update: my employee is overly budget-conscious and freaks out when we spend money

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee was overly budget-conscious and would freak out whenever the company spent any money? Here’s the update.

First of all – it was INCREDIBLY helpful for my nerves to read a bunch of comments basically validating that there was nothing more I could do to make him understand, and that I needed to just make him freakin QUIT IT instead of indulging every spiralling conversation. I’d moved onto that but it felt harsh, and it was really helpful to remind myself that no, not harsh, realistic and productive.

Two-fold update: the reason we hadn’t moved finance-related information away from his desk was that there was literally no one else to give it to – the other person whose role would have made sense to handle that was categorically incapable of handling it (along with a litany of other issues – at this point, she was on a PIP for other things), and so I moved ahead, terminated that person’s employment, hired someone who could actually do that WHOLE job, shifted the finance stuff onto their desk, and dealt with about 50% of the issue. … basically, all the commenters who were like ‘find another place to put this stuff because his desk ain’t the right place’ were correct. Thanks, y’all.

The other 50% has been more of a shift – he sees money being spent, starts worrying about it out loud, and I shut it down with something along the lines of ‘the decision has been made by the person responsible for it, and I don’t want to hear more about it. *ask a question about something I DO want to hear about, re-direction*’. It works remarkably well to either shut down the anxiety or move it to somewhere where I don’t hear (either way, as long as it isn’t in my office…) and at that point, I figure that his anxiety is his responsibility to handle. I’d like him to cut it out entirely, but I can live with a 10-second interjection every so often.

And, finally: this means he’s focusing his energy on the parts of his job that he’s excellent at, and I really do appreciate how those are being perfectly handled!

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Blarg*

    Serious question: does his own salary make him anxious? Presumably he’s making more than when he worked in the non-profit sector. He made a choice to move into the corporate world. Why? Maybe if he could reframe it … whatever motivations made him leave that realm and enter this one, personally, are the same factors that influence how the company spends money.

    (I say this as a person who has bounced between the for profit/NPO/gov world… no judgements in any direction).

    1. GIF-happy*

      Respectfully: anxiety is irrational and often deeply personal. OP made a really game effort to do something like this, and it’s an understandable impulse, but it is usually unsuccessful, especially when attempted by the average person. Best left to professionals to do this work, rather than speculate about really personal, often deeply emotional trains of thought in another person’s head. OP and Alison rightly focused on the behavioral side – shutting it down right away.

      1. Dragoning*


        There is no arguing with an anxiety spiral. There is no logic that will ever convince me not to be anxious. I have run actual therapists in circles when they tried to convince me something was silly and unnecessary to the point where they kind of just sat there and went “I can’t argue with that.”

        My boss’s only move against the anxiety is his power over my paycheck.

      2. TootsNYC*

        and in fact, shutting it down right away is often one of the most powerful treatment approaches for anxiety.

        When you reason with someone over a topic, the subtext is “you have a point.”

    2. Observer*

      You are responding as though the issue were rational to some extent. But it’s not, and so reframing is not likely to work. Only if / when the worrier is ready to do that, is there any chance it would work,

      1. Antilles*

        Especially since OP actually *tried* the rational, hey-look-at-the-numbers approach:
        “I’ve explained sticker price vs time costs (multiple times, in multiple ways with multiple examples), and yet any amount of money over about $50 basically sends him into an anxiety spiral where nothing I say makes an impact. (…) it’s been explained from every angle and isn’t making a difference (…) need him to be capable of watching the company spend money on (for example) office supplies, IT infrastructure, furniture, advertising, etc. without getting somewhat panicked and suggesting high-effort, high-salary-cost ways of saving minor amounts of money
        I don’t know if it’s a formal diagnosis, I don’t know what the DSM would say about this, maybe it’s something that he can use self-talk to get through…but for OP, it’s not feasible to have a long discussion every time the company buys new chairs or upgrades the computers or whatever.

    3. Blarg*

      We aren’t supposed to diagnose people and so I haven’t. People use terms like anxious, depressed, obsessed, panicked, etc without meeting DSM criteria.

      From the letters I don’t feel I have enough info to say “this person is clinically anxious and there isn’t shit OP can do about it.” But the mental gymnastics of going from “reuse these old, torn file folders” to “we will just get you this nice new desk chair” do sound familiar to my own experience.

      1. Observer*

        This is not about diagnosing anyone. It’s about a clear pattern of behavior- it’s not rational, it has not responded to any attempts to respond in a rational manner, and there is no reason to believe that this will spontaneously change.

        It doesn’t matter whether this person is clinically diagnosed with anything. And this is NOT a pattern typical of going from a penny pinching environment to one where spending money is considered reasonable.

