company wants me to pay back half my salary since I only worked a few months and “didn’t add enough value”

A reader writes:

I recently joined a startup, and I didn’t like it all. They lied to me multiple times:

1) The founder told me they were were profitable, but four weeks in the job I found out they do not make money at all. They have some revenue, but it’s pretty minimal compared to the expenses. They survive on VC money.

2) We agreed that I would work remotely and visit the office once a month. However, on my first visit there, the founder was trying to force me to sign a lease at an apartment in the city, so that I could move there ASAP.

3) They told me they were pretty relaxed and they worked only the standard business hours, and understood that family comes first, blah blah blah. First day on the job, the founder emails me and tells me that the working hours are 9 a.m. – 8 p.m. every single day. But I can have weekends for myself (thank you?).

I’m pretty disappointed. I saw many red flags and chose to ignore them. To begin with, the founder refused to give me an offer letter until I had officially resigned from my current workplace.

I just quit because I can’t stand it anymore. I gave the standard 2 weeks notice, and now the founder has emailed me saying that since I worked less than six months with them, and I did not add enough value to the team, I should reimburse the company half of my wages.

Is that even legal?!?! I’m pretty pissed off that they lied to me, and they want my salary back?

They’re welcome to ask you to turn over your firstborn too, but that doesn’t mean you have any obligation to do it.

They can ask for whatever they want, and you can refuse, assuming no contractual obligations to the contrary.

Obviously you should under no circumstances even entertain the possibility of returning any of your salary, let alone half.

But just to be thorough, I’ll point out that, depending on what your total salary was, it’s possible that returning half of it could (a) put your pay for the time you worked under minimum wage, which indeed would be illegal, or (b) put you beneath the minimum salary to be considered exempt, which could make you retroactively non-exempt, which would mean they’d owe you overtime for any hours over 40 you worked in a week, plus penalties and interest.

Please decline to return any money to them and count yourself lucky to be getting away when you are.

{ 241 comments… read them below }

  1. neverjaunty*

    I know I am a broken record on this point, but OP, you need to talk to a lawyer ASAP. These are exactly the kind of glassbowls who would refuse to send your check or who would stiff you on your wages, and then badmouth you to future employers. If (as I’m guessing) you’re in Silicon Valley, there are tons of employment lawyers who handle exactly these kind of situations. You almost certainly don’t need to file a lawsuit, but it’s amazing how much less jerky companies can be if they know that you *could*.

    1. John*

      I’m in SF. I didn’t know these practices were so common here. I guess that happens when the founder is not even in his mid 20’s and he drank too much startup kool-aid.

      1. neverjaunty*

        That counts, it’s all part of the same giant tech culture amoeba ;)

        I don’t want to give references to specific attorneys here, but if you call the Bar Association of San Francisco, which has a referral service IIRC, they can likely point you in the right direction. Or, you can internet search for employment attorneys in SF and see if they do a lot of cases involving tech companies. Usually consultations are free or pretty cheap, and it’s not going to cost you that much to get “here’s what your rights are, here’s what you should to do CYA, here are the circumstance in which you should call me again immediately.”

        1. John*

          As an Engineer, I was pretty excited to visit SF. Once I left SF, I finally understood why native SF people hate techies so much.

          1. AnonAcademic*

            As someone moving to SF bay area with a partner in IT…is it the “brogrammer”/start-up culture types people largely resent? Or all people in tech? My partner is more of an old school IT generalist who relates more to grizzled old Unix guys than to 20-something Zuckerberg wannabees. He’s escaping the financial sector in NYC which is a whole other cesspool of humanity, but I worry it’s going from being in one hated sector to another….?

            1. John*

              In my experience it is. I don’t doubt there are companies in SF that welcome people like your partner. He seems like the kind of guy I would enjoy working with.

              My experience meeting with people in SF in the tech space is that if you don’t come from Stanford you suck. And you have to prove yourself. If you come from a corporate job, you suck because you haven’t done any consumer product.

              For example, my startup boss said that adding $5M in revenue to my former corporate company was nothing because it was a boring problem to solve, that anybody could have solved in SF. I find that ironic now because they do not even have 1% of that in revenue.

              1. Three Thousand*

                Your startup boss sounds like a real winner. He probably needs your salary more than you do. I’m sure his business will take right off.

              2. Melissa*

                Well, again, he’s not even in his mid-20s and his company has yet to make revenue, so my guess is he’s got a lot to learn.

                1. PM Jesper Berg*

                  It’s common for early-stage startups not to book revenue before seed and Series A/B of venture funding. That alone does not necessarily cast aspersions on the startup.

                  I don’t understand why “he’s not even in his mid-20s” is, it and of itself, a negative factor. It would be wrong to dismiss a founder who was in his 50s; so why is it OK to dismiss someone in his 20s?

              3. PM Jesper Berg*

                ” my startup boss said that adding $5M in revenue to my former corporate company was nothing because it was a boring problem to solve”

                What you have to understand is that lots of people in the Bay Area tech scene are not only trying to set up profitable businesses, but to work on challenging issues and change the world. It’s not unlike folks in the DC international development space.

                I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this view, either. Most startups fail. Even among those that succeed, in the short term, you’re taking a salary hit in exchange for sweat equity. So startups need something to motivate you beyond traditional metrics that would apply at a big company.

                It’s completely legitimate to explain that you added $5M in revenue at a corporate job, but this would have been a great opportunity for you to explain other challenges you’ve confronted. There’s a reason why good business school application essays can be about all kinds of topics under the sun. I wrote one of mine about helping at-risk youth found a debate team.

            2. neverjaunty*

              Keep him out of startups. If he’s working for more established companies with good track records it’s probably fine. But yeah, there’s a lot of hostility to the tech sector in SF, partly because of “brogrammer” culture, and partly because tech money is pushing everybody else out of housing here.

              1. Caroline*

                Honestly, I think it’s a lot more of the later than the former. I mean, the “brogrammer” stereotype certainly doesn’t endear us techies to people in other industries in San Francisco, but I think most of the “hate” is frustration and fear at skyrocketing living costs. The vast majority of my friends who aren’t in tech are getting nervous at the rising costs of living (especially housing), worried they will be forced out, unless they bought a house a few years ago when it was more affordable. I say this as both a techie (although one well outside the stereotypes), and a native Bay Area person.

            3. cheeky*

              As long as he stays off a Google bus, he’ll probably pass. I’m only kind of joking. As a native, we really do hate what tech has done to San Francisco, which is turned into a nasty admixture of Manhattan and Los Angeles and Stanfurd.

              1. Adam*

                Seattle is experiencing similar growing pains. Tech is big here and it has created two versions of the town: tech Seattle where savvy tech employees live fairly comfortably (although the work environment is anybody’s guess if reputations are true) and the Seattle for the rest of us where rent being half your take home pay (or worse) is a common complaint. It’s got to all balance out some time…

                1. Mike C.*

                  The working environment is pretty hellish. I knew half a dozen folks at moved to Seattle to work at Microsoft after college, and none of them work there anymore. Most hated it and got out really quickly. Amazon isn’t much better from what I’ve been told.

                2. Anonsie*

                  Born in Austin and now living in Seattle, this is absolutely true of both places now. It’s awful.

                3. MashaKasha*

                  I heard good things about MS actually. But no one I know has ever heard anything good about Amazon. I hear it’s a sweatshop from hell.

                  My 22yo son has actually been at a Silicon Valley startup for a bit over a year. From what I hear him tell, his company has none of the weirdness and snobbery that people refer to on this thread. Then again, his company makes a real product that sells. Rather than Stanford, he graduated from a state school in the Midwest, where I live, and to quote him verbatim, “nobody here gives a fuck that I went to a crappy state school”. Got to say, his place of work sounds pretty darn good after what I’ve read on here!

