my boss wants to secretly recruit my coworkers and me into a money-making scheme

A reader writes:

I work for a very high-profile nonprofit as one of the “people on the ground” (aka, the people who get paid the least to do most of the work that is the nonprofit’s claim to fame). I’m fine with the low pay, especially because I love the work we do and believe in its importance, but it does mean that my coworkers and I are all really broke 20-somethings right out of college with limited professional experience.

Enter my manager: she comes across as a really fun, down-to-earth, positive person, so when she approached me (during a lunch break) and asked to have a private meeting after work to get to know each other, I said yes. After I agreed, she called to set up the date and time, then concluded the phone call with, “I like to keep my work and personal life separate, so this phone call never happened.” Which I thought was weird, but having already agreed, I went to the meeting.

Basically, I got there and she proceeded to try to convince me that she knew people who could change my life, that they were self-made millionaires at 30 and they wanted to help people earn money, but she wouldn’t say what they did or how they earned their money, just that you have to “build trust” to get close enough to them and she would be giving me reading material to see if I was worthy and then meet with me again. She kept saying, “This is very important, I don’t talk about this with just anyone, etc. etc. etc.” Afterwards I felt weird about it and asked a couple of my coworkers if she’d approached them. Sure enough, she’s met with at least two others, same spiel, same key phrases, also gave them the book, etc.

For me, this is an ethical issue. She’s our supervisor, and the group she’s approaching is particularly vulnerable to this BS (she kept talking about being debt-free, which is like swinging a carrot on a stick because most of us have lots of debt). How do I approach this? Is this illegal? If it’s not, is there a proper way to extricate myself without suffering repercussions down the line?

Ick.

A manager approaching employees about a shady moneymaking scheme (which is probably some kind of multi-level marketing or pyramid scheme, I’m guessing?) isn’t illegal, assuming that the scheme itself is not illegal, but it’s unethical as hell.

Unethical, unprofessional, and super shady.

There’s a reason that she told you that the phone call never happened, was careful to approach you on your lunch break, and met with you outside of work; she knows that she’s doing something sketchy, and she’s trying to create an artificial distinction between your work relationship and this other thing. Or, I suppose a more charitable interpretation is that she genuinely thinks that doing it that way is the right thing to do so that you don’t feel coerced by your boss to participate in this.

The problem is that it doesn’t work that way. She’s still your boss, even outside of work. And there are still power dynamics in play, and so therefore it’s still an inappropriate abuse of the relationship that your company would probably be very disturbed to hear about.

As for what to do: At a minimum, give her a clear no if she approaches you again. Say, “I gave it some thought and it’s not for me.” If she pushes you in any way after that, say, “I’m really not interested, thanks.”

If you have any worry that you’ll face even subtle professional repercussions from her for saying no, that’s when you need to get someone else involved, probably HR. This is the kind of thing that HR should come down hard on, so tell them what happened and then say, “It was such a hard sell that I’m worried that saying no may have repercussions for me as her employee.” Let them know, too, that you’re not the only one she approached.

{ 213 comments… read them below }

  1. MJH

    Yeah, this is almost definitely a too-good-to-be true multi-level marketing scam. I would stay far away and encourage your coworkers to do the same. The only way your manager is going to make money is if she signs you guys up.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger

      I’d take out the “almost”. Genuine, non-scammy self-made millionaires under 30 are not running secretive missions to help people get rich through unspecified means in their spare time. They are hiring people to do actual, obvious jobs like “programmer” or “chef” or “events coordinator”.

      1. Three Thousand

        Anyone who knows a great way to make lots of money that isn’t rocket science isn’t going to be sharing it with random strangers.

      2. Artemesia

        Especially people who have to read books and then prove they are ‘worthy’. Sheesh. This manager should be fired. Yesterday.

      3. Mike C.

        Or convincing them that they’re really “their own boss” and misclassifying them as 1099 contractors. ;)

    2. Boop

      I don’t know, my thoughts went immediately to a cult. The secretiveness, the fact that you have to “build trust” before you can meet the leadership, the reading materials to see if you’re worthy (WTF?!!?)…it sounds like a creepy cult to me.

      It’s more likely a marketing scam, but the cult possibility is intriguing. What is the manager into?!

        1. AnonaMoose

          In a different context yes. But they are strictly about income, not generating income for ‘parishioners’. They instead promise a better life and immortality with aliens or something. Xenu. *shudder*

        2. Ann

          Yeah, this reminds me of L. Ron Hubbard and the “Dyanetics” or some such literature a friend of mine was bringing home back when we were in college.

          1. Anna

            My dad is a reader of sci-fi and everything I love about sci-fi started with him. I know he had at least one L. Ron Hubbard book around and I am sure it’s because he was curious about L. Ron as a science-fiction writer, but once when I just casually asked him about it, he vehemently denied ever having any copies of anything L. Ron Hubbard had written. The shame of readers of sci-fi having to shun a writer entirely because he actually started a religion makes me a sad panda.

            /endofftopic

            1. Natalie

              If it makes you feel any better, from what I understand L Ron wasn’t a great sci-fi writer anyway. Your dad probably isn’t missing much.

        3. Djuna

          I don’t think they’d be much help with clearing debt since they seem to be all about taking money from people for “auditing” and “courses” – but then it’s unlikely they’re clear and upfront about that aspect of things.

          It does sound very similar in a lot of ways though, if OP is offered any sort of questionnaire they should run very quickly in the opposite direction. A friend of mine pranked me 20 years ago by putting my email address on a dianetics questionnaire – I still get 2 emails per week and there is no unsubscribe option!

          1. Ruffingit

            Go to the preferences page on the site and change your email address to the email of the site itself. That way, they will just be sending their emails to themselves :)

        1. Mabel

          It makes me sad because I’ve known some really great people who got involved with MK (and other companies like that), and I’d hate to think of their being taken advantage of.

          1. Honeybee

            Mary Kay can work for you IF you have a lot of friends and acquaintances who like to buy MK stuff, or if you are a very successful salesperson to begin with – but if you were, you might just be employed doing it. You can, theoretically, make money without recruiting people to work underneath you – although youc can’t get any of the prizes they hype up unless you do.

