my boss spends too much personal money on us

A reader writes:

I work at a nonprofit institution, and my coworkers and I are paid far below market value for our skills. My manager Sam knows this and has advocated for us, but our industry and salary bands being what they are, this is unlikely to change anytime soon.

In light of these facts and to build up morale, Sam has started buying us lots of things out of pocket, including fancier office supplies than we could get approved, lunches out, snacks, etc. The lunches out used to happen once every 2-3 months, which I thought was reasonable, but have recently increased to a few times a month. (And I know he’s paying himself, not submitting for reimbursement.)

I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with my manager’s generosity, but I don’t know how to walk back what I’ve agreed to in the past. I’ve tried asking how much I can contribute, offering cash to cover my portion if we’re ordering food in, basically everything I can think of other than saying, “I’m okay with you doing this occasionally, but this level is too much.” (It is difficult to back out when other team members happily latch on to “My treat!”)

There are items I’ve not requested because I feel like they’re borderline (like an ergonomic mouse versus the one that came with my computer) and Sam might just buy them out of pocket because it’s easier.

Sam is also very effusive with praise and quick to dismiss any self-critical comment I make, no matter how earned it is. I know that he values us and the work we do, but it makes me unsure how well I’m doing sometimes or where I could improve since he always negates what I would view as an honest owning of my mistakes and suggestions to improve my own processes. He talks about acting as a shield for me and other staff members, sometimes working until all hours of the night in order to “protect” us from unreasonable requests.

I appreciate the lengths Sam is going to in order to make up for the lack of salary, but his escalating actions are beginning to feel desperate and make me uncomfortable. Is there any way to get him to dial things back to where they were before? We’ve worked together for a couple of years now, and we have a good relationship. But there is a natural amount of awkwardness around telling your manager you feel like something isn’t the way you’d run things.

Sam might indeed be doing all this as a way to build morale and combat low salaries.

But being excessively generous with his own money can’t possibly make up for salaries that are far below market value. Lunches and fancy office supplies are nice gestures, but they’re not going to fool anyone into thinking there’s more money in their paychecks.

I think you’re right to tie this in with his instinct not to give you any constructive feedback and to dismiss any critical self-reflection you try to do on your own. He sounds like someone who prioritizes being “nice” above all — when that’s not what his job is about.

That makes me suspect he probably has serious deficiencies in other areas of the job, too. If he values being nice above all else, he can’t effectively hold people to ambitious goals, develop people’s skills, or address performance problems. And if that’s the case, dealing with the excessive generosity will only tackle a tiny part of the problem.

And it might not be something you can change in him anyway. This isn’t one misguided habit — it’s his whole orientation to managing.

That said … if you want to give it a shot, you could try saying, “Have you been paying personally for all these lunches? If so, that’s really not right and they’re not necessary. Why don’t we scale back to a few times a year like we used to do, and we can all pay for our own?”

It might be smart to say this in front of others, in the hopes they’ll agree once the “paying for it himself” part is highlighted for them. That does introduce the risk that they’ll argue against you, but that just gives you the chance to say, “Are you really arguing that Sam, who’s probably underpaid like the rest of us, should use his own money to buy us lunch several times a month? That’s not right.” You may still be overruled, but it’s a worthwhile thing to say.

You could also talk with your coworkers ahead of time and see if you can win them over to your side — because if several of you are pushing back, it’s more likely to have an impact.

You can say something similar about office supplies too: “It’s not right for you to pay for these yourself. If the organization won’t buy them, let’s stick with the regular version. It’ll be fine.”

Another option is to talk with him privately, if your relationship allows for it: “You’ve started buying us all lunch with your own money several times a month and paying for fancy office supplies. It feels like you might be doing this as a way to make up for the low salaries here. I want to be frank with you that it doesn’t — our salaries aren’t great, but they’re a separate thing. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but it’s not right for you to spend your own money on this kind of thing and while I can’t speak for others, I’m not comfortable accepting it.”

The bigger issue, though, is his unwillingness to give you any feedback or tolerate you critiquing your own work — and that’s a lot harder to tackle. You could try saying, “It’s really important to me to get better and better at what I do, and I can’t do that without looking rigorously at my mistakes and areas where I could improve. I’d like to get your feedback as a part of that. I can critique my own work, but you have a perspective as my manager that would be valuable for me to hear.”

But this sounds like someone who really doesn’t want to manage, and I don’t think you’re going to be able to turn him into a manager on your own.

{ 153 comments… read them below }

  1. Mainely Professional*

    Well…one way to feel comfortable with it is: maybe Sam makes plenty of money himself. At one non-profit I worked at the directors were paid on the low side of market rate, but the rest of the staff was really, really underpaid. Think $60k and $25k when it should have been more like $65k and $40k.

    I was on the receiving end of my managers’ generosity of picking up my coffee from time to time, VISA gift cards, etc. Which while not excessive, was nice to have. And I never thought twice about accepting it given the differential in our salary. Did they OWE me? No. But I did not look a gift horse in the mouth.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          In which case he would probably have the power to increase the salaries rather than just buying lunch.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            Yes, but I can see a company owner not doing this because you can cut back on buying lunch but it is much much harder to reduce salaries. This is of course why one should in general insist on the higher headline salary rather than the unfixed “perks” even if they are currently $-for-$ equivalent.

        2. Quill*

          I worked in a startup where the boss/owner took us out to lunch a lot, and it was an abysmal job where the boss was more concerned with looking good than little things like “scientific rigor” or “ventilation,” or “Not discriminating against employees with mental or physical illnesses.”

      1. CMart*

        Curiosity question (as I don’t think it applies to this situation, though it might).

        What if Sam was “Sam Walton”, or at least had Sam Walton money, and was working at LW’s non-profit essentially as a volunteer effort.

        Does that change your perception or advice regarding what sounds like a small reinvestment of his salary back into the org via this treats?

        1. Shad*

          Nope! If he’s doing this job as a volunteer thing, the appropriate “reinvestment” would be directly and privately donating the money back to the nonprofit directly and advocating for the beneficial effect of market wages from the donor side of things.

          1. Tinuviel*

            Agree. I think if it’s someone who has the power, money, leverage, etc. to be fine after paying people’s lunches and things this often, then they should use their power to make structural change, not “here’s a cookie” type change. It’s the Batman/Bruce Wayne principle (ie he could have saved more people as Bruce Wayne than as Batman)

      2. Hey Nonnie*

        Ehhh… I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea that anyone should be telling a competent adult how he should/shouldn’t spend his own personal money. If someone came to you asking for help with their finances, that’s one thing. He hasn’t asked (and it would be an inappropriate ask of an employee), and I like to think that grownups are allowed to choose for themselves what their financial priorities are.

        You see this in weird paternalistic state rules about how many pounds of potatoes you’re allowed to buy on SNAP, and it might be a bit more appropriate among people with close relationships, but even then my in-laws get silence and an arched eyebrow when they insist that I “should” prioritize some very expensive events or lifestyle changes because “you can make it work if it’s important to you.”

        How my boss spends his money is none of my business, unless for some reason he owes me a paycheck or some other cash that I’m not getting from him. He is an adult, his finances are his responsibility, not mine.

        The need he has to avoid giving constructive criticism is the bigger issue here, and something appropriate to address in a work setting.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I agree with you except for when it comes to that money being spent on ME. Then, yeah, I think I have some say.
          The rule of thumb that I have found helpful in my life is anytime someone gives us money they are buying a part of us. Money comes with strings, always. We have that right to say “that part of me is not available for purchase”.

          If OP is giving up honest evaluations, opportunities for training, opportunities for growth, then that can be a steep price to pay for some free meals. The way that OP describes this it sounds like the boss is almost begging the employees to stay on with the company. This could indicate that the boss worries excessively and/or is fearful. Managers cannot allow fear and worry to guide their decisions and shape their leadership. This is not a long term plan.

          OP, I see nothing wrong with you saying to the boss, “I am not comfortable here with all the money you are spending on me. ” Then you can offer a remedy such as not going to these lunches or going once in a while and you pay your own way or Other Solution. For me, because I have had enough bad bosses, I would be able to say, “I just need you to be a good boss to me. I need fairness, communication and transparency.”

