update: my coworker is too personally invested in her job

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 coworker was overly invested in her job and felt guilty being away from work? Here’s the update.

I emailed in the spring about my coworker who was putting pressure on herself to perform way outside of her job duties, including coming in to work when she was injured, monitoring her email on sick days, etc.

To the shock of no one, Hilaria quit a few months later, saying that the job created too much stress in her life and that she needed to find work that wasn’t as close to her personally (we worked in a niche branch of social services that mostly hires people with lived experience). Predictably, her clients were rankled at the disparity in service they received when transferred to colleagues who were working within their job description, but with some patience and explanation, everything sorted itself out.

The twist of the situation is that I also left shortly after her – I found out that a supervisor from another team in our organization had designed a new job description with me in mind. It would have been much closer to my background, skillset and professional goals, and also would have involved a substantial jump in pay. Apparently, my own supervisor had repeatedly blocked the idea of me transferring because they wouldn’t be able to “afford” to lose me from the team.

Turns out I was being paid significantly less than some of my colleagues (almost half in some cases) while performing the same job duties. The next-lowest paid person in the organization was apparently still making almost $10/hour more than me, and the proposed new job would have brought me up to that level. So I was being blocked from making what was considered the minimum for everyone else but me.

At the time I was hired, I was in recovery from substance use and a period of very poor mental health – I felt grateful to have been given a chance at all after a few years of spotty work history. I didn’t look into rates of pay and wouldn’t have felt like I was in a position to negotiate. Coming from a history of mostly non-profit/community based work, the (relatively low) hourly rate didn’t feel like much of a flag at the time.

The posting for my replacement was advertised at a pay range $10-15/hour more than I was making. No wonder they couldn’t “afford” to lose me – I was doing the same work as everyone else for pennies. Goes to show the dangers of working for organizations that emphasize the idea of being a “family.” The organization wasn’t actually a non-profit, but functioned with similar values, communication styles and structures – job seekers beware!

Anyways, now I’m working for a new organization and making the same as my old supervisor was – apparently my paygrade wasn’t based on lack of experience or expertise. I used a lot of interview and cover letter tips from this blog, actually!

See ya later, old organization. Hopefully I can meet up with Hilaria for drinks some day and laugh about what a disaster they were.

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. Bookworm*

    Dang, that was a bit of a twist. I’m sorry that happened to you, OP, but sounds like you’re better off and hopefully Hilaria is too. Thanks for the update!

  2. EPLawyer*

    Oh my.

    Well good that Hilaria realized that she was too involved in her work.

    Doubly good you getting out when you realized how badly you were treated.

    Just like the update this morning. Do bosses really think that blocking advancement is going to make people STAY? Like they will go oh well can’t advance, can’t get a decent salary might as stick it out?

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      One of my favorite controlled-rage-quit stories was someone who learned her boss had blocked her internal transfer/promotion because she was just to valuable to ever, ever allow her to leave his team. She quietly wrapped things up and presented herself to HR at 4 to quit with 1 hour notice.

      1. allathian*

        Sounds cool put like that, but I wonder if she’ll get a decent reference from them in future? In some cases, it would be reasonable to say “I quit with no notice when I learned that my manager had blocked my promotion to keep me on his team,” but not necessarily in every case.

    2. Lucious*

      >> Do bosses really think that blocking advancement is going to make people STAY?

      The kind of boss who’d resort to blocking someone’s career for their own interests typically has problems with long term planning. They see Key Member X intends to leave, and THaT CanT HaPPen OMG the QuarTerLy StATs.

      I saw this dynamic years ago when my previous (and substandard) boss misrepresented my performance to my current (and superior) boss in an effort to scuttle my promotion. The attempt blew up when Substandard Boss tried to convince Superior Boss I was too critical to her team to move.
      The logical contradiction of me being too “poorly performing” to transfer but too “critical” after it was approved naturally undermined her credibility like a New Orleans levee in a hurricanes

      1. HolidayAmoeba*

        In a long past job, I was interested in advancement and I made it known. I went out of my way to learn how to do my job as well as a couple others jobs. Everytime a promotion opened up, there was always a reason I wasn’t considered ready for it, but then I would be asked to train the new manager on some task they weren’t familiar with or assist them in their duties so they had more time to do other important manager stuff. Ironically, when I left, they had to have 4 people do the work I was doing alone. As a fun aside, a guy who had worked there less time than I did got promoted, despite just not showing up to work for 3 weeks a few months prior and having a major anger problem that showed itself at work a couple times. But yea, he was a much better choice for leadership because why not.

