Help being diplomatic with employer...
June 3, 2014 11:18 AM   Subscribe

My employer signed my housing lease and wants to take over my living space. How do I say no?

Let's assume the law stays out of this; YANML.

I am an American living and working in East Africa. I work for a new school. My compensation package includes a salary that is low or very low by Western standards and moderate-to-high by local standards. From what I can surmise, the package is low when it comes down to my local value. I agreed to the package for various reasons and I do not regret it. My package includes a $300 USD housing stipend. I found a place for about $500, and knew the 'hardship' of the additional cost. At the time, I was not yet a permanent resident and my school told me they "had to" sign my lease. The place is very big, but lovely and I am happy. It is in a residential area and unlike many of the fancy areas with a lot of wealthy expats. In the center of town, I have space on two floors, balconies, room for guests, etc. I am 3 months into the one-year lease.

My school just informed me that they signed the lease not because I wasn't allowed (as I was told), but because they "wanted to make it into staff housing." As mentioned this is a new school. I have been told in various ways that everyone is working hard doing their part and I should do my part to make sure the school succeeds. They said they would reimburse me for all my purchases (furniture, kitchen stuff, etc), and the place would become theirs. "One or two" others would move in. There was absolutely no suggestion of shared/staff housing when I chose the place. YANML and I'm sure there is no one familiar with the local law, even if I divulged my location.

I do not want this; I do not want to share. In my mind, the 'part' I am doing is working for a low salary! In some ways I feel guilty because this is a very poor country and there are people working for $40 a month, and even the owners have no salary yet. However, I have no investment in the company; they have the potential to earn millions in the years to come. Why should I sacrifice my living space? I'm really scared they will 'force' me, but I do not think this would happen.

This is very hard for me since I don't have friends here and no one to process this with. I do not want to get emotional when they mention to this me again. Let's assume the law stays out of this. It would be very helpful if I had a script to practice. Thank you in advance for your input.

What can I tell them? How can I be diplomatic and say no while still showing commitment to the school?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Can you just take your housing stipend and move elsewhere? It seems if they're on the lease and you don't really have the wherewithal to contest it on a legal basis it may be simple to just let them have your current place and find somewhere to live for $300 a month.
posted by Oktober at 11:34 AM on June 3, 2014 [6 favorites]

"I understand that you had different expectations for this space before I moved in. However, I did not have those expectations, and so I feel that it would be fairest for us both to adhere to the stated agreement, which is that you will provide me $300 per month against the cost of my housing, and that I would be free to choose my own housing and pay for anything above $300 out of my own pocket. I will plan to continue living alone in my space until my lease is up, and in the meantime, we can discuss what will happen as regards my housing requirements in nine months."

If they press on the "doing your part" thing, reiterate that you are happy to do your part after discussing what that will mean and agreeing to it before changes are made.
posted by Etrigan at 11:35 AM on June 3, 2014 [19 favorites]

This sounds nasty and underhanded, are you sure you really want to keep working for these people? What kind of school is this that they expect to earn millions from? Who are the students? Are the owners of the school Americans or natives of the country? Some things are not adding up here.

But if you're determined to stick it out, yes, finding another place for yourself would be the simplest solution.
posted by mareli at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2014 [15 favorites]

Huh, I am a little confused: is it a school or a company that has the potential to earn millions in the years to come?

Whoever they are, they did sign the lease, right? Your name does not appear on any documents regarding this house? So they need to agree to let you stay there, it seems.

Well, I'd tell them what you said here and embellish it a bit: I don't want to share my living space with others. I need my own place to unwind after a long day at school/company. I still feel new to this country and life here is a bit hectic, so it feels really good to be able to come home and have some quiet time.

Then you could offer them to take the house over after you move out (when the lease is up).

