is it normal to complain about coworkers behind their backs, I opened a love letter to a volunteer, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Is it normal to complain about coworkers behind their backs?

I wanted to ask about office norms when it comes to expressing irritation about colleagues. I’m currently working at my first job, and will be leaving in a couple of months due to studying. One of the things that really bothers me about this office is the amount of complaining about people behind their backs that goes on – I understand venting, but a lot of this has a really catty, high school vibe to me.

The room I work in is shared by around a dozen people, depending on the day, and often when someone leaves the room people will start criticizing them, regardless of how senior they are. The worst I’ve heard so far was someone leaving the room and someone else immediately saying “bitch.” Other comments can be things like complaining about someone’s negativity or the way they handle their boss’s requests or, it seems, everything under the sun.

I don’t participate in this, and since I’m leaving soon I’m willing to just put up with the unpleasant atmosphere it creates, but since this is my first job I’d really like to know if this is a normal thing in the workplace. Is it normal to criticize colleagues in their own office? A lot of this stuff I’d consider unpleasant but more acceptable if people did it somewhere else, over their lunch break, or if they were discussing a way to address a problem, but saying these kind of things in someone’s own office just seems kind of mean. I feel like I can’t be the only one worrying that they’re being talked about every time they go to the bathroom.

No, it’s not normal. There are certainly places where it happens, but it’s the sign of a really dysfunctional workplace. It’s a little more common to see private negativity, like one person privately complaining to a coworker about another, but it’s usually deliberately kept discreet, and that’s usually because people recognize that it isn’t okay be open about it. The type of group nastiness that you describe, where people are insulted after leaving a room? Very much not normal, and it sounds like a miserable atmosphere to work in. (And not just miserable in the “these people are jerks” sense — although that too — but constant complaining tends to make the complainers themselves significantly less happy too. )

2. Manager is in a romantic relationship with a junior staff member

My department director just promoted a man who is openly having a romantic relationship with a junior staff member. The junior staff member now comes in late, leaves early, takes long lunches in her boyfriend’s ( our department manager’s) office with the door closed and the blinds drawn, and isn’t required to enter in the staff lottery for vacation time – she’s just granted it. My department director was aware of the relationship when he made the promotion and says we all just “have to be adults” about the whole thing. Based on comments made by the junior staff member, her boyfriend has shared confidential staff files with her – everything from disciplinary documentation to medical notes and salary information. Based on her job functions, there is absolutely no reason why she should have this information, and her sharing of this confidential information has caused several people to quit.

We are a state-run facility and are due for state inspection by the end of the month. My coworkers are all recent college graduates and new in the field and they don’t want to make waves, but after ten years in this field, I know the state and the administration would be appalled. Part of our inspection includes individual performance interviews with the administration, and I plan on telling them about this issue during the interview. This little side drama has caused a drop in staff morale and has prevented us from giving our clients the attention they need. I’ve worked under my director for five years and he is generally a good boss. I want to inform him as a courtesy that I’ll be talking to the state about the manager’s relationship and the breach of confidentiality, but others feel if I warn him he’ll try and cover up the relationship and downplay my concerns to the administration. Is it unprofessional to not make my boss aware of my plans?

Nope, it’s not unprofessional, and in fact I’d recommend that you not mention it to your boss ahead of time if you believe that he’ll actively try to cover up the situation. It’s outrageous that your director knows what’s going on and says you “have to be adults about it,” when being adults about would mean recognizing that what’s happening isn’t okay and needs to be stopped. There’s a reason that dating in your chain of command is prohibited in most companies, even when the people involved handle themselves professionally; in this case, they’re not even doing that.

When you report it to the inspector — and you should — make sure to mention that your director knows and what she said about it.

Read an update to this letter here.

3. Can I ask an acquaintance about what pay range to expect in her job?

I have an upcoming interview for a position as a representative within an organization. Unsurprisingly, the pay was not listed on the job description and I was asked on the employment application for my desired salary, as well as past salaries.

In my research to ensure I am prepared for the interview and (hopefully) pay negotiation, would it be inappropriate or ill-advised to ask an acquaintance, who is currently a representative for the same organization, for an idea of what pay range to expect? If an acceptable question, how can I ask it in a tactful and tasteful way? I would not be replacing the acquaintance; there are several representatives in the organization.

Yes, that’s fine to do, and the way you’ve framed it here is good — ask for an idea of what pay range to expect rather than saying outright, “What do you make?” I’d say it like this: “I want to make sure I’m prepared for any salary discussion that comes up. If you’re comfortable with it, can you give me an idea of what pay range to expect in this position?”

4. I opened a love letter (or something) sent to a volunteer

I received a piece of mail at work addressed “care of Miller.” I have several volunteers with the last name Miller, so I opened it to see who it was sent to. It turned out to be a birthday card that said, “I love you. Please let me back into your life.” Clearly this person does not know where volunteer Miller lives. I am unsure whether to give her the card or not!

I think you need to. If this is someone who your volunteer has told to stop contacting her, she needs to know that that’s being ignored. Worst case scenario, if the person is stalking or otherwise threatening her, she needs to know that they’ve escalated to contacting her at work. And if none of those things are true and it’s a low-risk situation, by not giving it to her you’d be making a decision for her about whether it’s something she’d want to see, which you don’t really have standing to do. So yes, pass it along to her.

5. I’m an independent contractor being treated like an employee

I have a part-time job that I’ve been at for eight months. I have another full-time job and am a full-time student. I was first hired as an independent contractor and didn’t work in the office, only did off-site projects. There was one other employee with the same job description and independent contractor status. Since then, I’ve gotten two raises (which is great), and have been asked to start doing office work. Now, I spend most of my time working in their office, doing basic filing and office work. No one else is doing these projects.

Since school is out, they’ve been pushing for more and more hours from me. My full time job is remote, so I can set my own hours, so I’ve been okay with putting in more time in the office. However, when I run out of my set office work to do, instead of leaving, they want me to train with one of their full-time employees, who is not an independent contractor.

She gets her miles and expenses reimbursed and I do not, as well as receiving the tax benefits. I feel very weird about this. I realize that what I’m doing isn’t really independent contractor work, but I needed the income so I didn’t push back. Is it appropriate now to ask to be transferred into full employee status if I’m doing the exact same things as employees? Also, I don’t really want to spend time training with another employee. I already have a full-time job, and if they’re not going to make me a real employee, I don’t want to have to do the work of one.

I can’t say for sure without knowing more, but based on what you’ve said here and if you’re doing the same things as that employee, it’s very likely that you no longer qualify to be treated as an independent contractor.

