Jazzy Red*

        My best friend is going through something similar. She’ll be driving to other locations to train people, and she can’t be reimbursed for gas money because the IRS says so. I don’t know who I’d like to slap more – her boss (who might be lying) or the IRS (if they do indeed have that rule for minimum wage employees). Either way, she desperately needs this job, so she’s just going to suck it up.

        1. fposte*

          Near as I can tell, mileage reimbursement isn’t even taxable (save if it exceeds the federal rate, which I’m betting isn’t an issue here). My guess is that “we’re not required to” and “we can’t include it in your regular paycheck because it’s taxed differently” is combining somewhere along the line into “we can’t possibly and we’ll blame it on somebody else.”

    1. tango*

      This is why it’s important for companies not to keep dick managers.
      I wonder who the managers manager is? Who is the company owner? Is there anyway to get this issue in front of someone higher up? Especially if the inquiry comes not from an employee or former employee but a government body/agency?

    2. Hooptie*

      Why are unions so important in this situation? So she can get reimbursed for her fuel costs only to be spending a good portion of it back out for union dues? This makes no sense for someone working at or close to minimum wage.

      (And I say this as someone who back in the day was making $5.25/hour and paying out $17 a week in union dues. Two months after I left that job the union negotiated a .25/hr pay cut for everyone but the dues remained the same). Unions aren’t always the best option.

      1. Eric*

        Unions negotiate working conditions and terminations, among other things. If she were in a union, chances are she would still be employed at this company.

              1. Eric*

                Sorry, I misread that. Still, the point stands, no way would her union dues have been more than she was paying out in fuel costs. And she would be getting raises.

                1. Anonymous*

                  Plenty of unions have been negotiating pay cuts not raises.

                  With a minimum wage job you’re almost better off calling your office holder and asking them to raise minimum wage. Since unions can’t negotiate cuts below that later.

      2. Anonymous*

        Yes Hooptie, because sometimes unions are not good we can say that unions are generally not good. Right.

      3. Anonymous*

        I’m in a union, and I disagree with unions. I get their point, but they take advantage of the people they supposedly protect and talk to us like little children. I constantly get “propaganda” from them telling me which person to vote for or how great they are. The health benefits I could get from them is crap. They negotiate pay increases by only $.10-.15 every six months on anniversary dates. Everything is based on seniority, not merit. I can do circles around my coworkers and at the end of the day, I still get less pay and can’t negotiate a pay raise all because of the union. If someone can tell me how that’s fair, I’d appreciate it! I know they do it to reward employee loyalty, but it really makes me want to stray, especially so early in the game.

        I get roughly $10/hour. They take out about $8.50 each week. And if I don’t work a week – without pay, in other words, non-vacation – they still take out dues. And actually, just a couple of years ago around this time, my union voted to take a pay decrease, and when people voted against it (although still a minority), the union wrote a stinging message in their quarterly newsletter against those who opposed the decrease (3% decrease).

        I get unions have done a lot in setting up practices for better working conditions. It might have prevented things like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. But the ridiculous politics and practices I have mentioned in this comment is what makes me and others shudder at them.

        1. Eric*

          The glib answer to this is that the union is yours. It is there to represent you. If you don’t think it’s doing that effectively, then you should get involved.

          The more difficult answer is that some unions suck and some unions are great. But as a general rule, American workers were far, far better off when more of them were covered by collective bargaining agreements than now.

        2. FRRibs*

          If your union negotiated a pay cut for its members, it’s because it’s trying to work with the employer to keep expenses down and prevent employees from being let go.

          That doesn’t just happen in union jobs. My “Fortune 20” company handed out 10% paycuts on base pay, as well as bonuses, benefits, and quality of work life items, probably more like 20-30%.

          At least with the union job, when the market improves and the next contract comes up, the union negotiators can come to the table and make an arguement that if the company makes back their loss, then the employees should make theirs back too. Unlike ours, where in the same time period dividends have more than doubled (nearly quintupled from ten years ago), while wages have been frozen until a very minor cost of living adjustment this year.

        3. Melissa*

          Unions are like belonging to any civic group that needs money to function, so of course they are going to charge you and still take out money if you don’t work a week. It’s like expecting the cable bill or magazine subscription not to come one month just because you’re out of work.

          I don’t know the particulars of YOUR union, but some unions negotiate raises and pay for seniority because some employers have abused “merit” pay in the past to pay people more based on nepotism (or to illegally discriminate). You may not like the health benefits, but it’s possible that they would be worse without the union. Sure, some unions are bad/have bad policies, and/or sometimes the policies of even a good union may not be in the best interests of a single employee, but the point is to make it collectively better for the group of workers.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      But there are also laws to protect her, and the boss violated those (my understanding, at least) and unless she’s going to fight it, it won’t make a difference.