                  Adam – my techie friends in Seattle are complaining too. RE prices are through the roof and there’s immense pressure on both spouses to work in IT, if they want their kids to live in a good school district. If (like me) you don’t have a spouse, you’re screwed, as there’s no way to make it in Seattle on one income – or so I’m told. Work environments are pretty decent though, from what I’m hearing.

                4. Adam*


                  I hear it. I just read an article that said to be considered middle class in Seattle now you need a household income of at least 100K. And the suburbs aren’t much better.

                  When my staunchly conservative friends are saying that Seattle needs rent control you know something has gone seriously wrong somewhere. This bubble has to burst eventually. It’s stretched tight as it is.

                5. Kelly O*

                  I live in Houston, and my husband is in IT (or will be, as soon as he finds a great job, please email me at KellyO’sHusbandNEEDSaJobDotComIAmOnlyHalfwayKidding) and we looked at a few things in Austin, but once you factor in the higher cost of living, it wouldn’t have made sense. We’re sticking it out in Houston, with hope for the future, so long as this little oil bust doesn’t keep people too scared.

                  I have a couple of folks in the C-suite who live in Austin and commute down here, but they are not in that whole “tech” area, and have been in their neighborhoods for years, but do talk about how much it’s changed, particularly in the last ten years, and not necessarily for the better.

                6. Pennalynn Lott*

                  I worked for MS for 3 years and it was awful. Turf battles, in-fighting, and throwing people under the bus were quite normal. As was having your department’s whole reason for existing change once every quarter, including suddenly letting 2/3rds of your team go. . . only to hire that exact same number back next quarter. (But not the same people, of course. Always brand-new people who would barely be getting a grip on what’s going on when they would be let go the following quarter). My title changed six times in those three years even though I did essentially the same thing (sales). I also had my territory changed five times. Working on a big deal that has taken you months to finally get to the finish line? Tough noogies, hand it over to someone else to close, while you go pick up the pieces of someone else’s client base. It was like a nightmare game of musical chairs.

                  I developed ovarian cancer (and other health problems) working there, and I’m convinced it was because of the stress of the toxic environment.

                7. SerfinUSA*

                  I left Seattle in 2003 and am so glad I did. It was such a cool place to grow up. Old-fashioned fishing/industrial/lumber backwater town, with maybe one restaurant (besides Denny’s) that was open 24 hours. The sidewalks really did roll up at 6pm.
                  The minute I took an offer on my house (bought in 1987 for $55K) I was permanently priced out. Luckily I moved to a sweet little town to the north with far less growing pains, and enough elbow room that I can raise my own livestock just 15 miles from work.

                8. YogiJosephina*

                  SerfinUSA, out of curiosity, does that sweet little town to the north start with a B and end with a Ham?

                  If so, we’re neighbors! *waves*

                9. Adam V*

                  @Kelly O, I’m a software developer in Houston. If you wanted, I could check and see if my company has any openings for your husband.

                  Not sure how to swap contact info, though, since I’d rather not leave my email in a comment.

                10. Stephanie*

                  Yeah, I’ve watched a few episodes of “Love It or List It” like “WTF? 800k for that?”

                11. Chickaletta*

                  This is why we left Seattle. On two incomes, we would have been forced to live in a single wide or do a 2-hr commute. So not worth the “cool” factor. And the horror stories about MS are true: one of our friends missed his own birthday party on a Saturday night because he had to be at work. Another woman told me she quit after her boss made her sit through a meeting while she was having early labor pains.

              2. spek*

                I work in San Francisco with 20 years experience and make what colleagues in the midwest would consider obscenely good money, but it’s barely middle class in SF. Of the 200 employees at the mostly blue collar facility, less than 10 live in the city. SF has turned into a mini-Manhattan where only tech (= west coast Wall Street) and trust fund babies live in the city – all the working class and mid-level professionals live in East Bay, which is becoming the equivalent of Queens and Brooklyn.

                1. CA Admin*

                  My husband is in tech and I’m an admin for a finance firm and we can’t afford to buy a house in our neighborhood in Oakland. We’re protected by rent control (thank god) or else we’d be paying $1000 more per month than we do now.

                  I don’t know anywhere else where $170k per year with no kids means that you still can’t afford a house, unless you want to live more than an hour away from your job. It’s insane.

                2. neverjaunty*

                  Yes. I occasionally do pro bono work representing tenants being evicted. It’s not at all unusual for people who have been in an apartment for years and years to suddenly have a landlord claim to have never gotten a rent check, or decided that [minor lease violation] they’ve ignored forever is now a Big Deal. The tenants are always baffled until you point out that they are paying $X in rent, and once they get forced out the landlords can charge a couple of Facebook engineers $4X in rent.

                3. Melissa*

                  Mm, this is not inspiring any confidence. I’m trying to break into tech (UX), I currently live in Manhattan, and I was hoping that SF and Seattle were better than here. Ugh.

                4. the_scientist*

                  Toronto is reaching Bay Area levels of insanity, I think; the average price for a detached single-family home in the city is over a million and small, pre-war “as is” (i.e. virtual teardowns) semi-detached houses routinely go into bidding wars and sell for close to a million. New condo-style townhomes are usually close to $700,000. Because the majority of people living and working in the city can’t buy houses, the rental market is similarly pretty tight- less than 1% vacancy rate, about $2000 a month plus utilities for a 1-bdrm. We don’t have rent control, but the laws here are biased towards tenants, so tenants are reasonably well-protected from evictions.

                  And of course, that all means that you’re looking at a pre-tax household income of about 100K a year to qualify as “middle-class”. My boyfriend and I are in our late twenties and make just over 100K a year combined. I’m also a public sector employee, so I have a good pension plan and good benefits. We’re extremely lucky in that we both have full-time permanent positions, and we are cautious with our money and are building up significant savings. But the reality is that unless we get significant parental help (or a windfall like an inheritance), or the housing bubble bursts, we won’t be able to buy a home and raise a kid in the city. And since we both really value the walkability, single car lifestyle, and short commutes of living downtown (moving out to the suburbs virtually guarantees a >2 hour round-trip commute), I’m not really sure what we’re going to do in the next few years.

          2. Marzipan*

            I’m now totally picturing you as one of those really tall blue guys from Prometheus…

      2. Joey*

        Just workin for a mid 20somethig for me would be a red flag in and of itself. Few folks that inexperienced know what they’re doing with even basic knowledge needed to run a company

    2. Anon Accountant*


      It may be expensive but it’d be an investment to help get things started in the right direction.

    3. Cristina*

      That’s funny. My first thought in reading this letter was Silicon Valley startup – probably run by someone whose dominant culture is not American, and therefore has a different perception about what is considered normal work standards.

      1. Have courage and be kind - Austin, TX*

        “probably run by someone whose dominant culture is not American, and therefore has a different perception about what is considered normal work standards”

        I’ve worked in 3 continents (although not in Asia) and nowhere I’ve seen this to be normal work standards :-).

        1. Julia*

          In Asia, it would be in lots of places. Japan comes to mind first. Crazy hours (that are not even that productive because sometimes People just don’t dare to leave before the Boss does – and how productive are you on three hours of sleep every night?) and sometimes very unreasonable bosses because the Japanese may seem polite, but they can bully downwards like hell.

      2. I'm a Little Teapot*

        I don’t know…I worked for a couple of small tech companies run by American-born white dudes – long ago, fortunately – and this sounds like exactly the sort of thing they would have done.

  2. KT*

    This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard. Get out of there, obviously do not hand back any of your salary, and count your blessings. If they keep pushing it, this is one time where I would say cutting your notice short would not be the worst idea–obviously this place is too crazy to give a good reference, so cut your losses.