It is indeed appropriate to ask to be paid as a full-time employee or to have your work return to the previous set-up. (Keep in mind, though, that converting to employee status may actually mean less pay; independent contractors are typically paid more since they’re responsible for their own payroll taxes and don’t receive benefits.)

I’d say it this way: “Our current set-up with having me do this much work in the office is starting to run afoul of the federal regulations on independent contractors. To stay compliant with the law, I think we have to either move back toward our old model for my work or convert me to employee status, which I’d be glad to discuss doing if that’s something that would make sense on your end.”

{ 136 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Re: OP2.- Thanks for being willing to actually discuss this sort of thing, many times it continues to happen because no one else is willing to do the right thing and speak up.

    Spend some time writing down specific issues, frequency, examples, dates, etc so that you can give the auditor as full and specific of a picture as you possibly can. That will make sure you don’t forget anything and make the auditor’s job easier.

    Also, depending on your state, you may receive additional protections against whistleblowing. I certainly did when I had to make a similar report for a job in Washington State.

    1. Purple Dragon*

      I was surprised when I read that it was a state-run facility. I would have thought that what is a really bad idea in a company would be against all sorts of rules in state run facilities.
      Good for you OP for reporting it to the auditor. If you do mention it to your boss beforehand (I’d be thinking twice about that myself) then make sure that you do get time with the auditor and don’t mysteriously get overlooked in the performance interviews.

      1. Joseph*

        “If you do mention it to your boss beforehand (I’d be thinking twice about that myself) then make sure that you do get time with the auditor and don’t mysteriously get overlooked in the performance interviews.”
        I’d go a step further and say that you straight up should NOT mention it to the boss beforehand. Here’s why:
        1.) You’ve already made it an issue to the chain-of-command (director) with no response. So it’s not like telling your boss is going to suddenly make him change his mind and behavior.
        2.) Telling him is likely to be viewed as a threat by your manager.
        3.) Your manager will almost certainly order you to keep your mouth shut and/or find a way to keep you from interacting with the auditor.
        4.) As a higher ranking person, your manager will typically be interviewed before you. Knowing that you’re planning on saying something, your manager is likely to try to minimize the situation by presenting it as you blowing the problem out of proportion and/or badmouthing you.

        Really, there’s nothing to gain and plenty to lose (both personally and in terms of fixing the situation) by mentioning it upfront.

          1. Engineer Girl*

            Echoing this. If you’ve raised the issue and they ignore you then raising it a second time only lets them cover it up. This is a fireable offense, depending on the seriousness. They WILL see you as a threat.
            Also echoing writing down specific dates times incidents. You want specifics so that it is independently verifiable. Also include witnesses. If you have emails then that is even better. It is discoverable evidence.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              Yes, be calm and factual and don’t show any emotion that could be misconstrued.

          2. Stranger than fiction*

            Agreed. He’s already shown you he believes y’all are just being dramatic when there’s legit concerns here.

          3. Christine*

            Do NOT say anything to anyone that you’re reporting it. You can report it to your employer’s fraud hotline if they have one. Not working your full hours, but entering them on your time card is theft. But you’ll need a log showing hours worked & not worked. Do NOT discuss this with your co-workers. The rumor mill will get a hold of this, and it’ll get back to your boss. Even if you decide to not say anything, if the word is out that you were talking about it; then it will be assumed that you are the one that reported. You’ll find yourself slowly worked out of job; they’ll start writing you up for little things, poor evals etc. for a year or so to phase you out.

        1. Christopher Tracy*

          All of this. OP needs to not say a word to boss. If he’s letting low ranking employees get away with sharing confidential information about other employees (!) so much so that it’s gotten to the point where people are quitting (!), your boss isn’t as good as you think he is.

        2. Artemesia*

          The danger sign here is that the OP has already discussed this with co-workers. It isn’t going to be a secret. Certainly dn’t give the manager a heads up and think carefully how you present this so you don’t come across as a petty crank. (I do not think you are, but this is the way people get painted into corners — whistleblowers rarely prosper) It is something that needs to be done but be calm, marshall the evidence, mention that the manager of this manager has been dismissive and focus on the violation of confidential materials, making things like long lunches and private tete a tetes secondary. If you sense the manager has poisoned the well for your comments, acknowledge that you have discussed it with the higher manager and they want to ignore it rather than deal with it.

          And have an exit strategy thought out. You may not need to move on, but if you get blow back or it doesn’t get fixed then you may need to so have your ducks lined up and any materials you have on your computer that you will need in the future, secured and out of the building. Since it is a state job, look at the possibilities of transfer.

          1. Katie F*

            Yes, if this is something the entire department has been talking about and the manager knows that, odds are good the manager’s going to make sure they talk to auditor first so they can try to convince them that the whole department is jsut full of big old silly-heads making too much out of nothing. Or outright deny it entirely.

            1. Anna*

              If the auditor is any kind of good at doing their job, they aren’t going to just ignore it, even if the manager does try to laugh it off. If anything, it should make the auditor pay that much more attention to what the OP is saying.

              At least I hope it does.

              1. Katie F*

                Good point – it’s likely that the manager trying to pre-empt the team will actually raise a red flag in the auditor’s eyes if the complaints come from more than a single employee.

          2. Mike C.*

            I can’t imagine that the OP is the only person there who is upset at being treated like crap because they aren’t sleeping with the boss.

          3. Ralph S. Mouse*

            The danger sign here is that the OP has already discussed this with co-workers. It isn’t going to be a secret.

            Having the situation posted online where anyone can see it and make the connection probably doesn’t help, either. :/

            1. Jadelyn*

              The internet is a big place, though – not only would the manager in question have to read AAM or see something cross-posted elsewhere like social media or whatnot, but they would have to click through, read it, and somehow glean enough identifying details to be able to say “this is about me”, which…yeah I’m like 1000% sure the LW is not the only person with some gross favoritism they’re dealing with, and almost certainly they’re not the only one in that situation with an audit upcoming, especially if they work for some level of government – there are ALWAYS audits going on somewhere. Otherwise nobody could write in about anything for fear it would be found out.

        3. JustALurker*

          I would also add that you might want to reconsider discussing your intentions with co-workers. You do NOT want someone else to tip-off your manager or director (accidentally or intentionally).

      2. Nervous Accountant*

        Same here, from reading posts here, I was under the impression that there are a lot more rules and regulations to govt employment?

        I’m just curious, could OP get in trouble for anything related to this? (I certainly hope not but..curiosity).

