updates: the toxic positivity meetings, dramatic responses after not being promoted, 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. How do I get out of my office’s toxic positivity meetings? (first update here)

You may remember me from such previous emails as “How Can I Get Out Of My Office’s Toxic Positivity Meetings?” and it’s lacklustre update “Can You Really Call It A Company Picnic If There Are No Chairs or Food Provided?”

Well I have one last update for you and it’s a doozy!

So at the time of writing my last update, I had talked about how our family wanted to move out of the city we were in. We not only managed to find a house we liked in another city, but I managed to negotiate, with the help of my direct boss who was an absolute rock star, going full time remote permanently to make this happen. On the low, I hadn’t had a raise in almost three years at that point, so it was a cheap way to give me something I wanted and keep their bottom line under control, but hey! I truly appreciated the concession and it was a good move for my family, in spite of some of the insane things that happened during the process (family of hoarders, previously unseen damage to the house, many other subsequent yikeses.)

Anyway, at the end of June I took two weeks off for the move, and while it wasn’t relaxing, it was a break from the ongoing stress of my job which focused heavily on supply chain management. However, almost as though they sensed that my frayed nerves were experiencing a reprieve, as soon as I came back from vacation, they hit me with another punch to the gut – the higher ups made the decision to fold the entire company and I was soon to be out of a job!

The good news is, I had been through a layoff before and jumped right into job hunting mode, emailing all my contacts and putting as many feelers out there as I could. As luck would have it, I interviewed four places, did second interviews with three, and got a hard offer from the position I was most interested in two weeks after my layoff.

So not only was I able to get a nice severance package (kudos to my old company – this was actually very generous) but I was able to land a new gig with better advancement opportunities and a close to 20% raise before we really even had to dig into our savings. Plus, I got an actual relaxing week off between job searching and starting my new position which I did this past week!

At end of the day, I am excited for the future and glad things shook out the way they did. Thank you for your time and advice in all of this – your column and the support from readers helped me through!

(Slightly crappy caveat – my fabulous former boss is still with the company and reports that, in the shadow of the company’s closure, the positivity meetings have returned for remaining staff, complete with admonishments for not smiling more! Looks like the powers that be never fully learned on that one!)

2. Dramatic responses after not being promoted (#3 at the link)

Thank you for publishing my question and I appreciate your feedback. I’d like to acknowledge some of the comments made, which were very valid, and provide a little context. I’d tried to keep my email brief to focus on what I viewed to be the key issues, which understandably resulted in some assumptions.

Some seem to the unhappy that I referenced the use of sick days. I’m very pro people taking leave, if they need it. I encourage it. What wasn’t detailed in my letter was that there are comments made in the office similar to, ‘well at least if I don’t get the role, I can take the day off sick’. Where someone is genuinely struggling with their mental health, days should always be used, as needed.

The second aspect I’d like to highlight was lack of progression demoralizing staff. I’ve been with the company a while now and almost every vacancy has been filled with an internal promotion. On my own team, since writing in, two more team members have been promoted. Team member progression is important to me.

Sadly, some of the team are jumping at roles that they are not experienced or qualified in. These team members have been spoken to to offer guidance and support. I link them with the relevant departments to obtain insight and the opportunity to undertake relevant tasks, if they want it.

Those I’ve referred to in my original letter have declined the option of development support, which I really don’t understand. I’ve tried to ask, but the answers seem a little entitled.

Now onto the update. I raised my concerns to the head of department. I chose not to name names, but highlighted the behavioral trends. As a result, further training is going to be offered to see whether there is an impact. Hiring managers will receive training on providing feedback.

Other managers currently don’t offer the progression support my team receive. I’ve been asked to work with those managers to see what we can do to help.

Rather than ignoring the negative behaviour, managers are now expected to talk to those involved, listen and offer support/advice. However, where necessary, the behaviour will be challenged.

Update to the update:

There is actually an update to the update!

Both colleagues were transferred to my team due to poor performance and the hope that I could coach them. Different issues arose with both around how they treated others in their daily role, with bullying claims made against both, and led to performance management actions. They have both taken new roles elsewhere and are no longer in the business. Hopefully, they will use it as a fresh start.

When they joined my team, I approached the hiring managers informally to find out more about why they weren’t being offered roles. Unfortunately, there reputations were what was stopping them from gaining internal promotions.

In another piece of positive news, a further member of my team has just received a promotion. We are very much a feeder team to the rest of the business. Almost everyone seems to have been in it at some point! who have now gained internal promotions! I’m starting to train my new team member and looking forward to a more positive working environment.

3. Are my mentors taking advantage of me? (first update here)

Amazing how things change in just a few years! I wrote originally (and updated) in 2018, that I did not have the political clout at work to reach out to VPs and VIPs on behalf of my alma mater and wasn’t sure if this was weirdness on my part or university mentors trying to “use” me.