        1. Mabel*

          So probably a reference is moot because you can just leave this job off your resume.

          1. CAsey*

            Exactly. If you’re still sitting at your desk: GET OUT. Go home, hug the family and think about your long enjoyable weekend ahead with (I’m sure) a fair amount less stress.

    1. RVA Cat*

      I have a feeling that a bad reference from them won’t carry much weight when they inevitably go bankrupt – and some of these loons might end up indicted.

      1. Mishsmom*

        ‘I have a feeling that a bad reference from them won’t carry much weight when they inevitably go bankrupt ‘

        exactly this. having worked in start ups before – when they are this rotten to the core, they implode.

  3. AMT*

    If they withhold all or part of your final paycheck, file an unpaid wage complaint with your state’s department of labor. They will help you get reimbursed.

  4. FellowSucker*

    I just had an eerily similar experience with a startup, and I, too, quit to look for other employment.

    After reading up on them more, I’ve realized that startup culture just isn’t for me–it’s a very “cool kids” culture, and everything in it is based around whether you’re one of the company’s “cool kids” or not. I prefer a more corporate environment, where I can be expected to do a good job professionally and leave it at that.

    1. John*

      Exactly. That is my feeling as well. I thought I’d like the startup life, and left my perfectly fine corporate job where I was a “rockstar” and had an excellent relationship with the global CEO and CMO.

      Now I’m thinking about going back and see if I could return to my old job.

          1. Erika*

            Good luck! I would also add that you may want to cut your notice short if you think this startup is likely not to pay you.

            Any chance you have any of this is writing, email, etc? Or that you could email them about this to start a paper trail if needed later?

          2. QAT Contractor*

            Just be aware that by asking for your old job back, they will likely still have a feeling that you might still be looking else where. You left because you were unhappy with the career path cap, what’s to stop you from looking for another job again in the near future (within 2 years)?

            It’s still worth a shot, but realize that you will basically have to stay at the old company for a fair amount of time before leaving again without burning that bridge. I’d look at other options before asking for the old job back if you are even slightly considering just going back for a short time and finding something else. But if you are willing to stick it out, then by all means give it a shot.

      1. FellowSucker*

        That was me (at a much lower level–definitely wasn’t talking to anyone with an “O” at the end of their title).

        For what it’s worth, I contacted my old company and am currently negotiating to come back in a slightly different role, so hopefully you might have a similar experience. What I’m looking forward to most is being back in an environment where they understand that you don’t have to outspokenly LOVE everything to be a good employee (I’m guessing from what you said, you’ll understand what I mean!).

        1. John*

          My concern is that the CEO is very stubborn and he wasn’t really happy with me leaving. He voiced that he was disappointed; although pretty much every single VP tried to convince me to stay. And I was so damn stupid to let go my corporate job for the startup life.

          I knew my position at my corporate job would eventually hit the ceiling. I was 100% positive about it. But I was nowhere near that ceiling when I left, which I think it was stupid of me.

          1. Nea*

            “And I was so damn stupid to let go my corporate job for the startup life.”

            It may not be a bad thing to tell the CEO that in exactly those words.

          2. FellowSucker*

            It’s one of those things that’s done and can’t be changed. I’ve been trying to look at it this way: If I hadn’t gone to a startup and seen how truly poor a fit that culture was, I’d have been “down” on corporate culture my whole life. It was a very effective learning lesson for me on the kind of environment where I DO thrive (turns out, for example, that I really enjoy team-based goals, which I wouldn’t have realized before working somewhere that valued them so little), and I’m guessing you learned something similar about your own preferences. That can be invaluable, whether you go back to your old employer or (especially) if you move on to somewhere else.

            1. Tau*

              +1! I tend to view things like this as: if you *hadn’t* done it, would the thought of “what if…” have followed you around? In that case, it was most likely worth it just to explore the possibility and be able to move forward without doubts and regrets haunting you.

              I justify my PhD this way (came in determined I wanted to be an academic, left determined that you couldn’t pay me enough to be one) and may have just chosen between two job offers on this basis, so…

              1. Melissa*

                Ditto on that last paragraph. I just keep reminding myself that I made decisions that seemed like a good idea at the time – hindsight is always 20/20, but when I was 21 I thought I really wanted to be a public health researcher/academic.

            2. JMegan*

              I have a similar experience – I took a job in Europe one year, which turned out to be a really horrible fit for me, and I left (*ahem) at the end of my probation period. But I’m really, really, glad I went, because now I know for sure what it’s like to work overseas, and I can confirm that I’m not the Uncle Travelling Matt type – I’d much rather be close to home. If I hadn’t taken the job, I would have spent the rest of my life wondering “what if” I had gone; whereas now I can comfortably close that chapter in my life and move on to other things.

              Good luck, OP – I hope you can get your previous job back, or else one you like even better!

                1. GH in SoCAl*

                  Did you guys know that Travelling Matt’s name is an in-joke itself? A “travelling mat” is a tool that’s used in making visual effects.

              1. Violet Rose*

                I had a very similar experience that taught me the opposite – that I love living abroad. I gave up a decent PhD offer in my home state to stay in Europe and try out the working world. So far I’ve hated the work, but love living where I do, and knowing that I would have been forever haunted by “what if” is enough to convince me that I made the best possible decision for me.

                1. FellowSucker*

                  I would love to work in Europe! I keep telling myself that, one day, everything will fall into place.

                2. Violet Rose*

                  I sort of stumbled in to it! I applied to do my master’s here on a lark because Big Prestigious School had a program that looked really cool; I didn’t think for a second that I’d actually get in. Or that I’d love living in gloomy wet miserable place way more than sunny Los Angeles, where everyone else’s “beautiful day” is my “I’m sweating like a pig, my skin is on fire and my eyes hurt from the glare off of all the whitewashed Adobe buildings, this sucks”. So if postgraduate education is actually your thing, it makes a good foot-in-the-door :)

                3. Chinook*

                  Violet Rose, I agree that you need to live it to realize that “where everyone else’s “beautiful day” is my “I’m sweating like a pig, my skin is on fire and my eyes hurt from the glare off of all the whitewashed Adobe buildings.” It wasn’t until I lived in places where it was hot and humid that I came to realize that I am part snowman who melts in anything warmer than +40 C. When you come from a place where -40 is expected and everyone dreams of hot, sunny beaches, it takes living in place that feels like breathing through wool socks to realize it is not as great as your dreams.

              2. OriginalEmma*

                Are you American? I’m fascinated by folks who successfully work overseas. What field were you working in, did you have previous experience in it, and was it difficult to get a job?

                1. Chinook*

                  OriginalEmma, I did work overseas, as a Canadian, in Japan teaching ESL. I knew quite a few with teaching degrees back at the turn of the millennium who were in great demand there and in Korea. We all loved being paid to travel and live in another culture and a lot of us would do it again if the chance came up. In fact, the only reason I cam back home is that I knew I could never “go native” and be accepted as part of the Japanese culture because of how I saw other foreigners, who had lived there for decades, married locals and had children there, were treated. But I would do it again in a heartbeat.

                2. JMegan*

                  (Late response, but just in case you’re still reading!)

                  I’m Canadian, and my field is in records and information management – basically, I help businesses organize their files. The job was posted to a listserv that I subscribed to at the time, and I really applied on a whim. “Wouldn’t it be cool to work in Europe for this cool international organization that everybody has heard of?” The job description was pretty much identical to what I was doing at the time, so I just updated the dates on my existing resume and emailed it off without thinking anything more about it. I got the surprise of my life when they called me back, and then a further surprise when they actually hired me!