            Otherwise, MK is just bad news bears. A dormmate of mine in college tried to convince me to do it and she was being genuine, but MK itself tacitly encourages potential representatives to buy product with credit cards if they don’t have immediate capital and other terrible financial decisions.

        1. OhNo

          I’m glad I recently watched the Last Week Tonight episode about televangelists, or your phrasing (“give us your seed”) would have made me think the boss was trying to form some kind of… well, duck club.

          I really hope it’s just a standard MLM and not some religious scam, because bringing religion into this whole unethical mess would make this much weirder and much more irritating.

      1. MegEB

        A lot of these MLM schemes use the same techniques as religious cults do. Amber Rose suggested checking out the PinkTruth website, and I’m going to second that – it gives some great, honest insight into how the Mary Kay empire works. As someone who once got suckered into an MLM-type scheme, I can vouch for their creepy, cult-like recruitment practices.

      2. RMRIC0

        MLM in my experience tends to be a little more up front with what they’re doing (well, apart from the scam) since they’re usually pushing those sales parties onto people. I’d be interested in hearing what the literature was.

  2. Apollo Warbucks

    It’s bound to be a pyramid scheme, that will require you to recruit people before you see any money back. Don’t get involved with it and don’t believe the bullshit she is pushing on you, it’s not a special opportunity and will not in anyway benefit you.

  3. Suzanne

    If it’s so great, why is the supervisor still working at a non-profit. She should surely be a millionaire by now!

    1. some1

      Yeah, she either knows it doesn’t work, which makes it even more awful that she would even approach her employee about it; or she DOES believe it works, and that would make me question her judgement as a whole – not a good thing for a supervisor.

      1. Artemesia

        Maybe it is working for her because she is grifting off of these employees being recruited into her ‘downline’.

        1. Slippy

          That could be it but I am still holding out for the cult option because that would be more fun. I wonder if they have a chant or make people wear funny hats. I know this is serious for someone else, but on the other hand it could be a comedy goldmine.

        1. Elizabeth West

          Heh heh. The key is to ask it as a legitimate question, avoiding any sarcasm whatsoever. If you can pull off a wide-eyed innocent look without exaggerating it, that works even better.

  4. some1

    “I like to keep my work and personal life separate, so this phone call never happened.”

    If you like to keep your work and personal life separate, you don’t ask your employees to meet you outside of work and after hours for any reason.

    1. caryatid

      this could also be a good counter response – “i can’t become involved with this because i, too, like to keep my work and personal life separate”

  5. Rat Racer

    What a painful and awkward situation! What happens if the refusal sours the OP’s relationship with her manager? What happens if, come review time, the OP is dinged for superficial BS reasons and suspects that it’s tied to her refusal of the pyramid scheme? (And in fact, if I were the OP, I would be paranoid that every interaction with my manager from here on out was in some way tied to my decline to participate). Every missed opportunity, every correction, every fishy glance – it would make me completely paranoid. I want to reach through my screen and read the OP’s boss the riot act! Managers should know better than this!

    1. Michele

      That is why I think things like this should be documented. The manager knows it is shady, that is why she insists on secrecy. Document this interaction and any other time she brings it up. It would give the OP a leg to stand on if she is retaliated against.

    1. Lillie Lane

      Ugh. I got the Amway spiel/hard sell from a couple of acquaintances when I was about 17 or 18. I’m the type that has a terrible time saying “no” to anything, so how I managed to slip out of that one unscathed at that young age….I wish I could remember!

    2. Adonday Veeah

      My Amway story:

      Way back when, in my 20’s when I was contemplating the direction of my life, my then-husband and I were friends with a couple, the man of which was my co-worker. As a foursome, we were close, in and out of each other’s homes a lot. One of the things I was contemplating was whether or not I wanted to have children. This man was also thinking about that, and we kicked around the pros and cons of the subject in great depth together. His wife had already come to her own conclusion about the subject, and she was definitely on the “pro” side.

      One day I got a very nasty phone call from her, telling her I had ruined her life by trying to convince her husband to not have children. I did no such thing, fer cryin’ out loud, but there was no arguing. She hung up on me and they both disappeared from my life. I was devastated. Until…

      A couple of years later (after my divorce) she called me out of the blue, telling me that she and the hubs had a very special business opportunity they wanted to share with me, but she couldn’t tell me about it over the phone, it had to be in person. Missing them greatly and wanting to repair our friendship, I invited them over.

      She came into my home as though nothing had ever happened between us, and they commenced to present their Amway pitch. It was so shocking to me that even now I can remember my stunned gasp at the audacity of it all. The only good thing I can say is that her husband had the grace to look embarrassed about the whole thing.

      No, I didn’t sign up. And no, the friendship was never repaired. Amway will forever be connected in my mind with manipulation and pretense.

  6. Sunshine Brite

    Be prepared to say no a few different ways. Most people doing this are encouraged to provide the opportunity different ways to people to measure interest – various social media outlets, messages, conversations.

    1. Sunshine Brite

      It sounds super Dani Johnson-ish. I have some friends who are in love with her programs/products. It’s all about building trust and relationships to achieve better skills – leadership, sales, etc. I wanted to go see her speak after hearing some of her materials before hearing more and realizing she was just repeating herself but my husband luckily had a better head about it. It doesn’t have much substance behind it as she repeats the same stories almost verbatim each time she speaks.

  7. caryatid

    definitely seconding the advice to give a clear “no”. rather than “i’m not interested right now” or another form of a soft no, because this lady will definitely keep trying.

    if she keeps pushing, i would try a genuinely confused “why do you keep asking after i’ve said no?” – the key is to act perplexed rather than annoyed.

    1. INTP

      Yep. They are also trained to have responses for all of the “polite” excuses people will give for not being interested. You have to get firm eventually, so it might as well be immediately. Don’t even bother with a reason because she’ll have an answer for it, just say you aren’t interested and aren’t going to be no matter what. If you won’t deviate from polite, you’ll wind up signed up with a pyramid scheme.