        1. Joseph*

          Your impression is generally correct, there are a lot more rules and regulations to government employment. As one specific example, the whole concept of having outside auditors come in for general inspection doesn’t really exist in most private industries – there might be occasional auditors who come in for a specific purpose (e.g., certification for labs, bank auditors checking your books, etc) but they’re focused on specific aspects of your work.

          Frankly, the fact it’s a state-run facility makes the director’s response more stunning – because (a) he knows that auditors come in on a regular basis and (b) could get in trouble himself for allowing this to occur.

        2. Joseph*

          OP probably not. OP reported it to the manager’s supervisor (the director) as appropriate and will presumably report it to the inspectors when they come in. Particularly since the manager’s behavior, while grossly unprofessional and a violation of company policy, is not illegal.

          The director, however, very well might. As the director, he’s supposed to be in charge, so if his subordinate is violating company policy, that’s his responsibility. Doubly so since it was brought to his attention and he chose not to address it.

        3. Anna*

          That would be retaliation for bringing up an ethical problem and would bring with it a whole host of other problems for the agency. It’s illegal for private businesses and all sorts of illegal for government ones.

          1. Christopher Tracy*

            Regardless, retaliation still happens even if it’s not technically supposed to. It can be subtle and long-term to try and make it look like it’s not connected to this incident (one of my former manager’s was a master of this kind of retaliation), and this kind of retaliation is often hard to prove when done well.

            That said, I don’t think Nervous Accountant was referring to the OP’s boss retaliating against her. I read it like Joseph did that the question was more, would OP also get in trouble with the auditor for the ethical breaches because she knew about it and didn’t report it sooner, though I could be wrong.

            1. Nervous Accountant*

              Actually, I was referring to if the OP’s boss would retaliate against her..

    2. Eden*

      Definitely document as much as possible. Also, sounds like the silver lining here is that the relationship isn’t a secret that only the LW knows, so that should help – manager will not know who blew that whistle. I see no reason to alert the manager ahead of time, that will just put a target on the LW’s back.

    3. Grey*

      Yes. This. Document everything. Without specifics, your complaint won’t have as much merit. They’ll want proof, not gossip.

      1. LBK*

        Documentation isn’t proof, it’s still just your own account whether it’s written or verbal. The only merit to documentation in a situation like this is helping you remember details, which might make you seem more credible, but it’s still not conclusive evidence.

        1. Brett*

          It can also be very useful for establishing a timeline. e.g if you discussed the situation with your manager on March 3rd, 2015, and sent yourself an email on that date documenting the discussion, then the auditor can more clearly establish the discussion.

          Also, since this is state run, if something happens where you no longer have access to your files (terminated, transferred, computer access cut off), you can sunshine law request your own emails to recover them.

        2. Rusty Shackelford*

          Also, there’s a big difference between “Girlfriend gets preferential treatment when picking vacation dates” (unsubstantiated complaining) and “In 2014, person in charge of vacation lottery was told not to list last week of December as an option, as it would not be available, and it was later discovered that Girlfriend was given that week off” (something that can be fact-checked). Or the difference between “Boyfriend is obviously telling Girlfriend things she doesn’t need to know” and “In May of 2015, Girlfriend stated it was unfair that she made less than Jane and Fergus, especially since Fergus had a disciplinary note in his file and she did not.”

    4. TootsNYC*

      I’d also perhaps consider trying to be one of the first people to have that meeting, so that the interviewers can ask some of the other employees for confirming information.

      Then it won’t be just you out on that limb.

  2. Seal*

    #2 – Does your facility have a neopotism policy? Even though these two aren’t married, the junior staff member is clearly getting special treatment due to her personal relationship with the manager. That alone should force the issue.

  3. Cautionary tail*

    OP #2. I would be concerned that if you mention this to your director you could be fired for an “unrelated” reason before the auditor arrives. When you speak to the auditor, insist on anonymity; your candor isn’t worth losing your job over. Good luck.

      1. Zillah*

        I agree. Even if your boss has generally been good in the past, the risk/reward equation seems to me to be weighted heavily in favor of not saying anything.

        1. MK*

          I have to question how “good” a boss is who promotes someone to manage their romantic partner and tells everyone that they “have to be adults about it”, as if the only problem she can think of with the situation is the employees being immature. It’s very dismissive of real concerns, pretty much saying to the rest of the employees “I don’t want to hear any complaints, deal with it”.

          I can understand that in some cases (e.g. very small department in a small town) this situation might be inevitable. But a good boss would have a serious talk with the new manager, telling them to be careful to avoid even the appearence of favoritism, and then make sure they are actually being so.

          1. Myrin*

            Can I also just say that with regards to immaturity, both the newly promoted guy and his girlfriend are being anything but mature about the whole situation? So there’s that.

            1. Roxanne*

              Indeed. And in the same vein, it occurred to me that since the girl is clueless as to how to be discreet with this situation, as she blithely shares confidential information, that she might be just as clueless when the auditors arrive and blab how they are a couple.

            2. RVA Cat*

              Not only immature, but they are breaking the law – sharing confidential employee medical information is a HIPAA violation.

              1. WellRed*

                Actually, I don’t think this is a HIPAA violation, which mainly applies to medical professionals/offices and their contractors. It’s still egregious, though.

              2. Liane*

                No, babbling about your employees’ or coworkers’ medical history is just unprofessional and jerky behavior.

                It would only be a HIPAA violation if the agency provides medical/mental health services and the girlfriend or manager-boyfriend was babbling about the clients’ medical records.

                1. RVA Cat*

                  Okay, IANAL, sorry for making that leap. However depending on the content of the medical information it could be an ADA issue maybe?

                2. Megs*

                  I can’t think of an ADA violation arising out of sharing confidential medical information – the ADA is generally concerned with hiring/firing/raises/hours/salary/etc. As much as it seems like this kind of thing should be actionable, I’m just not thinking how, unless you get some very state specific privacy laws into it.

            3. Chalupa Batman*

              Agree. I can understand how weighing all of the factors could lead to someone still being promoted to a position above a significant other in some workplaces, but the key component of “everyone will have to be adults about this” is that the couple understand that the appearance of favoritism is a possibility and actively work to both look and act 100% professional. The role of the other employees in “being adults” is to not create drama where there is none-but based on what the OP says, that’s not what’s happening. To quote a great philosopher whose name is lost to history: “don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’.” The girlfriend is actively abusing the relationship in a way that is harming the business in morale and employee retention, creating a disservice to clients. Good on OP for being willing to bring this to the attention of the appropriate authority.

            4. TootsNYC*

              Right! The people who should “be adult about it” are the two people in the relationship and the manager.

              1. LBK*

                Yes, that was my immediate thought when I read the letter. “Being adults about it” includes the people in the relationship – they have the highest obligation to remain professional, since everyone else will take their cues from that.