            3. Adam*

              Agreed. It may have been a costly lesson, but you did learn something from it. Consider it like that shirt you bought because it looked great in the store, but you ended up never wearing it because it turns out the color didn’t look good on you. It may seem like a waste of time/money, but now you know not to buy clothes in that color again.

            4. Cath in Canada*


              I always describe my one career misstep to date as “I learned a lot from that job. Mostly that I’m not a good fit for marketing, but some other useful stuff too”

          3. Stephanie*

            Don’t beat yourself up too much, OP! You didn’t know. And I get the sense they probably played a recruiting shell game with you.

            You at least learned (the hard way) that you don’t like that type of environment. You would have never known without jumping ship.

            I do wonder if going back to your old company is the best idea. Were you mostly happy and this startup offer came along and sounded good? If that’s not the case, you might return to the old company and start remembering all the things that got you to leave in the first place.

            1. John*

              I didn’t leave because I was unhappy. I left because at first glance the startup life had a better upside. I was perfectly happy with my corporate job. Had good relationships with executives. The corporate company a year ago handed me $5M to create a new division in the company, staff it and launch a new vertical. So I did, and it went great.

              I was a little bummed that I wasn’t promoted to the Director position I was looking for, but now that I see it, I didn’t have the tenure needed for it. I’m in my late 20s and the directors and execs at the company are in their mid 40s. I can see that being an issue.

              1. Natalie*

                Dude, sounds like you made a good decision given what you knew at the time. You can’t predict the future! It’s hard (I know, I’m having a hard time taking my own advice on something else) but stop beating yourself up about your earlier decision.

                1. Cath in Canada*

                  It’s especially hard to predict the future when people are actively lying to you about it!

                  (Might not be a bad idea to mention that to your former employers, too – that you only left your old job because of the trouser conflagration situation. You’d never have left otherwise, obvs!)

          4. neverjaunty*

            Well. You were probably right that the job wasn’t a great fit for you, but what you moved into wasn’t a great idea either. I think the best you can hope for is to swallow your pride and go back to the boss with “You’re right, and I didn’t realize how good I had it here.”

            But I’m guessing that you’ll be discomfited all over again, and remember why you left.

            The tech sector here is really hot. Why not try an entirely different company? There’s a lot of room between “boring stuffy corporate IT environment” and “startup run by spoiled children”.

            1. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

              This. I work for a corporate software company that describes themselves as having a “start-up mentality”. It kind of falls right in between the two. I’m not in silicon valley but they do have an office there and I’m sure there are others.

              OP, if you go back to your old job you will really have to stay for a while, otherwise you may burn what sounds like a really solid bridge. Something to think about.

            2. CAsey*

              Believe me, bosses looooooves for their Rockstars to come back home and eat crow. We just had someone come back after a short stint elsewhere and Boss was like a cat that ate the canary.

              Also – nice job on the new division. That’s really impressive! Just tell Boss to give you another $5m to see what you can do. ;)

              1. catsAreCool*

                I don’t know the details, but I know that some people where I work have left for greener pastures, then come back later. As far as I know, they’ve done OK here.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      That whole cool kids thing drives me crazy. Do you want employees who are cool, or do you want employees who do their damn jobs? Pick one; you’re unlikely to get both across the board.

  5. De Minimis*

    This is a big reason why I’ve been steering clear of any jobs at startups….

    1. Hiring Mgr*

      This is extremely atypical of startups or anyone else for that matter… As we’ve seen from this column (and life) there are idiots in every type of company.

      1. J bird*

        Yeah, I work at a start up and it’s not like this at all. They pay me well and our very attentive to work life balance. In my first or second week I chose to stay late to work and when my boss found out, he left the company happy hour down the street to come back and chase me away. So YMMV.

  6. Weasel007*

    I almost positive that you just escaped from my old employer (also a start up), or a clone. They will huff and puff but the can’t afford to drag this out with the labor dept. Stand your ground.

  7. ZSD*

    “Dear Employer,
    “I assume that you have taken leave of your senses. Allow me to refer you to some mental health professionals in the area who may be of assistance. [links]
    “Sincerely, Ex-Employee”

  8. Aunt Vixen*

    I’m trying to think of a converse situation. Company hires employee, it’s not a good fit, company cuts employee loose after three months – not fired for cause, but maybe let’s say doesn’t pick them up after their probationary period or otherwise lays them off. Employee gets two weeks notice and is not required to work out the notice period, making that effectively two weeks of severance pay. Employee says “You know, in the less than six months I worked with you, you guys didn’t add a lot of value to my life, so I think you should pay me out half again what I made while I was here.”

    Sorry, OP’s employer. You don’t get your deposit back.

  9. John*

    I don’t know if reimbursing half of my wages would put me under minimum wage. I would have still made $5K month if I gave half of my pay back.

    1. fposte*

      That just means they wouldn’t be breaching a federal law; that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to get your pay back.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      How many hours a month were you working? Divide that by your state’s minimum wage and we’ll see…

      (To be clear, this is purely an intellectual exercise, because either way their request is ludicrous.)

      1. John*

        If we assume a 55 hour week (that to be honest with everybody, pretty much after the 10th hour I was watching TV and just paying attention to emails) that would put me around 220+ hours a month.

        What would be the stat’s minimum wage? The startup is in SF, but I live in another state.

      2. Aunt Vixen*

        At my job, where we’re paid semimonthly rather than biweekly, pay periods can be 80, 88, or 96 hours. 2 x 96 = 192. $5k/192 = $26.04. So he’d obviously be well clear of minimum wage if he worked normal hours (even if he gave back the nickel). But that’s based on eight-hour days. If (per the letter) they expect 11-hour days, that would be [scratch scratch erase] a 264-hour pay period (if it has 12 working days in it like a 96-hour pay period has for me). Now he’s down at $18.93/hour. CA’s minimum wage appears to be a truly penurious $9/hour, so it looks like unless OP was working almost literally around the clock, he wouldn’t go below minimum wage.

        But as you say: the whole thing is preposterous to begin with.

        1. LEL*

          Minimum wage in the city of San Francisco is $12.25/hr. Still not a livable wage in that region, IMO, but better than the statewide minimum.

      1. Mabel*

        Plus, I think if they’re going to change your pay, it can’t be retroactive. In any case, as Alison says, “…this is purely an intellectual exercise”

    3. Callie30*

      John – I think this comes down to what your contract says. Giving half back at this point sounds BEYOND unreasonable unless the contract is written a certain way in their favor – Are there goals and deliverables, etc.? If not and you fulfilled the contract in the time you were there, they can’t breach it either. Is there a clause that says you must work there beyond 6 months, or other relevant clauses – related to payment/salary? If not, you can certainly say NO, and should. This is what contracts exist for – to protect both parties.

      And if you divide 5k by 220 hours, it’s about $22.70/hr – so that’s still well above minimum wage.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        There’s probably no contract — most U.S. workers don’t have them. Which means that the OP is free to ignore their ridiculous demand.

    4. CAA*

      You said you don’t live in California, and you’re not paying back half your wages; so this really isn’t relevant to you … but California has a minimum salary below which computer professionals cannot be considered exempt. For 2015, it is $7,165.12 per month. (Many employers ignore or don’t know about this law.)

      For those AAM readers who like to complain about California labor laws, employers like the one in this question are the reason those laws exist.

  10. HRWitch*

    SF Bay Area HR here — do *not* pay them anything, and call the SF Bar Association as suggested above. Start-ups can be crazy (I’ve worked for half a dozen) – this is way beyond ‘crazy’!

  11. LBK*

    I really hope cutting your salary in half would put you under the non-exempt threshold and that you can then prepare a wonderful invoice detailing exactly how much they owe you in backpay for overtime. This is one situation where I think a wonderfully vindictive retort is a fine response, as long as it’s carried out in the most tongue-in-cheek professional manner possible.

