How to respond to request to give money to rich boss?
November 1, 2018 3:03 PM   Subscribe

How should employees respond to a suggestion to pool together money for a superior?

This is a smallish organization (under 20 employees) that does social good work. The founders are visibly wealthy.
The staff are not well paid, but "do good things for the world," which somehow justifies the low salaries. Most staffers are late 20s to early 30s. The salaries would not be enough to support a family - it is $20k less than the "comfortability" rating in our city.
The founders' teenage child has a serious medical thing (not disclosed to the staff), so the founders are working from home for the foreseeable future.
A staff person asked "Is there anything nice that we can do for them?" at a recent staff meeting. A non-founder boss suggested that the staffers pool together money to buy the family a gift card to the expensive grocery store (a store that is completely out of reach for my middle class social circle).
To me, this request is unethical. This family does not need that money. But more importantly, it seems inappropriate for underlings to pull together money for a boss. And even if there was a way for some people to opt-out, certainly someone at the organization would be aware that that person opted out. In the past, such fundraising efforts were done in very visible ways like a Google doc or sign up sheet. At this organization there are often semi-mandatory fundraising efforts, often for causes that are related to the higher ups, like their kids' school fundraisers or charity runs that they and their friends participate in. Never has any non-boss done such a fundraiser.

I am all for the staffers sending a card or maybe a gift that is oriented toward the sick teen (a family board game?). If the founders lived nearby, dropping off a meal would be in the cards but the founders live on an exclusive island that would require an expensive boat ride to get to.

What can a staffer that doesn't like this idea do without seeming uncaring? This could be both for that individual, but even better would be a strategy that helps to advocate for all staffers not having to engage in this. For example, having a quiet side conversation with suggesting boss that "I OF COURSE want to help Founders, but isn't it a bit unethical to ask underlings to contribute to this?"
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
In this situation I would simply say, "I'm sorry, but I don't think that would be appropriate." Full stop.

Maybe I'd be more diplomatic and say, "I'd love to do something to help the founders, but as an employee I don't think a financial gift would be appropriate. Maybe a nice card?" That would be the diplomatic version.

No need to beat around the bush here. Be professional, but don't sugarcoat it.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2018 [48 favorites]

this sort of thing comes up a lot on Ask a Manager. You're totally right, of course; the idea of you guys giving them money is both unhelpful (they lack for health, not money) and kind of grotesque given the economic class disparity. What they could use from you maybe is sympathy and caring, not part of your paycheck.

A card signed by everyone would be on point. How about getting a few people together to tell the boss something like "money seems like a weird and awkward gift. We can't give a big gift and a small one seems like a weird token, and anyway it's not like they lack for money. A heartfelt card we all write our well-wishes on is more personal and can't be taken the wrong way."
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

For example, having a quiet side conversation with suggesting boss that "I OF COURSE want to help Founders, but isn't it a bit unethical to ask underlings to contribute to this?"

If you think your boss is generally reasonable, I would go more for something like "I OF COURSE want to help Founders, but I feel that it's unethical to ask underlings to contribute to this, and I have x suggestion instead." Never ask a boss a rhetorical question.
posted by showbiz_liz at 3:18 PM on November 1, 2018 [15 favorites]

“I can’t, sorry.”
posted by STFUDonnie at 3:27 PM on November 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Honestly, I’d kick in $10 and call it a day. I understand your position, for sure, but I’ve also been someone with a serious health condition and this seems like a clear incidence of people really wanting to do *something* to feel like they’re helping but not really knowing what to do. I will tell you that I appreciated every bit of everything people did with that intention even though in the end I received lots of things I didn’t need, per se.

Yeah, as a rule it sucks to be asked to give a rich boss money. And they don’t need it. But they’re struggling with a big stressor and it will feel nice to know their employees care.
posted by something something at 3:39 PM on November 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

I agree with you, but I think telling people they want to do an unethical thing is usually a non-starter in workplace situations, and you might have more traction with, "I feel like a gift card is really impersonal and the amount we're capable of pitching in won't seem like much to them--can we find a gift that will really demonstrate that we care?"

I don't like employees being asked for money period, but if you're doing something like getting them an actual gift, something could be found that would be meaningful even if everybody puts in $5 or less.
posted by Sequence at 3:43 PM on November 1, 2018 [27 favorites]

Tone deaf I agree.

If you wanted to do something get together send a card “thinking of you”.
posted by Middlemarch at 3:43 PM on November 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does anyone know the nature of the illness? Because a small donation to a charitable organization that funds research/support/treatment of the illness in their name would be thoughtful and would not involve giving money directly to your bosses.
posted by jesourie at 3:55 PM on November 1, 2018 [17 favorites]

I’m in agreement with you, and I suggest that If each employee kicks in $2 or $3 you can have a nice bouquet of flowers delivered to the founders’ home (on their exclusive island. When I got to that part I laughed out loud).
posted by ejs at 4:15 PM on November 1, 2018 [10 favorites]

You already give these people lots and lots of money.
Subtract your wages from your value to the organization: the number you are left with is the amount of money you give them every year.
The idea that it is some kind of injustice that they might have to spend some of the money that they routinely steal from you, the idea that this means you should offer them even more? That is one of the most despicable, ass-backwards suggestions I have ever heard.

