updates: the boss’s spying friend, the strangely encouraging employee, and more

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. Here are four updates from past letter-writers.

1. Asking about raises when you’re being hired (#4 at the link)

I wrote to you about 2.5 years ago asking for advice on how to find out how companies do raises. A few months later, I accepted a job in a totally different sector and got a 50% raise. When I was asked for my salary requirements, I used your language (Can you tell me a little more about how raises are calculated and if there are cost of living increases?). The hiring manager was kind of like…”Of course? They aren’t huge but everyone gets a raise every year and they are on a scale based on performance.” I was glad I asked though, and did negotiate a slightly higher salary than their base salary.

I’ve since taken on more responsibility and my supervisor is working on a “Career Advancement” for me, which is a title change and larger raise than the typical annual ones. The hiring manager actually mentioned that possibility in response to my question back then! The compensation is great at this job – not only salary but health insurance and retirement match are unparalleled in the area, and their response to Covid has been really great too.

2. My employee is strangely encouraging toward me

I took your and the commentators’ advice and have been letting it go, without really reacting to the more effusive moments. Having the sense check from you all helped me feel more comfortable with that as an approach, so thank you. There’s been a bit less explaining the basics to me as we get to know each other, but the strangely encouraging approach remains.

It was hard to convey the whole impression in a few words, and to the commentators who worried they were using similar ‘praise’ wording: I wouldn’t react badly to any of your examples, a quick ‘good catch’ would be absolutely fine, it was the whole tone+frequency+excessive praise for something really simple that I was finding disconcerting. And personally I’d much prefer you to tell me directly if you think I’m wrong about a criticism rather than spending 5 minutes telling me the whole story of everything you have done, but interesting to hear that that’s how some people like to process things.

3. My boss sent a friend to spy on me at my house

My update is that I did nothing about it. Our HR manager is no help whatsoever and the new thing at our company is that if you try to address any issues, they lay you off. We have lost several employees due to this recently. They say it is due to COVID but then they replace that person in less than two months. Thanks for your advice though!

4. My office says “I appreciate you” instead of “thank you” (#2 at the link)

I guess I have to start with the obligatory thank you answering my question, and that I, ironically, but genuinely, appreciate it.

You are right that the “I appreciate you” was not the problem. I should probably start with a little more detail on the promotion attempt that I mentioned in my original email which may give more insight to the frustration. There were four internal candidates for the job and the manager picked one who was at a lower level than me, but is already on the team, and then back-filled that person’s job with another candidate. The reason that I understand, and probably would have made a similar call, is because there was a good possibility that if I was the one selected, all of the other three would have left the company realizing that there would not be much more opportunity. In this case, so far, only one of them has left.

I spoke with my manager about the lack of promotion opportunity and the feedback that I am getting, as you suggested. Her response was that our team is made of very specialized subject matter experts. She all but acknowledged that even within my own department, I will always be at a disadvantage to someone whose job was already dealing directly with the subject matter of the position for which I apply or someone outside of the company who has already done it. She said that we will need to investigate growth within my own job. I have a problem with that because there is no level between my position and my manager’s. Because my team is made of several subject matter experts, the manager role has always been filled by someone outside of the company who has already been a manager because it’s impossible to find someone with exposure to all of the roles.

Right around the same time, my company updated salary grades and my new one put me above the midpoint of my position’s pay range. When that happens, it lowers the potential pay increases that someone can get with their annual merit increases and you only get a one-time bonus payment if you reach the top of the range. I read this as “now you have to work twice as hard for half the pay increases, and eventually none.” Complaining about this change finally got my manager to admit that I am already doing higher level work than that for which I was hired. She rewrote my job description so that the position was regraded and also gave me a 5% pay increase.

Unfortunately, I’m still not happy. I see this as an acknowledgement that I have been being exploited and that they will just continue to exploit me as long as they can without any meaningful reward. The pay increase makes having to wait out the economy a little easier, but I still have the same job title which is not marketable within the company or outside of the company. The only way to grow into a different job is probably to demote. There is no way that I will do that internally since that really means I will be doing the new job, plus most of my current one, for less money. When I can, I am probably going to leave, even for a lower paying job.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. EPLawyer*

    #1 — besides learning how the raises worked, you learned HOW they approach the question of raises. The hiring managers matter of fact responses says VOLUMES about the company. If they had hemmed and hawed and avoided the question that would have told you somethign too. By being matter of fact, you got information for YOUR evaluation of the job.

    #3 Your company is weird. If they hire people during COVID that should tell you that you can get hired during COVID. Polish up the resume and get out.