    1. John*

      Unfortunately, cutting my salary in half would still be $5k/mo or 60K a year. Definitely not enough to live in SF, but way above the minimum wage.

      1. Elsie*

        Regardless, returning half of your salary would effectively mean that they’re retroactively changing your pay for hours worked, which I do believe is against the law…

      2. CA Admin*

        You were getting paid $60k/year at a tech startup in SF? You got screwed. Junior programmers at those companies make $90 – $120k, depending on experience, location, and how well the business is doing.

        (Source: husband who’s a junior programmer for startups in SF area)

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          No, it would be 60K if he actually did return half. Which he won’t, of course.

        2. Lead, Follow or Get Outta the Way!*

          Please re-read, he said half his salary was $60K, so he was actually making $120K.

        3. kac*

          I believe he’s saying half is salary is $60k, so his salary at this start-up was $120k.

        4. Jill 2*

          I think he’s saying $60k is how much half would be, so that does sound right…

        5. Camster*

          Actually, he said if he cut his salary in half, it’d be $5K a month or 60K a year….

        6. John*

          Yeah — 60K/year would be the equivalent of half my salary, and that was the salary for the probatory period. It was meant to double 6 months in. Not anymore.

          1. CA Admin*

            Oh ok. Reading comprehension fail on my part. Glad they weren’t horribly underpaying you, but f*ck them for suggesting you give back your salary.

          2. Connie-Lynne*

            You’d fall afoul of exempt minimums, though. Assuming $5K for 180 hours/ month gives you well under the $46-$48 to classify as deserving of exempt status.

  12. abankyteller*

    I can’t believe someone would think that was even reasonable enough to ask. It’s so far out of the possibility for me to even think of such a request let alone say it out loud. It’s good that they showed their true colors early!

  13. Nea*

    To begin with, the founder refused to give me an offer letter until I had officially resigned from my current workplace.

    That alone is enough red flags to line a parade route; there was nothing stopping him from getting you to quit your job and then not offer you a new one in the first place. Always, always nail down the details in writing.

    1. neverjaunty*

      +10000 to this. OP, sounds like you had stars in your eyes and weren’t thinking clearly. There is no legitimate business reason to refuse to put an offer in writing until the person has quit their job.

    2. Holly Olly Oxen Free*

      Not that I advocate lying, but how would the new employer even know whether he really resigned yet? Couldn’t he just say he had and not actually do so until the offer letter is in hand?

  14. Kara*

    It’s not limited to SF or silicone valley. I worked for a startup in Atlanta through a contracting agency. I got a call 6 months into my gig from my recruiter saying they were going to have to pull me because the last two checks for my contract had bounced and they couldn’t float my pay any more (I got paid, because my contracting agency rocks). They asked me to wrap up any projects by that Friday and pack up and they would notify the owner of the company that I wouldn’t be back after the week was up.
    Two hours later the owner came tearing out into the office, screaming at me in front of everyone that I was an ungrateful bitch who didn’t have the sense to see the opportunity that was in front of her, that they were going to badmouth me to every agency in town and I’d never work again, and by the way my work was complete shit anyway and I wasn’t worth the money they (weren’t) paying.
    I’ll never work for a startup again. Ever.

    1. John*

      I don’t know why the startup life is like that. It’s supposed to be more “freedom” to do whatever you want. It doesn’t make sense. At my past corporate job I had the freedom to do whatever I want, I worked the standard 40 hours and it was fine.

      If I ever worked 50 or 60 works (because I wanted to, nobody really forced me to work those hours) everybody would recognize it and thank me for it.

      The startup life is not for everybody, and for me it isn’t worth it.

      1. steve g*

        I worked at one startup that was opportunity and growth and all of the good stuff (but also long hours which I didn’t care about some times anyway) but another one I only lasted a month at because amongst other reasons one of the main people there didn’t want me there and made my life pretty hard, and it was obvious they were going to shield me from every interesting or challenging assignment, and there wasn’t anyone willing to shut that. S@@@@ down.

      2. Joey*

        Startup is frequently code for the employer doing whatever he wants and baiting you with “startup- get in before we grow big”

      3. LBK*

        I think it’s because most startup CEOs are people who sacrificed everything else in their lives and work 100 hour weeks to get their company up and running, so they feel it’s a bonding experience to make their employees go through that as well – something along the lines of “You can’t possibly understand my vision for this company unless you work the same way I have”.

        1. neverjaunty*

          Eh, at least in SF/Silicon Valley, it’s because we’re in the middle of a tech gold rush. The same kids who would have become Wall Street a-holes thirty years ago are now chasing venture capital and trying to run startups, with the idea that it’ll be one long party of marathon coding sessions, video games in the office and free craft beer Fridays, and then they’ll get bought out by Google or Facebook and become millionaires.

          When of course, as in the original gold rush, only a few people get lucky and rich, most people end up toiling away for a pittance knee-deep in mud, and lots more people get rich off the mud-diggers.

          1. Stephanie*

            When of course, as in the original gold rush, only a few people get lucky and rich, most people end up toiling away for a pittance knee-deep in mud, and lots more people get rich off the mud-diggers.

            See: Stanford, Leland.

          2. Three Thousand*

            The same kids who would have become Wall Street a-holes thirty years ago are now chasing venture capital and trying to run startups, with the idea that it’ll be one long party of marathon coding sessions, video games in the office and free craft beer Fridays, and then they’ll get bought out by Google or Facebook and become millionaires.

            Bingo. It’s especially hilarious when they run out of funding or couldn’t get any in the first place and don’t actually know how to code themselves, so they try to hire engineers to work for “equity” and can’t understand why no one does anything but laugh at them.

          3. De Minimis*

            I remember on some podcast someone who was involved with VC [an angel investor I think] said these days he’s one of the few people who was around for the original boom and most of the people there these days have no idea what’s it like when a bubble pops.

            1. SerfinUSA*

              I was sooo excited to get a job at an OG startup in Seattle back in the day. Wear pajamas, bring your dog, Kosmo, beer lunches, downloading from Napster on the company pipeline, promised promotions, and stock options…oh the stock options.

              Little did I know their business plan was to make a few cool things, then get bought by MS. Whoops! Not so much. After I got laid off with 1/2 the place, the ‘business’ went back to 3 guys in a garage.

            2. the gold digger*

              My husband is an engineer and was working in Silicon Valley in the 90s and early 2000s. He regrets not following his boss to Sun Microsystems. Boss retired five years early with his CA house and his vacation house on the lake in the midwest. Husband was laid off multiple times and did not ever get rich.

              I saw the housing bubble in Austin in the late 80s. When the national one happened and people were all, “What is THAT?” I was like, “Were you not paying attention to what was happening in Texas? This is not new.”

    2. Chorizo*

      Wouldn’t your contracting agency have had to pay you regardless? When I was a contractor, I was considered a W-2 employee of the contracting agency and that would make them responsible for paying my wages for any and all time worked, regardless of whether they, in turn, got paid by their client.

      1. John*

        I didn’t get the job through contracting agency. The founder of the startup is pretty high profile. Like thousands of people in SF idolize him, and think he’s the next Zuck (that alone should pretty much tell who he might be).

        I got the job through back channels and recommendations.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Just think, if he turns out to be the next Zuck, you just might have a book deal….

    3. NickelandDime*

      “Bitch?” She might have found out what they could really mean, right there in that office…ugh. I’ve never worked for a start up, but this letter and thread is very interesting. They, typical of small businesses, think you should care as much about their “dream” as they do.