  4. Stephanie*

    #1: Yeah, this is my current department. It’s really unnerving, mostly because you KNOW that you’re being talked about when you’re not there. I’m leaving soon, fortunately. I am glad to get out while I still view this as dysfunctional.

      1. Katie F*

        My old Psycho Boss used to do just that – and the rest of the team ignored him for the most part, but he just insisted on trying to be mean about everyone behind their backs. He had this idea that he was turning us against each other (while actually doing the exact opposite). More than once, I’d have a coworker say, “Boss is blaming you for (mistake Boss made) to (Supervisor) right now.”

        So I’d get up and walk down to Boss’s office (which he shared with Supervisor) and walk right into the middle of it and say, “Hey, so I heard that you had a problem with such-and-such. Should we discuss what happened?”

        He’d just absolutely wilt. Back down, acknowledge it was his fault (sometimes having to acknowledge I wasn’t even present at the event he was talking about or not responsible for the paperwork being discussed – hadn’t even seen it).

        Never seemed to stop him from trying again the next time he screwed up and wanted to blame it on someone else.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I had a boss like that too! She’d actively bad mouth us behind our backs and talk about how she can’t wait to fire one of us!

          1. Katie F*

            It was pretty bizarre – he seemed to legitimately believe he was turning us against each other despite all evidence of it just making us into a cohesive Us vs. Psycho Boss unit instead. It’s just a really weird way of thinking, like he assumed we didn’t communicate when he wasn’t in the room.

      2. Stephanie*

        Ha. Based on other people, it’s usually not immediate (because there’s the fair chance someone forgot something and needs to come back before she’s gone for good). I don’t care enough, but admittedly, I took the job knowing it would be short-term.

    1. Audiophile*

      I feel like I’ve worked in more places that operated like this place than not.

      I was never a gossipy person, but it’d very hard not to get sucked into it.

      1. Jaune Deprez*

        I agree with Audiophile — it is hard not to get sucked into it, because you have to work and interact with these people every day. I have to collaborate closely with two coworkers who are rather like this. I won’t participate in their nasty behavior, but I also can’t afford to ignore them entirely when I depend on their good will to get my job done. When I do get dragged into their gossip, I keep the conversation as short as possible and make sure that my end stays fact-based.

        Coworker 1: “[Accountant] is pretty much the Whore of Babylon, but with fewer brains and worse taste. Why would she wear a skirt that short when her legs are so thick and pasty?”
        Coworker 2: “Don’t you think she looks like Jabba the Hutt in drag?”
        Me: “I’m really frustrated that she decided not to replace the printer on our floor. It cuts into my productivity to have to walk down two floors every time I print a letter, and half the time someone else has already grabbed it with their own print job.”

        So far, this approach has kept the peace. I’m sure they say equally horrid things about me when I’m not there, but since I have no respect for them, I don’t particularly care. I just make sure not to volunteer any personal information that they could use as ammunition.

        1. MeridaAnn*

          I understand where you’re coming from, but I feel like adding another negative comment, even if it’s not appearance-based, is participating in it if you don’t contradict what they said.

          Your coworker’s comments in your example are rude and cruel. I agree that you shouldn’t just ignore them, but ideally, you could say something like “Wow, that’s pretty mean to say, and it really isn’t relevant to our work.” Or “Hmm, sometimes I get frustrated about the printer issues, but how [Accountant] looks has nothing to do with that.”

          If you’re not willing to contradict them, or if they’re actually talking about legitimate productivity issues instead of just being rude, you could just deflect anything they say with something like “If you’re having problems with someone, you should address that with [Supervisor]. I don’t have any say in the matter, so I’d rather not get into it.”

          1. Anna*

            I agree. I think in a situation like that any negative comment, fact-based or not, adds fuel to the fire and tacitly gives them permission to say those things about your coworker to you.

          2. Christopher Tracy*

            Agreed. Adding on other negatives about this person is just contributing to the gossip mongering and toxic work environment. You don’t need to do that to get people to continue to do their jobs.

      2. SophieChotek*

        I agree. It was hard not to get sucked in…especially if you sometimes agreed.
        At the coffee shop where I work (side gig), more often than note, whoever is working tends to complain about someone else who is not there…honestly, I thought of that as “normal”…

      3. Kai*

        Yeah, at my last job I worked with someone like this. Very hard not to get sucked in, and I realized too late that feeding off her negativity and gossiping was making me more unhappy in that job than I might have otherwise been. At the same time, when she’d come to me with a juicy complaint about someone, it made me feel like I was in some kind of exclusive club of confidantes, so I never broke the cycle. Glad to be done with that now.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I heard a “This American Life” podcast recently about “Choosing Wrong” (#590).

      They talked about “thresholds” in decision making, and how being surrounded by lots of people doing [bad decision you would never make on your own] can influence whether you see it as reasonable. Everyone has different thresholds for different things.

      But it can be a big influence.

      1. Muriel Heslop*

        That sounds great! Perfect for sharing with the middle schoolers I teach – thanks!

      2. OP1*

        That’s really interesting – I have no doubt that some of the people participating in this gossip have just come to see it as the norm over time.

  5. babblemouth*

    OP1: this isn’t OK, but it does happen. The best you can do at this point is to never join in, and making a point of changing the conversation if someone tries to bring you in.

    Prepare a few conversation changers ahead of time, so you’re not caught unawares. and can replies appropriately when it does come up. It should help you rise above.

    Good luck!

    1. Chalupa Batman*

      My go-to phrase for when you don’t have a conversation changer on hand or it would feel like an awkward about-face to talk about something else when directly addressed: “I don’t know anything about that.” Example:

      Regina: Obviously Gretchen slept her way to the top, because she sure didn’t get there on intellect. Amirite, Cady?
      Me: Oh, I don’t know anything about that. *dismissive hand wave, tunes out rest of the conversation until it comes back to something non-gossipy*

    2. OP1*

      This is really good advice, thanks. People rarely try to bring me in directly, as these comments tend to just get said to the room at large, and I can get away with just visibly getting on with my work and not speaking at all. I’ll definitely think of a few phrases to use in case they do though. I particularly like Chalupa Batman’s ‘I don’t know anything about that’ suggestion – since I haven’t been there for that long it’s pretty plausible that I just wouldn’t have much of an opinion of these people.

    3. Lissa*

      Ooh, this is similar to the technique I used when I was working in customer service and had a customer say something mean/bigoted and I didn’t want to just ignore it, but knew I also couldn’t have an argument there. “Hmm, that hasn’t been my experience” or “not that I’ve noticed”…statements that are contradictory but very personal, which makes it harder to argue with your experience.