Regarding the guilt: It will be there regardless. Whatever you do, you'll be privileged compared to the locals. I mean personally, I think a place that is "very big" is lavish and unnecessary for one person - in the US, in Europe or in Africa alike. But if this is what you need in order to do good work, so be it. Who am I to judge you? Good luck.
posted by travelwithcats at 11:37 AM on June 3, 2014

Hi, I'm an American that grew up in west Africa. Culturally, one of our biggest discoveries was that personal boundaries are pretty fluid - once we got to know people in the area we lived in, they thought nothing of stopping by our house at any hour of the day (or night), and often would come in and make themselves at home if we weren't there. They found our habit of locking our doors off-putting and confusing.

We resolved this with firm boundaries reinforced with lots of consistency and affection. So, during school hours there was a sign on the front door that said "School in process from XXXX to XXXX, Please come visit us after those hours". Once it was a habit, it was just another reason our friends fondly thought of us as "eccentric".

So, acknowledge to the fact that you're living somewhere very culturally different from how you were likely raised in the U.S. Guests and family are very important (at least in the area of west Africa in which I was raised), I'd plead lack of extra space due to the fact you have many guests and family members planning to come visit you. Don't even get into not wanting to live with others, etc., that will be confusing to most.

Also, practically speaking, since NEW SCHOOL is on the lease, not you, you need to acknowledge the fact that you might actually have to move. Then, set up a time to come talk to whoever your boss is (in person is important). Say something like this:

"I am so excited to be working at NEW SCHOOL. I really believe in the vision of the program and that is why I moved half-way across the world in order to be part of it! (Etc., etc. for a fair amount of time to reinforce how much you're committed to the success of NEW SCHOOL)

I think we had a misunderstanding about the apartment I rented. I have a lot of guests and family members planning to come and visit me - in fact, the other bedroom will be in use basically all of the time. So, this really isn't the right space for other staff housing. And I need a home where I can welcome my frequent guests and family members who have already started planning their trips to visit me.

Just to make things simpler, and so that my landlord would not ever expect YOU to pay my rent, which is substantially higher than my housing stipend, I'm going to ask my landlord to transfer the lease over into my name. Does that sound good to you? If not, another option would be for me to move out and find new housing for myself and my guests while you turn this into staff housing. If that is the case, NEW SCHOOL would start paying all of the rent, which is $500 plus utilities as soon as I move out. What would you like to do?"
posted by arnicae at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2014 [55 favorites]

"No. I'm afraid I can't agree to that. It will not be possible. Those are not the terms on which I agreed. No."
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

Are any of the owners/managers expats like you? Any other teachers?

if there are special reasons why you were hired as an expat (or are the only one) those might make a case for your "specialness" - diplomacy, fudging, excuses et al while being "nice" will probably be required culturally rather than hard "no" or reference to contracts or laws.

A thought is that if other staff are also expected to be expats, they might be thinking that you would be fine with this (individualism vs community sharing being one such distinction with EAC) or that all of you "foreigners" can manage together.

Your last resort might be to ask for full or partial recompense for your rent as an understated negotiating point that might make them back off.

I wouldn't worry about this being a poor country in your situation. Private education is booming as an industry, and as you say, they'll be generating revenue soon enough. This is a business and you are an employee entitled to certain rights.

I'm sorry you are in this spot. This is not an easy situation for you and I've spent most of a year in Nbi a couple of years ago so have some idea of the regional situation. Like you, I prefer living on my own.

On preview: arnicae nails it.
posted by infini at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

How much longer is the lease? Can you find another place? Are they paying the full rent. I would try a gentle push back saying "That's an interesting suggestion but I am not interested in turning my private residence into staff housing. I am going to keep to our original agreement. If you like I can help find and furnish another place the school can use for staff".

If this doesn't go over well I think you have to move and sign your own lease. This jerk move would also make me look for another job as these are the type of employers who will try to take advantage of you again.
posted by saradarlin at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2014

This seems pretty straightforward to me. You negotiated a compensation package and now they want to change it. You don't want to change it. So you should refuse. If they push, fall back on the old "this will not be possible."