          Here my thinking is that it’s not up to you, OP, to figure out what the manager should do with all the other people. The boss has created this situation, let him figure out how to dissolve or modify it. All you need to do is talk about your one square foot of this whole story. It’s up to him to figure out how to handle it with others.

          I have told family members that I am uncomfortable with the amount of money they were spending on me. So there is that, too.

          1. Tinuviel*

            Agreed. OP isn’t looking to give him financial advice, she’s uncomfortable with the free meals instead of proper wages.

          2. Anonomoose*

            Yeah, it is, at its most cynical, an attempt to construct an obligation to the boss, which might make it hard to leave. It’s worth thinking about in those terms.

          3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            Merciful goddess this applies to my private life this week so thank you for the reminder. I have a difficult email to compose.

          4. Hey Nonnie*

            Well, I do view the bad management practices as a separate issue from the gifts / lunches. And as I said, that is an appropriate thing to bring up/try to fix in a work context — the management stuff is literally the man’s job.

            And maybe I’m unusual, but I don’t believe that gifts confer an obligation on me, unless I explicitly asked that person for that item, and that person agreed to give it. A favor is different from a gift. Gifts are not obligatory to either giver or receiver. And if someone approaches gift-giving to me with the expectation that I now “owe” them, they will be disappointed. It’s the other party’s job to manage their own money. If they’re trying to buy favors, they should save their money and just frikken ask me directly. You might get a “yes,” and if not, no one’s going to convert my “no” into a “yes” by plying me with cash.

            Good gravy, people have some f-ed up ideas around generosity. Not everything has to be a 1-to-1 quid pro quo. I’m here for it if it’s genuine, and I practice it genuinely, but if your generosity has ulterior motives, bugger off already. I don’t care to invite duplicity into my life.

            The problem in this post is not the lunches — that’s a red herring. The problem is that OP can’t get genuine feedback or growth opportunities because the manager won’t manage. And also the low salaries, but I didn’t get the impression that the boss had any direct control over that, and that was all coming from above him? So arguing with him about lunch isn’t going to achieve anything regarding that.

          5. Hey Nonnie*

            I have told family members that I am uncomfortable with the amount of money they were spending on me. So there is that, too.

            This would fall under “close relationships,” however.

    1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

      Our salaries are public record so I can see how much he makes. The amount is not nothing, but it’s still under market value for the work we do. His salary is about 20% more than mine.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Thank you for clearing this up! I was also wondering if it was more of a difference as well.

        Also does he have a family or anything to shower with affection and gifts? I only ask this [you may not even know of course!] because I spend a lot of money on snacks or office-gifts of sorts because I don’t have have kids, so if I want to spoil someone, it’s gonna have to be my coworkers [or my partner but he gets crotchety if I over-spend on him either, lol talk about privilege when your biggest problem is that you don’t have anyone to take your GD money fast enough].

        1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

          He does, and I get the impression he’s generous with them, too. Alison hit the nail on the head when she said that he seems to have a lot invested in being the “nice guy.” Which he is! He’s genuinely a nice and interesting person, but similar to how I’ve felt about co-workers who overshared information about their personal lives with no prompting, I feel like our team isn’t the right outlet for these impulses.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Yeah, I understand the feeling completely. So I do think that it’s worth bringing up but as a generous person myself, it most likely is not going to change just because you’re pulling him aside. Unless you can get the team behind you. It’s not up to just you in the end what the culture is in the end but you can certainly put in your opinion!

      2. CMart*

        I was wondering more if it was one of those situations that seem common in non-profit work where people who don’t “need” money choose to work there for the low salaries, because the amount is immaterial to them. Perhaps Sam has Family Money, or whatever.

        I don’t think it particularly matters, but it was my very first thought.

        1. wittyrepartee*

          Assuming he’s solvent, it might just be that spending his money on his team makes him happy. It might also allow him to go to lunches with the team that he otherwise wouldn’t be able to, and to guiltlessly use nice office supplies without feeling like he’s a jerk flaunting his own wealth.

          1. JSPA*


            I’d guess he’s independently wealthy, but not to the point where he can use it for “pull” to get the organization to change its policies (leaving aside whether or not a wealthy potential donor should also be an employee, and should also have pull regarding salaries).

            Some might suggest that he give an earmarked donation. Or fund some sort of bonus. But I’m guessing that such a thing would not fly, for all sorts of reasons (organizational policies, organizational choices RE expectations, the IRS taking a dim view of tax write off-able gifts that are earmarked for the salaries of people one supervises, etc).

            Of all the options open to Sam for trying to make things right for his people, going a bit deep on the gift-giving is likely the most legal, most doable, least morally-questionable option open to him. So long as there’s not the slightest whiff of a quid-pro-quo or favoritism on who gets invited, I’d tend to go along with it.

            I’ve seen this in science where someone with no great interest in personal wealth ends up holding a piece of a pretty important patent. They find themselves in the position of having a lot more cash than ever before, few unmet wants and needs, travel to interesting places already on their schedule / paid for by grants (by way of being an invited speaker at conferences). They concurrently have institutionally underpaid, intellectually-committed staff who (collectively, not individually, and with a shifting cast of participants over time) have made possible the research leading to the patentable science. Rounds of beers and the occasional nice lunch or dinner or fancier pastries at group meetings, ensue.

            I’m sure that much the same holds in some nonprofits.

            Consider: OP may not be at the bottom end of the scale, as far as financial net worth and financial burdens. Could be that Sam is upping the meals because Sam knows that some of the staff are living on beans and rice while paying off school debt and barely making rent. If Sam is avoiding the more problematic option of feeding / helping people individually based on need by feeding everyone a few fancier meals, the best option is likely either “thank you!” or “what a nice offer, I can’t make this one because I’m now working out at lunch several days a week, but have fun!”

            And for OP to risk carpal tunnel out of the fear that Sam might buy a better mouse or keyboard “for office use, on OP’s desk” rather than putting it in for proper payment is not healthy, unless it’s part of OP’s job description to track such things. So far as I know, if a donor to a nonprofit does not WANT recognition (and a receipt for tax purposes), they’re allowed to refuse it. And, at least as of 2018, gifts from a single doner totaling under $5000 for the year don’t have to be reported to the IRS (unless they meet another criterion, like being more than some percentage of total operating expenses–which for an org that has multiple employees, won’t be the case, here.) I’ll look for a link to the form in question, and add it separately.

            Basically, so long as the aggregate $ benefit to the org, above what would be “normal” for a supervisor towards their team, is below $5K for the year, I’d…tend to let it ride, in OP’s situation.

        2. Bunny*

          So, I’m kind of in that boat, I mean I’m not rolling in multi-million dollar trust fund money, I still need to work, but I work at a non-profit in a field that I am very passionate about but is not particularly lucrative (aren’t they all), and for a variety of reasons I am able to maintain a much higher standard of living than my co-workers and it often makes me super uncomfortable knowing that my co-workers are struggling financially, often in ways that are just completely foreign to me.

          I’ve gotten better at not putting my foot in my mouth when talking about my life or sometimes my incredibly stupid assumptions that my co-workers have a similar standard of living but I often do feel super guilty and have been known to do things like pay for co-workers entire tabs at happy hour when I know that the drinks are a trivial amount of money for me but a real financial consideration for my co-workers.

          1. JSPA*

            “Someone picked up the tab yet again” is excellent…until somebody gets the sense that it’s going to be their turn at some future time, or gets the wrong idea that this is what people should do, to advance, or that this is something someone is doing, to advance, or they get a nagging worry that there’s funny business afoot (like, with the corporate card).

            I’d probably say (well, I have actually said, when it was approximately factually true) that I’d come into a modest inheritance from an elderly relative that I had barely known, that I felt conflicted about it for Reasons Best Not Shared, and that allocating it, here and there, “for group happiness” was the best thing for my own happiness.

            It makes “buying this round” (or this meal) excusable, without suggesting that I should be investing in your cousin’s latest harebrained timeshare scheme, donating to your fave candidate, or paying your rent.

  2. Newbie*

    As ever, Alison gives great advice, but there was one part of this especially which caught my eye and I wonder what other readers think. I just started in a new organisation and am dealing with a backlog of work due to the role having been empty for a few weeks before I arrived. Combined with everything being new to me, I’m particularly slow right now, and my new boss has used the word “shield” in reference to taking on some work that would usually be my responsibility. I appreciate his support currently, but I also worry that it could imply I need his protection. At what point what that approach become a problem?