      1. ack*

        A union can help an employeee fight this case and help to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers. They use those dues to hire legal representation that might be cost prohibitive for a single employee. They can also negotiate a contract that would require the employer to pay her fuel costs. There are lots of other reasons why a union might be helpful in this situation.

        1. Limon*

          I have never seen a union actually protect a whistle blower. No one ever protects a whistle blower, they are outed as soon as possible. People cannot keep secrets and when it means that person’s hide versus your own, alot of people are happy to rat them out.

          Unions talk big but are small minded people. They value their jobs over the union members. Sorry to say, these are my thoughts and experiences.

          1. Melissa*

            Just because you’ve never seen it happen doesn’t mean that it has never happened. How many unions have you actually been a member of, at how many work places?

      2. Mike C.*

        And if she had a union, she’d have a lawyer to fight this for her, and protection from being fired for simply bringing it up.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Maybe. The union I belonged to (very well known name) would put a check mark next to your name every time you told them NO.
          They called up about 7 pm one winter night and wanted me to go walk a picket line 50 miles from where I live the next day. I said no.
          So I got a little check mark.
          If you have a few of those check marks next to your name they may or may not provide help when you ask.
          They hand out literature that tells you this is the way they handle things. I had this in writing.

          1. Melissa*

            Yes, because unions are based upon collective action. It makes sense that they are less willing to help you if you are consistently unwilling to participate in that collective action.

      3. Kerry*

        Yeah, the best thing my union does for me is free legal advice and even representation if needed. (The dues aren’t too onerous either, £18 a month – are they much higher in the US generally or does it depend on region?)

        1. De Minimis*

          It depends on the union, although the bigger issue is that many US workers don’t have union representation and it has become more difficult for them to organize.

          Of course, even then a union is no guarantee, if they determine something else is a bigger priority in their negotiations some worker concerns would remain unaddressed. I know we had many unhappy members at the union I once belonged to at a previous job. It seemed like the work they did usually did not really prevent management misconduct, you were just able to be compensated for it later on.

          1. ack*

            This is true. Unions do not have the power to act in most situations. They can only negotiate for the future and react when management does something wrong. Management has far more power to act; this is called management rights. The employer has very broad rights to manage their operation, and the union is there to make sure the contract is honored. It is true that unions usually can’t prevent management misconduct, but neither can non unuionized workers. At least the union has some recourse, where an individual worker might not.

    4. Anonymous*

      You don’t need a union or a lawyer to file a wage claim with the state. I did it on my own and won against a very wealthy employer with a team of high powered lawyers.

        1. anon-2*

          Not really. Here in Massachusetts, non-payment of wages is a criminal action.

          Getting locked up serves as a deterrent to employers thinking about such chicanery. There is no quiche or chardonnay at the local hoosegow, and (I’m told) some day rooms still have analog television sets!

  2. Katie the Fed*

    oh this is heartbreaking.

    OP, for what it’s worth you did the right thing. Even though she’s still struggling you were sticking up for what was right and what was legal and that’s never, EVER a bad thing.

    I hope he gets what’s coming to him.

    1. E.R.*

      Agreed, absolutely heartbreaking. My mother, who lead a union and worked in politics, and lost many, many battles over her career would say to me “It’s never wrong to stand up for what’s right”. I believe this, I really do, but sometimes when you’re in the thick of it it doesn’t feel that way.

      Things can still turn out well for the OP and the receptionist in the long run. I’m not sure that a better answer is to not try, when you are faced with this kind of injustice.

  3. Adam*

    It’s one of those things where “you know this stuff happens” but when you actually witness it you are just flabbergasted. I’m sure the receptionist had a fault or two, but this response borderline psychosis. I’d hate to see what this guy is like if anyone dare question HIM directly.

  4. ThursdaysGeek*

    If the receptionist did make a claim, what would likely happen? I guess it depends on whether that manager is the owner, or if there is someone above him. Because, if he weren’t the owner, perhaps HE would be let go, and the bad reference question would never come up.

    I think she should again be urged to make a claim. But, when asked for references, how can she safely mention that she might not get a good reference if they contact this manager because she turned him in for wage violations?

    If both the receptionist and the OP make claims, and if the manager is the owner, I guess they do have to consider if it will cause the business to close or the manager to react against the OP, leaving her out of a job too.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      I was reading some of the original comments, and I bet another reason the receptionist doesn’t want to make a claim is that she doesn’t want to endanger the OP’s job. I don’t have a business, but if I did, I’d want to hire that receptionist.

