I overheard my boss saying she needs to find a way to pay me less

A reader writes:

I work a program manager in a small unit in a big government office. This morning, I overheard my supervisor discussing with a colleague some fiscal concerns she has about the program I manage and the position that I’m in. Basically she said it’s untenable to keep paying me as much as I make over the long term, and they’re going to need to find a way to pay me less.

Can I send her an email saying “I overheard you talking to Fergus this morning. Is there anything I need to know about the Teapot Grant?”

Is there some other way I should handle this? Can you confirm for me that it’s totally uncool for me to overhear this in an open bank of cubicles? For what it’s worth, I’ve been in this job for less than a year and got a glowing 6-month review, but in the past 4 weeks my supervisor has been cold and squirrely with me.

Thanks. I’ve been feeling weird about this job for a while and couldn’t figure out why but I guess this must be part of it.

Yes, if she was discussing this in an open area, that’s really inappropriate and thoughtless of her.

I’d definitely ask her about it, but I wouldn’t do it by email, and I’d be more direct.

You want this to be an actual face-to-face conversation where you can see her face and body language and have back-and-forth. It’s also presumably a pretty sensitive topic, so email isn’t the right medium.

And you want to be more direct because “is there anything I need to know about the Teapot Grant?” is pretty vague and doesn’t necessarily bring the issue right out into the light, which is where you want it.

I’d just be as direct as possible and say something like this: “I want to be up-front with you that I overheard you and Fergus talking earlier today and it sounded like you were saying that my pay will need to be reexamined at some point. I know I may have misheard or not understood the context, but I didn’t want that festering in my head without talking to you directly.”

Some people will tell you that because this was something you overheard and not a conversation you were part of, it’s inappropriate for you to comment on what you heard. That’s certainly a good rule in some cases, like if what you overheard was something that didn’t involve you in any way. But when something so directly affects you — and it’s your pay! it doesn’t get much bigger than that at work — it really is reasonable to say “hey, I know this wasn’t meant for me, but I did hear it, and now obviously I have some pretty pressing questions.”

In fact, a reasonable manager would prefer that you come talk to her in this situation, because the alternative would be drawing your own conclusions, and possibly doing that incorrectly. I sure as hell wouldn’t want an employee overhearing something like this and figuring “well, I better start job searching” if she had actually misunderstood what we were saying. And if she’d heard me correctly, well, I might feel like this wasn’t the timing I would have chosen for the conversation, but I’d certainly understand why it needed to happen now.

But even if your manager doesn’t see it quite like that, as long as you’re professional in the way you raise it, it’s a reasonable conversation to initiate.

{ 63 comments… read them below }

  1. ThursdaysGeek*

    I imagine it will also go better if you keep as calm and unemotional as possible. Stay to the facts, listen, and keep your reactions under control.

    1. Amber*

      I know this is completely off topic but I really wish the image when you post wasn’t a spider. Is there anyway for me to hide it on my end?

      1. Underemployed Erin*

        I am not sure what web browser you use, but if you install uBlock on Chrome, it lets you block elements. Right clicking on the picture with uBlock installed gives me the option of blocking elements. And I have done this with people using risque images on other forums.

        1. Anony-turtle in a half shell!*

          I’ve tried that on here (uBlock element blocker), but every time I refresh the page, the images always come back. I’d love to just be able to block all of the Gravatar images for all time, but I haven’t found a good extension or style script that lets me do that. Anyone have a good GreaseMonkey/Stylish script or know of one I’ve missed?

      2. ThursdaysGeek*

        She was a Valentine’s gift from my spouse, and I didn’t know I liked spiders until then. But because you requested, I will turn it off.

  2. Anonymous Educator*

    In fact, a reasonable manager would prefer that you come talk to her in this situation, because the alternative would be drawing your own conclusions, and possibly doing that incorrectly.

    Can I add, though, that the OP should think about, based on other behavior she’s seen from her boss, whether her boss is a reasonable manager or not?

    After all, she does say I’ve been feeling weird about this job for a while and couldn’t figure out why but I guess this must be part of it. And, even though people can make mistakes, the boss did say this in an open office space, which exhibits some serious bad judgment.

    I would say if you like the job and think your boss is a reasonable manager, definitely go for Alison’s advice. If you don’t like the job anyway (for lots of other reasons) and/or consider your boss to be unreasonable, I would start looking for a new job.

    1. Artemesia*

      I’d be looking regardless. When you have a couple of data points that suggest your job is at risk, it is time to be sure you are light on your feet and ready to pivot. Biggest mistake I have made in my career was not paying attention to signs that my company was going to fail (it couldn’t, you know, it had been there for two hundred years). lots of people who lost their jobs in that merger would have been better off if a year earlier they had started to rethink their futures — I lucked out because I was able to find a new position that worked out in the long run, but it was touch and go.