    (I should note that so far he says I’m doing a great job, but I think it’s too early for any in-depth assessment – I haven’t even set my objectives yet.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      I would frequently shield my team from the small, picayune projects so that they could completely focus, uninterrupted, on bigger tasks that needed more focus.

      As the department head, I was interrupted frequently by folks outside my department who needed info, and I couldn’t sink into anything because I needed to be constantly assessing workflow.

      So some things were easier for me to do, given their piecey nature.

    2. nonymous*

      You can definitely have a discussion about how long you think the backlog/training will take. Even if the previous person stepped back into the role (say, after FMLA) there would be a period that they wouldn’t be at 100% due to the backlog. How much is that time? And how much should it be extended due to you being new?

      Realistically, it’s unlikely that you will ever do 100% of the tasks exactly as your predecessor. Getting new staff in place is an opportunity to cut superfluous duties and reconfigure for the new set of strengths. What does that look like? I would focus on forming that picture in the first 30 days – it can even be a partial qualitative description with metrics added over time, just keep chipping away at it.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is a bit off-topic, so I’ll cut it off here – – but agree with TootsNYC that it means “you’re new and getting acclimated so I’m going to shield you from projects X and Y so you can focus on mastering Z.”

  3. TootsNYC*

    Why don’t we scale back to a few times a year like we used to do, and we can all pay for our own?

    If you’re all making a too-small salary, I wouldn’t suggest that everybody else pay for their own. And *I* wouldn’t want to!

    I’d personally say, “Why don’t we scale back … like we used to do? If we want to get together, we can have a brown-bag lunch in the conference room, and people can bring from home or get takeout.”

    1. Summertime*

      I second this idea! OP can also suggest the brown bag lunch if Sam is proposing to take everyone out for lunch. It would definitely be good to have some coworkers chime in that they’d prefer to stay in and have a big group lunch with food brought from home. Having a set date for a team lunch each month where it is specifically a brown bag lunch might assuage Sam’s tendency to take everyone out and provide the team with a chance to do some team bonding (or possibly boost morale?)

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I would think this would be a good time to perhaps suggest doing potluck lunches instead if the office is interested in it. Since it can be pretty low budget and if it turns out everyone just brings chips, whatever, bring chips and we’ll have a chip party *shrug*

      1. Kiwiii*

        Yes! a potluck could be a great idea and could easy to persuade towards with a good “I’ve been dying to try out this new recipe/share my famous enchiladas/bring these cookies from the bakery by my house”

      2. EddieSherbert*

        In my experience, a potluck is an easy way to let everyone contribute what they want, if they want to. Make something fancy, or just pick up a potato salad at the grocery store, or bring your own lunch and just hang out with everyone!

      3. a clockwork lemon*

        Both of these things create a chore for many people, though. I worked (very briefly) at a nonprofit that did things like that, and all it did was make me resentful. It wasn’t a perk to have to go through the effort of shopping and cooking for a large group of people and then lugging all my crap to the office and back.

        Brown bags were a little better, but it still essentially guaranteed that I was giving up my own “treat” of the day (lunch) in order to eat a sad sandwich or leftovers, while sitting in a grimy office kitchen trying to make small talk with the people I spent all day every day with.

        I can’t imagine I’d be the only person irritated if this was the proposed alternative to a generous boss treating the team, especially if it was proposed by a colleague who was actively and openly job-searching.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          That’s why my suggestion was to find out if others are interested in it first and then you can swap them out over time in the end.

          Sure, you don’t like them and that’s totally cool. But to act like they’re not actively enjoyed by many others out there is pretty short sighted as well.

          I’ve known nobody to actually like the idea of just gathering up with your lunch sacks, like it’s grade-school to have your lunch together cafeteria style. There has to be more going on to make it an actual thing.

          1. a clockwork lemon*

            OP is further down the comments and said that it’s usually a spur of the moment decision in which Sam offers to pay for lunch for “a small handful of people.” That’s very different than having a planned potluck, and if someone were to substitute planned potluck meals as a good alternative for a boss’s spur of the moment generosity it’s not equivalent.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I’ve never been to a brown-bag lunch that you couldn’t get takeout or go pick something up to bring back.

          Of course, it means you’re all eating together instead of having the treat of sitting in a restaurant by yourself or with a friend, but….

        3. Hey Nonnie*

          Potlucks are a nightmare for anyone with specific dietary needs, too. Don’t think that everyone accurately reports on whether they used pork, tree nuts, or animal fats in their favorite recipe. The number of times I’ve had to just eat my own dish and maybe there is a fruit salad…. I just end up paying to feed my coworkers.

    3. Academic Libarian Department Head.*

      AND I was once invited to a group lunch in honor of an author AND one of the librarians (a person of a certain age, position and means) declared to the publisher that we would all pay for our own lunches as it was the publishers representatives’ birthday. The restaurant was a fancy Manhattan place, 20 dollars that I didn’t have and couldn’t afford.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Uuuugh. Even worse when someone at the top of the food chain nonchalantly announces that “we’re” splitting the bill, minus the birthday person, so not only is it $20 you don’t have, it’s suddenly $32 you even more don’t have, and you swerved the steak option other people chose.

        1. Academic Librarian Department Head*

          I think this was the situation. There wasn’t a lunch entree under 18 dollars , and this was a pasta place and I knew I would be on the hook for more even if all I got was a side salad because “ I wasn’t very hungry”
          Funny how this was seared into my memory.

        2. Mr. Tyzik*

          I worked on a team that did team birthday lunches. One month was filled with five birthdays. One cheapskate would insist we go to some awful thai place with their $6 dollar plates. Funny how, during his birthday month, he’d want to go to a steakhouse.

          I was petty. The thai place we always went to during my birthday wasn’t good and there was little I chose to eat. I wound up with “fire drills” on his birth month, so I would always seem to miss his birthday. Darn.

  4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Sam is showing shades of the teachers who spend their own money on supplies and the letter we got from our teacher who pushed back, finding out there is a budget that they were just being stingy with! I wonder if he’s not asking for reimbursements for other reasons as well, not so much that they just won’t approve it. Some people are oddly protective over business funds and would rather spend their own, we’ve had those letters before too of course.

    I wonder if the coworkers aren’t unknowingly feeding into it as well and putting guilt on him to continue upping his generosity. I’ve had times when things were brought in occasionally as a “treat” on someone’s dime and people start to expect it, they get a lot of “We haven’t had donuts in so long, imma pout about it.” or the lowkey “Nancy used to bring bagels on the last Friday of the month.” sort of thing. Then you’re in an extra bind, especially since it sounds like Sam is a people pleaser by nature.

    I think speaking to others about your discomfort with the situation is key. I’d talk to a coworker first honestly to see if they’re on the same page. And then lean hard on “These lunches aren’t necessary!” commentary. Since it’s hard to break this cycle and if I were more of a betting woman, I’d put a bet on the fact Sam will need to be really peeled back fro this kind of behavior if he decides to break it at all. Lots of times, in the end, it’s what he wants to do and he’s going to continue to keep doing it.

    1. ACDC*

      I was also thinking that potentially Sam just isn’t trying to get reimbursed. When I worked at a non-profit, our ED had spent thousands of dollars of his own money on various things, but he never submitted receipts for reimbursement. I didn’t know he spent so much of his own money until one day his wife asked why I was so slow with getting him the reimbursement checks. They were so slow because he wouldn’t turn in receipts…

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yeah, that’s where I’m really leaning towards. Considering I personally have done this over the years and never bothered to be reimbursed. First because originally it wasn’t ever going to happen. I was not paid extremely well but I was the best paid person and have a low cost of living of my own.

        Then it stuck and only recently have I worked at places that are flourishing and all in about employee relations. I don’t need reimbursement now, I just need authorization and I can use my company card.

        I still buy things on sale because I can’t pass it up and bring in the surplus to the breakroom for the pickings just because I want to in the end. I could probably actually get reimbursed but I’m not interested in it, these are like less than $20 here and there kind of things though in the end.

  5. Aurion*

    I feel like no matter what, OP is going to get turned into the bad guy. If the organization is underpaying their employees, taking away regular perks like lunches and nicer office stuff is going to be a pretty hard hit to morale. And sure, maybe Sam isn’t making all that much compared to industry standard for directors (or whatever managerial position Sam holds), but it’s probably a lot higher than his reports! I’d wager very few of the reports are thinking critically about anyone else’s financial expenditures (absent clear nos like fraud); they all have enough of our own to think about.