    2. M*

      I’ve been wondering about this, too — what’s the best way to discuss that you were fired and/or quit because your employer didn’t pay you properly? I know it looks bad to say negative things about an employer, but I have never been fired or had performance problems in professional positions; the wage-related disputes and subsequent quitting/firing problems that I have experienced (yes, it’s rampant enough that I have both been fired and had to quit in just the past year) happened in service industry jobs. My current job search is focused on my academic background, and I’m also looking for administrative work; will those employers not even care to contact a restaurant or club for a reference and so I shouldn’t worry? I know this is a bit different from the OP’s situation, and I’d still like to know how to handle this when moving within the same industry. Ultimately I’m worried that these service-industry businesses will be contacted for a character reference, especially since I spent a long time at some of them. I can’t just leave it off my resume since that makes it look like I didn’t work for a year (or, is not working in your industry for a year the same as not working for a year at all?).

      1. KellyK*

        I think not paying employees appropriately (as in, paying below minimum wage, paying late, etc.) is so completely ridiculous that it becomes an exception to the “don’t ever say anything bad about your employer” rule. Because *of course* you’re going to leave a job that isn’t paying you. It’s not badmouthing an employer to say, “Well, unfortunately, they were having trouble making payroll, so after a couple bounced paychecks, I had to look for other work.”

        The real trick is how to keep from looking like you’re complaining, or like you’re a trouble-maker. The unfortunate catch-22 is that anything *so* off-the-wall that any sane interviewer wouldn’t fault you for leaving is also so off-the-wall that some people will think you’re making it up.

        I think the best you can do is phrase it as neutrally and politely as possible, and don’t go into details unless they’re asked for (and even then, avoid sounding like you’re assigning blame or bitching).

        1. Anna*

          “We disagreed over the appropriateness of being reimbursed for expenses incurred while doing business for the company.”

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d probably make it more neutral than that. Something like: “They weren’t able to reimburse for business expenses, which made it impossible for me to continue in the role.”

            1. KellyK*

              Ooh, that’s perfect. I was trying for something that neutral and non-blaming, but just not coming up with it.

  5. Ivan*

    If all that’s keeping her from making a report is the reference situation, I would advise for her to do it. I mean, it doesn’t seem like she’d ever get a good reference from that scumbag of a boss anyway.

    1. Sydney Bristow*

      That’s a good point. Maybe she could get someone to call and pretend to be checking references and speak with the guy. Then she would know what kind of reference she might receive at this point. If its bad anyway, she might be more willing to make a claim.

      I’m so upset on both the receptionist and OP’s behalf. What an awful place to work that is only made worse by that feeling of having no other real options. Good luck getting out of there OP!

  6. Doy*

    OP, you’re suffering from a form of PTSD. Your ethics were attacked and shredded in front of you, and you’re forced by economic necessity to stay in close contact with their abuser. It’s a typical helpless/hopeless situation, hence the bursts of uncharacteristic rage.

    Keep looking. Just as things are too good to last, they are also too bad to last. It will improve. Both you and the receptionist will move on to something better.

    Neither of you will ever be like this boss. Cold comfort now, but still comfort. Be especially kind to yourself, eh?

    1. Camellia*

      Also, he had to replace the receptionist who is having to do the same thing, so the abuse didn’t end when the other receptionist left. He is being made to watch while yet another person is abused. Yeah, rage is actually NOT uncharacteristic response to this.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Doy and Camellia- this is really important stuff that I hope OP shares with the receptionist. You both make excellent points that in tough times are hard to remember or even believe.
        But you are correct.
        OP, I know this does not help much but sometimes we can tell how correct our position is on a topic by how big an explosion we create. He knows you are right and that is why he got so angry. No, this is not a rule of thumb that applies to every situation but a situation like this is clear cut. You are right and he is not. He has no other tools in his took kit so he blew up at you. Some people make a big noise to distract from the real issue- that is all they know how to do.
        Please try to think of anger as the person is saying “I lack the skills to deal with this situation.” That person, in turn, manages to make a bunch of people (like yourself) angry too. He is out of control and he wants other people to feel that way too.

      1. Anonymous*

        In addition to being kind to himself, the OP might also want to have a few sessions with a therapist to talk about this. A good one could help him get some perspective and find some better coping mechanisms than smashing things in the middle of the work day. This is a terrible situation and he shouldn’t have to process it alone!

  7. Anon Accountant*

    I really hope someone makes a report to the department of labor. That guy sounds like a world class jerk to work for and I hope every one of his employees gets better jobs and can get out of that place.

  8. AJ-in-Memphis*

    The “pitching-in” statement made me angry. Where/When it is okay to place the burden of the paying for company’s operating costs on the shoulder’s of the employees (the lowest paid ones no less)? I’m going to venture out there and say that this place is probably struggling and has some bad practices that might be it’s undoing (karma) anyway.

