I have been known to be a compassionate person. Sometimes it overflows into my work. I'm a regular manager at a restaurant (nothing too important, just running shifts, blah blah blah), who has mostly teens working. The entire staff (including the management team) are a close group. Obviously, there are boundaries we, as management, do not cross. We don't hang outside of work for instance.

I am a young woman myself (early 20's) so relating to my employees can be a blessing and a curse.

I have a girl (freshly graduated) who told me her parents had kicked her out because she was not able to attend college right away (details aren't really important). She said she was staying at a friend's house, on the floor. While telling me this, she is crying. I had been in a similar situation right out of high school with almost no direction or help. I know her struggle. Without thinking it over, I offered to let her borrow my blow up mattress until she could buy one.

MY boss caught wind of our exchange and told me it was inappropriate to offer outside help because we are the bosses and she is an employee. That's it. As if the conversation should have ended with me saying, "oh sorry, that sucks. Good luck."

Do you think what I did was okay or is my boss right and it was inappropriate?

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    Culture might be relevant here, so it might make sense to add a country tag. (Personally, as someone running a small, family-owned business in Austria, I am quite shocked by your boss' reaction. I grew up with the "the employees take care of your business, and you take care of your employees" mindset. Helping someone in an emergency would be a no-brainer.) – Heinzi Aug 6 at 11:32
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    Is it possible that the boss is saying this not to be heartless, but because of worries about managers offering favors and then taking advantage of teenage employees? – DaveG Aug 6 at 15:13
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    Is it possible your boss, knowing your compassion, fears this may escalate into larger favors, so is overreacting at this first small act of kindness? – rrauenza Aug 6 at 16:38
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    @Heinzi The location tag should be mandatory imho. From a european (dutch) perspective, this boss' reaction is beyond heartless (I saw my former employer set up an employee with temporary housing and help her move in a similar situation), but for the US (sadly) this is wednesday. – Douwe Aug 8 at 7:54
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    Did your boss actually understand what help you were intending to give? Maybe he just heard part of it and assumed the rest was inappropriate for some reason. That wouldn't excuse his overreaction, but at least it might make it more understandable. – Brandin Aug 8 at 13:01

13 Answers 13

I offered to let her borrow my blow up mattress until she could buy one.

MY boss caught wind of our exchange and told me it was innapropriate to offer outside help because we are the bosses and she is an employee. That's it. As if the conversation should have ended with me saying, "oh sorry, that sucks. Good luck."

Do you think what I did was okay or is my boss right and it was innapropriate?

Your boss is an idiot.

I think what you did was completely appropriate and compassionate. And I think you may have increased the appreciation and loyalty of that employee significantly.

People have work lives and home lives. They always intertwine.

As bosses, we need to primarily consider the company's needs first. But that doesn't mean we can't help with our employee's needs as well. I've done similar things many times. Borrowing a blow up mattress should in no way interfere with work, your relationship with your employees, or your relationship with your boss.

It might be an issue if you were loaning out company property. But the air mattress is yours to do with it whatever you choose.

Now you know that your boss would never go out of his way to help you. Don't use him as a role model for being a good boss yourself. And tread lightly with him in the future. When you are kind to your team members, try to make sure he doesn't catch wind of it.

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    I think your answer is spot on, but you may be being a little hard on the boss. In some areas of the US, common kindness can be misconstrued as inappropriate. It may be that the boss was trying to protect his team member, even though in this case it was overboard. Some managers feel more comfortable with black and white rules, and it may be appropriate in an industry where there are a lot of managers and employees that are relatively new to the workforce. I agree the boss should have handled this differently, but they may be trying to help FlashMom avoid future problems. – ColleenV Aug 6 at 13:47
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    I agree with you, this was most likely appropriate, and OP is to be commended. But, I think it's worth highlighting that although helping someone out like this is a wonderful thing to do, it is also not without risks. With the modern lawsuit-obsessed culture, helping people is increasingly dangerous. I can just picture if OP was a man... "I said I needed a bed, and he told me I could use his. Harassment!" My point is, BOSS might very well have been trying to protect her. If he's been burned from trying to help someone in the past, he could honestly mean well. – Benubird Aug 9 at 9:44
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    I would suggest to not assume that her boss is male. It is perfectly fine to use singular they instead of 'his'. – kukis Aug 9 at 14:47
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    Just to clarify my earlier comment. I don’t think helping someone in need is ever inappropriate. I just wonder if the boss’s motivation here was to protect their direct report from their generosity toward someone they have power over being misconstrued as opposed to the boss just being an “idiot”. As an aside, I don’t like name calling. It’s not constructive and makes it hard to see someone who said something dumb as someone who could be persuaded to change their point of view. – ColleenV Aug 9 at 17:30
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    To add to this excellent answer, you should be prepared to write off the mattress. Loaning it out to an employee could/should only become an issue if you want it back and she can't/won't return it. Then you have a personal issue which may intrude on work. So just don't expect the return of the mattress and be pleasantly surprised when (if) it comes back to you. – G. Ann - SonarSource Team Aug 9 at 18:11

While it's true that you shouldn't breach the line between private and professional interactions, I think borrowing a blow up mattress is not something too personal.

To make it clear to your boss that you didn't intent to breach the professional-personal-line, you could argue that your help was only intended to keep your employees healthy and in working order.

Anyone crying during work has some serious problem and is not 100% fit to work. Anyone kicked out by their parents and sleeping on the floor might catch any number of health issues (from simple cold to joint aches to severe psychological issues like burn out).

