How to handle a very difficult conversation with the boss
December 9, 2017 12:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm faced with a job situation that will require some tricky maneuvering. How should I handle this? Apologies in advance for the length.

I'll just state up front that I have to be exceptionally vague about some details here. The job is a public sector job, and therefore is a bit more politically delicate than a private sector job would be, so the ordinary private sector rules may not apply.

About a year ago, I learned that I'd have to leave my current job and find a new one somewhere within the same very large public sector employer. The reason I was leaving had nothing to do with merit, as I was and am well-liked at my current job; it had to do with factors beyond my or anyone else's control. My current employer wanted to keep me working within my current division, but budgetary and political factors made that very, very difficult.

So some months ago, my current boss learned from one of her colleagues, whom I'll call J, that J was looking to fill a position because someone in her office had left. In a very broad sense, Current Boss and J work within the same organization, but the two jobs are very, very different. I went and interviewed with J, and she offered me the job a few days later. J agreed with Current Boss that I could work at J's office one day a week until December 31, when my current job ends.

Current Boss and I agreed to postpone telling R, the head of my current employer, that I was leaving. Unfortunately, Current Boss sort of carelessly let the news drop in a meeting with R. I immediately went downstairs to talk with R, apologized for not telling him myself, and explained to him that I had to accept the position with J because my spouse isn't currently employed and I could not be unemployed under any circumstances so my hands were really bound in decision whether to take the job with J. He was slightly annoyed, but he understood, and said that he was going to try very hard to get a new position approved so that he could keep me at my current division. Now, this is a drama that has played out many, many times here at this employer: people have to leave and the organization promises to find them a new position, but 90% of the time it doesn't happen, largely for political reasons. So I thanked R, told him I hoped the door would be open for me if I ever found myself in need of employment again, and left his office on good terms assuming that it wasn't going to be an issue because the budget for the new position would never be approved, at least not for a year or more.

I started working at J's office once a week. I like J very much, and I like the other staff members. Still, the job had some serious disadvantages, namely, a not-insignificant pay cut, a far longer commute, earlier hours, an area of town I'm not too crazy about, and an office culture to which I'm not particularly well-suited. (Ok, well, extremely ill-suited, actually.) And for reasons I'm not going to get into, the job is limited in time, so that in four years, I'll be looking for yet another position. (Please assume that this is definite and not changeable.) But I took the position because it's not easy to find another job at my level at the same pay.

This week, I was out of town on business for the new job, and I got a call from R telling me to call him on his cell phone. This is *highly* unusual, to say the least. I called him, and he told me that surprise, they had approved the budget for a new position for me, so I could stay at my current employer.

Now, in one way I am thrilled to death about this. I've been at this employer for 11 years, and I didn't want to leave. There are a few pretty minor things I don't like about this job, but I realize that I'm spectacularly lucky to have the job I do in the field I'm in. And as I noted, the new job has serious disadvantages that I had decided to just make the best of. But on the other hand, I now have to have a very, very unpleasant conversation with J, who has already put time and money into training me, bringing me into the fold, etc. I feel awful about the fact that I'm leaving her in the lurch.

So the question becomes: how do I handle the conversation with J? Or should I just suck it up, chalk it up to bad timing, and stay at J's organization so that I'm not viewed as unreliable? A relevant point: within the broad organization I work for, both J and R are very powerful and respected; pissing off either one of them is bad, so I'm kind of between a rock and a hard place. Again, this is not a private sector job, so the general rules of "To hell with it, you're allowed to leave an employer at any time because they'd do the same to you" don't apply here at all. Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don’t think you should give up a job with major advantages for a job with major disadvantages—in terms of pay, workplace culture and permanence—just so that you look reliable. So I think the conversation with J definitely needs to happen and to happen ASAP.

Perhaps one thing you might raise—having explained how, unexpectedly, your original (permanent, better-paid) job has been resurrected and how your financial situation means you can’t turn it down—is how you can support J’s team while she is recruiting someone else for your role? You’ve been working in her office one day a week at present; is there a way to continue doing that, or to fulfil some of the other responsibilities of the job in a flexible way, while a replacement is being recruited?
posted by Aravis76 at 12:45 AM on December 9, 2017 [11 favorites]

I really don't think this will be as difficult as you're fearing. J is probably familiar enough with the organization that they knew this was always a possibility. You're not unreliable, the system is-- that's extremely clear. And you're lucky in the sense that the salary, commute, and job end date make this a total no-brainer; J knows you'd be a fool to stay with the new job.