    I wonder if the Receptionist wold have been better off just not buying stuff for the company and letting them do it on their own?? This is just heartbreaking…

    1. Jamie*

      It’s never okay – even when people make more and it’s not a minimum wage issue.

      Operating expenses are the company’s responsibility period. Always. Taking this into the personal realm it’s like having people over for dinner and expecting them to kick in for the utilities you used to cook, run the lights, and their bathroom use.

    2. Meghan*

      The “pitching in” thing is awful because it makes employees feel like maybe they’re in the wrong if they aren’t working for free or absorbing business expenses. My current boss said something similar a few years ago when he made me complete a HUGE web project on my own time and without pay because “we’re in a tight money spot right now, so we all have to make sacrifices.” It took me a long time to realize that I probably shouldn’t have put up with that.

      1. Confused*

        A business, in the simplest terms, exists to make money.
        So somewhere up the chain SOMEONE is making money or getting something out of it, whatever that may be.
        Why should the people down the chain have to “sacrefice” and by doing free work?
        The receptionist makes less than min wage but I bet you the boss or business owner, in the OP’s letter, is doing okay. If no one was making money, the business would close down. If the business relies on free or below min wage to survive….well….then you get WalMart

      2. Trillian*

        “We all have to …” is usually a dead give-away that the speaker isn’t out there setting an example. Otherwise, it wouldn’t need to be said.

        Translation, “I expect you to …”

    3. Kate*

      My husband was told something similar after months it sporadically being paid. He was told he wasn’t being a team player and others weren’t complaining as loudly. He never worked a minute more for them and got a lawyer the next day.

  9. Lizabeth*

    Hang in there…time wounds all heels. This guy’s karma is so whacked that it will come back to haunt him in SPADES! It may not happen anytime soon but it will happen :))))))

    I had to wait 7 years to hear about an a** at a previous job finally getting fired for his lack of job performance. The various production managers just didn’t want to deal with this idiot.

    1. Jeanne*

      It’s a nice thought but there are many awful people that karma never catches up with. There are so many that just skate through life behaving badly and being rewarded for it. I don’t quite know why so many are managers but they are. In my experience a large portion of managers deserve some karma but who will deal with it when the upper level managers are the same?

      1. Lizabeth*

        That’s the thing about karma – you have to take on faith that it will happen, even if you don’t ever hear about it*. And it might not be as drastic as being fired from the job.

        *I was just lucky that I did hear about the one seven years later.

      2. A cita*

        Yeah, I don’t believe in karma either, and don’t find the idea comforting at all. Some people have more power than others, and when you are made to feel powerless, it’s comforting to think there’s some big cognizant “source” out there weighing individuals’ sins and kindnesses and meting out just retributions. It’s just a psychological device to make us feel like world at its base is just. And maybe the world is at the end of the day, but situations often aren’t.

        Now, will something bad happen to that manager? It’s inevitable. Because bad, unhappy, unfortunately things happen to all of us throughout the course of our lives. But it’s not a because of some omnipotent cosmic justice system. While it may feel good to say, “aha! karma,” at the end, the tally sheet of bad events will probably be equivalent for most of us, including between the OP and the manager.

        But what I really don’t like about the karma crutch is that while it may temporarily make us feel better, it acts to keep us powerless by creating inaction. It’s better to try to do something (report the jerk), than take cold comfort from some vague ineffable cosmic force that doesn’t actually exist. OP’s ex-colleague should report the manger. She has nothing to lose. She’s already been fired and he’s not going to give her a good reference. Karma is a myth. The DOL is not.

        1. relax*

          For most people, it’s just a saying, no need to get all worked up about it. I don’t believe in karma either. But sometimes, it is true that people who behave badly end up reaping negative consequences as a direct result of their behavior. It may well be that this guy is taking shortcuts or being cheap is some other ways that is pissing off people who are in a position to hurt him.

        2. Lacey*

          This is the single best and most articulate takedown of the notion of karma and everything I’ve always felt about it that I have ever read in my life.

          I’ve had a really bad day but reading this was a really good way to end it. Thank you!

        3. ella*

          Karma (in its original Hindu/Buddhist construction, anyway, not its oversimplified, colloquial use here in the West) doesn’t actually have anything to do with a cognizant or conscious source weighing sins and meting out justice. And it’s not always negative, either. Karma’s a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey, humany woomany stuff. It’s basically a way of saying that your actions, expectations, and intentions matter. We create our own environments (spiritual and otherwise). But the universe is complicated, people are complicated, and any given event or action can have a million ramifications and consequences, positive and negative, so any Buddhist teacher will caution you heavily against retroactively attributing anything–good or bad–to karma, or against just passively submitting yourself to life because karma. Actions have consequences. That’s all karma is.