      No. I’m here to work my butt off giving you the best of my skills and expertise and then I’m going home to what’s really important.

      1. Merry and Bright*

        That’s it. Work to live, not live to work. As the saying goes, “Nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d spent more time in the office.”

        To be clear, I put in the hours and then some but after work is my time. I’m an employee not the owner.

        1. De Minimis*

          I had one interview at a small family run business and am really leaning toward not checking in with them when I get back over there…I came by on a Sunday and they were all there working, and the owner told me he didn’t really have weekends anymore. They all seemed content, but it’s probably not right for me.

          1. NickelandDime*

            If they call, you might want to ask more questions about “not really having weekends anymore.” Listen carefully to the answer, and feel free to read between the lines!

    4. BeeBee*

      Startups that go nowhere. Nope, not limited to SV at all. I worked at a startup and we didn’t get paid at all for a month. When investor money came in, the owner spent it on new cars for him and his girlfriend (who also worked there). Give me the corporate life where you can work a 40 hour week and take your vacations!

    5. Chinook*

      “last two checks for my contract had bounced and they couldn’t float my pay any more (I got paid, because my contracting agency rocks).”

      Kara, while I will agree that your temp agency rocks, the reality is that you got paid because they were required to pay you regardless of whether or not their customer pays them. You are their employee. As an employee, you are guaranteed payment for time worked. They take the risk on being able to break even/make a profit, which is what makes them the employer. This is one of the few advantages of being a temp vs. self-employed contractor – temps have to be paid by the agency and, if said agency goes under, employees go to the head of the line for payment (I believe). But, if you are a self-employed contractor, you are like any other vendor will get pennies on the dollar if the vendor/employer goes under. This is also the reason why self-employed contractors have more take home pay than a temp agency employee – they are taking the risk of non-payment onto themselves.

  15. Erika*

    I know you want everyone to drop the idea of WTF Wednesdays, but I feel like you’re almost goading us with some of the letters today.

    Pay back 1/2 your salary? That’s nuts. No. No, no, no.

    1. Vintagelydia USA*

      Eh, it’s been WTF WEEK at AAM. It seems like everyone is losing their senses as the weather warms up.

    2. anonuy*

      Can this please be dropped? I’m now extremely hesitant to read the comments on Wednesdays because of all the “lol wtf wednesday” stuff. AAM has said it’s not happening. The attempts to make it happen are grating.

      1. Erika*

        I am not and never have tried to make that happen. I do, however, think that this is a particularly egregious letter and feel awful for the OP for being in such an insane position.

  16. HR Geek*

    State minimum wage in California is $9.00/hr.

    9.00 x 2080 = 18,720.00
    18,720/12 = 1,560.00

  17. Joey*

    That’s so ridiculous Id be tempted to tell him he should pay you more for having to put up with the nonsense for as long as you did

    1. John*

      Oh man — and the email was edited (which is fair, it had a lot of fluff and this was short and to the point). But they were very egotistical.

      The CTO would always find the most elaborate words to describe a simple concept, all the engineers in there thought they were the world’s best, when in reality all of us were pretty average. Everybody was like “Code is an art and should be beautiful”, and I couldn’t put up with that nonsense. I almost got fired when I said that “Code is not an art, it should work and be readable. But there is no such thing as beautiful code” — I should have never said that.

      1. Violet Rose*

        Now, I disagree with your assessment of code – as a theoretical mathematician, I think code should be elegant (as simple as possible to do the job well; there’s a definite balancing act) – but, um, “nearly firing” is a reeeeeally disproportionate response. What.

        Do tell me more, it makes me feel better about my own job at a startup and getting reamed out over tea.

        1. John*

          Elegant = readable. Elegant is a fancier word, but code is not an art (in the strict sense of the word) and will never be. That’s the kind of mentality I can’t put up with.

          1. Violet Rose*

            I guess I use ‘elegant’ because it bears a very specific connotation in mathematics, but I’m with you there, readability is a big factor! But yeah, making such a fuss about “Coding is an ART!” sounds really obnoxious; I see why you found them so obnoxious.

            1. Caroline*

              I would agree that (from a mathematician’s perspective), elegant is more than just readable. To me, it implies concise, logical, readable, and without anything extraneous.

          2. TootsNYC*

            Code is a craft–and I think “craft” gets a bad rap. People use “an art” too freely, ad they don’t value the concept of craft and craftsmanship.

        2. Tau*

          I’m with you, probably also influenced by the pure maths background. Elegant proofs are a thing, why wouldn’t elegant code be one? That said, alphabetic ordering of variables = what, nearly firing = double what!

          (Have you ever seen Fursternberg’s proof there are infinitely many primes? It’s a gorgeous piece of maths and I may be on a mission to share it with the world.)

          1. Violet Rose*

            Oh wow, I had not! My analysis and topology are both a little rusty, but that is, indeed, a very beautiful proof; thank you for sharing :)

            And seriously – dogmatic adherence to such arbitrary standards is so counter-productive and outright *baffling*. Alphabetic variables? I present my variables in whatever order makes sense, dangit!

      2. Stephanie*

        I was a mechanical engineering major (and my professional interests lie in the areas furthest away from software), so I learned enough coding to get by. I had to take a math class in college through the applied math department, where we’d solve something by hand and then code the same solution.

        I went to office hours once for a problem set. My professor looks at my code like “Hrm, I mean…not the most elegant solution for the coding portion.” I’m like “BUT IT WORKS.”

        1. John*

          Yep those are my guidelines.

          1. Does it work?
          2. Is it secure? Meaning a script kiddie won’t take over our systems in 5 minutes.
          3. Is it readable? Meaning, if I hand it over to someone who hasn’t worked in this project can tell me what it does.
          4. Will it scale? If for some reason, the code needs to handle 1000x more input than anticipated, will it scale easily?

          If that’s true, then ship it.

          In the startup they were more concerned about the whitespace between variables, and alphabetical ordering of the constants. A code review takes 5 hours of nit picking subtleties like “Your variable name is 1 character too long. Find a better name for it”

          1. Camellia*

            Oh. My. God. 35 years in the IT industry and I feel your pain. When my spouse and I first got together he didn’t understand why I resisted certain marvels of the electronic age. My response was, “Because I know the people who program these things.”.

            He still didn’t really buy that until our insurance company started denying our prescription refills because ‘they had already been filled’. We have two scripts in common and each would get denied every month. We also share the same first initial, so I knew exactly what had happened; the insurance company had screwed up their search parameters to only search on last name/first initial. This went on for five, count’em, five months.

            Finally I got my benefits department to stay on line with me while I dealt with the insurance company once again. And I told them the exact problem and demanded they find someone who could tell me when the coding fix was going in. Five minutes later a very subdued person informed me that it was going in production in another six weeks. And apparently it did because the problem stopped, right on time. I just can’t believe they left it so long!

            1. anonuy*

              This sounds like how my sister and I figured out how our doctor’s office’s system stored phone numbers, since we had different phone numbers and would get each other’s appointment reminders.

            2. The Cosmic Avenger*

              I can’t believe that 1) someone designed such a shoddy system — every record needs to have a unique identifier, and 2) that no one else had this problem before you two. And that last one, I mean I literally do not believe it, as in I’m sure that it happened probably dozens of times and people either didn’t complain or weren’t persistent enough to spur the company into action.

              1. MsChanandlerBong*

                Believe it. I recently had to read my cell phone company the riot act because they updated their website and somehow started charging too much sales tax. My state tax is 6 percent. Every other month (I’ve had the same provider for two years), they charged me 6 percent. All of a sudden, they were charging me 10.4 percent, and we haven’t had any tax updates that would account for the change. Every single person basically said “This is what the computer says, so it must be right.”