        1. It's Growing!*

          Boss’ nephew’s best pal? He went to Beloved Alma Mater and you didn’t? He’s way cute? You’re the wrong gender? You came from the wrong part of the country and talk funny? I’m going for wrong gender plus perceived personal connection.

            1. It's Growing!*

              Absolutely a possibility. Dog forfend that one could be both low albedo and the wrong religion (or none).

    3. mlem*

      It used to work! Especially on people who had gone through the recession of the late ‘aughts. Workers have been conditioned for a long time to believe that the apparent stability they have is the best they can get.

      Plenty of bosses haven’t yet woken up to their loss of power.

      1. Jax*

        Yep! So many people stay when they should leave, and in my experience all of the reasons boil down to a belief of “this is the best that I can get.” Reasons can include:

        – Sunk Cost Fallacy (Invested years, PTO accrual rates)
        – Management Promises and/or Cheap Flattery (“You’re part of our 5 year plan! Just hang in there with us! We don’t have a promotion now, but it’s coming!”)
        – Garbage Job and/or Job Search PTSD (Dealing with a bad job for so long that you start to believe that you don’t have anything to offer, you’re a screw up, you won’t find anything better, it’s going to be a pain to switch over health insurance/401K/W2’s, etc.)

        My advice to everyone reading: Don’t let anyone steal your power. You are absolutely worth fair market value and a safe and enjoyable work environment–go get it!

        1. münchner kindl*

          Another reason: Habit.

          Humans can get used to anything, which is big advantage and disadvantage.

          If the regular job is stressful (especially overworked and underpaid, so financial stress) people often don’t stop to do regular reflections for themselves – a yearly review not with a manager, but for your own life: where am I, what do I want, and especially: what options do I have?

          That’s why Alison so often recommends job searching just to know how the market is: if you have searched and found there’s no other good option, you activly decide to stay, instead of passivly letting yourself be pushed around by life happening.

          That’s important, too, to have agency by making a decision.

          1. Laney Boggs*

            Goodness, this. I’ve been at my job for 2.5 years, and searching for 2 of those years now. (I knew before my first week ended that I couldn’t do this forever).

            Sometimes it’s just so easy to do the work for 8 hours, come home, vegg out, and do it all over again hating every second.

          2. allathian*

            Yes, this. I guess I’m lucky in that I’ve never had the misfortune to work for a really toxic employer or been in an abusive relationship, because I’m definitely a “better the devil you know than the one you don’t” person. I’ve always been like this, but it seems like the older I get, the more risk averse I get.

            Last year I interviewed for one job in my field, just to get a bit of experience interviewing. I was also lucky enough to be able to use my then-manager as a reference. I work for the government, and switching to another agency is basically considered like switching from one company to another in a bigger corporation, and managers are expected to encourage their employees’ career development. I got shortlisted, but ultimately they selected another candidate, and I’m actually quite happy they did that, because I was and am allowed to 100% WFH in my current job, whereas the new hire would’ve been expected to work at the office during their probation (unless the strong WFH recommendation became a mandate). I’m almost certain I would’ve turned down the opportunity if it had been offered.

        2. Mimi*

          I definitely stayed in my prior job too long partly due to PTO sunk cost fallacy. (Also because there were a few projects on the horizon that I was interested in, and they were good projects and I’m proud of them.) Turns out, during the time I’d been at that job, pretty much everyone else had caught up in terms of PTO and most of the postings I was looking at already offered four weeks of PTO to start.