          1. Rin*

            Thank you. I’m tired of hearing people misuse the word karma without understanding what it really means.

    2. Lindsay the Temp*

      I was a manager at a big chain furniture store. When our (fantastic) GM quit, they brought in an assistant manager from the brown-nosing store of our region. She spent so much time off the floor in the office, we all kept wondering if she was ever going to do any work! Turns out she was painstakingly going through every receipt the 3 management staff had rung up over the last year digging for the most minor of infractions (we were all top sellers in the region, and 2 of the 3 of us were fantastic at our jobs). They fired all 3 of us in one day with no warning, no compensation, and even barred us all from receiving unemployment. They brought us each into the office separately under the pretense of talking to us to make sure we knew store policies, and then handed us a list of our infractions sighting we “knowingly went against store policy.” A week later, she totaled her car in the store parking lot (she was fine). Turns out Karma really IS a bitch! :)

        1. Heaven's Thunder Hammer*

          +1 Inquiring minds want to know how that happened.

          My guess is the company gave a specific reason for the firing that in that jurisdiction they don’t own compensation for.

          What galls me is why the manager wanted to get rid of top selling employees?

          Were they considered a political threat? The mind boggles.

  10. Jamie*

    This makes me so sad – it’s hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when mangers like this exist.

    I would have bet money the response would have been to be embarrassed about the oversight and rectify the situation. I hope the OP and the former receptionist find something better soon.

  11. Stryker*

    Oh, this is terrible. :'( We should find the receptionist a new job if she doesn’t have a new one yet!

    1. Eric*

      Do we know what city they are near? Maybe someone here is trying to hire for that city, even if it is pretty far away.

  12. Natalie*

    “I feel so guilty, thinking if I’d just phrased things differently or knew some way to calm him down, things wouldn’t have ended like they did.”

    It’s such a common response to feel like this, but remember – crazy people are crazy. Their irrationality may have one or more of many causes, but I can guarantee you the cause is *not* someone else’s inability to craft a perfect argument or anticipate their mood swings.

    Good luck finding another job!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Right on.
      this had nothing to do with word choice. Normal, healthy people forgive a momentary poor choice of words. Nope, Boss just did not like the whole concept no matter what words OP picked out.

  13. EJ*

    This is probably a lesson to all of us – a reminder that it’s worth consulting someone before we attempt to speak up for them, since even the best intentions can have unforeseen consequences. I feel for the OP for how this must sit on her conscience, even though the real jerk is the bad boss.

    1. EJ*

      Sorry – re-read the original post, and it looks like the receptionist did ask for help. In which case, OP, this is not your fault, and there is probably a lesson somewhere in all this that you can take away about accepting what you cannot change (or potentially, what a really bad boss looks like).

  14. Eva*

    Does the receptionist have a Paypal account? That way those of us who are so inclined could “pitch in”. (I don’t know how you feel about this sort of thing, Alison – apologies if it’s not wanted here.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m a big fan of people helping with contacts and other types of networking (and the LinkedIn group can be great for this), but probably not direct cash transfers, since those have the potential to open the site up to problems. Thanks!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Is there someone in the AAM group that would be in a position to consider hiring these two folks? Or maybe someone knows of an opening….

        This could be another no-no and I do not realize. If so my apologies in advance.

      2. Jean*

        What horrible behavior by the manager. Here’s a quick and dirty list of resources that may be available to the OP or her former coworker, the receptionist. This seems so general that it’s almost useless, but its hard to be more specific without knowing the OP’s specific location.
        – The public library may give free access to any or all of the following: internet access (including free email accounts), databases, public records, business records, workshops for job hunters, online or hard-copy books, magazines, newspapers, and other sources of information about various fields of work.
        – Community human services organizations (try various names such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, Jewish Children & Family Service) may offer help to job hunters regardless of their personal religious choices (if any).
        – Congregations may have job-hunting support groups.
        – Institutions of higher education may have libraries that can be used by the general public. (Thanks to what I’ve learned here, I’m not giving a blanket recommendation to the college career centers. But I’m not going to give a blanket condemnation, either.)
        I hope this helps either directly or indirectly (by sparking another idea for the OP or the receptionist). OP, please know that there are many of us in cyberspace wishing good karma and better circumstances to you…and suitable justice (ideally, followed by repentance and better behavior) for that character in your current workplace.

  15. Allison (not AAM!)*

    Is it possible/reasonable to go to whomever the monster reports? I know it’s too late at this point to help the receptionist, but this guy should not be putting his company at legal risk of a lawsuit, and if the powers that be don’t know about it, they should.

  16. Rebecca*

    I’m curious about 2 things. (1) it’s been about 5 months. Did he hire another receptionist? Who is running errands for him and fetching his lunch? (2) Is there a regulatory reporting agency where you can report this? I’m sure he wouldn’t like a complete exposure of his books if he’s doing this right out in the open.