For organizational peace, you might want to brainstorm with your current boss and/or R about how to deal with J.
posted by acidic at 12:49 AM on December 9, 2017 [27 favorites]

To me this sounds like generic public sector shenanigans... You like your workplace, budgets are tight and slow. You looked for a job, and the budget changed so you can now stay where you were. It's unfortunate to take a job and back out for the new employer but understandable and normal in a situation like this.

I don't think they will begrudge you at all.
posted by AlexiaSky at 2:26 AM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

Despite all cultural pressure to the contrary, you are not beholden to any employer for their deigning to enter into an agreement to exchange your labour for money. And, in reality, most people know that. You're not being unreliable in taking a better job, you're being rational. Only an employer so irrational and power crazed that you wouldn't want to work for them in a million years is going to be angry about you making a decision which is so clearly the only correct one for yourself and your family. I think it it would be courteous to explain the basic reasons for your decision, but beyond that, they just have to accept the reality of living in the world we currently inhabit.
posted by howfar at 3:03 AM on December 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

J did your current boss a favor by agreeing to take you on, so that your current boss wouldn't have to leave you in the lurch. While this favor obviously benefitted you, too, by providing a backstop against unemployment, you weren't the horse trader. You were the horse being traded. Someday your current boss will do a similar favor for J, and the cosmic balance will be righted.

Write J a heartfelt thank-you note, and offer to help in any way you can from your new position. It might be unlikely, but your initially wanting a job with J was unlikely, so unlikely situations do arise.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:42 AM on December 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

To clarify, heartfelt thanks in the conversation is important, too. And offering to help with the transition. I'm suggesting the note in addition to that, to help balance out the feeling that J has done you a favor you can't repay.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:46 AM on December 9, 2017

Yes, agreed that it would be best if either your boss or R spoke with J initially. Then you can follow up with thanks, offers to help, and so on.
posted by salvia at 5:44 AM on December 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Start with thanking R for getting the funding. Ask R about communication strategy with J, with an eye towards having R reach out to J and tell her you're being retained.

You of course then follow up with J graciously, thank her for everything she's done, tell her how interesting her department's work is (or whatever nice thing you can say about it) and how much you appreciated the chance to be part of it, but of course you aren't going to disrupt your current role since the funding has been obtained. (Don't say anything about the new role's downsides.)

posted by fingersandtoes at 6:57 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I absolutely would not have the two bosses communicate about this first - you are not a piece of office furniture being passed around, you're a person who has made a decision in your own best interest - and although it might not be a pleasant conversation, you need to have it. I think after you have shared the news with J, it's appropriate for R to follow up with J as colleagues, but breaking the news is on you.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 7:01 AM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

You're definitely overthinking this, and likely projecting emotions and drama onto the management that don't exist. If J has been a manager in the public sector for any length of time, then J will know that a higher salary, greater job security, and a better commute are objectively better. In addition, you're currently only working for J 20% of the time. You are very replaceable. J will understand that this was always a risk. If J casts any shade your way at all, ignore it. That's on J. You don't owe J anything.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 8:27 AM on December 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I don’t work in the public sector so I can’t comment on the politics of that, but I am a boss and have been involved in similar situations (layoffs at a partner business, and a colleague manager at the other business reached out to me to see if a member of her team could be hired on my team in lieu of termination).

If you’ve never been on the manager side of this equation you may not realize how many assumptions you’re packing into this situation.

As others have already said, you’re taking on some cultural baggage that is very much an expression of the manager-employee power dynamic, and exacerbated by the politics of your job sector. When people allow these assumptions to go unchecked, it widens the gap between workers and bosses and inherently makes workers feel powerless, even though in many cases this is not true.

In reality, unless you have experienced that these people are already bad actors (power hungry, petty, jealous, vengeful, etc), you’re attributing potential negative reactions to what is a perfectly reasonable decision they themselves would also make if they were in your shoes.