      I’ve also worked in a place with a lot of negativity. The problem I had there was that it started out fun and amusing, everyone sometimes gets mad at the boss, then really spiraled badly to the point where I got screamed at for being a suck-up to the boss by the manager for…not being passive aggressive and rude to her (Boss). It was awful.

  6. Dot Warner*

    OP1, I used to work at a place like this and I have one word for you: Run! If you stay at this employer long enough, eventually you’re going to get caught up in their drama maelstrom and it’ll start turning you into someone you hate. Get out before that happens.

    1. OP1*

      Running in progress! I’m a temp worker and I’ve only committed to another few weeks of work. The money from more hours would be great, but I don’t think it’s worth the way things are going in this office, particularly since my actual job responsibilities are changing to become more high pressure as well.

      Right now I don’t feel that tempted to participate, but I agree that I couldn’t stay there indefinitely without getting caught up – it’s just the path of least resistance, at a certain point.

  7. NCKat*

    For OP1: I worked in a office at a local company for two years when I left school. It was a poisonous atmosphere led by a manager who would stand and talk for hours about her maid, her husband, her neighbors, etc, etc. She would loudly reprimand people and expected us to be able to pick up our job duties without formal training. The raises she gave to people were in the range of 10 cents an hour to a dollar an hour. When she or anyone else left the room, a staff member would put down their tools and out came the knives, with the others joining in. It was so poisonous that I got an ulcer trying to deal with it all and lost 10 pounds due to the stress. I left as soon as I could.

    I have run into my old boss since then. The last time she saw me, she said, “I was disappointed in you – I thought you should have done better than you did.” Fortunately I was able to laugh it off. But the scars remained for years until I got an even worse manager but that is another story for another time.

    1. Captain Radish*

      I consider myself very lucky that my field of work I am primarily working alone in the field.

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      I would not have been able to contain the snark….

      “I feel the same way… I was quite disappointed in you as well.”

    3. OP1*

      Yikes! It’s amazing how one person can contribute to poisoning the atmosphere of a whole office.

      Being expected to pick up job duties without training also happens in my office, and it’s almost more maddening than the gossip.

  8. Joseph*

    OP4: Put the card back in the envelope and give it to her with a simple apology “Sorry about opening this, I wasn’t sure if this was intended for you or Andy Miller”. Don’t comment on the message itself.

    It could be something stalker-ish, like you’ve said. It could also be something completely low-key, like a family member who they’ve lost touch with or a former lover who wants to reconnect. It’s not really your job to insert yourself in this by deciding whether or not to pass it along.

    Also, while you seem thrown off by the fact it went to your office mail, most people list their current employer on social media (LinkedIn obviously, but also Facebook), but not their home address. So if it’s someone who hasn’t been in touch for a long while, they probably found it easier to get the office address.

      1. Volunteer Manager*

        Thanks for the feedback, everyone! That felt like the “right” thing to do, but I also had doubts, so it’s nice to hear objective opinions.

  9. Captain Radish*

    OP5, a lot of people don’t seem to understand what the law actually is when it comes to employees. I just quit from a job of six years where I was an Independent Contractor in name only. When I told my boss the IRS would be pissed he told me that, basically, I am an independent contractor because he would have preferred to be considered one and that he was giving me a good deal. The $4000 in taxes I had to pay at once made me personally disagree. I ended up fairly soon afterwards leaving for a job where I am an actual employee (and make more money AFTER taxes).

    1. Anononon*

      Yup. I worked at a firm, as an attorney, where I was given the option of “going 1099” because it was such a great deal for me and for the company. I didn’t take it, much to my boss’s chagrin.

        1. Jennifer M.*

          Well, but since the company is going to give you a 1099 at the end of the year and you generally have to pay your taxes quarterly in advance of the 1099, it does all have to match up. . .

          1. Liane*

            Yes, it better match up–because the IRS also gets a copy of your 1099 and every other tax form your employer has to give you.

    2. Graciosa*

      The part that caught my attention was the employee in this question (and yes, I do mean employee) noted that she had received two raises.

      Employees are the only ones who get raises.

      Independent contractors set their own rates.

      ‘Cause they’re – you know – INDEPENDENT.

        1. Chinook*

          I don’t know. I once received something that looked like a raise when my boss recommended I quote a higher hourly rate of $5 when I send in my quote one year. She thought I was worth more and I didn’t disagree (and a subsequent audit of all Contractor rates didn’t require it to be lowered.)

          Then again, my employer thinks that moving me from independent contractor to a temp agency employee makes me look less like an employee. Since nothing else has changed, I suspect the CRA would see it differently if one of use ever requested an investigation.

    3. Mimmy*

      I think I was in a temp job a few years ago where I was an independent contractor in name only (I was brought on directly by the employer, not a temp agency). I had a set schedule and had an actual performance evaluation when my time ended. I was responsible for tracking the hours I worked and submitted invoices to them. Everyone was really nice, but it was a pretty dysfunctional workplace, imo. It wasn’t until reading AAM that I realized that they might’ve been a bit afoul of the law with this arrangement.

    4. Nervous Accountant*

      Argh. No no no no!!!!! (not you but at your employer!). The IRS can and should go after them.
      I advise clients who are new business owners that they can’t just CHOOSE if someone’s an employee or contractor there are certain tests to meet, and if there’s still any ambiguity or doubt, the IRS chooses for you, and what the consequences are if you choose the wrong classification (penalties, etc).

      I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

      1. Captain Radish*

        Ultimately I weighed the stupidity of my former boss in many regards against how well he DID treat me (although I often wondered if that was simply him realizing I was very difficult to replace for what he paid me) and usually ultimately decide not to be vindictive. I considered it a learning experience and move on.

  10. KT*

    #1: I wish I could say it was completely abnormal, but I’ve worked too many places where this was the norm. Call centers, Fortune 500 companies, non-profits…toxic environments are everywhere. All you can do is keep your head down and try to stay out of it.

    #2: Ew. Just ew. That is so vastly inappropriate. I would absolutely report that right away, without giving any heads up.

  11. Stephbwfern*

    #1 had me thinking about my own recent experience. My team has been working together for eons and was relatively close and complaint free. I returned from 12 months of maternity leave and certain elements of my return to work had been somewhat badly handled by my supervisor, resulting in me feeling quite bullied and humiliated by her. For the first time, in nearly 10 years, I dared to complain about my supervisor to another colleague. Well, it turns out this supervisor was not well liked amongst the team by many people, for similar reasons,though not really able to be addressed by a higher level. Though ashamed at myself for entering into the world of office gossip, I must admit how much better I felt having done so in that my experience and feelings were validated by my colleague and I was also able to develop, with her, new ways of dealing with the supervisor.
    So…..dare I say it? Office gossip ain’t all bad

    1. animaniactoo*

      One off incidents are far far different from a daily immersion. Then it’s not really office gossip, it’s normal human sharing. It can get a little gossipy, but believe me it’s not the same thing.