    1. Ruffingit*

      The OP mentioned she had to replace the receptionist and made it clear to candidates that they would be required to pay for stuff out of pocket: I also had to replace the receptionist, and it made me sad that even though I came right out and warned the candidates about having to pay out of pocket for gas, too many of them said they were fine with that. It shouldn’t be fine. We shouldn’t be in a job market where this is in any way fine.

  17. ChristineSW*

    I don’t recall seeing the original thread, so I just read it for context. Oh goodness :( You have nothing to be ashamed about. Plus, it sounds like the receptionist doesn’t blame you, so try to keep that in mind. You did NOTHING wrong! I wish you both all the best in finding better jobs soon.

    Alison – You too have nothing to feel guilty about :)

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Ditto from me.
      Alison, you have nothing to feel guilty about. It’s my belief that at least 30% of the bosses out there are like this guy. (Based on what I see and what I have experienced.)
      Please continue on insisting on SANITY in the workplace.

      There is nothing that OP can really do with an irrational statement and irrational reactions. Heck, you can’t even predict that type of reaction- it is so illogical.
      One poster (sorry I forgot who) suggested the book (books?) “The Verbal Art of Self Defense” by Eligins. I think I might check this out. (I write down the names of books that people here suggest- I have a nice-nice reading list.)

  18. Anon*

    “I also had to replace the receptionist, and it made me sad that even though I came right out and warned the candidates about having to pay out of pocket for gas, too many of them said they were fine with that. It shouldn’t be fine. We shouldn’t be in a job market where this is in any way fine.”

    This really resonated with me. I see sooooo many people put up with unpaid overtime or unpaid expenses and it just bothers me so much. And I can’t speak up because those other people “are adults who know how to handle their own lives.” But it sucks that this economy has brought out the worst in a lot of employers and when people let employers walk all over them, it makes it even harder for the rest of us.

    1. KLH*

      But it’s not just that. It’s also a question of working people knowing what rights they do have, and being able to trust that they will get good advice and help from the governmental offices that handles situations affecting those rights. (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09458t.pdf
      –basically, the 2009 GAO investigation report of Wage & Hour Division does not give one hope)

      1. FRRibs*

        That report was sad, and no surprise.

        A story I have often heard from friends is that employers say they won’t pay out overtime, but then require more than 40 hours a week of work. My ex-wife left one employer who owed over $5,000.00 in unpaid overtime accrued in one year (the sad thing is that’s not why she left).

        The wage and hours office didn’t do anything for her.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I question how
      much of this is because of the soured economy.
      I have been watching so much of this type of thing for decades.
      Chambermaids that have to organize their work carts off the clock.
      People that are put on payrolls for different departments so they never have over time.
      Service techs that do massive amounts of company work on their own time.
      I could go on and on…

  19. Tara T.*

    I think this situation is maddening! Ivan’s post of 12/26/13: “If all that’s keeping her from making a report is the reference situation, I would advise for her to do it. I mean, it doesn’t seem like she’d ever get a good reference from that scumbag of a boss anyway.” You are absolutely right, Ivan! The receptionist should say in future interviews that she was not being reimbursed for the gas expenses and that is why she left. AND she should report the boss to the State Department of Industrial Affairs, Labor Law Enforcement! Another way some employers take advantage of new employees is trying to pass them off as independent contractors so they do not have to pay benefits or take out taxes. It is tax evasion! Call the IRS and fill out the SS-8 form! Do not pretend to own a business when you do not! That is my advice! Report the scumbags!

    1. dejavu2*


      I quit a job with no notice after only four months because I wasn’t being paid the amount we had agreed on when I took the position. Also, my boss was a lunatic and I always check the box that she can’t be contacted. When I explain I wasn’t being paid according to our agreement, people are very understanding, and it’s never been an issue for me.

      The receptionist in this scenario can totally explain she was not being reimbursed for expenses to the extent that her take-home pay was illegally below minimum wage. She can even mention that another employee, not her, brought it up with the manager as a legal compliance issue, and he responded by firing her and replacing her with someone who was informed of the illegal arrangement during the interview process. No one sane is going to think that’s a legit reason to have been fired. Indeed, I think it actually bolsters the receptionist’s story if she reports the boss to the authorities, especially if it leads to legal action against him by a regulatory body, or to him being fired, etc.

      My heart goes out to everyone in this scenario.

  20. Ruffingit*


    I think there’s a mistake here. You mention in this letter that it was adding up to $60 a week, but I believe it was $60 a month.