      And if that doesn’t work, try “If you keep pressuring me about this I will be forced to discuss it with HR” because clearly she wants to keep what she’s doing a secret.

      1. caryatid

        exactly – it’s like guys that keep pushing for a date. “i’m sorry, i’m busy.” “oh, when are you not busy?”

        1. T3k

          Once had a guy who said exactly that so I went “All my days are busy… forever” in a flat, pointed look. He got the message.

        2. AnnieNonymous

          “I’m sorry. I like…women.”

          “Oh my god, me too! We have so much in common! Want to get together and talk about it?”

      2. DMented Kitty

        One time a friend of mine and I decided to stop by a mall after a badminton game with other friends just to cool off and shop a little bit. Plus, it was also convenient for him since the transit station is connected to the mall so we can part ways there. I usually shop alone, so we decided to split and just meet later for a quick snack before heading to our own homes.

        An hour later, I texted him to ask him if he’s ready to meet. He responded back, saying, “Help! I’m stuck in a conference room at Family First!” Turns out he can’t get out because they pretty much shut the doors (with other people who probably got baited in as well) and pressured him to hand over his credit card and presented him with some spiel about some educational plan.

        When I heard “Family First” I thought uh-oh… They have people in suits that flock the entrance to the mall asking if you own a credit card (which apparently was a way they filter you out as ‘eligible’ for their Family First program). Given I was probably just 20 by then I really didn’t have much experience with scams, but I just hated them becauase they were annoying – I typically just reply “no, I don’t have a credit card” and they ignore me at that point.

        So I went over to the Family First office to figure out a way to bail my friend out, and this FF lady came over as I got off the escalator telling me I could win this SUV (on display) if I sign my name on the brochure she is handing me. I told her no, I’m not interested – she insists all I need to do is sign on that little square. I said “no” again, and started walking away from her, and she followed me, insisting that it’s a “great opportunity, don’t you want to win an SUV?”. I keep insisting “NO” – she finally said, “Ma’am, can’t you at least be a little more open-minded?”. I stopped and stared at her, “WHAT!?” then told her [very authoritatively] it’s not about being more open-minded or not – I JUST AM NOT INTERESTED. She finally shrank back and left me alone. A while later I overheard her tell her coworker that I was a scary lady. ** snicker **

        Fueled by my annoyance at these FF pushers, I told my friend that he should demand his credit card back and just walk out of that room, otherwise I will kick the doors down and will drag him out. He was able to walk out of there, but it was too late – his card got charged – I don’t know if he was able to dispute it, but I told him he needs to contact his credit card company to make sure the company doesn’t keep charging to that card. I guess we both learned about scam that day.

  8. Snarkus Aurelius

    It never ceases to amaze me that these scams are still around. You can make lots of money but it’s a complete mystery as to how? Suuuuure.

    Definitely pyramid scheme but I was also getting a Scientology vibe.

    Oh and LW? I’d hope that your nonprofit would pay you a decent wage anyway because your work is so vital. Seriously please don’t fall for the your-work-is-so-essential-but-we-have-to-pay-you-pennies-because-it’s-not-about-money garbage. If they truly value you, they’ll pay better.

    Yes, I’ve fallen for that line.

    1. alter_ego

      yeah, the earning trust and assigned reading materials also felt very scientology-y to me. Though I suppose, on one level, Scientology is kind of a giant MLM

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      They may truly value her and her work and literally not having the funding to pay her any better. There are plenty of nonprofits where the pay is low because the money isn’t there. (There are also plenty where the pay is low because the organization is mismanaged, and plenty where the pay is reasonable, that’s neither of those is universally true.) Nonprofits are dependent on donors for their revenue; people who go into nonprofit work go into it understanding that.

      1. ZSD

        Well, I think it might be more accurate to say, “People who go into nonprofit work SHOULD go into it understanding that.” I’m sure there are some people who don’t really grasp the difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit business on that front, at least when they first get into the field.

      2. seisy

        There are also plenty where the pay is low because they can get away with it because it’s a non-profit, and idealistic 20 somethings who don’t know any better abound. There’s a lot of exploitation in the non-profit world that should be called out.

          1. seisy

            Perhaps I’ve just been burned too badly, but it does seem to be systemic from what I can tell. At one point I had a job in which I managed a community collaboration of the better part of a hundred non-profits within a certain community, and my role gave me special insight into a lot of the operations and people within those organizations. And what I saw was massive amounts of mismanagement, even among the best of them, and a *lot* of very exploitative behaviors/justifications (which effectively covered the many sins of mismanagement). My other experiences i other jobs for other organizations did not do much to belie that impression…and to be frank, it seems to be a problem rife in any sector that can define itself as “do what you love” (non-profits, the arts, academia, writing, etc), and is possibly made worse by the predominance of women, whose work is often devalued. (Even within organizations dedicated to promoting women. It’s appalling).

    3. Retail Lifer

      My boyfriend was just laid off from a small nonprofit where anytime anyone asked for something more than a cost of living increase they were guilt-tripped by being accused of trying to take food out of the mouths of the people they were helping. Plus, the whole association was probably under 50 people and yet the top two people there earned 6 figures. And they just laid off his whole department, didn’t replace them, but kept the grant for what that department was doing anyway.

      TL;DR: nonprofits can be just as shady and greedy as for-profits.

          1. seisy

            I’ve known many that are. Actually, Actually, it’s more true than not in my experience. Complete with the guilt trips and disparities in salary.

      1. Observer

        Terribly run and stupid. There are, unfortunately, a lot of way to be awful and scammy and stills stay under the radar. But taking a grant and then not performing the specific service or project that grant was for will come back to haunt them.

        1. AnonaMoose

          + 1

          Because grants/funders NEVER want proof of how the money was spent. *eyeroll* At least there is comeuppance that they will soon get the ax from that funder for basically theft. (too bad we couldn’t do the same for CA state funds, then I imagine we would be forced to actually get some things accomplished. Sigh.)

        2. Ama

          Yeah that’s what I was going to say. There aren’t a lot of funders left these days that won’t expect at the very least an itemized budget showing exactly how the money was spent, if not a more extensive report on the project’s outcomes.