      You feel funny about the boss and you KNOW the boss is talking about paying you less. That is as clear a message as there is that your resume should be tip top and you should be identifying strategies for contacting your network and exploring new options. You don’t have to act on it if things resolve happily BUT you don’t want to lose a month getting ready when the evidence suggests things may be going south.

      1. Original Poster*

        Thanks, I appreciate having my suspicions confirmed. I’ve been getting stuff polished for a month and I’m launching soon.

        1. Artemesia*

          I hope you get something wonderful and can leave this boss in the lurch on the current project. People who behave like this need to reap the whirlwind.

      2. Linda*

        Good advice here, I’ve lived this and paid the price for not reading the signs. A discussion with the boss is effectively giving up your advantage, which is a headstart for you to start your job search for a more solid spot. Plus, now she knows YOU know, her next stop might be HR to start to find that cheaper employee. And if they find one before you’ve found a new spot …

        1. Artemesia*

          I agree this is the risk. Sometimes when a boss is forced to put it into words they move faster to get rid of you than when things are ambiguous (lots of people avoid confrontation and will lurch along not firing someone because firing people is hard.) When one brings this up then it is on the table and it forces a decision. But knowing that things are shaky you can get a head start positioning yourself.

  3. Mena*

    Shame on your supervisor to be discussing your pay in an open environment for others to hear. You heard it – did anyone else hear it too? She seems rather casual in discussing an issue that it personal to you so openly.

    1. KR*

      I agree with you. OP mentioned that this was a government agency though, and coming from working in local government there are no secrets here on what everyone makes – it’s published in a report every year for citizens and freely available for whoever wants to know.

      1. BRR*

        True but the manager shouldn’t be talking about figuring out how to pay someone less in an open environment. That should be private still.

      2. LQ*

        I do think there is a huge difference between having my salary publicly available (which I do) and having a boss casually discuss cutting it in an open office plan. Technically some of my discipline records are discoverable too, but that doesn’t mean that a boss should have a performance review at my cube with me. Or with a coworker where I could overhear but not having talked to me about it yet.

      3. AnotherFed*

        And it’s so hard to change people’s pay in government that I really think that the OP misheard or maybe misunderstood. It’s very common to talk about needing to reduce how much a person or team is funded from source A, and that’s usually said as “charge less to source A.” Nobody means the pay rate is going to be reduced, they mean changing up funding sources, but if the OP is new, they may not have run into that before, causing this misunderstanding.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          That’s interesting. Also, the Op mentioned grant money, wouldn’t salaries already have been budgeted into the grant? Or do they have to be renewed? Sorry I’m completely naive as to how that works.

          1. AnotherFed*

            I haven’t done grant work, but anytime we budget out salaries things are subject to change. For example, the president can raise federal government salaries by a few percent, “fees” on things like IT can change (and those are often levied by workhour), some on gets a step increase, etc. On small projects with small funding sources those can have significant impacts, and government usually can’t just eat that in overhead/profit margin the way a company can because of all the restrictions on how money is spent.

          2. Kira*

            In government grants, it typically works like this:
            1. Funder says “we’re giving you $10,000, tell us how you’re going to spend it”.
            2. You tell them you’re going to hire OP who will spend 50% of their time running the program, and with all the other allowable expenses it adds up to $10,000.
            3. Time passes, and OP gets a cost-of-living raise, or insurance goes up, or something else that change the cost of the program.
            4. The funder comes back a year later and says “we’re renewing you at $10,000, tell us how you’re going to spend it.”
            5. Now you have to figure out if you can get other funding for OP, so maybe they only spend 45% of their time covered by this grant? Or maybe you don’t give OP raises, or even decrease their salary (hopefully not!). But at some point you have to go back to the funder and show them a budget that adds up to exactly $10,000.

        2. Original Poster*

          OP here. This was a promotion for me, I’ve been a government employee for a longgggggggg longgggggggg time. I wasn’t keen to get too technical in the question, but my supervisor was discussing that the position isn’t productive enough for the current salary and should be reclassified and perhaps the person in it demoted to that reclass. In our structure, that’s not unfortunately outside the realm of possibility.

          I think honestly that I am less upset that there’s issues in funding and even my salary and more upset that I heard it over a wall, after directly asking for more info on finances.

          1. AnotherFed*

            That totally changes things, and it seriously sucks that your manager was having that discussion in a public space!

            I’ve seen positions reclassified, but never the person demoted. Still, time to get the resume into shape if you have to look for another equivalent position…

          2. LQ*

            Ohhh a reclassification is sort of a different monster.

            It might be time to start looking for a transfer. I’m not sure about your department but at mine someone trying to reclassify someone downward would be a very hostile kind of action. Possibly moving someone to reclassify a position they used to hold because of needs but it might be time to look elsewhere. (In our area at least it is very hard to do, but it would speak volumes that the attempt was being made.)