  21. Yup*

    OP, I want to (virtually) shake your hand for standing up and doing the right thing here. You stuck your own neck out for someone who was being treated unfairly. It didn’t end as you’d hoped, but still — you stood up and said something, in a professional, respectful, solution-oriented way. That means a lot. And it says a ton about your good character.

    I’m sorry that things went the way they did, but you carry absolutely zero percent of the blame in this situation. I understand that you feel terrible that someone who had a job is now unemployed. But the person who is fully and totally responsible for that is your terrible, terrible manager. It doesn’t matter what you said or how you said it; you could’ve presented this using the perfect words in the absolutely perfect way, and it would not have changed the ultimate result, which is — this is a person who cheats his employees and runs a business through fear and deceit. You are not condoning his methods by staying in your job: you are trying to survive a bad situation, and no one can fault you for that. Your manager has shown you who he really is and he alone bears the responsibility for being such a despicable person.

    Hang in there. Think of your career a marathon: right now you’re in a bad stretch with leg cramps and stomach pain and sweat in your eyes. But it won’t be like this forever, and someday soon you’ll be hitting your stride with the wind at your back. Good luck, and I salute you again for your ethics and for standing up for your colleague.

  22. Not So NewReader*

    OP and your friend,
    Posters here have written some really powerful stuff. Please reread and keep it at the front of your thinking.
    I think that you will go forward at some point and you will see that nothing you experience in the future is as bad as this. Not saying it will be an easy ride in the future but it will not be as tough as this spot is.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Agreed. I once worked for a psychotic boss who was much like this one. She really did rival this guy in her thinking and bizarre behavior. I ended up leaving that job with no notice and no other job to go to. I was not the only person who had held my position to do so. I’m not recommending that, just saying that I know what it’s like to be stuck in a job with literal mentally ill people. I had PTSD from that job for quite awhile afterwards.

      But life gets better OP, it really does! I left that job 6.5 years ago and things have been up and down employment wise, but I never worked in a place as bad as that again. I remember a former employee of the place telling me “There is life after ABC Firm…” and he was right. Hang in there!!

  23. Ruffingit*

    As much as it’s terrible that the receptionist was fired, I think she’s almost better off working retail and struggling to make ends meet than to work for someone like this lunatic of a boss who clearly has some kind of major mental problem.

    Report the boss to whatever applicable state agency. Consider moving if finding another job is that difficult. I realize the latter is not easy, but wow this is the kind of situation that is already causing PTSD and it’s only going to get worse. Do anything and everything to get out of there ASAP and just know that, and I think I can speak for everyone here, you are not alone in your assessment of this situation and you certainly have a strong backing, if only virtually among the AAM community. What went on here is total insanity and I can only hope that you will be allowed to watch the inevitable karma that will rain down on this guy.

  24. Ann Furthermore*

    Oh, I was so sorry to read this. I hope both the OP and the receptionist find new positions soon. And this guy absolutely needs to be reported. He’s breaking the law, plain and simple.

  25. FRRibs*

    I don’t think anyone mentioned it yet, but even though this is obviously a stressful situation, you (OP) need to find a productive way to channel all that negative energy. Being destructive/self destructive will not help you or the fired employee. I presume there is no EAP where you work, but find something to take the edge off that doesn’t involve ingesting things or hitting things or stewing.

    We live in an unjust world; if you fight every battle presented you will die young.

    1. Jake*

      “We live in an unjust world; if you fight every battle presented you will die young.”

      So, so depressing and so, so true.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      Sometimes the best we get is remaining IN control while others reel OUT of control. I had a boss ream me so bad I wanted to cry and punch a wall.
      Two things:
      This was not personal against me but rather it was her way of life. She did this to others and said the same nasty things to others.
      Next, the only thing that I could hang on to from that whole episode was that I did not lose my cool. The way I finally got myself through the episode was to tell myself that something was very, very wrong with this person. Bigger than anything I could fix.

  26. ITPuffNStuff*

    It seems like there are 2 legal issues here (not to mention the many moral and ethical ones). The 1st legal issue, that the receptionist’s pay is below minimum wage, has already been mentioned several times by responders above. The 2nd legal issue (though I’m no attorney) is that I do not believe it is legal under any circumstances to hold your employees personally accountable for *any* business expenses. It’s common for employees to buy something on the company’s behalf, but I believe it *must* be reimbursed. I don’t think the law allows any room for negotiability on that, regardless of the effect on the employee’s pay rate. Business expenses are business expenses, and they are the company’s responsibility, not any employee’s.

    With the above being said, there’s nothing to stop businesses from paying the costs and reducing employee pay to offset the difference, but at least that is a more honest arrangement than this company is currently using. I wonder, if this boss had to pay employees the same % of company revenue as he is charging them in company costs, would he still view it as “pitching in”? Businesses that operate with this backwards (and illegal) thinking generally do not view “pitching in” as a door that swings both ways. It’s exploitation, plain and simple, and has no basis in rationality, ethics, or even legality.