Now, I am the liaison between my employer and my alma mater for both a very new scholarship program, and a revamp of a building on campus! These are multi-year, multi-million dollar initiatives beyond my full-time technical role. I not only came up with our strategy and vision for these efforts, but I also presented on both to upper level (great-great-GREAT-grandboss) senior VPs for their buy-in and support. Both of these are long-term recruiting efforts to the company, so it’s not just throwing money at the university, but it is nice to be able to give back in a meaningful way AND get face time with executives without looking like a bull in a China shop.

4. Ask a Manager speed round — the employer who wanted to misclassify an employee as a contractor

I asked, and you graciously answered, a question in your speed round last year on behalf of my son. He’s a recent technical school grad who got his first job at a very small business who said he’d be “responsible for his own taxes.” We thought that might mean misclassifying him as a contractor instead of an employee, and we wanted to know if he could face any individual legal or tax consequences from that misclassification. His decision was to plan/save as if he would be misclassified until he received tax forms from his employer.

No funds of any kind have been withheld from his income. Today, he mentioned to his boss that he did not ever receive a tax document, and also mentioned that his accountant (his aunt) told him he’d been given the wrong form – he should have filled out a W4, not a W9. His boss said he paid someone to do his tax forms, and he’d get her to straighten it out. (Maybe she’s a professional, maybe not, who knows – but with the absence of a 1099, I’m thinking not.) I’m hopeful that this will resolve the issue, and my offspring will only have to pay the employee portion of his tax burden.

I believe that this was just a misunderstanding caused by the small business owner’s lack of knowledge about tax law and procedure. However, even if it was intentional, addressing it this way allowed the owner to “save face” while being put on notice that he can’t save on his tax bill at an employee’s expense, without blowing up the employment relationship. That’s a skill I learned from your blog and passed on to him (neither of us is good at subtext).

I hope you know how important your work is. My son is not without privilege, but he’s young and naive. You are educating the vulnerable so that they have the knowledge to recognize when something is wrong or harmful to them, and you also give them examples of ways to speak up and even scripts. You’re doing great things that benefit many. Thank you so much.

Update to the update:

Last week my offspring received a bonus equivalent to about ten hours of pay for alerting his boss to the “tax issues.” Hurray! Still no sign of the correct forms he needs to file his taxes, though. He’s been keeping a log of his earnings, and I’ve helped him research how to file if he never gets anything from his employer.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Reality Check*

    #4 I remember years ago my employer refused to send me anything so I could file my taxes. (long story) I called the IRS and threw them under the bus. IRS sent my employer a nasty gram. I had my paperwork in no time flat. Of course that was back in the day when the IRS answered their phones.

    1. Artemesia*

      I hope the young man in #4 can get a new new job with an ethical company. No one running a mistake does this ‘by mistake.’ The fact that they told him he was responsible for his own taxes is the clear sign they knew what they were doing.

      1. I am Emily's failing memory*

        This is shady as heck but I have to admit I laughed out loud that the employer’s response to calling out paying him under the table was to pay him more money under the table.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          The time I worked for someone who paid me with a personal check, which was for only a few months, the office had tons of other problems and I ended up getting laid off (in favor of keeping his daughter who did no work around the place). I was later pleasantly surprised by the Social Security Administration’s record that yes, he did indeed pay Social Security for the time I worked for him.

  2. Keymaster of Gozer*

    1: I was very interested in following your progress in getting out of the toxic positivity company and can I say it’s great that you got out!

    Your update that they are still doing it a) doesn’t surprise me and b) honestly makes me laugh. Even my cat realises that if action A causes the humans to leave regularly it’s best to stop it.

    1. Artemesia*

      LOL. good analogy. yesterday I stepped on our cats tail and then kicked him — all by accident as he got underfoot in the kitchen — he is now not spending as much time underfoot in the kitchen.

  3. Chauncy Gardener*

    “You may remember me from such previous emails as “How Can I Get Out Of My Office’s Toxic Positivity Meetings?” and it’s lacklustre update “Can You Really Call It A Company Picnic If There Are No Chairs or Food Provided?””

    OK, that all by itself was hysterical! And I’m so happy that everything has worked out for you, OP! Your original posting made me cringe so hard I almost got a cramp.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      Reading the paragraph, I once again heard a resounding, “the beatings will continue until morale improves” in my ears.
      OP’s career there could fill a K-Tel record with song titles.
      Or for the younger people, Now That’s What I Call A Toxic Environment.
      Is there a modern equivalent, or did music streaming destroy this great tradition of collating, repackaging and reselling “songs played to death on the radio that can now be yours to play to death at your annual bbq for the next ten years” but in a funky package?