        It’s only going to change when the employee starts chancing their behavior.

      2. Marthooh*

        It’s a self-diagnosis, according to the original post: “He also talks about having anxiety but refuses to seek treatment.” Whether the diagnosis is medically correct or not isn’t the point; the point is that the OP has already tried reasoning with this employee, and it doesn’t work.

    4. AngelaS*

      The person OP described is like my dad (who worked for medium-sized private-held companies for most of his working life). He would tell us not to visit the dentist or to see a doctor unless it’s necessary. He said that once we would use our health insurance, the premium for his employer to pay would go up, and then he wouldn’t get as much a pay increase the following year as *we* would have wanted. There are other things about how he wouldn’t spend money on certain things when he was on a business trip for the sake of saving his employer’s money. While I agree that my dad didn’t make too much money, our family was doing alright. Mom didn’t listen to him and would still take me and my siblings to the dentist.

      For my dad, I believe he had a bad experience during the early part of his career. Mom had told me that when they first met, my dad’s supervisor was a cheapskate thrifty person, and perhaps dad had developed his habit there and he wouldn’t change even after he had moved on to other jobs. Very irrational, but there’s nothing that we can do about it if my dad refuses to see the other side.

  2. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

    Thanks for the update OP! You summarize your work succinctly, but it must have been a difficult time during the firing and rehiring stage. I’m glad it worked out in the end!

  3. GIF-happy*

    This is such a great update! I struggle with anxiety, and learning how to recognize when I’m spiraling is HARD. Your employee is lucky to have someone who took the time to investigate how to handle his condition properly. Now you have a good employee able to get out of his own way and thrive, you have a new employee doing a better job than their predecessor. I hope your former employee can find a job better suited to their talents.

  4. QCI*

    Him and the lady that was cutting out her own 401k and medical benefits to save the company money would have been best of friends.

        1. Kate*

          I am still so bewildered she still firmly considers her actions logical. One of the most frustrating updates I’ve read. Glad this one worked out better

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        You know when I was reading the original letter I almost wondered if spiraling employee was previously under a Guacamole Bob. I could so see his treatment of audits causing this sort of anxiety around spending money in a next job.

      2. Platypus Enthusiast*

        To everyone who’s mentioned Guacamole Bob- I thank you, from the bottom of my Chipotle bowl, for clueing me in to that saga. How absolutely wild.

      1. Dragoning*

        She just updated! You can find the update and the linked original under the title “my coworkers won’t cut expenses”

          1. gsa*

            Yup. Do a google search. A site search, via Google Custom bring up the page, but not THE exact page.

            I do not know how many CFO, MBA, CPA, Controllers that their teammates frequent AAM…

            I do know that working for free, and not utilizing the benefits that the company offers, does not produce good data that the people hired to look at the data need!

            Relevancy, if that’s a word, I work directly as a purchasing manager for four years. I’ve been in my industry for over 25 and understand how important it is to know where money is being spent.

            Some people set budgets, and some other people are approved to spend those budgets. But knowing the exact details allows someone to review and adjust/not adjust a budget as needed.

            I’ve set budgets and spent budgets. And received many calls when budgets did not match spending.

            If that came off as a rant, rant/off.

            Regardless, we are all in business to make money.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          An accountant who complained about an LW’s expense request that included a charge for guac. LW mentioned it to someone higher up, Bob got removed from expense report reviews.

        2. Not a Blossom*

          Links go into moderation, but if you Google “Ask a Manager Guacamole Bob,” you’ll get to the article. It’s madness.

          1. Mongrel*

            It can’t just be me that finds some stories a guilty pleasure that I re-read them every time that they’re linked?

          2. Elizabeth Proctor*

            Make sure you search OP in the comments of the original to find more info from OP. Including the reason behind “Guacamole” Bob.

  5. BRR*

    I have a special appreciation for updates where a manager does some excellent managing and the situation gets fixed.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Agreed, and I also have appreciation for managers whose supervisors trust them enough to let them handle the employees in their unit – and to know when to just know that it’s time to cut your losses and get a new person in the role. That to me is the hallmark of a functional work environment.

  6. Working Hypothesis*

    Please, let this freaking-out employee never end up working at the same place as the LW who was turning down health insurance and refusing to submit their expenses in order to cut costs for the company. They could bankrupt the place between them, by trying to save it money.

  7. Lily in NYC*

    Ugh, I missed the original post but it sounds so frustrating. I have a coworker like this (but not nearly as bad) and whenever he starts up, I just say “Why are you so worried about this? It’s an approved expense and it’s not like it’s coming directly out of your paycheck.” I finally realized he’s just an anxious dude in general and has similar reactions to other aspects of his role as well.

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