                I finally got them to refund the excess tax, and I noticed they fixed the issue, but it was like that for a month. I can’t believe I’m the only person in PA who paid excess tax in that timeframe.

          2. Chinook*

            John, you forgot another guideline (this coming from a person who works hand-in-hand with a coder to create a program we use) – is the end product useable by someone who is not a programmer? I don’t care who elegant your coding is if the end product isn’t useable by the non-tech person who needs to use it. In my mind, it is like baking a beautiful cake with amazing icing work that is inedible because they products used to get it to work are toxic.

      3. Windchime*

        Yeah, that’s kind of nutty. I guess there is a certain beauty to code that is succinct-yet-readable, and of course tidy and neat. But a work of art? Yeah, okay. Whatever.

      4. Marcela*

        Well, I do think code is an art. A good code, that is. Meaning as it is just clear, concise and readable. Something similar happens with equations, we say in physics (I’m a software developer who has only worked in scientific groups): the most famous and/or important ones are simple, readable, concise, even beautiful. It’s like when my husband discovered that papers well written have less problems to be accepted by journals.

        But maybe the way it’s said it’s annoying, as if the code should be artistic and beautiful just because, instead of because bad or convoluted code can create big messes and have serious consequences. Luckily the rules for code in our tiny startup (dead now) were the same as John said in his comment at 3:06. Our code aimed to be beautiful and I’d love to write code that looks like a well written tale or even poetry, but that’s not really the main goal.

  18. jhhj*

    This is a great story which you will have fun telling for the rest of your life. Get yourself a great new job, keep the money they paid you and laugh.

  19. Suzanne*

    My daughter is working at a start-up right now. She’s desperate to find another job because it’s so nuts! She’s getting paid crap while the owner spends company money on herself and is just, in general, off her gourd. I hope she finds something soon. She’s about at her wit’s end and I am tiring of the “venting” phone calls.

    1. Suzanne*

      Forgot to add that at least, she hasn’t been asked to return salary, although I could see that happening in the future.

    2. Melissa*

      Given all of these stories, I fully expect there to be a Wolf of Wall Street-type movie about a startup founder in 20 years or so.

  20. steve g*

    Can I ask what you did or did not do during your tenure that may be contributing to this? not asking in a snarky way, just wondering what kind of work you did. Did you get some projects done or was it more like a drawn out training process? I once left a job at a family business after a month and I felt they thought the same way about me, even though I did get work done when I was there….but if you’re gonna micromanage and bully when I don’t need guidance to begin with….youre the one who drove me out the door

    1. John*

      In my 3 months I did publish 4 big features, and one of them which happened to be my idea increased the revenue (that’s the reason they’re banking an extra K a week). The other features were minimal in impact, but large enough to justify the time investment.

      1. Steve G*

        Oh OK…..I’m job hunting now and just realized that I am applying to lots of startups, and wondering if one of them is the one you wrote about (in NYC). No way to tell though:-). Good luck, bummer about losing that kind of salary

    2. lowercase holly*

      it really doesn’t matter since the company decided they wanted to pay that amount in salary right away without a probational period or anything. unless there was a contract with specifics about “you must produce this or that in order to keep the money.”

      1. John*

        Actually that salary was the probational period salary, it was meant to double after 6 months. Doubling the salary would be pretty much into the $200K range. I was definitely excited by the idea of making a quarter million dollars a year in base salary + equity.

        But not anymore, it is ridiculous. Even going back to my corporate job would bring me back to the low 6 figures range. Which is fine. I was living perfectly fine, and wasn’t stupid enough to get in a lot of debt as soon as I had a huge bump in salary.

      2. Steve G*

        It matters from the sense of trying to understand the employers point of view, that is all…

        1. Kelly L.*

          From what I’ve seen, I think the employer’s point of view is probably “We’re short on cash, and maybe we can convince this guy that this is an actual thing.” I doubt even the company thinks it’s legit, deep down.

  21. Meg*

    As long as they are asking you to pay back salary, you shouldn’t do that. Talk to a lawyer. If they are asking you to pay back a “signing bonus,” and the terms of the signing bonus were presented to you prior to you receiving the signing bonus and the terms required you to work for them for a certain period of time, it can be totally legal. For example, I received a signing bonus with my current employer, if I leave before putting in two years (but not if I am terminated by them), I will have to pay back the signing bonus. A signing bonus is NOT salary so the same rules don’t apply. I’m not in California so no idea if it is the same there.

    1. Stephanie*

      Yeah, I had a job with a retention bonus structured like that. Total award was over four years, I think and you got a payment annually (or maybe biannually). If you quit before the the period the disbursement covered, you had to pay it back (it would be prorated). But even in that situation, some people managed to negotiate not paying it back when they quit. I also had a coworker who would just stash the bonus in a savings account and not touch it as she was fervently job searching.

      1. De Minimis*

        I was in California when I had a meager signing bonus, it was done over one year and was paid with your first paycheck. The rule was if you left during the first six months, you were supposed to pay it all back. If you left after that but before your first year, you paid half. I can’t remember if that was only if you quit or if it applied if you were fired or laid off, though they would have had major bad publicity in campus recruiting and elsewhere if they were letting people go and then trying to make them pay back bonuses. I don’t recall hearing any cases of them making those people pay anything back.

  22. Dr. Pepper Addict*

    OP – If he’s already asking for your salary back, I wouldn’t expect to get paid for the 2 weeks you are going to work there to finish out your notice. If it comes to that, just contact the appropriate office in your city and they should be able to take care of it for you. I think Alison has written on here before about who to contact if an employer will not give you your wages.

    While on this subject, someone who would ask such a thing will also be willing to lie about that you took company property or any other sort of lies to be able to say you owe them money. Take a good inventory while you’re still there and document everything you received and returned, like your computer.

    1. Artemesia*

      Good advice. I’d photograph the office and equipment on the last day and email the photos to yourself. And if possible have the office manager walk through the office and sign off on equipment the last day.

    2. Nameless*

      Agreed, and since the OP is in California, he’s in luck if it should come to that. No matter how much you make, state law says that you must be paid your final wages within a reasonable time period, and if you aren’t paid those wages, your employer owes you a penalty equal to your daily wages for every day late your last check is, up to 30 days. And you probably don’t have to go to a lawyer to demand this; California labor officials will handle your complaint assuming the business meets what is, iirc, a very low threshhold — something like a minimum of two employees who are California residents.

  23. Sara M*

    My husband has worked in San Francisco startups for almost a decade. This is not normal behavior for a startup–the word “ludicrous” is excellent here.

    You don’t have to avoid startups forever. Just the insane ones. Of which there are many. :) You just have to watch for red flags and choose carefully.

    1. John*

      I think I’ll just avoid San Francisco in general, the housing situation is ludicrous as well. Where I’m from, $4K is the mortgage of a mini mansion. Or I can buy a smaller house and drive a Maserati. But in SF that gets me a 600 sqft apartment.

      1. Beancounter in Texas*

        My cousin (from Texas) married a Californian and they bought a fixer-upper house in San Jose. IIRC, they put down $250,000 on this house and my cousin told me, “Don’t think I don’t cry every time I think we could have paid for a house in Texas in cash with that.” I know they scrimped and pinched to save that money too.

        1. John*

          Ironically I’m also from Texas. And yes, one of my friends just bought a beautiful $500K house and his mortgage is cheaper than rent in SF. Go figure.

      2. Anonyby*

        Yeah, the south bay isn’t much better! Part of my job includes writing up all of my office’s weekly listings & sales on a white board for the agents to see, and the prices make me wonder how anyone can afford to buy property here!