    I think Sam should advocate, privately, for the organization to be paying for these perks–presumably these perks would still be cheaper than raising salaries across the board. But if the budget is as tight as it sounds, that might not be possible.

    1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

      This is a large institution with strict guidelines and standards, which is why we’re not going to see increased salaries and why we’re not allowed to spend money on employee perks.

      I do worry about being turned into the bad guy! I’ve tried to say something in all-team meetings before and was talked down by a co-worker.

      1. Summertime*

        It’s possible that during large team meetings, you could be talked down from speaking up about it because no one wants to shoot down the boss’s idea and offer of generosity. How do your coworkers feel about Sam’s generosity in general? Is it possible they haven’t realized that he is paying for the lunches themselves or just how frequent the lunches have become? I think it would be easier to address Sam when in a more informal setting (not a meeting) and in the moment of when Sam is offering some of his generosity.

        1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

          I’m actually not sure how they feel about it as a whole. We have newer co-workers on our team; I could ask their opinion.

          When I say “all-team,” it’s a small gathering of a handful of people. I didn’t call him out in front of a large group! It was more like he offered to get lunch for all of us on a spur-of-the-moment suggestion (which is how this usually comes about), and I said that he didn’t need to do that and I could cover my own lunch. The other co-worker piped up to say that, if the manager wants to pay for it, I should let him do it and that the co-worker would be happy to take advantage of the offer.

      2. Samwise*

        See my comment below. I very strongly believe you should not be pushing back on Sam’s generosity in all-team meetings. I also wouldn’t ask that some meals be “everyone pays and some are Sam’s treat”–as your coworker I am going to be super pissed off that you volunteered me to pay. Even if I have enough to fork over the $, it’s not anyone else’s place to put me on the spot where I have to pay out of my own funds. And also that you volunteered me to give up my lunch hour to a team lunch. Don’t be that person.

        You don’t have to accept Sam;s generosity, especially if it makes you uncomfortable, and that is how I would couch it *with Sam*.

        1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

          I’ve never volunteered anyone else’s money. I’m very sensitive to other people spending my money for me, and I wouldn’t do that to others. I’ve only offered my own up in these group situations.

          1. TootsNYC*

            but you did decline for other people

            I think if you’re uncomfortable, you should mention that privately to him.

      3. Aurion*

        Yeah, sorry OP, there aren’t a lot of good options here. I would feel a potluck is a downgrade from my boss treating me to lunch too; I have to actually put in work and do dishes for a potluck!

        Do your coworkers know Sam is paying for these perks out of pocket? A quiet word with your coworkers, acting as if you just found out ala “oh man, did you know Sam was paying for these and not getting reimbursed? I didn’t! Now I feel bad about that joke I made about lunch every Friday” might make your coworkers dial it down if they didn’t already know. But if your coworkers (pretty reasonably) assume Sam can manage his own finances, there really might not be much you can do.

        I wouldn’t go for the public callout per Alison’s script; personally, I feel like that might embarrass Sam to be white-knighted/put on the spot.

        1. Jamie*

          And you’re expected to eat things other people made without ever having seen their kitchens.

          I was never a fan of potlucks but after accidentally seeing an episode of Horders they make me nervous.

            1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

              Unless everything is store-bought and still packaged, but then that kills the fun for potluck lovers, and increases the cost for everyone.

    2. Jamie*

      The perks are cheaper, but as Alison pointed out they don’t serve the same purpose.

      I’ve been underpaid. Underpaid in a place where the owners bought everyone lunch 3x a week or more and I could buy whatever office supplies I wanted…but it didn’t make me feel less underpaid.

      It made me irritated to think of how many of would have preferred the owners let us get our own lunches and put those thousands of dollars into the bonus accounts.

      Totally different situation as this is the bosses own money, but point of it not making up for lower salary still stands. There is no food or office supply that makes up for lost income. Perks like flex time, WFH…for some people who really want those less money is a trade off, but not this kind of thing.

      And am I the only one would be annoyed at having to have work lunches that often? If I’m already underpaid can I at least have my lunch hour to myself? Just me, the old curmudgeon?

      1. Aurion*

        Oh, I absolutely agree that perks can’t make up for a low salary. I can’t pay my rent with the leftovers from the office lunch. But I was taking OP at their word that the low salary is not going to change, and hoping the company would at least spring for the perks from their coffers, so Sam isn’t dealing with the financial costs of employee morale/retention out of his own (presumably also underpaid for his position) paycheque.

        But judging by their update above, it looks like company-paid perks are out of the question too, so I don’t think OP has a good option other than to get a new job ASAP.

        (And I totally eat most company-paid lunches at my desk, so you’re not alone.)

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yeah, in the end perks cannot make up for being underpaid.

        And in your case, the owners actually being the ones who are springing for the lunches makes it even more clear that they’re choosing to skimp on your wages and trying to pull the old trick that startups are known to do. Instead of work life balance, good pay, good benefits, they use the money for things that can easily be removed at a moments notice. “We don’t have health insurance here but we have a fridge full of pudding cups!!!!!!!!!!”

        Having my nose in books and knowing the money situation in all the companies I’ve ever been in. This is stuff you do when you’re precarious in funds OR you simply do not value your staff and view them all as easily replaceable, so you don’t invest in their financial health that in turn you know, increases morale. Nah, they resort to party tricks.

  6. Kiwiii*

    I wonder if there’s a way you can ask about anything that might have recently changed to prompt Sam’s new generosity? Did someone in budget express to him that the department is supposed to cut Way Back? Did he learn that someone was interviewing or that there won’t be any merit raises anymore? Did he learn that there’s only a year left on a contract that won’t be renewed and someone will be being let go then? Basically, why does he feel the need to be more generous /now/?

    Additionally, I wonder if there’s a way to scale the generosity more towards the middle? For example, mention that lunches several times a month feels really excessive, but that you’d like to do a monthly one where most of the time everyone pays, but sometimes he treats. Thank him for the office supplies, but insist he go through regular channels 90% of the time (esp, with an ergonomic thing, the company is pretty likely to be chill about it).

    1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

      It’s me. I’m the one who’s been job searching and interviewing. I’ve been pretty candid with him about my quest to get paid market value, and he doesn’t want to lose me as a team member.

      1. Kiwiii*

        I love that for you. If you think his increased generosity is in direct response to the knowledge that you’re job searching, I think a professional conversation with him about it might go over fine? Though I’m not sure how I’d delicately word, “Your generosity is making me uncomfortable and isn’t an effective deter rant from looking for a fair salary.”

      2. Samwise*

        That’s good! What Sam can do is take that info (without naming names) up a level or two: We are going to lose valuable employees, possibly many employees, if we don’t pay market value.

        1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

          They know this, and I did recently receive a salary adjustment. It’s still below market value though so I’m continuing to explore my options.

        2. Oh No She Di'int*

          I’ve worked in and adjacent to non-profits before. There is a poverty mindset that is quite damaging to people who work in those environments. While I agree that Sam ought to advocate for market value salaries, if that organization is anything like the ones I’ve worked for, I’d suspect he’s facing headwinds. In my experience donors often expect employees to be broke/barely getting by. And that often includes the donating public. They are shocked–SHOCKED–to learn that 100% of the dollar they donated didn’t go DIRECTLY to provide for the helpless little orphans/sad puppies/polluted creek or what have you.

          1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

            It is amazing how the overhead cost of running a non-profit is tied to how effective they are at the mission. You can’t hire the very best people if you’re not willing to pay them in the same realm of market value. What you end up with are a lot of mediocre lifers and a young, hard-working staff with a lot of turnover.

            1. Buttons*

              Exactly! It is a vicious cycle. You aren’t going to be able to be as effective if you don’t have great people, but if you can’t pay great people you are going to only retain the so-so people.

            2. wittyrepartee*

              And sometimes the “mediocre lifers”are mediocre partially because they’re just stressed about money so often, or at some point they started feeling very undervalued but still believe in the mission.

              1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                You also get mediocre workers when you don’t invest in them, they don’t have the right materials or the right training. So of course they can only work with what they have available.