          3. Mutt*

            It’s possible that you overhearing this was your manager’s intention. If she’s conflict-averse or doesn’t know how to tell you, maybe it’s her way of giving you a heads up without having to talk to you about it. It’s crappy, don’t get me wrong, but I can see that being the case, especially if you’re so new.

          4. doreen*

            Are you sure she was talking about the person in it being demoted rather than the position being reclassified? Because at my government agency when a position gets reclassified (either up or down) it usually does not involve anyone being promoted or demoted. Sometimes there’s a promotion, but I’ve never seen a demotion. Typically, if Teapot Assembler 2’s are doing work that is more appropriate for Teapot Assembler 1’s , the TA 2’s get transferred to a position appropriate for a TA 2. The now open Teapot Assembler 1 positions are either left vacant or get filled by transfers, new hires or possibly promotion from a lower title

          5. Murphy*

            I wasn’t keen to get too technical in the question, but my supervisor was discussing that the position isn’t productive enough for the current salary and should be reclassified and perhaps the person in it demoted to that reclass.

            This changes the situation considerably. From my experience (being a manager involved in reclassing down positions) it’s appalling that this is being discussed in the open, but I know it happens (I’ve seen it happen). You’re right to be pissed about it.

            I’ve been been involved in reclasses for people (down) and yes, those do affect the incumbent. However, most governments have a long process for this and your position isn’t reclassed down immediately (ditto for pay) but rather “red circled” where you have X amount of time to either get the position back up to it’s original classification or let the person in that job find another role at their current class. Salary doesn’t drop until the end of the X time (in our case it’s two years).

            So I really recommend having a conversation with your boss. If she has plans for that position it would be good to know and if she feels it’s not really at the classification it currently sits at you can have a conversation about how to either bring it up or start looking for something else. The beauty of government is (at least from my experience) you’re rarely in a position of losing your job or income quickly. There’s usually opportunities to find soft landings for people who are affected by these changes. Good luck!

  4. EA*

    Something similar happened to me. I overheard my manager and the guy I support talking about me. It seemed to be negative feedback. My manager has a VERY loud voice and I could hear as I walked down the hallway toward the bathroom.

    I ended up talking to my manager about it, part of it I heard incorrectly, and part was very minor. She said it seems like I overheard the worst part. I was very nervous, but she was fine about it. I just approached it like this is what I heard, I think you might have some feedback me, and I would like to make the chances as soon as possible. You might have heard incorrectly, or not heard the whole story. I also think mentally it is just better to know, I was making things up in my head all day.

  5. MM*

    Are you part of a union? If you are, it might be worth speaking to them about it. I don’t know where you are located, but where I am many government workers are unionized, and because they are classified based on what job they do, a supervisor or manager cannot reduce or change their pay.

    (If you aren’t union than disregard the above. Good luck! I hope everything turns out okay and that your pay doesn’t actually get cut.)

    1. BRR*

      I thought union as well. Also since it’s government, how much change can the manager achieve.

      1. Muriel Heslop*

        We had a reading teacher who was paid by a grant. When there was an issue with the grant money, his status was in jeopardy and he eventually lost his job. (Public school; no effective union.)

        1. LQ*

          Even in places where there is a union (which we don’t know if there is or not) it would likely be something like if this position is lost due to loss of a grant then the OP might have a chance to bid on another position in the government if one is open at your status/job title/whatever. But if a grant is lost then absolutely the position could go away, or if it isn’t fully funded there could be other issues like funding streams as mentioned below.

  6. Cambridge Comma*

    I think the rules about eavesdropping don’t apply when the person talking knows that the person they are talking about is in the same open plan space. That’s not overhearing, it’s just hearing.

    1. Fish Microwaer*

      I think the rules of eavesdropping dont apply in the workplace. It’s like a war zone and any information I can get is fair game.

    2. short'n'stout*

      Eavesdropping, to me, implies that the listener had to go out of their way to overhear the conversation. It doesn’t sound like that was the case here.

  7. Seal*

    Definitely ask ASAP. Although if this is a grant-funded position with any type of government office, I have to think that your salary is spelled out somewhere (i.e. they can’t just change it on a whim). So you need to find out what’s going on and take action as appropriate.

  8. wellywell*

    If your boss brushes you off or gets mad or refuses to discuss it, etc. then you should start job hunting immediately.

  9. Merry and Bright*

    I can think of a few times when staff members (including managers) have discussed staff-sensitive stuff out in the open.

    The office is not a soundproof bubble and you can be heard.