    4. pope suburban*

      Often, these people are just so caught up in *their* wants and what *they* feel they/the organization needs, that they simply don’t think of anything or anyone else beyond that. That’s certainly the case for management where I work- they like certain people in their roles, and don’t care that they’ve proven themselves or that they would excel in other roles. It’s starting to cost us a lot of good people now, but they appear to be continuing to keep the blinders on, so I don’t think it’s going to change- or end well. I’m one of the people looking to leave over it; I know all of us who are pigeonholed this way have done better work and have earned a chance at advancement, and I don’t intend to wait around for a Christmas miracle of insight to come to these people.

    5. Observer*

      Do bosses really think that blocking advancement is going to make people STAY? Like they will go oh well can’t advance, can’t get a decent salary might as stick it out?

      In this case, the answer is almost certainly YES. Given the OP’s background and work history, the supervisor probably assumed the OP would never think to question, and even if they did “who would take them?” Well, you know what they say about “assume”. On the other hand, the supervisor ALMOST got away with it. The OP apparently did not question too much till they found out what was going on.

    6. Judy Johnsen*

      Can you still report your discrepancy in pay to the EEOC? It seems illegal to be paid less for the same work.

      1. Candi*

        EEOC would be if the discrepancy was due to protected class. Other pay matters are handled by the Department of Labor, but if the company is following the letter of the law, there’s not much they can do.

      2. Observer*

        Not at all. Unless the discrepancy is based on a protected category. But if it’s just jerkitude, that’s legal. Bad behavior, but completely legal.

    7. middle name danger*

      “Do bosses really think that blocking advancement is going to make people STAY?”

      They really do. I’m dealing with it right now. I’ve been blocked from transferring to a position in another department with a higher pay rate, and had several raises/promotions where I am now dangled in front of me with no follow through. The excuse for blocking me is usually that I’m too valuable where I am now and they can’t lose me right now because of xyz happening…if I’m “too valuable” pay me more?

      Yes, I’m actively applying elsewhere.

  3. Thin Mints didn't make me thin*

    It happens way too often that organizations helping vulnerable people often end up being abusive to their staff.

    1. Lab Boss*

      This is just speculation but I wonder if it starts out with a well-intentioned commitment to “the mission.” Helping vulnerable people is so important and the staff is so dedicated, that everyone is willing to let a few things slide- working for less than they could make elsewhere, then doing harder and harder jobs without a raise, and all the while working an hour here and an hour there off the clock, all in service of helping the needy. Over time it gets easier and easier to assume you can rely on everyone making those sacrifices and they go from “sacrifices” to “what we demand everybody puts up with at all times.”

      1. LW*

        Absolutely – there was also constant chatter about us being a family, and our organization being “underfunded”, so we all needed to tighten our belts and pull up our boots to pitch in. Intentionally or no, this kind of messaging definitely led to me thinking that there was no way that there was such a huge disparity in pay between my colleagues and I. I thought a few dollars per hour more at most

        1. Bryce*

          This is why cultivating an atmosphere where people can talk about pay is important, and why some companies try to keep that from happening.

          1. LW*

            I was very friendly with someone who worked with/under Other Supervisor who told me that she felt too guilty knowing about the new proposed position and that no one had told me – after about 2.5 years of Other Supervisor advocating for me.

            After she told me that, she provided me with info about the salary grids for our organization and the flood gates opened

        2. GreyjoyGardens*

          The organization being “a family” – danger, Will Robinson! That’s a red flag with a Jolly Roger on it. Whenever a company or team says “we’re just like family here” or similar, it is indicative of HUGE dysfunction.

      2. Sara without an H*

        After 10+ years at a “mission-driven” institution, your reading sounds disturbingly plausible.

      3. Boof*

        I think it can happen either way – there are definite orgs that seem to purposefully hire vulnerable people because they know they aren’t going to do things right (ie, those that only hire recent grads because surprise, experienced people won’t put up with the BS and rather than change they just figure let’s prey on people who don’t know better) etc

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          It’s abuse, writ large – the organization seeks out vulnerable employees as an abuser might seek out the most vulnerable victim. “Lucinda doesn’t have many other options, after all, look at her background/ work history/ disability, we can be her option of last resort, pay her little and treat her shabbily and get away with it because if it wasn’t for us, she’d be living in a box under a bridge!”