                It’s rarely because they’re just happy being mediocre or that it’s out of spite. The vast majority of the world is simply average, average people are important too.

          2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Yes, many non-profits are “ranked” and they scrutinize the cost of doing business, including the administration costs. It gives me hives that is how you’re supposed to weigh out what organization you should support, when you know it’s really more about where the money is used. You can’t just not pay people and think that the services are going to be top notch or that the place is efficiently ran and that people are getting the assistance they need, etc.

            Yet another broken system that keeps going.

          3. TootsNYC*

            This is the first explanation of that I heard, and it’s pretty powerful.

            at Ted-dot-com, search on Dan Pallotta

            He gives an example of a charity that spent big bucks on marketing and promoting a fundraiser (walkathon or similar) and RAISED big bucks, especially once the event got momentum in the second and third years. Far more than the expense of promoting it.

            They were forced (by outcry) to cut way back, and their available money dried up as well.

            1. TootsNYC*

              and that’s just fund-raising. It’s not even about providing services by hiring people who are intelligent and motivated and energetic to actually work with their clients.

            2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              Oh yeah, just cut marketing! That’s the best choice!

              Real story, my most beloved job that I stayed with for a decade died because of the fact they refused to invest anything in advertising or actively staying relevant.

              You have to spend money to make money. Where’s my skywriter when I need them…

              1. TootsNYC*

                Back before he became my Rude Political Uncle, I was getting to know my mother’s younger brother, who was a CFO of department store chains and other big retail operations.

                He said that as well, and that HE had to be the one scolding the other folks in the company: You have to spend money to make money.
                He said that people expect the finance guy to be all “cut expenses!” but that if you’re GOOD at finance, you understand that you need to spend, and not just on inventory.

                I’d been commenting that I’d picked up $45 worth of Christmas presents at Macy’s Herald Square, looked at the line for the cash register, counted the people (20) and decided that if each of them took 2 minutes, it would be a 40-minute wait to buy something. So I put it all down and left–and they’d lost a sale due to not being staffed well.

                He was overseeing a shoe chain at the time, and he said, “If you don’t have enough clerks in the store, there’s no one to bring out shoes for people to try on. And some people will walk in, and walk right back out, if they think they’re going to have to wait. You have to hire people. Then the puzzle is how many, and when, of course.”

                1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

                  I’m crying inside because what he taught you is simply business 101.

                  It’s about cutting unnecessary expenditures, this is why you negotiate with vendors and keep costs as low as possible. But it’s a balance of saving money where you can and don’t touch the labor unless it’s your last ditch effort…and that last ditch effort will often be the nail in your financial coffin.

                  It’s also why you can’t operate on razor thin margins. You have to back up your product with service.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Then I really think you should have a 1:1 with him to tell him that you’re going to be leaving due to the salary issue, regardless. Tell him to save his money since it’s not going to keep you there! I think since he already knows you’re on your way out, this is the perfect time to really drive home “It’s not about the perks, it’s about the actual money I’m putting in my pocket from the organization!”

        He has to learn that in his position, people will leave due to the salary issues! That’s something he really has to accept but of course nobody can make him.

        1. Crystal*

          “tell him that you’re going to be leaving due to the salary issue, regardless. Tell him to save his money since it’s not going to keep you there!” some variation of this would be my advice.

      4. PollyQ*

        I was already leaning towards advising you to not say anything, but if you’re on the way out, I’m even more sure. Yes, I agree it’s not an ideal situation in a variety of ways, but I just don’t think it’s such a big deal that you need to try to change it. If you’re really not going to be around that much longer, then I think it’s even more of a “somebody else’s problem.”

      5. Yikes*

        Grateful, you deserve to be paid market value, even at a nonprofit. I worked in development for ten years, and different types of non-profits of varying size. You mention above you work at a large institution, which really surprised me, because that’s exactly the type of non-profit that should be able and eager to pay market rate.

      6. TootsNYC*

        Your job search, and his desire to not lose you, is a huge part of what makes this icky.

        You’re feeling it’s icky because it feels as though he’s trying to buy your loyalty to the company through his personal sacrifice.
        And if you go ahead and leave, will he take it personally?
        And while I absolutely have stayed in jobs because I like my boss, and I’ve thought of leaving jobs because I didn’t, I still don’t want my boss to make it personal.

        So I think you can’t assume that other people are reacting the way you are.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Upthread, OP, I was talking about money always comes with strings. Toots put this together well, like puzzle pieces. He has a personal investment in you (your lunches) therefore he MAY be more vulnerable to feeling it personally when you quit. (What? I paid for all those lunches for NOTHING? You are leaving anyway??)

          He is putting all his energy in the wrong places.

  7. BRR*

    Another approach, and possibly the one I would use, is not even ask if he’s personally paying for them. I would say “I appreciate your generosity but this is too much.”

    1. Close Bracket*

      That’s great for things like lunches! For things like the mouse, I would add a little on, maybe something like, “That’s very generous, but it’s too much. I’d rather just go order it through the regular channels, though, thanks.” Of course that assumes there’s a regular channel, and it assume that boss tells OP that they are going to pay for it themselves.

  8. Samwise*

    TBH, I would not do the push-back in front of the group, especially not where you defend Sam: “Are you really arguing that Sam, who’s probably underpaid like the rest of us, should use his own money to buy us lunch several times a month? That’s not right.” This is to my mind inappropriate and over-stepping; you do not need to rescue Sam from overspending and you really do not need to protect them. If I were Sam I’d be embarrassed to have one of my reports white-knighting like this.

    Push back with Sam on your own re the spending — you can say to them that it makes you very uncomfortable to have a boss spending their own money on you. If you want, you can talk with your co-workers privately about it. But otherwise, it’s Sam’s decision.

    Re self-criticism: it’s *possible* that your criticism is in fact wrong. Regardless, I’d start asking for Sam to help you develop professionally (= put a positive spin on getting critical feedback). You can say something like, I feel I have been doing really well at X Y and Z, but I really want to grow and learn. Then ask for help identifying places where you can learn more/improve your performance / etc. So, don’t frame it as wrong/mistakes/criticism, but rather, areas for growth/development/learning. Ask Sam for help identifying your next steps professionally, too: if you stay with the organization, what are ways to get promoted or to be recognized? are there ways to advance within the industry?

    My grandboss very much likes to develop people; not afraid to have the hard talks, but happiest when (and best suited for) helping reports figure out their strengths, areas for development, professional goals and the like. Maybe Sam is like this; if so, take advantage of it. (You don’t have to take advantage of all the meals and so forth if it makes you uncomfortable.)

    1. Occasional*

      +1 on this. If you’re uncomfortable about the way your boss spends his money on lunches for the team, but your colleagues see it as a valued perk in an otherwise low-paid job, you should excuse yourself from the lunches rather than try to torpedo them for everyone. Raise it privately, if you have to, but trying to make your colleagues feel bad because they’re happy to accept this perk would be a jerk move and totally unnecessary.

      The actual problem for you is the lack of candid feedback, and that’s where I’d focus my energies.

      1. Grateful (but Uncomfortable) Employee*

        It is difficult to get out of them when they’re part of all day meetings or meetings that cross into lunch-adjacent territory, which is when the surprises tend to crop up. I bring my lunch every day anyway so I suppose I could refuse to participate by eating leftovers while everyone else has pizza (or whatever), which would bring its own host of questions.

        1. EddieSherbert*

          What about saying “Thanks, but I was looking forward to my [food] today!”?

          I wouldn’t try to claim it’s something related to diet or allergies, as Sam would probably just try to accommodate you in the future. But a generic “I want to eat my [own food]” should be fine.

          Maybe throw a “subject change” onto the end there so it doesn’t become a whole conversation, as well!

        2. Not So NewReader*

          “I am not comfortable accepting so many gifts. I have decided to bring my own food.”
          If something further is said, “Nope, I am good here. I have my own lunch. Thanks anyway.”

          Here, OP, the idea is that less is more. The more you talk the more material you give them to argue with you. So you can just keep repeating, “I am not comfortable accepting so many gifts.” No one gets to tell you what you should or shouldn’t feel/think. If you are not comfy, then that is the answer, you are not comfy.

      2. Courageous cat*

        I agree. Yikes at some of these potential responses. That’s just asking to be shit talked about afterward – it comes off a bit too goody goody imo.