Speaking as a manager who has had employees leave my team “at a bad time” (there’s no such thing as a good time to leave, teams don’t generally work that way) and for similar reasons or under similar circumstances, I can tell you that I didn’t resent them or find them unreliable. And when it made sense, I tried to hire them back.

You have to do what’s best for you. Any employer who expects otherwise is a bad employer and you don’t want to work them. So if your question is coming from a place where these things are true, then you are actually in a bad employment space and my advice is: take the job you WANT and start working toward getting to a better employer in the next year before budgets happen and your job is on the line again.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:32 AM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

You've only worked, what, like 16 days in J's office? That's not a huge lost investment for her. Don't stress.
posted by metasarah at 8:51 AM on December 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

I also work a similar sector and have seen dynamics like this many times. I don't think it will be as bad as you think, and J is probably well aware of the various factors at play. She also knows that you are not necessarily the best fit for her particular branch of the organization, and while she was happy to have you, she will probably not be heartbroken to find somebody who really wants that particular job. Just the fact that you are taking a pay cut for this position would signal to me, as a manager, that you are likely to have your eyes open to other opportunities if they come up. (That's not something I would hold against you, but I would know it was going on.)

I'd recommend contacting J asap, thanking her for her support and kindness, and explaining the situation. Giving her as much time as possible to find someone else will be key. Also, if you can continue your one day per week arrangement with her in the interim, that might make things easier for her (provided your current management will agree). After you've had that conversation, you could ask either R or your immediate manager to give her a call and thank her as well.
posted by rpfields at 9:11 AM on December 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

I guarantee J has dealt with this before if he/she has been in a management role for any period of time. So I think J would understand.

Before you say anything to J, I think you need to accept the job with R and ensure you've crossed the Ts and dotted the Is. Only then should you talk to J. And whether R talks to J about this or not, I think you still have to say something.

When you talk to J, I would be honest, but apologetic and willing to accommodate. Tell J what you told us here -- you are so appreciative of the job ad enjoyed getting to work with him/her and everyone there, but you took a significant pay cut and your spouse is not working so you can't pass up the opportunity in your current department. Offer to stay on a couple weeks to ease the transition or whatever R will allow. Thank him/her for giving you the opportunity.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:09 AM on December 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

Start by losing your assumption that it must be a "very, very unpleasant conversation." You'll be brief, direct, apologetic, appreciative, and accommodating. It'll be fine. This seems to be looming large for you but for J it's all in a day's work. Scripts above are good. Congratulations on getting your job back - R sounds like a great grand-boss!
posted by Gnella at 11:55 AM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also work in a public sector job, and I really think it will be fine. Memail me if you want to hear my awkward job transfer story, but the awkwardness was manageable and dissipated quickly. Everyone involved understood these things happen and that everyone makes the best decision for themselves - unfortunately sometimes this is the only way it can work. I still have good working relationships with my former bosses, and the job offer I ended up rejecting left the door open. I helped smooth things over by continuing to be helpful to the extent reasonable.

I would just recommend being very certain the approval to stay at your current employer will go through before taking too much action.
posted by sepviva at 4:55 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yet another public sector employee here. I'm assuming your new/current position is a term-limited one? The desire to forsake a term job in favor of a permanent one would be understood and supported by any supervisor I've ever known.
posted by Lycaon_pictus at 5:45 PM on December 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Followup from the anonymous OP:
Thanks very much for all your responses! I had the Talk today and it went about as well as could be expected. J was reasonably nice about it, although she was not thrilled. She did not leap across the desk and kill me, so I regard it as a win. She also acknowledged that I really had to do what was best for me. I also agreed that I would stay on until she found a replacement, and R gave the ok for it. (Oddly, she told me that R had sort of made an oblique remark to her just last night at an event about the whole situation, but it was so oblique that she really didn't know what he was talking about.) So, it's done. I'm sort of cowering in my office for the next two hours, but that's the worst of it.

So, I survived, and it looks like it will be ok, if a bit awkward for a while. Thanks again!
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:26 PM on December 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

« Older Giving notice prior to an official offer   |   Someday I’ll have two good arms again, but not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.