  4. Dust in the Wind*

    #4 If your son filled out a W-9 it sound like he is being treated as a subcontractor. He will need to include a Schedule C and a Schedule SE with his tax return, and pay both the employee’s portion of FICA and Medicare Tax and the Employer’s portion. He should be keeping track of all his expenses in connection with this job so he can deduct them from his income.

    The comment from Reality Check is definitely on point. You can absolutely turn your employer in to the IRS, on Form SS-8, but it could mean you would lose your job if your employer finds out you were the one who dropped the dime on him.

    1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

      “You can absolutely turn your employer in to the IRS, on Form SS-8, but it could mean you would lose your job if your employer finds out you were the one who dropped the dime on him.”
      OP’s son needs to keep that on deck, but since he’s prepared, this tax year, to watch it play out…
      I’m wondering how much will change now that the owner is aware his payroll is causing problems. He may never have had anyone ask before. (He may never have employed someone who cared before, either employee sucked it up and paid his own, or employee didn’t pay at all, was like, yeah, come find me.) So now that he realizes the payroll isn’t set up, shall we say, optimally, he make take a more hands on approach, or hire someone competent.
      OP, please let us know how this plays out.

    2. Rapunzel Rider*

      Echoing the thanks of #4 for the work Alison does that helps beyond the letter writers and working world. My dad worked professional jobs and gave advice early in my career such as: as a salaried worker, work as many hours as you can and never take vacation to show your commitment to get promoted/raises (hint-never did that get anything but a lot of free labor for them and losing 300 PTO hours when I moved on), it is ok that your male superiors comment on your looks and call you Sweetie, co-workers calling you their work child and treating you as such when you are higher on the ladder than them is fine, ADHD is not a big deal so never tell work you think it is real and sometimes need dedicated no phone time and never ever ever advocate for transgender students to be respected as the person they are or you will be fired (hint-I was not and my grandboss actually made it a priority to find solutions like not using deadnames on admission letters).
      Reading this site has helped me learn Daddy’s old school way is often off and how I can do better. And I say this recognizing the privilege in receiving even that warped advice. The site also helped in non-work life by learning about things like social, political and emotional capital. Because what is life if not an unpaid job where sometimes you are the boss…
      Now I honestly communicate with my boss within established boundaries, have work life balance and voiced that I do more/more complicated work than my teammates so we started the process to create a new position for me with a raise (with the glacial pace of a state institution hopefully goodbye second job next year).

    3. NorthBayTeky*

      Shouldn’t he still get a 1099? If son has received nothing from the employer stating his earnings, were they even keeping track?

      1. Liz*

        If the employer makes no report, employer can’t deduct anything, and the wages are effectively still part of employers earnings and are taxed accordingly.

    4. e271828*

      Depending on what state this is happening in, there could be other repercussions for the employer also.

      If the “employee” sorry “contractor” is solely responsible for all of his own taxes and expenses, of course the rate the “employer” sorry “client” is paying will reflect that, so I hope LW’s son has composed and offered a contract including a 50% or so raise to cover these expenses of running his own business….

  5. Abogado Avocado*

    #4: I appreciate that you want to give the business owner the benefit of the doubt, but as a lawyer who has handled tax cases, it matters not at all that the owner’s failure to provide the appropriate tax forms to your son results from “just a misunderstanding caused by the small business owner’s lack of knowledge about tax law and procedure.” Lack of knowledge is not a defense and both federal and state authorities will happily correct the business owner’s “misunderstanding” through civil or (depending on the amount owed) criminal tax proceedings. Which is just the sort of legal proceeding that can put a small business out of business.

    At this point, I’d suggest you get your son to a CPA ASAP so that you both can ensure that your son, at least, is in compliance with tax law. This forum is helpful, but the advice given here does not provide the defense of reliance on advice of others, as would advice from a CPA or a lawyer.

    1. Ama*

      Yes, a very similar thing happened to me fresh out of college but I was lucky enough that my dad was a CPA and worked with his coworkers in their tax department (my dad did a very different kind of accounting) to figure out what I would need to do to file my taxes correctly as a contractor. Unfortunately his coworkers didn’t know enough about the job I was doing to question whether I should be classified as a contractor in the first place (I was a receptionist for a medical office I very much did NOT meet the criteria). But at least I never had to worry that an audit would say I owed back taxes.

      It wasn’t until I got a job years later where I supervised contractors for an employer who required a number of forms to confirm that any new contractors met the IRS criteria that I learned I’d been classified incorrectly.

    2. Looper*

      Honestly, that “bonus” reads far more like a bribe to me, but bless OP for having such a kind view of her son’s employer. Personally, I think the business owner knows exactly what he’s doing and hopes to continue doing it for as long as possible!