        2. Candi*

          Like the letter writer who had a boss who put tape over their mouths in meetings, and in the update, refused the LW’s resignation. (Storm in the comments over that.)

          From what that LW said, that boss only hired young people new to the work world -which the commentariat promptly identified as very problematic, and likely seeking those she could victimize.

    2. Hugely Anonymous*

      Changing my name for this one…

      My spouse was in a similar situation working for a nonprofit that was primarily geared toward helping a certain vulnerable disabled population. While there, my spouse developed a debilitating migraine problem, ended up on short-term disability, and started the process to get accommodations. These accommodations, despite being identical to options that able-bodied employees of a different title had and would in no way have impacted my spouse’s job functions, were repeatedly denied. All I will say is that this did not end well for them.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        Oh, that is richly ironic that an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities…wouldn’t give accommodation to an employee with disabilities. I’m glad it did not end well for them. I hope your spouse is doing better these days!

  4. OrigCassandra*

    I’m very glad you found someplace that values you, OP. I hope you and Hilaria can have that in-person catchup safely soon.

  5. WellRed*

    How on earth does such a large pay disparity…work? I’m not naive but genuinely surprised I’m this case. I get it in large corporations but for sone reason, this…

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      OP came in at a ridiculously low salary for the same reason Hilaria was allowed to work herself into exhaustion. The manager is a skilled predator who targets and selects people of a certain mindset, people who feel “lucky to have a job.”
      Both OP and Hilaria made choices in life that were unfortunate, which they feel guilt/remorse over, feel deserving of less, feel a need to do more. Manager is happy to let them slave away, chained to their pasts, no reward for present accomplishments. When these folks have the nerve to need help (Hilaria), they are told “it’s ok” but also allowed to keep working. When other people in the company see these people got who they are now and want to support and nurture that, manager tightens the reins.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        This, 100%. Hilaria’s overcommitment (and her manager’s acceptance of it) and OP’s low salary weren’t bugs in the system. They were core features.

        1. LW*

          I think there’s definitely some truth to all of this – I was told at the time I was hired that the union set the salary grids and, since I didn’t have a degree, there was “nothing they could do” to move me up to a higher wage. Apparently Other Supervisor must have been a genius because the position they designed for me was not in the union (and there were a number of other members of the org that were non-union) and so the wage wasn’t subject to union salary grids

          Suddenly “couldn’t” started to look a lot more like “didn’t want to”

          Funnily enough, when I announced my departure, My Supervisor and Executive Director scrambled to come up with a different non-union job to tempt me to stay – which paid LESS than the position Other Supervisor had created for me. Total slap in the face. See ya!

        2. LW*

          They were definitely relying on what was admittedly a lot of timidity and naivety on my part to prevent me from looking into it or pushing back as well

          1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

            I’m sorry that this happened to you. It’s a shame that an organization dedicated to helping others has managers who don’t see a need to help their own employees. Not all people “doing good” are actually good people.

            1. Anonymous4*

              A relative who worked at the EEOC had a coworker who was a raging misogynist and who would come into work and boast about having told his wife off for having the temerity to think that she should get a promotion at work — or for asking him to “help” around the house.

              1. Judy Johnsen*

                If this ever happens again in the future, contact the union, even though you are not a member, explain whats happening, see if they can advise or help you to get a union job.

                1. Observer*

                  What can the Union do?

                  It’s not illegal to be a misogynist. It’s only illegal to act on it in a work context. The fact that this person is such a jerk that he’d rather hurt his family that see his wife be successful is not something that the Union nor the employer can do anything about. Now if he were telling coworkers that they should presume that they deserve a raise or promotion because they are female, or they refused to help someone who called for that reason, that would be a different issue. But as long as he’s doing his job and not harassing anyone, he can be as big a piece of trash as he wants.

              2. GreyjoyGardens*

                Ugh. I’d like to see this “help” around the house mentality go the way of men “babysitting” their own children. It’s your house, you live there, you pitch in because you live there, not as a great big enormous favor to your spouse.

                But there are a LOT of very dysfunctional people in “helping” professions and nonprofits. I know someone who is dysfunctional to the point of “back away slowly” and who used to work in a helping profession and now has a sideline peddling religious “advice” to people.