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      Is it still gossip if it’s true? I mean, I think there’s a difference between “I really hate Jane because she wears ugly clothes, never fills the coffee pot and is just ugh!” and actual information. Finding out that other people have the same things happen to them because of a manager’s actions or concur with your opinion that X policy sucks is kind of a relief. I guess it’s technically still gossip but I guess I tend to think of gossip more as stuff that’s mean or speculation.

      1. TootsNYC*

        it’s really more the purpose of what you say, rather than the truth of it.
        What are you trying to accomplish? There are good reasons to compare notes, healthy reasons and places to vent (and healthy people to vent to), healthy amounts to vent, etc.

        1. myswtghst*

          I think this is a good point – I know within my team we occasionally vent about each other, but it’s typically focused on things which directly impact our ability to do our jobs and usually is either focused on finding a solution, or just letting off a little steam so we can get back to focusing on work.

  12. Allison*

    #2, to me, being an “adult” about a known office romance would mean not giving the couple a hard time by making suggestive comments (or sound effects, or hand gestures), or gossiping/speculating about how their relationship is going, it does not entail looking the other way when obvious favoritism is going on! It would be one thing if they were just dating (which is still inappropriate), but the fact that she’s getting special treatment is definitely not okay. Say something, report it, don’t keep quiet about it.

    1. RVA Cat*

      No kidding. Being adults about it just means not immediately interpreting the closed-door, closed-blinds office “lunches” as Duck Club… ;)

  13. Allison*

    #1, Your employer is trying to have their cake and eat it too! I’d bring it up with your manager and say “At this point I seem to be doing the work of a full-time employee, is there a plan to hire me?” if they say no, feel free to set some boundaries so this job doesn’t interfere with your other one.

  14. Concerned Panda*

    #4: It is always optimal to not open mail addressed to an employee privately. Typically in any organization I worked at, the person opening would need to have someone else supervise to ensure that you were only checking to see who the letter was for or if it was business material… I would feel better knowing that my boss opened my letter with the secretary watching than he opened it in his office all alone. It also covers your butt if there is a claim that money was sent in the envelope…

    The issue that you are even considering not giving her this letter just astonishes me! I’m not even sure if it is legal for you to have opened this mail (arguable if addressed to company name at all, but not if 100% her name and just company address) and it is certainly not legal or ethical for you to keep or destroy it.

    For arguments sake, if you wanted to take the contents of the letter into consideration – that is a very mild and low-risk letter for her to receive. It may be a different situation if you read it and it was a threat against her life/safety (in which case you would privately speak to her to apologize for reading it and offer help if she wants it) but regardless of the contents, it is not for you to decide whether or not she should be given a letter than was sent to her. I can only imagine what her reaction would be if she found out from another source the letter was sent to the office and it was never sent back or given to her!

    1. Eric*

      As to the legal question, the Domestic Mail Manual 508.1.5.1 provides:

      All mail addressed to a governmental or nongovernmental organization or to an individual by name or title at the address of the organization is delivered to the organization, as is similarly addressed mail for former officials, employees, contractors, agents, etc. If disagreement arises where any such mail should be delivered, it must be delivered under the order of the organization’s president or equivalent official.

    2. Liane*

      In this case, the OP cannot tell by the envelope who the letter goes to. It isn’t addressed to “Andromeda Miller, care of ABC Inc.” It is addressed to “Miller, care of ABC Inc.” There isn’t even a title that might help her decide if it goes to Dr. Andromeda Miller the Lab Manager, Andy Miller the Director’s EA, or Lesley Miller in Accounting.

    3. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      Maybe it’s just having worked at big enough places, but I’m used to having all my mail sent to my office opened… I have no expectation of privacy on anything that has my company’s name on it.

      However, I absolutely agree that now that the letter writer knows who the card was intended for, it’s her responsibility to pass it on.

    4. some1*

      If it’s a place that has volunteers, I am guessing it’s a NPO that accepts donations. It’s a best practice to open all mail in case there is a check or donation enclosed, so they can be processed or secured.

    5. Volunteer Manager*

      It’s my first time encountering this situation, and I think my first reaction was that of “What if this were sent to my friend and landed in my lap?” No, I have no idea what the relationship between these two parties is, but I think I am biased because in all of my personal experiences with exes, friends’ exes, or family members whose contact is unwanted (the letter felt like one of these categories to me), it’s much healthier and better not to hear from them if you don’t want to (which it sounded like she did not from the “Please let me back into your life” line). I realize now this is a lot of assuming and creating, but it’s where my brain initially went and why I was unsure of what action to take right away. All of the feedback and really helped assure me why I must give her the letter!

      I currently have 9 active volunteers with the last name Miller (only the last name was on the envelope), and I could think of no other practical way to figure out who it was addressed to besides opening it. I am also used to this practice at work since most mail addressed to me or the volunteer program is left in my mailbox already opened. I do appreciate the idea of having a witness to supervise, though!

  15. Nervous Accountant*

    #2—I’m gobsmacked. This just screams gross incompetence and unprofessionalism both of the junior employee and manager dating her. I’m glad your willing to speak up , and I agree with Alison’s advice to not tell ahead of time if your director will cover it up.

  16. finderskeepers*

    regarding number 4, when does one use

    Jane Doe
    ABC Company
    123 Main St

    as opposed to

    ABC Company
    c/o Jane Doe
    123 Main St

    from my basic understanding of “care of” it was used incorrectly in this case as the card was directed to Jane not ABC Co

    1. fposte*

      It doesn’t really matter from a legal standpoint–if it’s sent to the business, it’s the business’s, not the individual’s.

      1. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

        I just made a similar comment above, but more from my own understanding after working at a few places that open all mail that comes into the building. I’m glad to see it actually confirmed by a lawyer :-)

    2. Chameleon*

      Just from an etiquette perspective, if the letter is a business letter it should be:

      Jane Doe
      ABC Company

      If it is a personal letter sent to work it should be:

      Jane Doe
      c/o ABC Company

      It shouldn’t be the other way around unless it was meant for the company but sent to Jane’s personal address.

    3. Ellie H.*

      You’re right, if it’s sent to an employee at a business (or to a person at someone else’s residence, or at an office, or whatever) it should be care of ABC company.