You shouldn't feel guilty about refusing. The fact that other people are poor (and other people were poor before and will still be poor after you're gone) doesn't change the fact that had an agreement and now they want to go back on it. There are plenty of ways for you to help address poverty that don't involve you sharing your living space with others.

If all else fails, tell them you'll move out and apply your $300/mo housing stipend to another place. Then they can fill the whole apartment with staff to their heart's content.
posted by zachlipton at 11:45 AM on June 3, 2014 [5 favorites]

You've already got most of what you need here - just rearrange and add a couple things.
Here's a sample script.

"I very much want this school to succeed, which is why I was willing to accept the compensation package offered, which as you know is already below market value. Part of the reason I was willing to take this package was the understanding that I would have the $300/month housing stipend to offset my housing costs, and not that I would be put up in staff housing. Had I been invited to live in staff housing and share an apartment, I would have negotiated differently or turned down your offer. I am happy to continue living here alone for the remainder of my lease, and continuing to pay my own $200/month beyond what your stipend covers. After that I will seek new individual housing that allows me to use my full housing stipend, and the school is free to renew the lease on its own so that it can house other staff members together."

If the school won't budge and you aren't willing to quit over this, then negotiate for the following:
"My housing stipend covers $300/month - however with this apartment now set up to house X people, my current rent share is only $500/X. As this is below the $300/month stipend, I expect that you will pay me the difference each month (300 - 500/X), as it was not my choice to live in housing that does not fully take advantage of my stipend."
At least this way you are getting a little money back for the inconvenience of roommates - and you should insist on this payment even if they don't have someone living there yet - as you've already been told you don't have the full run of the place any longer.
posted by trivia genius at 11:46 AM on June 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Would the owner/management of your residence perhaps be interested in maintaining the current arrangement with you as sole tenant? It might be better for them (less wear and tear, nicer for other residents, etc.). If so, perhaps they can help mediate this; especially if they are more familiar with the culture there. I would approach this very delicately, of course.
posted by amtho at 11:50 AM on June 3, 2014

Just to reinforce this - culturally I would strongly suggest approaching this in a very different manner than a number of the commenters unless the school administration/leadership are all ex-pats (if that is the case, I'd have serious concerns about the school for other reasons).

If the school administration/leadership are Africans, negotiating should definitely be relationally oriented and very positive. Emphasize family and relationships, listen a lot, don't come to the point quickly, demonstrate a great deal of empathy for the other person, accept that no decisions will happen fast and no action will happen fast. Time moves differently in Africa.

If you're invested in the success of this program, I'd suggest going into these conversations with warmth and collegial feelings towards those you're talking to, and avoiding "laying down the law", dictating, or rigidly insisting on the letter of your agreement. You can, and should get EXACTLY what is in the agreement, but the way to get it is a slower, warmer more relationally oriented process.

This is actually very good practice for living in Africa, so treat this as a learning opportunity.
posted by arnicae at 11:53 AM on June 3, 2014 [31 favorites]

One last thought - I should mention that our friends thought we were absolutely crazy because as a family of four we were living in a three bedroom, one bathroom home. By American standards it was incredibly small and modest, with raw concrete floors and painted concrete walls and ceiling, and a combined living room/kitchen. Interestingly enough, our home was identical to our neighbor's home (shared a common wall). Our western-educated west African neighbor, a good friend, had fourteen people living in the same size space.

Don't feel guilty about the amount of space you have. Appreciate it. Understand that many of your neighbors, coworkers and new friends won't understand your cultural perspective. Use this as an opportunity to gain empathy for and develop an understanding for a very different cultural perspective. Keep your privacy! I hear you, I wouldn't want roommates either. But just be very aware that you're in the midst of an adventure in which you get to learn about a fascinating, different and occasionally frustrating culture.