  2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #3 – I’ve had employers in the past who got too “invasive”. Best thing to do is steer clear of them, or trip them up.

    The thing about a bad boss who follows you around like that – either directly, or by snitch/proxy — don’t let them in, don’t deal with it. They then learn the boundaries quickly.

    Al Davis (Oakland Raiders) once said “You don’t have to take (the players) home with you at night.” The same holds true with your managers. You only take them home with you at night if you let them in. DON’T.

    1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

      The boss sent a friend to spy on the OP at her house, so I’m not sure how helpful your advice is. It isn’t a matter of figurative boundaries but literal ones. OP has other issues to contend with now, but for anyone else dealing with such a thing, this advice would also not prove very useful.

    2. TooCold*

      She is not taking them home, they are COMING to her home. Hard to ignore that.

      Also, in my neighborhood full of curtain twitchers, the cops would have been called pdq with reports of a peeper.

  3. boop the first*

    4. Yeah, for me, anyway, negative connotations in the workplace have a way of stacking forever, so even if there are small improvements down the line, the mountain of Past Faults is always casting a shadow and it’s like BEC mode for the building itself. What sucks about being suddenly highly tuned into the capitalist exploitation of workers is that no matter where you end up going, you’re going to notice that every single job exists to exploit you.

    1. Dara*

      I gotta say, as someone who used to be highly tuned into Marxist thought, that type of thinking can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know exploitation can happen, so you see it all around you/happening to you. For me personally, it’s not a very productive line of thinking because it just leaves me feeling resentful. Of course, everyone’s experience is different, but for me, it’s more useful to think of employment as a two-way business relationship, rather than an us-versus-them relationship.

  4. Harvey 6'3.5"*

    #4 – Do you want to be a manager or just make more money? If you want to move to manager, perhaps you might consider a discussion with your manager’s boss as to what sorts of education/experience could help. Maybe they could give you assignments or roles that could lead to a promotion? If more money is the goal, you may have to change jobs. I am in a similar financial situation, but because it is Federal, I could only make more money by leaving, as even my managers, their managers, and their managers make the exact same as I do .

    Nitpick: “insight” probably not “incite”.

    1. Twenty Points for the Copier*

      I think this is a really good point. It sounds like the manager went to bat to get the job regraded and allow the LW both a raise now and more potential for raises in the future.

      It just sounds like at this company, the area that the LW is in doesn’t have much opportunity for advancement. This is very common in a lot of places and while it can be frustrating, nothing here sounds exploitative (unless a 5% raise still puts you way below market rate). Maybe a little bit afraid of the inconvenience of people leaving, but a lot of places are like this without exploiting their workers.

      I think a measured evaluation of where you want to be and what your goals are now and in the future is the next step here. Sometimes there is no step up in a department or a company – if moving up is your goal, then I think you should start looking around rather than aiming to take a demotion at your current company to get into a group with more internal promotions. That doesn’t mean quit your job now, it’s terrible. It means slowly taking a look around and remembering that in any interview, you’re evaluating them as much as they’re evaluating you. There are much worse positions to be in than continuing to work a decent but dead-end job while being picky about finding your next step up elsewhere.

      1. Momma Bear*

        Agreed. Sometimes the role you hope to get is actually within reach if you market yourself right, even with a strange job description or job title. I would encourage LW to look at their skills vs focusing on the title. Many small companies have no room up unless you move out, so this would not be an uncommon situation were LW to opt for an outside job search.

  5. Lantern*

    #4 – Your post is difficult to read. “I spoke with my manager about the lack of promotion opportunity the feedback that I am getting as you suggested.” What? Perhaps this is part of your problem.

    1. Le Sigh*

      Did you edit this sentence? Because the sentence is, “I spoke with my manager about the lack of promotion opportunity and the feedback that I am getting, as you suggested.” The LW has an “and” and a comma in key places, which makes the sentence perfectly understandable.

      And frankly, even if they didn’t, this is really rude.

  6. Enough*

    #3 As bad as the original post was the update is worse. My first thought is I hope you are looking for a new job.

      1. Hrodvitnir*

        Yes. And sometimes there’s no real answer other than job searching, adding more stress, and hopefully eventually escaping.