                1. Candi*

                  It’s one thing if it’s family terminology and applied to everyone. When I was growing up, “helping around the house” is how my parents described everyone doing their share of chores. (And dad often did more chores than mother, even when working longer hours.) The mentality was everyone pitched in with what they could do to keep the house nice, and dad never expected me or my sister to be able to do something we hadn’t been shown.

                  But this idea that housework is women’s priority, and men are “helping”, not doing their part of maintaining the household -that whole mentality needs to go.

      2. Boof*

        yeah… there are a few employers out there who are interested in their employee wellbeing and see it as a 2 way relationship and try to pay equitably etc, and that’s probably excellent for long term retention; unfortunately as best I can tell isn’t the “norm” but it isn’t non-existant either. (I think it’s easy for imbalance to creep in but a good leader would do that).
        Then there are the employers who see paying employees as an “expense” to be minimized as much as possible, including in shady ways like this (“oh inequity? well they said yes why should I bother to correct it?”). I feel like they are the ones who will probably also complain “good help is so hard to find these days” or “people just don’t want to WORK anymore” etc etc. I do hope they aren’t the norm but they aren’t that rare either.

        1. Observer*

          There are also employers who are in the middle. Maybe they don’t recognize that it’s fully 2 way relationship, but they still do understand that retention is a thing, and so avoid really ridiculous policies like allowing a supervisor to repeatedly block a staff person’s advancement. Because even in an “employer’s market” people can find other jobs.

        2. Candi*

          I notice there tends to be an overlap between people who see employees as an expense and not an asset, and people who refuse to upgrade or buy equipment until/unless it’s impossible for the business/dept to function without it. They’re all concerned about how much profit they can make and keep.

          Which really misses how successful businesses work. I mean, Warner Brothersexplained how successful business works in a 7 minute cartoon (“Yankee Dood It”)! And part of it was investing profits back into the business so it can grow -which includes competitive wages and useful equipment, and these days, benefits.

      3. LifeBeforeCorona*

        Oh yeah, I had an OldBoss who gave a yearly “you’re lucky to have a job” pep talk. He also had a very high staff turnover.

    2. Esmeralda*

      No transparency about pay contributes to this.

      I myself experienced a couple of decades ago (before I knew that state employee salaries were public info and there was a database to look them up). I’m female. A coworker who was literally hired the day before I was, male, with less experience in the field, less education, good performance but not as good as mine, was given a substantial raise and I got…nothing. How’d I found out? Boss showed a chart of pay and raises for all positions in the department, names stripped out but titles and years of employment at the university included. Only two people in my category…

      I went home and told my husband: I have to sue the university.

      Within a week, however, my male colleague had quit to take another job. Turns out they were offering him the raise to retain him.

      I did get a raise after that, because I went to my boss and pointed out the gender inequity. I didn’t have to say “lawyer,” because he was smart enough to figure it out.

  6. SandrineSmiles - At work (France)*

    So happy you’re now in a better spot, OP!
    You deserve respect and appropriate pay :)
    I really like this outcome :)

  7. VtV*

    Does anybody else think that it was inappropriate for Hilaria to be doing this in the first place?

    I mean, I don’t know precisely which field in social services OP works in, but it doesn’t seem appropriate for this woman to be providing services that are akin to mental healthcare when that is not her job? Does this woman have the training/credentials to be able to actually provide counselling?

    When I worked with vulnerable populations, this was always something that was stressed. There’s potential for harm if things are done wrong and I don’t think it is appropriate for this woman to use the clientele’s reputation to insert herself into these relationships. She had even groomed the clients to believe that this ‘counseling’ was what the service actually entailed!

    This sounds like a boundary crossing nightmare to me.

      1. Nobby Nobbs*

        Even if she was, this is the sort of thing there should be checks and supervision in place to catch and stop. The buck absolutely stops with the organization that was too interested in getting more work out of their employees than they were paying for to bother with ethical oversight.

        1. Rainy*

          Yes, totally agreed. A good organization is concerned with scope of practice and very careful to convey that to employees AND clients, and also concerned with employees having good work/life balance and good boundaries, because providing services really starts with having good boundaries, in my opinion. A lot of other positive things flow naturally from good boundaries.