      3. Come On Eileen*

        If you like Northern California, I’d recommend driving 90 minutes east and checking out the job market in Sacramento. Most companies here are blessedly normal, your housing dollar will go significantly further, and hey, California :-)

        SF is a fun place to visit but yeah, I wouldn’t want to live or work there.

  24. Ann Furthermore*

    It never ceases to amaze me what people will try to browbeat others into doing. I would be tempted to calculated the amount of overtime, plus penalties and interest, owed to me using Alison’s formula above, and then send a letter (even better, a letter via my attorney) laying out the options: (a) they leave you alone and move on, or (b) they pay you for all your overtime they owe you now that your salary has fallen below the minimum to be considered exempt.

    Run away, OP. Run away fast.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      That’s an awsome idea and would be so satisfying but even half the OPs wage is $60k so probably over the limit to be considered exempt

  25. Artemesia*

    ah startups. I know someone who worked for a year for equity and was fired literally the day before his stock would vest, so he worked for a year for free having created a critical function for the company that was totally successful. It was wage theft pure and simple and since that happened to someone close to me, I have heard of several similar stories of people being made promises and then let go so that they don’t have to make good on them.

    Never ever work for equity that could be yanked like this. And assume a startup is very high risk and protect yourself as best you can.

    ANd for the OP, yeah right — he should give back half his salary. Sheesh.

  26. LoremIpsum*

    Different scenario but this reminded me of this situation: my spouse worked for a startup last year; the CEO was the founder and very hands-on, small firm, open-platform office. People were known to suddenly be let go and this was witnessed one day. After a month spouse inquires about insurance and benefits; accountant looked a bit surprised since it was generally a 3 month probationary period.

    Passes six months. After many meetings with the accountant, finally gets insurance and information about the profit sharing plan. Shortly thereafter, CEO says “this just isn’t working out” and let my spouse go that very day, with two weeks’ severance. The insurance cards arrive in the mail that day.

    Later in the month the accountant calls: they want payment of the company contribution to the health insurance. I am sure this is a contractual provision but it just really smarted after all of that effort. Finally sent them a check of $600 to end that chapter. It was just a tremendous waste of everyone’s time, and that hurt to have to do that when you’re out of work. Happy to report spouse landed in an infinitely better place where they are appreciated.

  27. puddin*

    I have nothing to say here that would be the least bit constructive. If you want to meet me at the bar later, I have a few choice words about just how squidlipped this is – channeling a Henry Rollins rant about the whole thing.

    Keep your money, get your job back, revel in the fact that you are wiser now.


    1. Connie-Lynne*

      You know, there do seem to be a lot of Bay Area tech folks coming out of the woodwork on this post!

      Perhaps a meet-up at Grumpy’s or Local Edition is in order!

  28. TheExchequer*

    I would give back half my pay if and only if they can find a way to give me back half the time I spent working. xD

  29. Amy Farrah Fowler*

    Wow… This is absolutely bananas.

    I just started with a company that I suppose you could call a startup, but they’ve been very upfront with me and only ask me to put in hours they can afford to pay me for. They have expressed interest in giving me equity in the company as we grow, but as part of my employment agreement currently, since I don’t have that equity, I was able to negotiate that the company and I would maintain joint copyright on any works produced just to cover my own butt in case it doesn’t happen. We also don’t have the “startup” culture AT ALL. We’re focused on our mission, but our founders are very focused on us growing in the right way and doing what’s best for both the employees and the clients. I’ve only been with them for about a month, but I’ve been very impressed with their integrity so far.

    OP – So glad you’re getting out! Hope you either get your old job back or are able to find something that’s a better fit for you!

  30. YandO*

    I started my job search looking for a startup position in SanFran.

    I even got an offer pretty quickly, but I turned it down and have since realized that start ups are not for me. I am not exactly sure *what* I am looking for exactly. I thought I did not like corporate but after working for a small family owned business and my experience interviewing/learning about start ups, I think corporate may not be so bad.

    1. John*

      I guess it depends on the type of corporate. When I was in college I did an internship at Google and it was fine. I did another internship at Intel and it was awful. I did one for the government and it was fine as well. And I did another one at another corporation and it was amazing. So when I got job offers from corporations, I did not even think twice about joining a corporation.

  31. ThursdaysGeek*

    Slightly off topic, but it’s cool when I see a visitor from Workplace.StackExchange over here.

    If you haven’t actually moved to CA, then does the requirement that they pay you for all your time, including the last 2 weeks still stand? I suspect it does, and the CA Labor Dept will be interested if they don’t. But the advice you got there was good too: make sure you get copies of all your pay stubs, because even though you were paid with direct deposit, you still had to have access to them in some form. Do they still get to wait until July 2016 to give you the W2s, or are they due earlier too?

    Good luck in your job search, either going back or going forward. This site is a great resource!

    1. John*

      Yeah I had to find as much information as possible about what to do. Wasn’t really sure if Allison was going to answer/publish this question.

        1. John*

          LOL. You made my day.

          Slightly off-topic. If my former company doesn’t take me back, how do you think I should handle my reason to leave a company after 3 months?

          I was thinking about saying something like “Previous company stretched the truth during the recruitment process, I found out couple of weeks in the job, tried to give them a chance, but every week I kept finding more and more red flags and I couldn’t put up with it anymore and decided to leave”.

          Does that sounds good? OR does it sounds like I’m bashing the company?

          1. Job-Hunt Newbie*

            I would keep it simple by explaining that the position and the startup culture just wasn’t a good fit for you. No need to go into too much detail; especially if there’s a risk that the info could come back if they were to do a reference check or employment check, and try to get in touch with your totally reasonable, level headed former boss.

          2. Kyrielle*

            The startup culture wasn’t a good fit or “the scope of the position changed significantly, to where it was no longer a good fit”. That way you’re not accusing them of lying/stretching the truth – which will always raise a question for a new employer, even if you know the reality.

          3. Soupspoon McGee*

            “The position turned out to be significantly different than what was advertised.” Very simple, nothing negative, but they can read between the lines.

  32. Sara M*

    Alison, you know how companies are supposed to file with every state where they have at least one employee? Ten bucks says these idiots don’t know that. Is there any chance of this biting the ex-employee later? (I don’t care if it bites the so-called company, because it should.)

  33. John R*

    For those interested, this is the BEST article I’ve ever read about working at a Startup and how, essentially, many “startups” are just R&D for larger companies, who fund them partially and fully expect them to fail. It also discusses “hacker houses” where a dozen people will live crammed in like sardines. For me, not worth it for a 1 in a million chance at super success.

    1. NickelandDime*

      Thanks! I thought this whole thread was interesting and can’t wait to read this article.

  34. voluptuousfire*

    I worked for a start up and was let go just after 3 months. Lots of disorganization within the company and in the department. It was pretty typical, expected longer hours (9-8ish, but I made sure I was out by 6:30 or 7), forced fun, etc. Compared to this one, it was pretty much Shangri-La. Luckily it did make money but was just a crappy place to work.

    Like Steve G, I’ve interviewed with a lot of start ups. I like the getting in on the ground floor and helping create the culture but the disorganization I can do without.

  35. Teresajs*

    Repaying half your salary doesn’t even begin to make sense. You were hired at a particular salary. If you weren’t adding value to the company, they were free to let you go, at any time. Also, the wages you’ve been paid have all been reduced by things like payroll taxes, insurance premiums, and 401k contributions. You never received 100% of any paycheck so certainly can’t be expected to have half of your pay sitting idle. That said, check your paperwork. If you were paid a hiring bonus or if the company paid for some of your moving expenses, you may have to repay that. But 50% of your salary us laughable.

  36. Crusty Old HR Manager*

    Did you sign any type of agreement indicating you would be required to repay wages if you resigned before a certain date? If you did, get a lawyer.

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