In a perfect world, you would not only refuse, but make it clear that the very suggestion is offensive, and explain why loudly enough to be heard by anyone in earshot.
posted by Krawczak at 4:56 PM on November 1, 2018 [11 favorites]

I'm torn here.

On the one hand I agree with all of this and think a card is perfectly appropriate and adequate.

On the other hand, it sounds a little like you're wanting to express a (valid) grievance by digging your heals in on something that isn't really related and in a way that won't do anything for you. Like it really sounds like you want opting out of the card to express to your boss that the income disparity is problematic.

The income disparity is problematic and I already clicked like on some opt-out answers above, but my living-my-best-life response is: pitch in ten bucks for something that doesn't make sense and save your energy on the fucked up income structure of your company/every nonprofit/everything for another day. This is the wrong time to make it an issue.

(And in truth, I'd find it more galling that my employers could work from home when life happens because I'm laying very good odds you don't have that option.)
posted by Smearcase at 5:05 PM on November 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I have cancer, and if someone made a donation in my name to an organization fighting my kind of cancer, I would be majorly creeped out because that’s usually done in the event of a death and I’m worried about dying anyway. I think it would be even worse if the sick person were my child.

Grocery gift certificates are for families financially struggling. Few teenagers want flowers. I think board game is better here if the child can even play board games. OP says they haven’t been given specifics, but maybe the manager would know.

I like fingersandtoes’ suggestion. AskaManager frequently points out that some things work better if they come from a group.
posted by FencingGal at 5:22 PM on November 1, 2018 [8 favorites]

You could potentially talk to the manager along the lines of "hey I really want to help boss, but I've actually been hit by some big unexpected expenses lately. I know I'm not the only one having a bit of trouble. Do you think we could manage the donation process in a way that protects people's privacy so that those of us who can donate less aren't embarrassed? And are there non-monetary ways to express our support?"

(I would not use the word "unethical." I get why it offends you, but if you're speaking on your own behalf, I'd use "i" language rather than judgmental language, and even if you're speaking on behalf of others, I'd say "it doesn't seem appropriate to ask for donations from staff" because that's less freighted with "you're bad and should feel bad").
posted by salvia at 6:38 PM on November 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

How is the money being collected? Is it the standard zero-visibility envelope passed around office & cube, where no one knows who put in what or indeed if anything at all? Because IIUC you aren't asking how to personally decline, you think it's unethical for this to be even an optional thing?

I think most people will not process this as "giving money" but as "sending an expression of sympathy and comfort." How do you tell someone that their kind gesture is unethical? I don't think you can tell people not to do this for any of the reasons you raise here and not at least some people's hackles *way* up.

There's room to suggest better gifts--a grocery gift card is a pretty low bar. I'd say flowers for the family and remainder to a charity is pretty solid. (You don't know the illness so any charity is fine.)

If a manager is trying to levy $10 per head and keeping a list to track who owes what or something then my god they need to stop. One of the few advantages of giftcards is that you can just spend everything donated instead of trying to meet a goal.
posted by mark k at 8:22 PM on November 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'd be more upset about being asked to contribute to their kids' school fundraisers, which is kind of like being asked to pay for some of their tuition. And presumably it's the people whose kids are benefiting who are doing the asking. I would not give a cent to an effort like that; I'd say no, I can't afford it, or I'm maxed out on my charities for the year, or whatever.

This other thing? I think it's also inappropriate; money should not flow up the employment hierarchy, especially when there's an income disparity like you describe. But that boss may have just been making a stab at a suggestion, not deliberately perpetuating the exploitation that's going on. Of course these things are often not deliberate and I'd probably just passive-aggressively take my $20 or whatever and give it to the local food bank.
posted by BibiRose at 8:52 PM on November 1, 2018 [5 favorites]

I do agree that your boss's intentions were almost certainly innocent. Grocery store gift cards are a common thank-you gift for companies to give to their employees around Christmas and such (slightly less impersonal than cash, and everybody can use groceries) so it's probably just the first thing they reached for. It seems more thoughtless than, like, malicious or whatever.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:02 AM on November 2, 2018

It is completely, utterly inappropriate, and you should put the kibosh on it. Someone needs to be the person to speak up to the boss and say "hey, asking for money in this situation is not appropriate. I know you mean well, but this is putting our junior employees in a very awkward position."

I agree with others upthread that describing it as unethical is totally the wrong approach. It casts suspicions on the intent that I expect are not warranted. The boss who suggested this isn't trying to think of a way to get the already-rich founders some more free money, they're just being horrendously classist in their approach to expressing sympathy.
posted by desuetude at 9:03 AM on November 2, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh my god, they live on a PRIVATE ISLAND? Another vote for gently mentioning the inappropriateness of this idea to your undoubtedly clueless boss and suggesting an option (I really like the board game suggestion! Or maybe like a movie night gift box or something like that.) that doesn't require employees to publicly sign up to contribute money that would mean a lot more to them than it would to the founders.

Also, quick aside, the absurdity of radically underpaying one's employees while literally living on a private island is leaving me flabbergasted. I know that's not uncommon for some non-profit orgs, but HOLY COW. Yeah, seriously, they don't need any of y'all's money at this time, and I might even take it a step further once there's some distance from this and privately bring up the fact that it's probably not a great idea to hit up one's underpaid employees for their kids' school fundraisers either.* That is SHOCKINGLY tone deaf.

*Except for Girl Scout cookies. That's always allowed.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:54 AM on November 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

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