  9. Catsaber*

    My previous manager was a guy who really wanted to be liked and was conflict avoidant. While I didn’t have the issue with him paying for things, he did do the other stuff – constantly giving praise, never giving criticism, always talking about how he was a “shield.” The effect this had on me over the years is that I doubted myself and my work immensely, because I couldn’t believe that there was NEVER anything wrong with my work. I did talk with colleagues and other managers who were willing to be honest with me about my work, and they would give me good, actionable criticism. But my boss never did, and so working for someone like that for as long as I did took it’s toll on my confidence in my work. That, and the martyr vibes I got from him when he did the “I’m shielding you!” thing were annoying.

    As for what to do about it – if you’re talking with a person who tends to speak in more abstract, vague ways, you have to ask really concrete questions in order to get concrete answers. “Is there anything I could do differently?” usually will not yield results. But “I think I could have done X differently – what do you think?” or “do you agree?” tends to work better, because it will force them to be more concrete in their answer.

    1. EddieSherbert*

      I had a manager who was very similar and never gave criticism or wasn’t willing to give me more than 1-2 corrections in any project… about 16 MONTHS into working there, I was suddenly pulled into their boss’ office (my grandboss) because of all the issues with my work. Grandboss was ready to put me on a PIP and didn’t realize Manager had never mentioned *any* of these issues with me.

      I was literally using templates for projects that had a ton of mistakes in them… and then making the same mistake(s) over and over because *they were part of the template* that Manager never corrected!!

    2. hbc*

      In addition to concrete things, I’ve resorted to absurd framing to get people like this to provide feedback. “Okay, let’s stipulate that I’m awesome across the board. In what area am I only the awesomest in the country versus the awesomest on the planet?” Or, “Potential donor comes in, says he’ll give us $1M if you can point out one actionable thing that could be better about this [report/procedure/code/whatever]. What do you say?”

    3. Meredith*

      I don’t doubt my own work per se, but the issue with my company is that we’re an agency. So everyone gets feedback that everything is great, but the clients will set you REAL straight on that regard. Client feedback is true – and TBH, even if it’s overly picky, it’s still meaningful because they want what they want. Not that poor client feedback has ever led to changes in our staff (bringing in people with different talents to help with things clients consistently point out are weak) or procedures (employees are still shielded from feedback, therefore not increasing their skills or delivering better client work in the future). As the person who manages this clients, this is frustrating for me!

    4. TootsNYC*

      Or maybe frame those requests not as critiques/criticisms of what is past and unchangeable, and focus them on what you could do next time.

      “I wonder if there’s a more effective way to do that next time.”

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Not suitable for use in all settings however something to think about:

      I had a boss proclaim that she was protecting me. This came from out of the blue and I was caught off-guard. I said, “I did not realize my work was so bad, that I needed protection.”

      We never revisited this conversation again.

  10. Oh No She Di'int*

    Sigh. I share Alison’s low-key sense of resignation.

    I find it telling that OP brought up at least 3 issues, which are all tied together in her mind: (1) Sam spending his own money exorbitantly, (2) refusing to give critical feedback, and (3) working all hours of the night in order to keep the pressure off the rest of the team. Yeah, this is a severely conflict-averse person who may have self-esteem problems to boot.

    I think all the suggestions here are good ones, but Sam has deeper problems that OP just isn’t in a position to fix. If he stops spending money on office supplies, he’ll start spending it on office “improvements”. If he stops doing that, he’ll start giving away unnecessary perks like letting people not come to work or blatantly start doing people’s jobs for them.

    I think OP’s best bet is just to go along for the ride. Obviously, I would not actively seek to exploit Sam, but he is going to act out his addiction to niceness and avoiding conflict one way or another. She will most likely never get much meaningful feedback, so OP will need to decide if this job is worth the opportunity cost of lost learning. But as long as OP isn’t actively being hurt, I think her best bet is to merely do her job to the best of her ability.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I think this is a good assessment of Sam. I took over a crew that constantly had OT and the company was losing money with all that OT. I started streamlining processes and I encouraged the crew to develop their own ideas on what we could do to make everything easier.

      We nailed it. I say “we” because I could not have done all this without their inputs and participation. We went from massive OT to ZERO overtime. It took a few months to conquer it. And once conquered we never looked back, we were able to get out even more work just in a 40 hour week.
      I never once thought about buying them lunch. I was too busy streamlining the workflows and listening to their inputs. Their feed back to me was, “We just need a boss who is fair-minded. That is all we need.”

  11. Jennifer*

    Honestly, I hate stuff like this. I have worked places with crappy pay and benefits and the company tried to make up for it with lame pizza parties and office raffles. Keep your pizza and your sorry prizes. Pay me! As Alison said, lunches don’t make people forget that there isn’t enough money in their paychecks to pay bills. Sam can take his guilt elsewhere. OP, I’d worry less about Sam’s wallet and start thinking about my own. Maybe it’s time to find an employer that pays you what you’re worth.

  12. voyager1*

    I really don’t see what the problem is here.

    Your boss knows you make crap wages, takes you to lunch frequently. Is easy going on feedback. Lastly your boss works long hours to keep you from having to work then since you make crap wages. You really want a 45-50hr week? I guess if you are hourly that might be nice, but if you are salary and make crap pay, oh heck no.

    I say enjoy this and if you really feel bad about it find a different job. But if I was your coworker and I found out you tried to talk the boss out of the lunches and be more hands on with management, I would be ticked.

    1. Jennifer*

      It’s not really her problem. It’s Sam’s issue to fix. And yeah, the coworkers probably won’t be too happy. You don’t want to be the kid that raises their hand and reminds the teacher they forgot to assign homework the Friday before spring break.

    2. Meredith*

      On the flip side, is Sam is doing more than his share of their work, what will the employee have to show for accomplishments when they apply for a new job? How can they learn how to take ownership of and manage a project, or how to deal with failure, if Sam swoops in and cleans it all up every time to be nice? How will the employee develop new skills? How will the employee feel confident asking Sam to help deal with a difficult situation with a coworker – or even trust him to deal with it – if being “nice” is his biggest goal?

      1. cmcinnyc*

        I think Sam will give them glowing references! But it’s kind of the flipside of getting used to a toxic work environment. It’s not good to get too cushy, either. Especially somewhere with bad pay!

      2. voyager1*

        Honestly, if you are underpaid, let the boss swoop in. Sometimes a job is just a job until you can find something better. Not every job is going to be a dream and not every boss is going to be awesome. But leaving me alone and feeding me free food, I can overlook a lot till I find something that pays better. Sure beats the alternative of low pay, long hours and a micromanager.

      3. 1234*

        It’s not as if the employee is doing nothing at work. I’m sure the employee has things to list on their resume.

    3. Daisy*

      I agree, I feel like OP’s objection and AAM’s proposed language are really over the top. He’s an adult, let him buy lunch if he wants to. Eat your own food if it makes you feel better. Live and let live

  13. AskAnEmployee*

    OP. I’m not going to comment on the advice really, but I will add that I think that if you do this, your coworkers will not like you. If my boss, who was paid much better than me, was treating the team to lunches and one coworker said something about it to remove that tradition, I think I’d be somewhat annoyed. Now, I know others might not agree with me — and I get that — but some will. I think you are opening a can of worms here that you’ll regret. Focus on asking for feedback, but don’t advocate for more than that IMO.

    1. Oh No She Di'int*

      I think your warning is well taken. But I get the distinct impression that part of the issue is that the boss isn’t paid “much better” than OP. She mentions being underpaid at a nonprofit in what sounds like a non-managerial role. I’m going to guess her salary is no more than $40k. Her boss makes 20% more than her. That means he’s pulling down $48k. My guess is that this is not a rich man. My numbers could be off, but I’ve known nonprofit employees who make a heck of a lot LESS than that.

      It still may not win OP any friends if she said anything, but I don’t think anybody in this story is rolling in money.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        First off, I agree 100% that 20% more for a boss is pretty much not big of difference, not one that I’d ever consider “making so much more than me.”

        However. In the reality of the situation, tons of people, probably the majority if we went on just my reference pool to pull from, 8k difference is a huge difference to others. They would still look at him as the “rich” one in the situation.

        I’ve seen people making 1 or 2 dollars an hour more than someone treated like they’re swimming in a cash vault at night!