          1. Retail Lifer

            It’s obvious they’ll eventually get nailed for this, and there will be a whole lot of us lined up to watch.

  9. moss

    Do extensive EXTENSIVE googling before agreeing to anything. Google the name of the booklet + “scam” and the names of the people involved + “scam” or “ripoff” or “problems” to see what you are getting into. Follow the trail you uncover. Normally the first couple or so hits are the results they want you to see. If you dig a little further you will see the results that other people are getting. Good luck. I wouldn’t touch this with at five thousand two hundred and eighty foot pole.

    1. Three Thousand

      I think it’s frustrating and sad that people still fall for this kind of scam after so many decades. There should be a point where these scams start to become less effective, but I don’t know that there necessarily is.

      1. Natalie

        These scams works because they’re generally set up to filter for the sort of people who will fall for them, regardless of any increased awareness – the gullible, the unsophisticated, the desperate.

        For example, the bad grammar in 419 scam emails is not a bug, it’s a feature. The people who chuckle to themselves as they hit the Spam button were probably never going to give up any money, so the scammer doesn’t want that person to respond anyway. It’s a waste of time! Better to only hook people who have already demonstrated they are likely to fall for it.

        1. Blurgle

          Scams and cults pinpoint people going through transitions – university freshmen, recent graduates, those recently divorced and widowed, even bereaved parents are targeted.

    2. MK

      I really don’t think the OP needs to research something she has no interest in; even if it was a legitimate business opportunity, going into it with your manager sounds like a bad idea.

      Anyway, many of the stories of people being conned into these schemes start with “I was smart about it; I did my research!”.

    3. moss

      To those replying that OP is not interested, I agree.

      My comment was more for anyone who is approached or considering something like this. There is no magical secret to getting rich or getting out of debt just like there is no magical weight-loss secret.

      Anyone who is considering giving money to someone who doesn’t CLEARLY lay out what EXACTLY you’re getting for your money, instead making huge claims and promises, should make the effort to find out if they are going down a bad road and if others have made mistakes like that in the past and can serve as a warning.

  10. Lou

    Run Op Run.

    MLM is a fancy legal term for a pyramid scheme. A lot of people try to get me to sign up to those weight loss stuff, Avon, Forever Living, Body Shop at home etc. You get invited to ‘parties’. I don’t know how these people survive because I get sick of them. My sister is one to sign up to these things because all her friends are doing it.

    1. Hellanon

      One of my younger friends – in her 30s – tells me that half the people she knows from high school have gotten sucked into these things & are aggressively marketing them on facebook. Nail stickers, overpriced pots & pans, marital aids (which my mother refers to as “schtupperware”) – you name it, her generation is trying to sell it to her.

      Depressing, you know? These are presumably young people who, if they weren’t so desperate, would know better…

      1. BadPlanning

        I’ve received several MLM invites to Facebook “parties.” I don’t get it. The only reason to go to these parties is to see some of your friends in person with the tax of whatever thing is being sold.

      2. Nonessential Personnel

        It’s a hazard for women who have been derailed from their careers by family, too. From the time my son was in preschool on, I’ve been hit up by other mothers at school to buy cleaning supplies, essential oils, handbags, schtupperware (ha!), scented wax melts, caffeine drinks (“for that energy we busy moms need!”)… and it’s always–ALWAYS–women who, before they had children, had full-time professional careers in business, education, social work, etc. I think these companies target women who are on the fence about being SAHMs. No matter how good we are at taking care of our kids and our homes, we still miss that feeling of being good at business–being efficient and organized, making money, going to meetings, being recognized by our peers… you don’t really get the same charge from being the PTA secretary, you know?

        I actually got the feeling from this letter that rather than MLM, it was probably one of those motivational programs where you go to pricey seminars in smelly hotel conference rooms and get all charged up about changing your life and tell your deepest fears to strangers, and the more of them you go to the more you’re “qualified” to go to, and it gets more expensive but in nicer surroundings, and you start recruiting your friends to change their lives too.

          1. GreatLakesGal

            est never promised anything about wealth, though. Happiness, interpersonal effectiveness, health etc, sure, but not money.

            ( err. I may have had some experiences as a young adult. Ahem.)

            1. fposte

              Which is why it failed in the 1980s :-).

              (But basically all those seminars where they relieve you of your money in exchange for nebulous betterdoms.)

        1. Elizabeth West

          I’ve seen Jamberry, something called Plexus (some weight loss thing), and Arbonne agressively on Facebook. It’s usually not targeted AT me; people just post it. Though one person (family) did message me to try to get me to buy his wife’s products–never mind we hadn’t said hi in ages–no, just send me a frickin sales pitch instead! :P

          1. Ruffingit

            I’ve been added to party groups and targeted through Facebook messaging for Plexus, Jamberry, etc. It’s ridiculous.

            1. Elizabeth West

              The annoying thing is that they come through your friend’s Facebook account–so you can’t do “Hide all from Plexus,” or whatever. Best course is just to unfollow the person until they come to their senses.

        2. Green

          Way late to the game on this one, but I had some (Mormon) friends who always said MLM stands for “Mormons Losing Money.” Definitely fits into your theory of people (and particularly women) who feel torn between wanting additional money/feeling of success and their family role.

      3. Ad Astra

        I’m constantly getting invited to “online” parties, usually by an acquaintance from high school who recently reconnected. Besides the fact that it’s totally disingenuous and rude to pester your “friends” about this stuff, most of the products are things I have no interest in. I can buy better protein shakes and jewelry and scented gels elsewhere, usually for a better price. I actually do like Pampered Chef products, but I never see anyone selling that stuff.

        Now, if only I could convince my MIL to stop buying me Mary Kay garbage from the lady next door. I’m a Sephora girl.

      4. Slimy Contractor

        AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHA SCHTUPPERWARE I’M DYING

        *gasp!*

        Oh, you have no idea how much I needed this today.

  11. DC Anon

    Maybe a pyramid/MLM scheme, but for some reason this sounds more like a Scientology/cult kind of thing to me. I’m curious about the “reading material” now!