      1. ecnaseener*

        Lol I was thinking the same thing – half-expecting another update saying “Soooo, it turns out that bonus was supposed to be hush money…”

    3. Darsynia*

      Just wanted to add that when my husband worked as a contractor, he paid his taxes quarterly, rather than once a year. I don’t recall whether he chose to do that because it was easier to budget, or because it was required, but I did a quick google search and there’s a few places that say ‘contractors’ are sometimes considered self-employed, and must pay taxes quarterly. I’d suggest LW4 check into whether her son’s position counts as self-employed, because he may already be way behind in payments required by now.

      I am aware that this is not super detailed or coherent advice, but am posting it anyway because it’s something I haven’t seen brought up and might be very relevant to LW4’s son’s situation!

      1. Professional child wrangler*

        It’s required. Contractors are supposed to pay estimated taxes quarterly, then settle up when they file annually

    4. Hannah Lee*

      That special “thanks for pointing this out to us” payment struck me as odd, almost as if the employer were trying to cover the employee for $$$ that the employer would have have to contribute to payroll taxes if they were classifying workers correctly … instead of, you know, taking steps to actually classify their workers correctly going forward.

      The financial/legal/management approach it this company is dodgy at best and possibly willfully criminal. As you mention, legally, the reason why the treatment of workers’ wages is being mishandled doesn’t matter. But the way the employer has responded is making it look like it is intentional and not a misunderstand or honest mistake.

      Your advice to consult a CPA is great, because whatever the employer is doing, the son needs to make sure he’s not accidentally digging himself into a hole legally or financially.

      Also, another reason to not simply go along and get along in this case is that right now, NONE of the employee’s earnings are being reported to social security or state wage/tax authorities, so none of it is counting towards earnings, eligibility for retirement benefits down the line, or worst case scenario, disability benefits if he were to get sick or have an accident, or unemployment benefits if the company folded or laid him off.

      In addition to federal employment laws, it’s quite possible this company is also not following state employment laws, which will compound the issues for the company and business owner when (not if, when) this all comes to light.

      1. Me (I think)*

        Partially right. As a contractor he would be paying his own social security taxes, so his earnings count toward his future benefits. At least, all my earnings as a freelancer show up in my SSA benefits analysis. (The downside is, of course, that an employee only pays half these taxes, but a contractor pays all of them.)

        But yeah, I have all kinds of questions about insurance — medical, disability, unemployment, liability, etc.

    5. OP#4*

      Thanks, Abogado Avocado. It did not take us long to figure out he was in over both our heads. He is now in the hands of a competent tax professional, and I’m trying to stay out of it. Having adult kids is weird. I feel like I need to help him stay out of federal prison, but I don’t want to meddle in his finances, either.

  6. irritable vowel*

    For #4, given that the son never filed taxes on earnings for 2021 (I’m assuming, given the date of the original question), he’s going to have to pay a late penalty when he finally files, as well as perhaps a penalty for not paying quarterly taxes if he had a large amount of income reported on a 1099. His employer should in good faith compensate him for this (or perhaps that’s what the bonus pay was intended for?).

    1. fhqwhgads*

      That’s how I interpreted the “bonus”. I don’t think it’s “hush money” as some speculated above. I think it’s “make up the difference of the fuck up” money.

    2. OP#4*

      Hi, this question was in regards to his 2021 taxes. He did file for 2021, which was his first year of working to support himself. He ended up finally getting a 1099 from his employer, which his employer’s “tax lady” (still no clue whether this person is a professional) said was the correct form. (It’s not, and it’s not even questionable.) He only worked there half the year, since he graduated technical school in May, and he started at minimum wage. Paying his portion of my offspring’s FICA and Medicare would have cost his employer around $1100. That . . . doesn’t seem worth opening himself up to a tax investigation to me, but that was his employer’s decision.

      There are a lot of other reasons why this is not a good or stable employment situation, so my advice since then has been to make sure he has a savings cushion in case the IRS comes a’calling or the business folds for some other reason. I also told him that this situation was too complex for me and TurboTax, and he found a professional to work with going forward. I trust that she has advised him appropriately about things like quarterly payments.

      1. KBSOne*

        Is your son the only employee? I wonder if maybe they don’t have a payroll company. Setting one up costs more than $1100. It’s a dumb reason, but the boss does indeed sound dumb.

        1. Observer*

          I wonder if maybe they don’t have a payroll company. Setting one up costs more than $1100.

          Not for a company with a very few employees.

          I just did a check on line with a few reputable companies. Some don’t have their prices on line, but plenty do. It just doesn’t cost that much.

  7. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

    my fabulous former boss is still with the company and reports that, in the shadow of the company’s closure, the positivity meetings have returned for remaining staff, complete with admonishments for not smiling more

    Expecting people to keep smiling when they are going to be imminently redundant is another level of insanity. Really glad you’re out of there, LW1.

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