    I would like to say that I hope this company goes under (which, let’s face it, is a distinct possibility in the long term for companies managed in this fashion), but the truth is the only ones who suffer in that scenario are the worker bees. I’ll say instead then that I hope the employees all find the jobs they deserve, for a company that actually treats them fairly and legally, and *then* the company goes under.


    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Nope, it’s not illegal. California does have a law requiring reimbursement of business expenses, and it’s possible that a few other states do too (although I don’t know of any others), but aside from that, no law requires it.

      1. Saturn9*

        If it’s not illegal for a company to require its employees to pay for business expenses out of pocket, what was the (legal) issue with the receptionist not being reimbursed in the first place?

        What grounds does she have for a wage claim if there was no law being violated? How is she below minimum wage if the employer isn’t required to view business expenses as reducing pay (which they wouldn’t if they’re not required to reimburse them)?

        (No tone in text so let me clarify that I really am asking.)

  27. Jake*

    This is an unfortunate, but powerful lesson.

    Standing up for the right thing is always the right thing to do, but be prepared for the worst possible consequences when you do because if you aren’t you might get burned.

    I hope it turns out well for both the OP and the receptionist.

  28. JoAnna*

    I think I used to work for that guy. *shudder*

    OP, I’m sorry. I hope both you and the former receptionist can find better positions ASAP.

  29. Tiff*

    Where is that woman with the gangsta-fam when you need her?!? “Oh, you want to pay me below minimum wage and fire me when I ask for just a little more? Hold on, let me call me son Cletus so he can pick me up. He just got out of jail for assault this morning but don’t worry, he had extensive anger management while he was in the pen and the counselors assure me that he is at least 45% cured. Will you stick around to say hi to him, he really wants to meet you.”

  30. Anonymousdr*

    Hi OP — In case this wasn’t clear yet from everyone’s replies :), this situation BLOWS and we’re all sorry this happened to you and the receptionist.

    Even though my post is way late, I wanted to add one last comment — I know you feel really badly about this (and what decent human being – not your boss – wouldn’t??) and blame yourself at least partially for the receptionist getting fired (which you’re so not responsible for – but I totally get it), think about how you’d feel right now if you never said anything…If she still worked at your office, I have a hunch that you would feel sick every time you saw her leave to go run an errand for your boss, you’d still be furious over the injustice (and tack on the holiday season’s expenses and stresses to add insult to that injury) and THEN add in the way you’d feel about yourself, the receptionist, the situation, your boss, etc, by keeping quiet versus speaking up …. Awful. I’d choose speaking up and doing the right thing any day of the week. You’re a good person. Keep your head held high :)

  31. Andrea*

    Did the OP from this post ever get out from under the horrible boss? Would really like an update!

  32. Heather L.*

    Here’s the real point of all of this. Worker protections are minimal at best. What I would really love to see, and I know is probably untenable given people’s fears about their own employment security, are names. Real names, real companies exposed for their wrongdoing. An absence of fear and a willingness to stand against those who perpetuate fear, discrimination, and injustice regardless of the cost.

    Now, I’m not unaware of practical realities, but out of necessity, when our moral values are in direct opposition to a paradigm we confront everyday, we face a cognitive dissonance that is deeply damaging to our own psyches. Change does not happen in isolation, regular people – citizens- facilitate change. We do it by relentlessly adhering to principle. I admire the poster for standing up for someone else, it’s a rarity these days. I also understand her guilt and shame, though the blame is not hers to absorb. She stood up to a tyrant, and there were repercussions – as there always are. I appreciate too her willingness to share with others but, it needn’t be an end to the story.

    I want to know this company, this employer, I want to flood this office with outpourings of indignation and support for this former employee. This receptionist is a victim, and while I appreciate this poster sharing a story of obvious distress for herself, I am concerned with the person that has been fired and experienced possible destruction of reputation as a result of her job loss.

    Quibbling over the details of how much she had to pay out $60 a week, a month (what difference does it make) as a result of keeping a job under someone who had no compassion for her situation, (and $60 a month can be significant for a woman living below poverty) is beside the point. Try living without a $60 cellphone plan and attempting to find a job.

    Doing the right thing is difficult. Self-interest and standing up for moral virtue has become seemingly paradoxical. However, this should give us more ambition to do the right thing, not less. If people do not stand up for what is right, just, and ethical, those on the wrong side will persevere. We few, we “chosen”, we who maintain moral empathy, who understand injustice when we see it, we should be emboldened, if not required to, stand up and state, no matter the cost, “Aim above morality, be not simply good, be good for something.” Henry David Thoreau

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