Good luck!!
posted by arnicae at 11:59 AM on June 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

The way you phrased it: "My package includes a $300 USD housing stipend. I found a place for about $500, and knew the 'hardship' of the additional cost." suggests they pay the full $500. I wonder if it would sway them if you'd cover the $200. If I am reading this right and they pay $500 and you expect them to pay another couple hundred for new staff housing, I can see how that would be a non-satisfactory situation for them. Just a thought.
posted by travelwithcats at 12:04 PM on June 3, 2014

I'm confused by some of the answers here and it's likely I don't see the whole picture.

But it seems to me from your narrative that you are being fucked with. Your bosses lied to you about the conditions of your rental. They told you they needed to sign the lease for legal reasons, while the real reason was that they wanted an option to grab it from you at a later date. (Why couldn't they have told you that at the beginning?) Either that or they are lying to you about their intentions now.

There may very well be cultural differences and misunderstandings, but -- as I read your story -- you were lied to and used. I don't see cultural differences somehow transmuting this into respectful behavior.

So, yeah, you might be in a situation where you just need to be diplomatic and understanding.

But you might be in a situation where you need to stand up for yourself, lest you invite further disrespectful treatment. Tell them no. Some of the suggestions in this thread might help for sugar-coating, but the bottom line is, don't let them push you over.

Perhaps I misread you, but I think: You may have high hopes for this job, but you don't need it. You could go home tomorrow. And you can tell all your friends that the bosses at the school are a couple con artists. They are hoping to hire a bunch of bright young expats to staff the school for cheap. To do this, they will need to have a good reputation. If you're a young American who wants to teach for very little money in a poor country, there are many places you can go. However you got this job -- informal networks, career counselors, placement by some agency -- that well can be poisoned if they don't treat you well, and other young people like you will simply go work somewhere else.

I'm not suggesting you make a threat. But I suspect you have some real power here, so you don't need to let them push you around.
posted by grobstein at 12:26 PM on June 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

From the OP:
Thank you for the replies and support so far. It has been very helpful. I just want to clarify:

The place is too big, but special to me. It and it is WAY better than some $300 places I saw!

I am paying the $200 difference between the stipend and actual rent.

Moving or quitting are an option but I love the place and feel strongly I should keep it. I agree this is pretty low of them, but the market here is difficult (and a reason I want to stay).

My 'millions' may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but as noted by a comment here, private schools serving local and expat kids are booming (besides construction, a good business bet).

The cultural reminder and many of your scripts are perfect!
posted by restless_nomad at 12:26 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

The place is too big, but special to me. It and it is WAY better than some $300 places I saw!
...Moving or quitting are an option but I love the place and feel strongly I should keep it.

Yes, but the fact remains: NEW SCHOOL is on the lease, not OP. You need to get your name on the lease, pronto, but until you accomplish that, they could move other people in because it is their apartment. If you really really want to keep the apartment, accomplish this through social persuasion. Going the lawyer/contract is a great way to lose the relationships (which translate to apartment and possibly job).

I know this is hard. Good luck and let us know how it goes!
posted by arnicae at 1:03 PM on June 3, 2014 [4 favorites]

Honey, they are dishonest thieves and they will NEVER ever deal honestly or fairly with you, even if you win this particular skirmish.

There's so much wrong with this situation and your update. You just don't "get" that no good comes from allowing dishonest confidence types to take advantage of you. Ever.

They can kick you out of the apartment at any moment. And they will.

Make sure you get paid well for your furnishings.

BTW. - do you want to know when I knew the score? When you wrote that they have not collected a paycheck for themselves yet. You have no idea what utter bullshit that is. Any business owner who tells you this is either (a) on their way to a failed business adventure that in the end will fail to pay you owed wages as the doors close for good, or (b) telling you a sob story to keep you from demanding the compensation your work is worth, but likely (c) both "a" and "b" are true.

Continue to count on these liars at your own peril.
posted by jbenben at 4:28 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Honey, they are dishonest thieves and they will NEVER ever deal honestly or fairly with you, even if you win this particular skirmish.