  7. Evil PMP*

    #4 I feel you so much here. Got the certifications and made the improvements to get the promotion, only to be told essentially the same thing plus they could only budget for one promotion within my department and a guy who left for 3 months and came back negotiated getting that as part of his package to return. Then covid hit…I Ended up leaving my company for a tiny raise (I’m still worth more due to my cert and I knew it but get desperate) but the I got the title change I was wanting. Then my new employer changed my title, still manager but not the same realm. 6 months in I have days I regret it and days that I feel worthwhile…only point being, make sure when the time comes to move on you get everything you are wanting (raise, title, path to move up) otherwise you will jump from feeling undervalued and stuck to still undervalued and stuck with no longevity and will never feel truly satisfied!

  8. MK*

    #4, OP, honestly I think you need to leave, not necessarily because the company is that bad, but because your relationship seems to have soured beyond repair for you. Unless they are grossly underpaying you, which they might of course, they don’t sound exploitative, just a job that has no promotion opportunities. Some jobs just don’t, and people either make their peace with that or leave. I reread your original letter and it seems the company was pretty upfront that promotion was unlikely and they had told you so.

  9. littledoctor*

    Hey OP#2, is your employee Asian or Eastern European, by chance? In some Asian and Eastern European cultures effusively praising your superiors is seen as respectful and polite. I’ve lived in the west since I’ve was fourteen, but it’s still a habit I can’t shake—it feels instinctively rude not to respond to feedback with strong praise.

    1. JustKnope*

      It’s so interesting how our cultural roots shape us and how deeply those instincts run! Thanks for sharing that insight, I hadn’t heard this cultural idea before.

  10. triplehiccup*

    #4 perhaps you’ll be less frustrated if you start a low-key job search now? The earlier you start, the wider the net you can cast. You might be pleasantly surprised by opportunities that hadn’t occurred to you without looking. I also wouldn’t be too certain that your job title will doom you. I think what I’m trying to get at is, try not to let your totally understandable frustration with your current employer spill into your job search. It can be tough – I was totally burned out by my previous job at the time when I started my last hunt – but I think I could’ve sabotaged myself if I had let my bitterness narrow my thinking and color my attitude on interviews etc. Fake it till you make it if you have to!

    1. LindaPiernas*

      I was once told you can give yourself any title on your resume, so use one that’s appropriate, but on the application use the official one since that’s what gets checked.

  11. Mr. Jingles*

    #2 I’ve worked with a self-help-group for people who cannot deal with criticism. Most of that where men but some woman here and there where among them. Those where victims of horrible parents who taught their poor children that mistakes where the worst thing that could ever happen, often punished excessively for the slightest missteps resulting in adults no one could endure.
    Seeing criticism as something even remotely positive was impossible for those people. They‘d deflect, gaslight, argue and excuse themselves, sometimes even fell back to lies and sabotage to avoid ‚blame‘.
    Praising the one criticising them was one of the techniques taught to them. It is supposed to help them shift their point of view away from their worst horror: acknowledging a mistake, to the positive: someone cares enough to help me avoiding worse mistakes.
    This behaviour isn’t optimal and one could argue it might be better to teach them taking criticism in stride. But I’m talking about people who are so traumatised from negative consequences after stuff like:forgetting to close the lid on the Q-tips that they’d rather gnaw their lips off than do that. They need the shift and honestly, it’s better than what they did before and eases the way to improve themselves.
    If any of you ever meets someone behaving like this it might be someone who tries really hard to deal with criticism in a positive way who might have no other way to do so than showing their appreciation first. Not saying it’s that way every time but it could be.

    1. LogicalOne*

      Your response really spoke to me. I am glad to see your conscientious response to this story. I am not going to go into details but I can relate to what you mentioned about having horrible parents and being the victim of horrible parents, the result is now diverting attention from mistakes to something more elated and seeing the positive in any horrible situation. It really makes me happy to see people like you that take a step back and think why people act the way they do and that sometimes people don’t do bad things intentionally. Sometimes it stems from past experiences and childhood traumas. You’re the sort of people we need in this world. Have a wonderful day. :))

  12. Hufflepuff hobbit*

    #4 – I have a similar experience to yours from the supervisor perspective, I think

    I’m sure I’m not in your industry, however, one of my reports (and a large gob of our work unit who report to others at my level) are in a job type that has an essentially flat career path (subject expert types, actually). There just isn’t anywhere to advance to in their job class and our employer is rigid/stingy about raises. The only two supervisor roles she would qualify for are full. She is senior to both of the people in the two supervisor roles. I MURDERED myself to get her a raise three years ago. I’ve been very frank with her that there is no way to “move up” — fortunately, she understands this, because it’s just the reality of the job.

    It sounds to me like your supervisor is actually working pretty hard to retain you in the context of the limitations of your job and where you work — not sure what else they could do to make you happy/retain you?

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