  10. SarahDances*

    Can we also agree it’s ridiculous for them to be (potentially) reevaluating OP’s pay less than a year after they started there? It’s not like OP has been sitting in this position and accumulating raises for years! If they overshot their budget when they hired, that’s a really crappy thing for them to take out on you. Good luck, and I hope it turns out to be something more minor!

  11. Jack the treacle eater*

    “…some fiscal concerns she has about the program I manage and the position that I’m in. Basically she said it’s untenable to keep paying me as much…”

    …which to me implies it’s uncertain funding for the programme that’s a problem, not the OP’s wages directly, or her work, or anything else directly to do with the OP – as I think the OP recognises in commenting on “the teapot grant” – so the issue may just have arisen.

    1. Rex*

      I was thinking this — could she possibly mean she needs to pay you less out of the grant (and make up the pay from some other funding stream)? Out of context that could easily be misinterpreted.

      Still worth a straightforward conversation.

  12. beachlover*

    could it be that OP did not hear all of the conversation? If employment is based on grant money, then perhaps boss was trying to figure out a way to keep the employee. Good employee, but cannot keep due to budget constraints, unless the salary is reduced.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      It’s still something worth asking the boss about, because it may well be that the OP can’t stay in the position with a pay cut.

      1. AMG*

        Does anyone else read Countess’s name as ‘Countess Bootie Flagrante’? Ok, just me then.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          Um… I didn’t realize it wasn’t, in fact, “Bootie” until just now. :-/

        2. Mallory Janis Ian*

          Ha. I never read it that way, but I must confess that I named one of my SIMS “Boochie” because I’m quite taken with the name. :-)

        3. Sunshine*

          No, but I’ve been meaning to mention how much I love the name. Most of my imaginary people are now called “Countess Boochie”.

  13. Original Poster*

    I probably should have added that while I manage the grant, I haven’t gotten much information about the financial piece of it, and I overheard this first thing in the morning a few days after asking for some financial information for a quarterly grant report. When I asked for more information, I mentioned that it would make this report a lot easier if I was copied on the funding emails/files. She was weirdly cagey about the appropriateness of that when I asked so I let it go.

    1. KR*

      That’s so weird – you manage it but they don’t want you to see the financials.

      1. I've read that study!*

        Running a department without a budget is a nightmare, but it happens. This is my life too right now. I feel for you OP.

    2. AnotherFed*

      I think that still points to needing to change the mix of funding sources used to pay for your salary, not changing your salary. My experience with government financials has always been that they are a mess and it’s painful to work through the available data and figure out if metrics like burn rate, progress made vs money spent, and whose labor is charged to what are all where they are supposed to be. Direct data access is less useful to many non-financial people than specific requests to the financial person, and I’d certainly encourage my reports to not waste time messing with direct data.

      Even at worst case, there’s some irregularities with the financials. In that case, you probably don’t want access because then you’re obligated to report those irregularities.

    3. ElleKat*

      Grant funding – is “soft money” – so it’s entirely possible that other areas of the budget grant award have come in higher than originally anticipated. Grants generally receive a set amount of money to accomplish the scope of work and often times it seems that areas that savings are “found” are in personnel costs.

      Always something to keep in mind when working for projects that are funded by grants.

    4. I've read that study!*

      Government budgets are weird and complicated. First, there is funds and then there is appropriations. You can’t exceed either one. You can have money but no authority to spend it and vice versa. Then, budgets are broken into two parts: personal services (salaries) and expenses and equipment. You can’t spend money from one category in another. Then, the legislature or the grant terms (depending on funding source) may limit the amount (or time) you can spend on specific program tasks. You say you are a unit within a bigger department, and I wonder if your unit has its own line in the budget, or if it is a part of the bigger department’s budget. Either way can be good or bad. Being part of a larger department budget possibly means more money, but it also means they have more ability to shift your funds elsewhere. Is your program required by statute? Do the grant terms require they maintain your unit?

  14. Michele*

    I had something similar to me at my old job when I heard a colleague say something like ‘Is Michele not supposed to have a job after [our work conference]’? It shook me up for days and I went to my boss about it. He didn’t fully discuss it and it made me feel like I was walking on eggshells for months. Definitely start looking for another job or if you can register with placement agencies.

  15. Linda*

    Good advice given, but I’d also be polishing up my resume STAT. I imagine that if you raise this topic with your boss it could very well lead directly into a discussion about reducing your pay.

  16. Cyberspace Dreamer*

    Ah the memories!

    At old job I overheard a conversation between two IT Network Admins. They were talking about doing something with computer systems I was in charge of. I distinctly the more junior admin saying, “Are we going to speak to Cyberspace Dreamer about that?” then the conversation faded and I was never looped in.

    In a story I have shared in too many bits and pieces on this blog, I eventually had to leave due to mass confusion.
    I guess sometimes things work out and we hear what we need to hear to plan ahead.

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