  14. Johanna*

    I had a boss like this at a nonprofit when I was right out of college. But her spouse was a doctor so I don’t think she had money issues. There was also a significant age difference, so I think she had a tendency to want to watch out for her team. I know we all appreciated it so I can see where keeping your coworkers in mind is important. I would trust your boss to make his own decisions on how often he wants to treat his staff. If it makes you uncomfortable, I would just either tell the waiter when you order that you want your check separately or say you’ll sit out this lunch (saying you’ve already brought your lunch is a good excuse). If there’s a department or a person who normally handles office supplies, I’d just start going to them if you can. Most places you don’t need your managers approval to order standard stuff. Also, I’m so glad you’re looking for another job. Being underpaid even when you’re young can have affects you don’t realize until you get older. Ni More nonprofits should take into consideration the welfare of their employees .

  15. Blisskrieg*

    I think it’s smart to get others on the team to push back with you, but I would approach them ahead of time. I agree with one of the commenters above that you don’t want to look like you’re arguing with Sam in front of the rest of the team. I suspect you are not the only one who is concerned that Sam is footing the bill for all these lunches (or would not be the only one if others think about it). Next time this comes up, having a few team members to lightheartedly explain that he has been very kind, they appreciate it, but as a group they feel this is taking advantage of his generosity and they would prefer to scale back, would work well. Again, if this is presented as light-hearted and matter of fact, while simultaneously thanking him, it should go over well. If he indeed likes to be liked, he will be encouraged to hear that the group understood he was coming from a place of kindness. He may be relieved that the spending spree coming to an end as well…he may be trapped in a pattern and welcome the exit.

  16. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    I feel like Sam feels guilty for not being able to improve your salaries etc despite advocating for it, and all these actions are a way of assuaging Sam’s own sense of guilt, maybe?

    Has Sam worked in a non profit before?

  17. Meredith*

    “That makes me suspect he probably has serious deficiencies in other areas of the job, too. If he values being nice above all else, he can’t effectively hold people to ambitious goals, develop people’s skills, or address performance problems. And if that’s the case, dealing with the excessive generosity will only tackle a tiny part of the problem.”

    This is my company’s management to a T. And it really will eventually drive away high performers. There are benefits to this job that will keep me here for a while, but when I do leave, it will 100% be because of these issues.

  18. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    I’ve worked at nonprofits, and this was pretty…normal…where I was. Be it hitting up dollar stores and job lots for cheap office or program supplies, or bosses paying out of pocket for staff appreciation meals or treats, or bosses being required to acknowledge staff birthdays and holidays with cards or gifts out of their own pocket, it was just how things rolled. It’s really not that weird.

    1. Jamie*

      I bought half and half for the office once and got reimbursed out of petty cash.

      I would not be beloved in a non-profit.

    2. VictorianCowgirl*

      I am a non-profit accountant and have never seen this in any of my clients, aside from basic cost savings when possible in efforts to steward the funds well. But then, my clients are solvent and don’t place the burden of the cost of doing business on their employees. They raise the funds needed to function and if they don’t, employees shouldn’t shoulder it. It’s not ok and it’s alarming to see so many who exchange fair salary for the mission.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, I wouldn’t say it’s normal at nonprofits except at very small and/or poorly managed organizations. I work with a ton of nonprofits and none of them operate like that! (I don’t like to see nonprofits get tarred with that brush when it’s really the exception not the rule.)

        1. Daisy*

          Don’t you live/work in Washington DC though? I wouldn’t have thought charities there would be very representative of the norm on a wider scale.

      2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        The places I saw this were regional associations of a federated national nonprofit that you all know and probably have been to.

        I will say, I typically worked at branches in low income neighborhoods. Our branches in the ritzy neighborhoods had all sorts of expensive fancy equipment and perks: we had to buy our own pens.

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        But as an outside accountant they’re hiring, how would you know what they’re doing that’s not hitting their ledgers? They don’t document when a manager springs for the pens or buys meals/treats or is required to buy a birthday cake for their staffers. They’re documenting only things that they do authorize, which may appear to be generous enough on the outside but without being there day to day and knowing it’s workings, you just don’t know how much is being supplemented.

    3. TechWorker*

      We have fortnightly team meetings in the pub after work and the manager (me) usually gets the first (which is the only for a lot of the group) round. I don’t really mind because a) most of my team earn a lot less so I’d be getting more rounds on average in our post work drinks etiquette anyway and b) it’s usually happy hour so it’s a cheap round haha. There’s definitely something in our managers guide along the lines of ‘it can be useful to have the odd meeting out of the office in a coffee shop or pub for a change of scenery. We pay you enough that we hope you can cover this’. My peer has a bigger team where they’re nearly all paid more than him (very experienced technical team) and he’s not so impressed at this tradition…

      A while back my manager organised a ‘team breakfast’ where we went out for breakfast/brunch during work time. Everyone was expected to pay their own way which made it the worst social ever imo – I would never choose to eat out for breakfast! So if I wanted to do that for my team I think I’d probably eat the bill.

  19. J.E.*

    To me it sounds like the manager is doing all this to keep people from leaving because of the low salaries. He knows the salaries are low, but if his hands are tied in getting raises for staff then, to him, this may feel like the next best thing in keeping them around. He probably thinks this could be a way to stem rapid turnover.

    1. Workfromhome*

      I was thinking the same thing. I’m not saying its right nor that the OP should not follow the advice and push back. But I can understand the thinking that the boss may be trying to buy and praise his way out of having to deal with the problems that come with massive turnover. He knows that nothing can be done about salary or poor supplies but figures “Hey if I give them something they might not leave because if people start leaving I’m going to be in a huge bind or look really bad.”.

  20. Federal Middle Manager*

    I’m on the opposite end of this problem. I’m a young manager in a sector where managers are expected to pitch in for perks (government work) because they are almost nonexistent. Managers are expected to chip in a cash sum for the holiday party, provide the occasional meeting treats (coffee/donuts), and contribute to random morale boosting events throughout the year. I’m by far the youngest manager (by 10 years) and have serious student loans (over $100K, thanks law school!) *and* I have the biggest team (17 people), which means that many more treats to cover all the people. I’d love to be more generous with my crew, but honestly even $20-50 here and there affects my personal budget.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This situation is why I internally clinch when we bring up how government workers don’t even have coffee provided. Thank goodness y’all have great benefits but the exhaustion I feel over the idea that even coffee is a luxury is just the tip of the iceberg.

      I’m sorry that you’ve found yourself in that situation and I hope that your team is reasonable and really not be put out that you don’t bring treats as often as other mangers do.

      1. Jamie*

        Coffee being considered a perk is a huge red flag. I interviewed for a place once who listed free coffee under their perks.

        They also said the job was minimal travel which ended up being one out of every 6 weeks in China and 4 days in Mexico twice a month. I’ve never been so happy not to get an offer.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            And you’re government, so even though I would go drop a truckload of coffee off at your office if I could…I can’t because you know, bribery and corruption fears. But really, I just want everyone in the world to have access to coffee, it’s basically a human right in my POV.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          I’m a monster who loves profit, I’ll laugh someone out of the GD room if they ever told me “coffee” was a perk.

          I had one place list the mandatory payroll taxes as “perks”. Also Workers Comp. Thank you, sweet demon, you’re paying Workers Comp! A required insurance in our state. Bless your hearts, I’ll fall over myself to work for you! [/sarcasm] You don’t need to try to pretend that explaining your overhead costs to me, is in turn a benefit to me. This double backfires since I’m always in the cash-controlling position. Don’t pee on me and say it’s rain.

          I’m cheap AF. Our coffee is Costco Brand. It shakes out to 30c a pod. When I break it down like that it reminds me of back in the 90’s when Worldcom or whatever it was called, with their swindler CEO guy, took out the coffee pots and demanded everyone use the pay-machines.

          Yuck. Thankfully I’ve seen a lot of vending machines being taken out over the years instead of being put in. Vending machines are for shopping malls and the waiting room, not your employees.

      2. wittyrepartee*

        I do get really cheap vegetables through our city farmshare as a perk. But yeah- we all bring in our own coffee and hot water heaters. The worst thing recently is that they’ve cut back on conferences and free dish soap. I’m not sure which of those is worse to be honest…

        1. nonymous*

          you guys still get free dish soap? we’ve been supplying our own for years. Micro and fridge too. I’m thinking we should be grateful for the running water and paper towels.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            DISH SOAP. I’m going to cry. I thought coffee was crazy enough…

            Do you have TP or do they make you bring in your own leaves?