    1. Meg Murry

      My guess was Scientology/cult-ish group or “secret society”, or a MLM/scheme like Primerica. Or maybe one of those leadership coaching seminar scams.

      I am also very curious about the “reading material”. OP, if you put a few phrases of the “reading material” into Google, what do you get?

      On a side note/tangent, one of my coworker’s husband was recently asked to join a society, like the Masons or Odd Fellows. She was concerned because it had high dues associated with it right up front. We joked that we should start up our own society “so secret we can’t even tell you it’s name” and get rich running a pyramid scheme fake secret society.

      1. Elizabeth West

        Masons are a fraternity, not a cult or pyramid scheme. I had an ex who was a Mason and also a Shriner. They have rituals and tests (that I only know about from TV because he wouldn’t tell me) and their pamphlets and handbooks are in a secret code. That last bit made me laugh because it was so seekrit-club.

        We had a standing joke–he would come back from a meeting and the conversation would go like this:

        “What’d you do at your meeting?”
        “Chased wild women around the table.”
        “Did you catch any?”
        “Nope.”
        “Too bad; maybe next time.”

        1. Meg Murry

          Yes, I know Masons aren’t actually a cult or pyramid scheme – but the one he was being invited to join apparently had issues of having people pay dues early on, but then not actually letting them become full members for an extended period of time – long enough that some believed it was a scam to get a bunch of people to pay high dues for a while, never really get to reap the benefits, and then most of them would give up or quit.

          But our fake super seekrit-society was going to completely be a pyramid scheme, or maybe just a take their money and run bait and switch. Of course, we haven’t actually done it, and won’t, but it’s fun to joke about our fake rules and seekrit-handshakes and code words and such :-)

        2. Anna

          I have always been slightly annoyed by the Masons. I’ve attended Mason events (my FiL is a Mason) but I could never figure out why they would be so secretive while simultaneously wearing their rings, putting their bumper stickers on everything, and generally identifying themselves part of an organization that keeps everything else so close to the vest.

          1. Blurgle

            The same reason every boy loved his secret decoder ring that was identical to every other boy’s secret decoder ring.

    2. Xanthippe Lannister Voorhees

      That was my read too. The title made it sound like your standard MLM but assuming we’re getting the actual words the manager said them not disclosing what exactly it is makes it sound more insidious than just your average annoying MLM (my experience with MLM people is they love to tell you what it is that will make you a millionaire because if they can’t get you as a recruit they want you as a customer)

      1. DC Anon

        Yes- that was the vibe I couldn’t quite put my finger on! MLMs are trying to sell as well as recruit so it’s weird that they wouldn’t tell you what they’re selling. Whereas the “building trust” and “seeing if OP is worthy” angles sound all cult.

        1. fposte

          Oh, that’s a good point–the product may not be the financial point in MLMs, but it’s still front and center in most discussions.

    1. km

      Agreed. This is so inappropriate. LW, you need to say no and you also need to go to HR now. Do not wait until it escalates. Ask your coworkers if they feel comfortable reporting this to HR as well.

  12. Anon for this

    Run fast. Tell HR.

    I’d also consider googling parts of her sales pitch and the title of the book, because odds are good she’s on-script, and you can find out more about what it is and what a mess it is that way – for the entertainment value – but I wouldn’t sign up regardless of what I found.

    1. Artemesia

      My husband used to prosecute consumer fraud. So I have seen a number of scripts used by these con artists. They are folksy and designed to seem amiable and unscripted. I remember one that involved farming where one of the questions was something like ‘So how many head you running there?’ And when the respondent would say ‘oh we have 50 head of cattle in addition to the corn’, the con artist would laugh and say ‘well, we have to be careful you know, we get people who want into this who have a dog and a cat and a chicken. more laughter’ This was all laid out in script. ‘My boss told me to identify the sharpest woman I know since we are growing the business and of course I immediately thought of you, Jane’ — also scripted and practiced in role plays until it is seamless.

      Nothing short of ‘no, I am not interested.’ with subsequent refusal to discuss works. And the HR people need to know this is happening at work to subordinates.

      1. fposte

        Which reminds me of those creepy human-driven recorded phone calls that are trying to pass for live. I got one that said “You are harder to get a hold of than the last cookie in the barrel!” Oh, so folksy for a recording.

  13. ZSD

    Is there any benefit to taking a sympathetic approach and trying to help the boss escape?
    “Listen, it’s clear that you’ve been roped into a pyramid scheme, and I’m very sorry for that. If you’ve already invested money in this, I certainly hope that you’re able to get your money back. I’ve looked into it a bit, and it looks like some options you might have are X, Y, and Z. But rather than trying to recoup your lost money by pulling other people into the same bad situation you’re in, you need to focus on getting yourself out.”

    1. Observer

      I wold be VERY surprised if that turned to to be a wise move. I think it could turn out a lot worse than just flatly saying no.

    2. Sunshine Brite

      I had one friend try that with another friend who’s been doing some travel scheme that’s sucking a bunch of her family’s limited money. It didn’t go well.

    3. Sarahnova

      I think that’s a) super presumptuous when the person concerned is your boss, b) very very unlikely to go well no matter the relationship concerned. It comes from a good place, I know, but I would strongly advise the OP to keep her relationship with the boss 100% legit-business-related from this point forward.

    4. Kate M

      I think that part of these schemes is to inoculate their people against someone trying to get them out, though. They’ll tell their victims/customers/proponents that people might try to get you to leave, or tell you this is a scam, but they’re just jealous/don’t want to take risks/don’t want you to become a millionaire/are drones that are fine working 9-5 the rest of their life. They’ve already got an answer for that. Most of the time, people have to find their way out themselves.

      1. Three Thousand

        They might not even have to do that. There are victims of 419 advance-fee scammers who get angry when told they’ve been scammed and insist the scammers are their friends and they’re going to get paid any day now. Most people who do this kind of thing have an incredibly hard time admitting even to themselves when they know they were wrong and did something stupid that cost them a lot of money, much less acknowledging it and agreeing when anyone else patronizingly points it out.

