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Can Your Boss Force You To Donate To Charity?

Dear Evil HR Lady,

Our company is sponsoring a charity event. It is a formal event. Tickets are $125 each. In conversation the boss told me that I was expected to sell 6 tickets. He then changed it and said well actually 4 since you and your husband will be there. I told him immediately that I didn't mind donating my time but that I could not afford to pay for myself much less myself and my husband to come to the event. He tried to make excuses saying it was a dinner out for us. I told him again that I couldn't afford it and wouldn't consider it a dinner out because I don't spend that kind of money on a dinner. He then said that he thought he had told me it was mandatory for staff.
Mind you that he was smiling when he said this. He makes regular attempts to invoke emotional responses from people by saying outrageous things. So at this time I really don't know if he was trolling me for a reaction or serious in his expectations. Usually I do not respond to his attempts to troll me but this one offended me.
Between the tickets, renting a tux and buying a formal dress it would cost approximately $400 to go. That is almost my full pay for week of work after taxes. That is a car payment. That is a months worth of groceries for my family. I have been actively seeking other employment since last October but as you know it's a really hard job market and finding a job that meets my minimum needs are hard to come by.

I have gone from a loyal employee that watched out for the owner of the company to someone with extremely low morale due to the poor management of the owner. I do my job exceptionally, I just do not put any more effort than what I expect for myself.
I'm not a lawyer, but I can certainly see many potential legal problems with this scenario. If the event is mandatory and you are non-exempt, you must be paid for it. Additionally, charging you for attending something mandatory (licensing costs are are different story, so we're not talking about this), is, essentially, a pay cut. (Clothing is irrelevant, as everyone has to wear clothes, but tickets are relevant here.) You can't deduct pay from an exempt employee, so that would be ill advised as well.

But, in all honesty, the above paragraph is pretty irrelevant to the situation because no lawyer would take your case and the Department of Labor has bigger fish to fry. So, let's talk about what on earth your boss is thinking.

$400 is a lot of money to you, especially for a night out. I imagine that it's a lot of money to many of my readers. However, to some people out there, this cost is merely a blip on the radar. It's all about ratios. If you borrowed $2 from me, I'd instantly forget about it and would never ask for it back. ("I want my $2!" Ahem, back to the post.) However, if you borrowed $200 from me, you can bet I'd remember. On the other hand, if you borrowed $2 from my 8 year old, she'd be on your case every day because $2 is a fortune to her.

Your boss may consider a $250 dinner (he's not going to think about clothing costs) the same way I consider $2: Just not a big deal. Therefore, when you say you can't afford to come, his brain filters that as, "she's got to be joking! $250 is no big deal. Lazy employee." And no, he's not thinking about how your salary is much lower than his.

Or, your boss is a super controlling jerk. Hard to tell (although I'm leaning towards this).

Either way, you can't afford to go, and you can't afford not to go. Companies push certain charities all the time. Some companies push United Way something fierce and managers ate expected to have a certain percentage of their employees signed up. The pressure can be pretty intense if you don't want to participate, especially at the higher levels. Saying no is not a good move, professionally. Not because someone would ever say, "Bob, we're not promoting you because you didn't donate part of your salary to United Way," but because in the back of everyone's mind, Bob is not a team player, plus he's selfish and doesn't care at all about [insert horrible thing happening to other people, plants or animals]. Bob's claim that he gives generously to other charities are assumed to be fake.

You've already decided that you don't wish to stay here forever and are job hunting. Good. Because this is an unpleasant place to stay. Here's what I would do in your shoes.

  1. Sell 6 tickets. That was the original quota. This is a (relatively) reasonable request from a boss.
  2. Work very hard to make the evening a success. You must maintain a positive attitude and not say anything negative about the charity or the event.
  3. Laugh like it's no big deal. When the boss says, "You're coming tomorrow night, right?" The answer is, "Oh I wish, but I could come only if you give me a $250 bonus! Have a great time!" When he says, "I thought I told you this was mandatory!" Respond casually, "Ha, very funny. If it's mandatory, then you have to pay me for the time, plus buy my tickets! Nothing like getting time and a half for eating a fancy dinner!" Lather, rinse, repeat as needed.
  4. Make a small donation to the charity. This is one that fits you budget. Ask the charity for a little "award" you can place in your cube that says, "The Abandoned Bunny Carrot Fund thanks Jane Doe for her generous donation!" Then hang this up in your cube.
  5. Pretend your boss isn't getting to you. Since I'm guessing he falls under the controlling jerk category, he's going to attempt to make you angry. Don't give in to that urge.
And now for the dose of reality: This really could further sour your relationship with your boss. You are already harboring negative feelings and this could make your boss feel the same way about you. It could result in a firing, although the cause will not be stated as, "did not donate to charity," but this will contribute to your label of "not a team player." This is especially critical if the charity is central to the company. That is, if you work for a non-profit, you can't get out of going to a fundraiser for your own non-profit, but if you work for a for profit company that just does this to be nice, you're more easily able to skip it.

Do the negatives outweigh the positives for not going? If so, you may need to suck it up and go. Borrow a dress from a friend and leave your husband at home. Technically, a boss can't force you to donate to a charity, but there are negative consequences. Sometimes those consequences aren't worth the fight.

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Photo by HowardLake, Flickr cc 2.0.
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