            1. LJay*

              One of my employees worked at UPS as a second job and they were making them bring in their own toilet paper as a cost saving measure!

              I couldn’t believe it when I heard about it. Like I don’t know how you get much lower than that.

              Apparently people would just stop working and punch out and go home if they had to poop in the middle of the workday because it was so ridiculous.

  21. Esme*

    Maybe you can approach it from this angle, it puts pressure on other managers and future managers to do the same. And for him to keep up even if the department changes.
    What if other teams start resenting their managers for not buying them stuff? What if the department size doubles and he can’t continue? What if he got a promotion and tried to keep up the pace for his subordinates in all 3 departments he oversee? And then his successor started off on the wrong foot by not spending a percentage of his own income on team meals?
    These are the problems with one guy’s discretionary income trying to replace individual salaries for multiple people. It’s the company’s responsibility.

  22. MPA*

    Eeek, see myself in Sam, though I wasn’t a manager, I went above and beyond to try to create good experiences at work, overworked myself etc at our small company where we didn’t get paid much and had a lot of pressure on us to deliver a lot of stuff in a short amount of time, it was terribly managed in general, but I genuinely loved our team and so I would bring in snacks, organize stuff for the “national whatever days” (I was in social media), do contests, decorate for birthdays, and take on way more than I could handle workwise. When I did advance to a lead, though, I had no problem giving feedback on the work, haha. (Also, I am female if you can’t tell). I did spend a lot of my own money, but not always I would also ask for contributions. I remember at one point I was told I could ask for reimbursement for a birthday cake I bought, and so I did, and it turned into this whole thing about how “it was nice I cared about the employees but I needed to think about how much money it would be for the company to buy everyone a cake, so please think about the company more.”

    But basically you just can’t make up for ownership or leadership that is failing in these regards. All that happened for me was that I burned myself out and was more emotionally invested than anyone else and it wasn’t a good situation. While my heart is still sort of catching up to this truth, I know in my head that a company that is unwilling to pay their workers what they’re worth or abide by labor laws or deliver what they say they will deliver to clients whether or not the clients are checking to see if it’d done is not a good place to be or overly invested in their own success.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      “Think about how much it is to buy everyone a cake.”

      I’d laugh at anyone who wanted to play the “it costs money” game with me. What a load of nonsense. If there are a 100 employees, that’s 2500 a year. That’s a drop in the bucket for any company but a lot of money for an individual.

      If your company is in pains over a couple grand in “perks”, then they’re absolutely on the way to bankruptcy. I hate your former company, they’re full of nonsense.

      Businesses who spend their money wisely know that the happier your employees are, the better quality of work you’re getting. It’s not all just out of the kindness of transformed Scrooge’s heart. Companies benefit from employee morale stuff, that’s the point.

  23. VictorianCowgirl*

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if your non-profit is not solvent enough to pay its employees fair market wages, then it isn’t solvent. Those funds donated would be better spent funneled into a larger and more well-managed non-profit with the same mission.

    OP is your manager’s incompetence part of the reason support is too low to operate properly?

  24. ugh*

    Perhaps the reason salaries are low is because he is too busy being a nice guy to advocate for you. Managers like him seem to be a dime a dozen in the NP world. They hurt the agency but will work for peanuts.

    FWIW, I am a business owner and buy food for my staff multiple times a week.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      A lot of managers are stuck in a spot where they can try until they’re blue in the face to advocate for their employees but they’re ramming their head into a brick wall. You can only ask so many times, honestly.

      He’s not a good manager but in the end, he has to work with what he has. They’re not the one hurting the firm, it’s the people with the purse strings.

    2. LGC*

      Replying to you and VictorianCowgirl – or he could have very limited influence! By no means is Sam doing his job well, but I wouldn’t rush to pin the blame on him for LW’s salary situation wholesale. Which it seems like both of you did.

      (Like, I supervise my employees. I write performance reviews. I draw up disciplinary plans. I do not decide wages or promotions.)

  25. Academic Libarian Department Head.*

    Pushing back- did not read all the comments.
    “The bigger issue, though, is his unwillingness to give you any feedback or tolerate you critiquing your own work — and that’s a lot harder to tackle. You could try saying, “It’s really important to me to get better and better at what I do, and I can’t do that without looking rigorously at my mistakes and areas where I could improve. I’d like to get your feedback as a part of that. I can critique my own work, but you have a perspective as my manager that would be valuable for me to hear.”
    This is not the bigger issue. This IS the issue. Have that discussion. An ergonomic mouse etc. that is a discussion to have as it would be akin to your supervisor buying you a laptop for work.

    OP is uncomfortable with the supervisor providing stuff. They should let it go. I provide coffee, a quart of milk on Mondays, healthy snacks- guacamole cups, hummus cups, fresh fruit and vegetable from the farmers market, portioned nuts and cheese from Costco, power bars, tea, a microwave, the coffee maker, the sanitizing wipes, good pens, good pencils. Nice post-its. Lunch every two months so. Nothing extravagant. More like a pot-luck of things we like to eat. Once a year we go crazy have ice cream when the internships end. oh and of course Pi day.

    I work in a public university. We are not permitted to use public funds for any of those things. I cannot raise salaries.

    As a department director with tenure I earn a more than decent salary, have one dependent, and can choose how to spend my income. I was raised at times in a home with limited means, I certainly experienced deprivation during my college years, lived a certain significant number of years poorly paid in non-profits experiencing “food insecurity” and from paycheck to paycheck.

    My staff consists of unpaid interns working for credit, minimum wage part timers without health insurance who are not permitted to work more than 14 hours a week or student workers who it is documented sometimes eat only one meal a day, and volunteers. None of this is going to change in the foreseeable future. Nothing I do or say or advocate is going to change this situation.

    Our volunteers sometimes bake breads, cookies, and cakes to share. This morning there were zucchini bars. Last Thursday was apple cake.

    If OP approached me with their discomfort about the food, I would note that others seem to appreciate the availability of food.
    The only response from OP needs to be “thank you” or “no, thank you”

    1. Academic Libarian Department Head.*

      Started reading comments. Yes and dish soap. Stamps. Dri erase markers, white boards. I did put a couch from IKEA in my office and moved the YOBI to the assistant. oh and a toaster. because I like toast.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Thank you for this comment! It is a really good way of firmly explaining that this is a perk to others and it shouldn’t be jeopardized.

      I’m so glad you’re taking care of the student workers and interns. You said one is documented as only eating once a day but I can say from personal experience, a huge portion of college students live like that. It’s also hard for them to eat healthy, given their limited storage space and time to go shopping for groceries on their meager budgets. So the fact that you’re giving them the chance to get some fresh veggies and fruit is great.

      1. Academic Libarian Department Head.*

        Thank you. I have appreciated your comments on this thread. Yes, coffee. The truth is I have one cup of really, really good coffee at home before work but I can see how the “kids” really love the Keurig. There was the rending of garments when the last one broke. We have a pantry for anyone to take what they need but it is all non-perishable packaged stuff. We have a fridge and here is nothing more delightful than an abundance of farmers market apples and a block of cheddar.

  26. Anon for this*

    I would really disagree that you should ask him not to buy lunches or extra office supplies for the team anymore. Sure, you have the right to say that YOU don’t want to accept so much money and would prefer to pay for your own meal, but he has the right to decide how to spend his money otherwise, and others on your team have the right to accept and enjoy the free meals/other things. Who knows, for them it might be so enjoyable/helpful/generous/giving warm and fuzzy feelings/etc that it makes up for the loss in wages. I really don’t think you should try to take away everyone’s perk just because you don’t like it, or that you should decide how much of your boss’s money he should or should not spend on others. As others have said here, focus on the fact that you need honest feedback from him.

  27. Josie*

    Wow – I would LOVE to have this problem! Maybe this person inherited money or something and that is why his behavior has changed. I had a boss who used to take us all out to eat, (we are pretty low-paid in the industry I am in.) She had inherited money, plus she made a good salary, and she wanted to spread the wealth. Then she died suddenly. Enjoy it while you can.

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