      None of this is relevant to whether or not the business CAN open the mail because they obviously can, just that if addressed as described, ostensibly either “ABC Company, c/o Miller” or “C/o Miller, ABC Company” yes it was incorrect – that would be like you want it to go to ABC company but are sending it to an address you know to be Miller’s so that Miller can direct it to ABC company. They want the other way around.

    4. A Bug!*

      As fposte says, there’s no legal distinction. They’re handling directions that you use to tell people what you’d like them to do with the letter. Like “personal and confidential” and “do not bend or fold” notations.

      To address your question, though. I think you might have your care-of example backwards. To send Jane Doe personal mail at her workplace, the addressing would go like this:

      Jane Doe
      c/o ABC Company
      123 Main St

      The first line is the intended recipient of the letter. The c/o line is the party you’re actually sending the letter to; you’re asking that party to please deliver the letter to its recipient even though they’re not a party to the communication itself. Again, no legal obligation is created by it; just a “please do this for me” – you don’t want to be sending or receiving letters c/o unless you’re confident that the c/o party will actually deliver it!

      When you’re sending Jane Doe mail in her capacity of her position at ABC Company, you wouldn’t use c/o; you could use “Attention: Jane Doe” instead, and it doesn’t make a huge difference whether that line goes above of below ABC Company as long as they’re both above the actual address.

      1. A Bug!*

        Sorry, brain fart – it’s the “admirer”s care-of notation that was backward, not yours, finderskeepers. You’re right, of course!!

  17. Nanani*

    The numbers on your pay may get smaller as an employee, yes, but you should be making the same amount because the difference is the payroll taxes you were previously paying by yourself. Do the math, also including employee benefits like the mileage reimbursement you mentioned.

    If you’d rather stay independent, it could be time to go looking for new clients who don’t try to monopolise you without paying your benefits!

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Actually, the difference isn’t usually just the payroll taxes. Contractors typically charge up to twice as much as employee rates — not just to cover taxes, but also benefits and the administrative overhead of things like marketing and billing (and in some cases because they’re offering a more specialized, skilled service).

      1. Chinook*

        Also, at least in Canada, contractors run a risk of not being paid in cases like bankruptcy. Payroll gets first crack at assets then secured lenders (I think) and then all others owing. As a contractor, I would fall in that last category, so I deserve compensation for that small but real risk.

        Plus, payroll must be met within certain timelines but contractors are vendors and can take much longer to be paid, which is also part of the risk/reward dynamic.

  18. animaniactoo*

    OP1 – No, it’s not normal, and my refusal to participate in it left me ostracized for years within my tiny department. They were absolutely some miserable years. Eventually the politics of it caught up to them as a new co-worker came on board and also refused to participate. Some comments went round, my co-worker ended up being fired, but in his wake his comments about the atmosphere and the way I was being treated forced them to start treating me better. It’s hard to live through, please don’t take it as normal or participate in it yourself.

    1. animaniactoo*

      One way to help keep your side of the street on this clean – make sure that you are not venting with anyone about something you have not spoken to the person about yourself, trying to resolve the issue rather than just allowing yourself to be annoyed by it. If you’re venting in preparation for speaking to them and figuring out what you want to say/getting the frustration out so you can approach them more calmly, okay. But that should be the only time that precedes it.

      1. OP1*

        This is really good advice. I feel like I’m also falling into the ostracizing thing – I feel like my refusal to participate has led to me being known as quiet/standoffish at best, but that’s definitely the lesser of two evils here.

        Choosing to be direct about your issues can definitely improve this pattern, which I suppose I’m guilty of not doing as well, since I don’t plan on speaking with anyone about my issues with the way they discuss people.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Some of it I handle with eyerolls and “oh geez, that’s just not right” and some other minor pushback.

          The rest of the time I simply allowed myself to be ostracized and left it alone because the only way not to be was to participate and I’d worked really hard to be somebody I liked, and participating would take away from that. It was a really hard period of my worklife, I won’t kid you. But I chose being somebody I could respect over it.

          re: not addressing your issues with them – well yes, but you’re also not griping to other people at work about that constantly, right? Which is the real issue of what’s going on here – it’s the daily immersion and approach of what they’re doing.

          Fwiw, when I chose to tackle some issues head on – the salesperson who was stuck making phone calls from a cubicle instead of having an office using her speakerphone to dial and wait for the call to be answered, and making everybody else nuts – I got kudos from people for saying something, because they could all overhear our convo. She got it right away and stopped. That was all it took. “Hey, I don’t know if you realize but that can be heard from all over the office and it’s really distracting. Would you mind not doing that?”

          So, you could try a few overarching comments if you like “Geez, I’d hate to hear what you guys say about me when I leave the room…”, “Ouch. That was kind of harsh.” if you’d like to address the gossip comments. But I wouldn’t expect much traction on it. You might also look out for a few other people who don’t participate and see if you can develop more of a workfriend relationship with them, just to leave you not feeling so out in the cold.

  19. animaniactoo*

    OP2 – Why do you have to be an adult about it when they aren’t? If they were being adults about it, she wouldn’t be pulling any of the stuff she is, and she’d have enough discretion that even if she did hear about the confidential info, none of you would be aware of it. And he wouldn’t be letting her get away with any of this or circumventing standard practices to do her special favors.

    My question is – it sounds like your director made the comment at the time of promotion. Is there any value in bringing the issues that have resulted to them before the auditor gets there and saying “Okay, you asked us all to be adults about this, and we’re trying, but how is this going to be addressed? Because there are multiple major issues here. From breaking confidentiality to major abuse of standards and procedures.”

    I agree that you shouldn’t give them a head’s up that you’re going to out the situation to the auditor, but if you think it will make a difference (or give you more ammunition), I would approach the director to make sure they’re clear about what’s ensued since the promotion.

  20. VolunteercoordinatorinNOVA*

    OP#4- I would just give it to them and say it was opened accidentally and not comment or address the content. I’ve had this happen to me (as a staff member, not a volunteer) and it was a former client who was sending things to me. Not sure what capacity your volunteers are in but there could be a reason that it came to the office instead of her home. I’ve also had clients who wanted to leave notes as volunteers and I’ve had to discuss why that is not appropriate but sometimes the conversation didn’t stick. Just something to be aware of in case you need to address it down the line.

  21. Mimmy*

    #1 – It’s not normal but probably not uncommon, unfortunately. You are doing right in just keeping your head down and not participating, no matter how tempting it may be.