        1. ThursdaysGeek

          Which reminds me of a fascinating book I read years ago: “When Prophecy Fails”. People tend to double-down initially when told they fell for an untruth.

        2. Artemesia

          The scams that pray on the elderly bank on this. They become their ‘friends’ and those being ripped off are very loyal to their ‘friends.’ And no one likes to be told they are a fool, especially when they are a fool.

          There is a very paranoid edge to the marketing of these things. I have seen perfectly normal people become nasty and paranoid with a big helping of persecution as part of Amway. ‘A friend who doesn’t want to help you make money is not your friend.’ (as opposed to my view that a friend who leeches off you to make money is not a friend) or worse yet those who seem to have selling soap conflated with being a good Christian. You don’t want to buy their soap, you are rejecting the Lord.

          A lot of the make money schemes prey on good people who are struggling and convince them to put their last dollar into something where they think working hard will help them prosper and all it does is suck up their limited funds. Some of the cases my husband prosecuted were heartbreaking — e.g. a disabled veteran who had invested his last dime with every intent of working hard totally cheated of all his money.

    5. LawBee

      If it were a friend, sure. But her boss – no. It’s basically saying “you’ve made a terrible mistake and I feel sorry for you”, which is not the vibe you want with your boss.

      1. Anna

        While I don’t think this is the best approach for the boss, the vibe with the boss has already been changed and if the OP says no, it will change then too. Basically there is no way to get out unscathed; it’s just a matter of how bad the blow back will be.

  14. Bend & Snap

    I don’t get the sense that the OP is actually considering this.

    I do think it should be escalated to HR regardless of whether there’s any further pressure. It’s grossly inappropriate and borders on abuse of power IMO.

  15. Mike C.

    Say no, leave the meeting and alert HR and upper management if you feel like it’s needed. This sort of thing needs to be nipped in the bud and I’m guessing that your coworkers are also being subjected to this garbage.

  16. INTP

    If HR or someone above your boss’ head is approachable and seems to care about the “on the ground” workers, I’d urge you to go to them and request anonymity. Your supervisor has gone to many people about this, so she can’t know who reported her. (Unless they tell her, which they could do legally, but hopefully wouldn’t if you promised anonymity.) Someone needs to make sure that none of your fellow coworkers fall for this.

  17. Leah

    Is there anything unethical about going to HR/higher boss if the OP isn’t actually worried about negative repercussions for declining to participate? The boss shouldn’t be recruiting her employees into marketing schemes. This needs to stop, however “careful” she has been to keep the work and personal stuff separate.

    1. Observer

      Nothing unethical. But, not necessarily the best thing for the OP. On the other hand, if there IS a concern, then that’s probably the best course, assuming that HR is competent and understands the risk to the organization.

      1. Anna

        It’s probably a good idea to approach HR even if the OP were not concerned. It’s not something that should happen and turning a blind eye to it means that someone else might get sucked in to it, especially since there’s a power dynamic involved. There are some things that it might be okay to just let go; this is not one of them.

        1. Observer

          I hear you. But, there could be a risk to the OP, and I don’t think that she is obligated to take the risk here.

  18. Katie the Fed

    When people at work have tried to pull me into MLM type things, I just lean on the trusty old Inspector General and ethics rules. “Oh, you know, I don’t know if we should be talking about this! I know the IG has pretty strong rules on this and I wouldn’t want us to get in trouble!”

    I frame it as “us” rather than “you’re a shady jerk” as a nicety.

    Maybe something like that? Like “oh, you know, I wouldn’t want us to get in trouble with HR for discussing this, but thank you SO much!” and get on with your day.

    Your manager is a idiot, a jerk, or both.

    1. Liane

      Ah, yes, the same technique Alison suggests for when your company is doing something that really is illegal. A very good idea.

  19. SG

    If I were you I’d go to HR, but also talk to the other two people who she tried to recruit- if the three of you go together I think you’re less likely to face problems with your manager.

  20. Juli G.

    From a HR perspective, I want to know about this now. I know Allison often advocates solving on your own but this is an important one. Besides being unethical and inappropriate, this is the sort of thing that will risk retaining people and good employees willing to work for passion causes for little money don’t grow on trees.

    If your HR department is decent, they want to know.

  21. Kara

    I also got way more of a Scientology or other “brotherhood/sisterhood” vibe than I do straight up MLM. The “if you’re worthy” and “building trust” parts aren’t MLM-ish. MLMs will try to recruit anyone and everyone and will be right up front about “you can make a million billion dollars with this fantastic product”.

    The whole thing creeped me out just reading about it, honest. I like Allison’s script for declining, but I would go to HR up front as well and talk to them about it.

    1. Amber Rose

      Not quite. Husband is having trouble with these. They have to be secretive to catch your interest because 99% of all people would be googling the name of the company immediately on their phone and figure out its a scam too fast. So they go all vague on details so they can try and sucker you into attending a high pressure meeting with multiple members.

      The rise of mobile Internet has been hell for MLMs.

    2. Natalie

      That’s true for “legit” MLMs (that is, one with a product) but not necessarily for straight up pyramid schemes. Those generally have to stay very mysterious and intriguing because they’re so obviously bullshit that they need to get you pretty emotionally invested before you will hand over cash.

    3. Anonsie

      Admittedly I’ve only heard other people’s reports about their experiences with people trying to suck them into MLM “companies” or pyramid schemes or other weird forms of fraud, but all the weird worthiness/trust talk does sound exactly like those pitches.

      Part of the deal is to build you up, like, oh yeah anyone could do this because it’s flawless but you are amazing and will do it so well and make so much money because you are so great, but we need to know you’re in this with us and don’t just take us for a ride if we share with you, ok?

  22. Scotty_Smalls

    This happened to me too. Except it was a friend of mine who approached me asking if I wanted to start my own business. I had some money and I trusted his business smarts so I said yes. Luckily when he and his partner talked to me I had a bad feeling about it. I was 98% sure it was a pyramid scheme but I couldn’t believe he’d fall for one. Now I’m sure he’s orchestrating it. Which took away any respect I had for him. He even got our service club at university to give his company some publicity. I hate it

      1. Scotty_Smalls

        I felt weird about it. Because he was one of the founders, ick. Anyway they did it once and I hope no one got involved with it.