  8. animaniactoo*

    LW – just for future perspective. It was not JUST your manager who was primarily in the wrong here about that missed promotion opportunity. A company that allows a manager to block this kind of promotion – particularly when it would be of benefit to the company as well as the employee – is screwed up top to bottom (as you discovered).

    1. Artemesia*

      I don’t understand a company policy that allows a manager to block promotions and transfers within the organization. There is no good that comes of this; the company drives out its most competent employees this way and also doesn’t get the benefits that come with promoting them within the organization.

      1. Lucious*

        >>I don’t understand a company policy that allows managers to block promotions and transfers within an organization. There is no good that comes from this.

        “Good” depends on perspective. If a company is heavily silo’d with rigid divisions between teams and knowledge compartmentalization , managers will feel (and act) like rulers of little fiefdoms. If that’s the operational culture, people moving around is NOT a good thing for the managers. Especially if said employee makes their current boss’ metrics look good. Why give some other company team the advantage of your best employee? Adding to that the “losing” manager has to find a new star performer, and the pressure will be on to do that fast in a silo’d organization.

        It’s selfish and self destructive for companies to do that, but sadly it doesn’t make the practice rare.

    2. LW*

      Absolutely – I found out from conversations with friends in the inside that Other Supervisor advocated hard for me to be transferred, and it went all the way up to Executive Director, who claimed that the organization “couldn’t afford” to both increase my pay and hire a replacement for my original team – all while collecting an annual salary that was WELL into the six figures. So disappointing but definitely gives me a lot of clarity and insight into future roles

    3. blood orange*

      +1 on this.

      I once recommended an internal promotion for an employee who was qualified and had a history of strong performance. He was underpaid for his current role, paid less than his peers, and the promotion would be a great pay bump for him. The COO refused to entertain the possibility because they “couldn’t lose him” in his current capacity. I advocated pretty hard, but he made it clear the idea should be dropped.

      After a few months of failing to fill this position, the CEO decided that the same employee should receive an offer. He ignored the hiring protocol and made the employee an offer that was above the budgeted salary. This worked out pretty well for the employee who took the job, but they could easily have blocked his promotion and left him stuck.

      1. HolidayAmoeba*

        It always amazes me when companies have employees who they “can’t afford to lose” but those employees are underpaid or underutilized, then go all shocked Pikachu face when that person leaves. Good employees exercise their options.

  9. LadyHouseOfLove*

    I wouldn’t put it past Hilaria’s supervisor gaslighting her into thinking she wasn’t doing enough work. I was once in her place. Ye Olde Toxic Workplace had me think I was requesting too much time off. Funny thing, when I was leaving and requested my vacation time to be paid out, I was expected some hundred dollars. Instead I got a whole lot more than that.

  10. Detective Amy Santiago*

    Apparently, my own supervisor had repeatedly blocked the idea of me transferring because they wouldn’t be able to “afford” to lose me from the team.

    Ah, the hidden downsides of being good at your job.

    Glad you got out, OP!

    1. Observer*

      No, this is not a downside of being good at your job. It’s the downside of having a terrible manager who is also not a good person.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Agreed. My current awesome supervisor actually sent me the info and application for a grade promotion (this is the way my organization handles anything other than a COLA adjustment – that we all get annually). And she followed up fairly regularly with HR to see if the CERT lists had been published. Not all managers prevent their employees from moving up.

  11. Blarg*

    Ugh that’s so gross. And yet not surprising. So easy to take advantage of people who’ve “been there” and feel either thankful to have work or so closely identified with their clients that setting boundaries is hard. I’ve been there in both regards. I’d be interested in an open thread on the various aspects of people with lived experience working in those fields. From the internal side as well as external. Like if your agency strives to partner with organizations centered on people with lived experience, how to ensure that you aren’t contributing to exploitation or compounding trauma, etc. but are meaningfully collaborating.

  12. Judy Johnsen*

    The fact he is not helping his wife get a promotion is bad, it’s less money for their household.

Comments are closed.