This is just not necessarily the case, and I super dooper strongly recommend not going in with all guns blazing - which is considered grossly, actively hostile in many places in Africa, and also consider disregarding all answers excepting those from people who have lived/worked in East Africa/Africa.

A certain degree of... bendiness is completely par for the course in a lot of African cultures. This isn't just about corruption (though it is that, too, but not in the way we in the West tend to envisage it. Corruption is part of many African cultures and not so easily separable from the broader cultural fabrics as you might think.). Specifically, in many East African cultures, there is a strong client/patron ethos. This can mean that there is a kind of 'sponsorship' aspect to relationships and if you cannot contribute with money (ie 'patron') you are expected to contribute in other ways.

Additionally - and I am far from expert, and my experience is most in Kenya with a soupcon of South Africa/Namibia - but these are cultures that tend to be far more hierarchical than Western societies, and they respect seniority much, much more - both symbolic seniority but also literal seniority in terms of age. These are also cultures where friendship and good relations take prime place - even in work or professional settings. You must be friendly, congenial, and humble if you want anything done.

These cultural settings can sometimes find the American/Western way of 'straight talking' incredibly confrontational and aggressive. These are not cultures where you will necessarily hear "no" when no is what is meant. Often proposals will be met with great enthusiasm and eagerness, and simply peter out or quietly disappear. Please don't bring in "the law" or your "legal rights" into this conversation; remember the law is worth two shits in a lot of these countries and it's not something friends would ever threaten.

I have no specific script for you, but this is my general advice. Sounds like a great opportunity to learn how to effectively Get Things Done in an African country - an envied and rare skill, OP! Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 5:00 PM on June 3, 2014 [8 favorites]

I lived in Egypt as an expat for a couple of years and have spent time in Ethiopia. I think your choice is this: welcome a roommate or find a new place. Yeah, it kinda sucks, but I wouldn't make this a thing, as it could put a damper on your whole experience there.

Are they taking on the entire $500 lease with this deal? I'd insist on that, at least.

I'd also start looking for a new position with an established international school, either in that country or elsewhere. Figure out where the US Embassy/military kids go to school. That's where you want to work.

It might be that you can't start another position until the 2015-16 school year, but this first year will teach you a whole lot.

Also, I sense your ambivalence about spending a lot of time with other expats, but those in similar work situations can teach you so much. Find those folks and use them as resources.

Good luck.
posted by bluedaisy at 6:17 PM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Hey - I just flagged my latest comment for the mods as it was in response to another comment that addressed me directly which disappeared, so I hope my (really unnecessary) clarification is removed....

I think bluedaisy is correct that you should look for an established and legitimate organization to work for.

I've lived and worked abroad from my home country, and my husband is from Egypt, all of his brothers have emigrated and live and work abroad, too.

Whether on your home turf or abroad, OP, the actions and statements of your employer(s) read like scammy bullshit that will not lead you to a secure footing. That is especially scary when far from home.

Watch your back. Cut bait with these folks and start over as soon as possible. They are blowing smoke up your ass, and whatever shenanigans they are up to, don't aid them by lending your expertise and nobility to inadvertently help cover their actions.

Some red flags are legit, and this is one of those times.

Maybe they mean well, but they are desperate to make things work here. The problem is they got shady (lying to usurp your lease) instead of approaching you directly.

Fucking with another's home is verboten, and shows Bad Faith on a phenomenal level. That's beyond cultural differences.

Right now OP, you do not have legal rights to the home you inhabit and pay rent for. You sub-lease from people who are actively going back on their agreement with you, an agreement that enticed you to sign on for less practical compensation then you normally would have agreed to.

I'm certain your credentials enhance their organization. They are not honoring your worth AND making your living situation unstable.

Understand an act accordingly.
posted by jbenben at 10:36 PM on June 3, 2014

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