  23. Bee Eye LL

    It amazes me how seemingly smart people still fall for this kind of stuff. They often get suckered in by the sales pitch and all the promises of “just do this” or “just recruit X number of friends”. The idea is to make it sound so easy.

    You’re best bet is just to say “no”. If you need an excuse, say you don’t have the time or extra money. But you don’t even need to do that. If you really want to be helpful tell them you know people that got burned doing similar stuff (chances are you do know people that lost money on this sort of thing) and leave it there.

    Also, your supervisor is a moron.

    1. NotAFed

      It makes me sick that companies pull at people’s heartstrings and convince them to sign up for this stuff.

      I have a friend who is by all accounts very smart and savvy. She joined an MLM about a year ago because the person that recruited her convinced her that she could *eventually* be a stay-at-home mom to her young son. My friend wants more than anything to not send her son to daycare and be a full-time stay-at-home mom. She’s been working like crazy to sell these products, and in the process has alienated a lot of friends/acquaintances. As far as I know, she’s not any closer to being at home full-time and she’s spent a lot of money trying to make her side business work. :(

      1. Amber Rose

        Send her to Pink Truth. It’s a website that deals mostly with Mary Kay but some other MLMs as well. Maybe it’ll help open her eyes.

    2. neverjaunty

      One way these schemes sucker people in – and keep them in – is the belief that if you’re “smart”, you couldn’t possibly be conned or tricked. Social engineering and con jobs work on smart people, too, because they play on inexperience, emotions, desperation and social conventions.

      1. BadPlanning

        And then there’s the nice factor. When I was younger, I did parties for friends and went to some events. I knew they were pyramid schemes, but I was trying to be supportive of said friends. However, I probably knocked myself down a few pegs inviting friends and family to these things.

        Now I’m keeping to a strict policy of not being involved. I might attend a party if interested in general socialization, but that’s it.

        1. Retail Lifer

          I attend “online” parties only. I have a friend who sells makeup and another friend who sells natural products, and I actually do use and like some of their stuff so I’ll buy from them. But I don’t “host” online parties anymore because people really hate you for even just inviting them (despite all the free stuff I’ve been able to get from hosting!).

      2. Retail Lifer

        I have an acquaintance with an MBA who sells stuff on the side for an MLM. Luckily, the one she chose isn’t big on recruiting and no one hates her for it.

        1. Bee Eye LL

          My wife’s sister does that crap all the time. We have boxes and boxes of Scentsy candle wax, wrapping paper, and other stuff from all her little side businesses that she guilts family members into supporting. She finally got a dang job!

        1. Artemesia

          Doctors particularly. They have a very inflated idea of their intelligence — partly because of course they are mostly pretty smart people. But being a great body mechanic and plumber does not necessarily mean you have people smarts or analytic smarts or common sense. Quite a few of the people taken in various scams involving investments that I am familiar with involved doctors.

    3. LQ

      The more we say and act like if you’re just smart enough you won’t get suckered in the more people will get suckered in (see the great post earlier this week about this).

      Saying things like, if you run across a great deal, anything, always google the name of the company + scam. Never agree to do something without stopping to do your research first. I know when someone talks to me about an investment I make sure I check with the internet/a trusted friend/the bbb before agreeing.

      1. Blurgle

        Or, better, absolutely never have anything to do with any of this, ever.

        Don’t bother researching: say no at the very beginning.

        1. Blurgle

          To explain: researching is often worthless and useless due to the frequency at which these companies change names and even fraudulently assume the names of legitimate companies.

  24. Kelly

    Apparently this “opportunity” isn’t helping the boss lady since she’s still working there and still … not a millionaire herself. What a joke.

  25. BethRA

    Put me in the “please tell HR/management” camp. If it were my organization, I’d want to know. But even for OP’s own sake, this supervisor has demonstrated terribly unethical behavior (and the secrecy shows she knows what she’d doing is not ok, imo), and really, really bad judgement. I doubt this is the last problem OP will have with her, and I doubt “no” is going to go down well long-term. Wouldn’t it be better to get HR involved before OP suffers negative consequences?

    1. Cath in Canada

      That was a great episode! Fingers crossed for an update on that one. Although I still wasn’t entirely sure by the end of the hour what it was that the organisation was actually selling…

    2. Book Person

      YES! Was scrolling down to the comments to post this. The weird focus on trust and relationships and big inspirational vagueness about what was actually being sold made me think of Wake Up Now right away.

  26. Ama

    This would go against the conflict of interest policy at my nonprofit org (and probably many others, as our policy is pretty standard for the industry). Maybe the OP’s employer doesn’t have one, or maybe her manager knows full well she’s in violation of it, but any reputable organization should be absolutely horrified to find out one of their managers was doing this.

  27. hayling

    It would be bad enough if the boss was trying to recruit the OP for Mary Kay or something like that. People selling straight-forward MLM tend to be pretty open about it (and if you’re Facebook friends with them, all you see is them shilling their products). I think it’s crappy when people try to get their coworkers or worse their direct reports involved …but the “hush hush” nature of this is situation seems much worse to me.

    1. Anonsie

      Favorite comment on this from a nail forum I like (yes really) a few weeks ago: “The worst thing about Jamberry is that now my Facebook feed is full of nothing but my most gullible friends’ ratchet cuticles.”

      1. hayling

        I am so glad that nobody I know is doing Jamberry! I have only heard about it from other AAM commenters complaining about it. It’s mostly Pampered Chef and that awful essential oil crap.

  28. Retail Lifer

    The only non-sinister reason I can guess for the boss not willing to disclose much about the company now is that it’s one with a bad reputation that will immediately turn people off, like Primerica. Primerica reps call me from time to time since I’m job hunting and my resume is out there, but they know better than to identify their company immediately when they’re trying to recruit. Their voicemails, which are easy to recognize, only say that they have some career opportunities with a financial services company which they don’t name.