    I’m pretty sure that there has been some form of complaining about coworkers in all the jobs I’ve had. The worst was one job where one of my coworkers would loudly say, “She has issues”, though I don’t know who she was referring to. I’m also pretty certain that this same woman, along with her buddies, would complain about me to each other in Spanish. I can’t say for sure, but a woman in a separate department did disclose to me that she had heard discriminatory remarks about me from them. I was miserable at this job :(

  22. Jaguar*

    To OP#5

    Off-topic I guess, but I once was working full-time and going to university full-time. I found it hellish and it started taking a toll on my health and well being (plus, I was constantly cutting my studying/homework). To hear you’re not only doing what I did, but also working a second part-time job is amazing. How do you manage it? Are you running ragged seven days a week with no rest? Are you doing it because there’s no other way to survive, or could you cut the part-time (or even full-time) job if you needed to?

  23. HR Empress*

    #5 What you describe is an employee/employer relationship. The DOL is really cracking down on companies who miss classify workers as independent contractors. They put out a “streamlined” guideline about 2 years ago called the Economic Realities Test which helps employers determine if the worker is an employee or independent contractor. This is the fact sheet which outlines the full guide.

  24. DeeCal*

    And please please provide an update after chatting w/the auditors. I’d love to hear how this one turns out…’s hard to imagine some companies put up with (and even allow) such shenanigans. Ridiculous!

  25. MashaKasha*

    #1 – It’s not uncommon in my experience. A few jobs I had were really bad in that regard. But I had higher seniority than the gossipy crowd, both by the title and by age, and so was able to enjoy the luxury of not participating (and occasionally telling them they’re going too far with their gossip) without any negative consequences.

    Really, not participating is the only way to go long-term. Aside from it just being the right thing to do, any gossip that is being spread behind a person’s back can and will get to that person.

  26. Anna*

    OP # 1, very toxic atmosphere. I worked next to someone who was allowed to basically trash all employees as they left the room and caused me constant anxiety as I worried I’d be her next target. I wish there was a way to know beforehand about these types of atmospheres!

  27. Poohbear McGriddles*

    Re #2, there are three individuals who might/should face repercussions from this relationship debacle. Not only the manager, but also the director since she was aware of it and even brushed it off. And the OP might not want to leave the junior staffer alone in the breakroom with their lunch! Letting any of these people know what is coming will only give them time to get their story straight and figure out how to get the OP out of the way. They are absolutely not going to say “Good point! We should end this arrangement ASAP so no one feels there is any favoritism going on.”

  28. AnonMarketer*

    #1: Venting, to an extent, is normal, as is I think slight high-school cattiness. Cliques form wherever you go. However, at the level you describe it is not. I had a job in the university system where my boss talked behind everyone’s back to everyone. This resulted in her being constantly frustrated, negative, controlling, and most people did not like to work with her, which make productivity difficult and many of us crying at home at the end of the work day. In my time there, she fired two people within my first two weeks, and two people threatened suicide on the job when she stepped out of the office. There were public tears in the office and it was a horribly toxic place to work. I lasted six months before I jumped ship and got out of Dodge.

    Take it as a sign you need to find a new place to work, yikes!

  29. JPlummer*

    Hey there #5. As usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short here but wanted to encourage you to enlist your temp agency or recruiter (whoever placed you in the temp job) to run interference for you with your temporary employer. If you have any complaints— about salary, working hours or conditions, or if the job has changed radically from what it was when you started– then someone at your temp agency should be informed. That person can address your concerns with temp employer and can also get clarification for you about what the employer’s long-term intention is for you–whether it’s going to be an offer of permanent employment, or keeping you on as a permatemp (which can be its own version of hell). Sounds like you’re incredibly busy and could use some burden easing. Bottom line, you don’t have to take on any kind of temp-relatednegotiation by yourself.

    If you aren’t working through an agency and are truly a freelancer, then please disregard everything I’ve said;o) I would only add that if you are in school, you are probably laying the groundwork for a career. The temp job might be a very temporary blip on your employment radar. So resolve the temp job issues as best you can and move on when it’s time. Best…

  30. ElizzyBeth*

    It’s important to know that this kind of treatment is a major problem at the state and federal level and the IRS and state taxing authorities looks for this. Treating people as employees, yet paying them as a contractor is a form of tax evasion. It’s a serious problem and it’s usually always done so the employer can avoid responsibilities while retaining control, and the worker is usually screwed over. If you ask and get nowhere with your employer… one of the best ways to handle this is to file form SS-8 with the IRS. They will investigate or audit and determine if you really are an employee or a contractor. More often than not, they find the person is an employee and the employer ends up in a spot of trouble and has to pay back wages and expenses. Do a little research on the IRS website about Contractors vs Employees. It’s pretty eye opening. It’s the employers job to classify you correctly. If you file form SS-8, that will often get the situation fixed. One of the most effective ways I’ve handled this is to fill out the form and then take it to my employer with a copy of the IRS publications about contractors vs employees. I tell them my concerns and say I intend to file the form. all but once the ‘threat’ worked. They get scared of those three letters – IRS. I was converted to employee status immediately and paid properly. Or, I was allowed to retain my contractor status, but given more actual freedom and was truly independent — meaning I made my own appointments, my own schedule, etc.

    The one time it didn’t work, I filed the form… and it did not go well for the employer. I wasn’t the only one, though. About 5 employees filed the SS-8, which triggered a nasty audit. They got in to a lot of trouble because they were found to have misclassified ALL of their workers as contractors (it was worse than I thought it was), and were forced to pay all of us (about 30 people) back wages and benefits going back 3 full years. It, literally, cost them several million in fines, fees and such. The owner of the company had to sell his personal home and vehicles to help pay for it. They also got in to trouble with the state for failing to pay for worker’s compensation insurance. I left the company in the middle of the investigation, but I learned that about 6 months after it happened, they went out of business because the fines and back wages wiped them out and they could no longer afford to keep employees on staff. The owner shut down just shy of filing for bankruptcy. He sold off everything, and was actually quite apologetic to everyone. He said he got bad legal advice when setting up the company and didn’t realize what he was doing was wrong. Well, I’m not really sure I totally bought it, but he WAS honorable and everyone got paid what they were owed, even though it pretty much ruined him, personally. They lost clients and it snowballed fast. And, some people were quick to blame us (the employees) for ‘ruining’ their business. That’s hogwash. They were breaking the law and got caught. It was their fault. Last I heard, though, he’s doing really well. He regrouped and started another company in the same industry, with properly paid employees who are very loyal.

    If you are being treated like an employee, you deserve to be compensated as one. Employers can have the rights to behavioral control and such, but it means they have to take on the responsibility, too. They can’t retain behavioral control and be free of paying taxes, etc. It’s one or the other, not both.

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