    1. Rachel

      I used to get those too. The reps who called me always said it was an opportunity with “a division of Citibank.” It was always fun to respond with “Is it Primerica?” and listen to them try to weasel their way around it. : )

      I’m pretty sure that Careerbuilder and/or Monster still let you block certain companies from finding your resume. (It makes sense, especially if you don’t want your current employer to know you’re hunting.) I finally got so fed up with Primerica calls that I just blocked them and haven’t gotten any since. : )

  29. Anonsie

    Even though I’m firmly leaning towards (most likely entirely illegal) pyramid scheme, all I can think when reading the comments is Maria Bamford going “S-sure, I’ll join your cult…”

  30. EmilyG

    Because this sounds kind of like a MLM scheme and partly like a cult, maybe it’s one of those “prosperity” focused religious organizations that John Oliver has been making fun of.

  31. MLM Survivor

    One time I actually tried to un-recruit someone into joining an MLM.

    When I was in college, broke and desperate, I joined a MLM. I did it for about a year and did okay, financially speaking. I had about three other part-time jobs during the same time. It didn’t take me too long to figure out that this particular MLM wasn’t a good long-term financial solution and I ended up selling all of my stock and completely getting out of the business. I was one of the lucky ones, as I didn’t get into debt and actually made a little money.

    One of my friends became one of my best customers and eventually asked to sign up under me. I flat out refused to let her, and told her why. She didn’t care and found someone else to sign up under. She ended up buying a bunch of product and going into debt over it. Sad.

  32. Marie

    I definitely feel like this person works at the American Cancer Society doing Relay For Life events. But maybe there is some other high profile charity that relies on enthusiastic, low paid, 20 somethings for their events. :P

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think this is probably in jest (since there are so many places that operate that way), but in case not, please remember that we don’t want to out people here :)

  33. NickelandDime

    I hope the OP comes back and does an update. I want to know what happens when someone is at work pushing this – a manager no less – and staff go to talk to HR about it. I don’t think many HR departments would be okay with this. I’ve seen a couple of letters here on AAM about people being approached about MLM and other pyramid schemes at work. It’s very unprofessional. The manager here is using her position over the OP and her other subordinates to support her little money making scheme and it’s NOT COOL.

  34. Char

    What a strange situation! I wish the reader comes back and tell us more. What surprises me most is why would a person who has a decent career in a non profit ruin themselves and their reputation by doing this? There is NO way this kind of behaviour leaves you in good light. There just isn’t. I wonder what kind of behind the scenes activity she was involved in, but I am 99% sure she’s up to no good and she’s just selling false hopes. Has she been on her job long? It definitely has got to be reported to HR, asking them to treat this anonymously.

  35. Denise

    I have nothing to add on top of the great comments already submitted. Except to let y’all know the latest term is “network marketing”. Enough people know what MLM and pyramid schemes are, that they’ve changed their terms. Don’t let anyone throw out the new lingo at you and fool you with it!

  36. Observer

    We’ve seen a number letters from people saying that management / hr says things like we can’t do anything about outrageous behavior x because it happened outside of work. Is it possible that the OP’s HR is like that? That might be why her manager was so careful about meeting after work?

    If that’s what your HR is like, I would say that you should not go to them unless you can show clearly that SOMETHING is actually happening at work (and I would make sure that you keep copies of any emails related to this that she sends from or to a work email, and a log of any conversations that happen at work / over the organization’s phone system etc.) and even then I would only go if I thought I was really going to get push back. I simply don’t think you can trust the judgement and behavior of management like this.

    On the other hand, if your HR people know their stuff and are sensible or your boss’ boss is smart and sensible and can be trusted not to create even more problems for you, then please do bring it to the attention of the organization, preferably together with at least one of the other people she pitched to.

    This stuff most definitely puts the organization at risk. And if your leadership is good, they will want to know and they will also understand that they need to make sure you are not the one who bears the brunt of any fallout for coming to tell them about it.

  37. Charityb

    I like the title of this. “My boss wants to recruit my coworkers and me into a money-making scheme” — aka a “job”.

    I hate those scams though, not just because they prey on people who are generally “desperate” (people who can’t find a job, people who need a job with a flexible schedule because they’re caregivers, etc.) but because they turn healthy social relationships into toxic abuse. It’s the equivalent of spreading a virus and it makes it even harder to fight back against it when it’s using someone you love or respect as a host.

  38. MR

    I wonder how many people read this today who are just like the OPs boss and are trying to get them to sign up for their MLM (or whatever it may be) – and it is a huge dose of reality as to what they are in. Countless people have been suckered into MLMs (myself included) and are generally out a few hundred bucks, a bruised ego for being fooled, but also a lesson.

    It’s kind of amazing that these things are still around, but a sucker is indeed born every minute…

  39. Coax or trick or drive or drag the demons from you

    Many years ago a co-worker approached me about something like this – she was rather mysterious, we had to meet after work, and she was asking me because I was more “open minded” than most of the people she worked with. At the time I wondered – I hoped! – that maybe she was recruiting me for something like the Duck Club.

    No such luck. It was some kind of MLM thing. I felt sorry for her – obviously someone had subjected her to the Hard Sell (and walked away with a thousand or two of her hard-earned dollars) – and she was obviously attempting to use whatever scripts she’d been given to convince me.

    But – I think it is possible to get “vaccinated” against the hard sell. When I was a freshman in college, I ended up at some presentation about selling encyclopedias door-to-door in the summer, and dope that I was, I signed some kind of commitment. And then totally freaked out over it on the way back to my dorm. Long story short: the commitment I’d signed was unenforceable. They called me, I told them to go away and that I’d changed my mind.

    All in all, an unpleasant experience, but I came out of it with a really strong awareness of when someone was trying to hard sell me into things, be they MLMs, religions, buyers clubs, undercoating on a new car, etc. I’ve sometimes wondered about the feasibility of teaching this experience at a high school level.

  40. Crabby PM

    Am I the only one who thinks that the OP should go to HR irregardless because of the scenario where the employees are young, new to the workplace, etc. and if the manager has done this to the OP, chances are that she does it to as many people as possible?

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