So assure your boss that you only want the best for your employees to keep them healthy and in best working order. That sounds like exploiting, but it seems to be exactly what you boss wants to hear.

If your boss askes you why you helped your employee, you should answer something like "Because I care for all my employees." Period.

If he digs deeper, you might add "I care for the health and well-being of all of them and lending an inexpensive item for temporary use was just a small act of kindness."

Don't make it about one particular person and don't disclose the current situation of your young employee to him.

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    Yeah, it's sad when an act of compassion has to be explained as "I was just maintaining the robots." – David Richerby Aug 6 at 13:23
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    Given the picture of the boss that's painted by the one interaction the OP's told us about, I wouldn't recommend this. The sort of boss who objects to small acts of kindness as unprofessional is also liable to take you far more seriously than you want them to if you tell them that an employee is unfit to do their job, and you may not like the results. When your primary objective is to shield yourself or someone vulnerable you care about from a nasty person with power over you, and that person isn't currently digging their claws in deeper, the best thing you can do is keep your head down. – Mark Amery Aug 6 at 13:51
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    @MarkAmery: the best thing you can do is keep your head down Ignoring a minor injustice because you fear the threat of a bigger injustice is decision for someone to personally make, but it is not acceptable as a rule or standard of approach (when it is accepted as a common rol, it implicitly condones the minor injustice). – Flater Aug 6 at 14:04
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    @Flater Hence the qualifier about what your objectives are at the beginning of the sentence that you've quoted from. Telling the boss that you think his approach to the situation is unkind and unjust and that you object to it morally... that's also be a defensible course of action, which, depending upon your values, you might prefer. But it's not what YElm's answer recommends; instead it recommends bringing the issue back up in a way that doesn't challenge the boss's attitude but does bring the fitness to work of the girl the OP cares about into question. It's the worst of both worlds. – Mark Amery Aug 6 at 14:17
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    @MarkAmery: The answer amounts to sticking to the original idea that this help was fair to offer. Regardless of whether I consider that the correct answer or not, that is not the same as keeping your head down. Note that I don't disagree with your main point, but I do disagree with the conclusion of keeping your head down being the best response. Maybe more directly phrased as: a nasty person with power over you, and that person isn't currently digging their claws in deeper, the best thing you can do is keep your head down The best thing you can do is remove the claws, not just endure them. – Flater Aug 6 at 14:28

Yes - you may have crossed the line ... had you got the company to buy the blow up mattress, but it was your personal one; and the company is not at liberty to say who you can or can not be friends with, nor who you can lend your own personal items to. There is no group in the world who would consider this a bribe or gift since you're lending the mattress, and you're not in a position to get anything back from her.

I would firstly ask your boss how he thinks you should've resolved the situation - and if the answer is ultimately that he wouldn't; I would ask your boss if the company enforcing who you can be friends with, or what you do in your personal life is breaching professional conduct.

I would also do some soul searching yourself - is this a person you want to work for?

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    "the company is not at liberty to say who you can or can not be friends with" Well, they kind of are. Management is typically expected to be friendly, but not friends, with the people who report to them, for a number of reasons. To be sure not everyone agrees with that idea, but it's certainly not an uncommon attitude to workplace relationships. (Not that the actions from the OP are boundary-crossing.) – Lilienthal Aug 6 at 13:44
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    @Lilienthal what is expected, what is enforceable, and what is reasonable are all different. I don't disagree that some places expect it - I've seen it myself; but that doesn't mean it's something that it's enforceable or reasonable. – UKMonkey Aug 6 at 14:15
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    @Mindwin In some countries management cannot even tell people who they can date. Walmart lost some lawsuits over that in Germany; see dw.com/en/labor-of-love-in-the-german-workplace/a-1777428 – Robert Aug 6 at 15:25
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    @Lilienthal Uh, I’m at a slight loss here. How can it ever be management’s business to say whom I can be friends with? – intelfx Aug 6 at 17:32
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    @Robert and in others they can? How screwed up is this? – intelfx Aug 6 at 17:36

It could very well be possible that your boss misunderstood what was said, and believed that the employee was borrowing a blow up bed to be slept in at your house. Meaning that the teenage employee would be sleeping at your house. You may have misunderstood their reaction.

If he caught you saying: "Yeah you can borrow a bed. Come over anytime." but missed the context that it was a blow-up bed, and the visit was to collect it, it's easy to understand the reaction.

To paint a picture, if it was a young vulnerable female employee, and an older male manager we, as a society, would probably react the same way if we misinterpreted the situation in this manner.

The best course of action would be to apologize to your boss, and ensure you both have a reasonable understanding of the situation. If your boss has concerns around the employee being held to a lower standard while at work, you can simply allay those fears but confirming that you will hold the employee to the same standards as others.

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    This is a good point. It is possible they misunderstood. Offering to let a vulnerable teenaged employee sleep at your house is something that should be treated with a lot more caution than simply loaning an airbed. This goes both ways to some extent. The homeless teenager may like getting a free bed and not make any effort to move out. The manager is then forced to either tolerate a non-paying tenant indefinitely or kicking them out. Neither of those is good for employee relations. Provided the asker is willing to write off the airbed if necessary it seems like a drama free option. – Eric Nolan Aug 8 at 14:40

My boss ... told me it was inappropriate to offer outside help because we are the bosses and she is an employee

That can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, anywhere between two extremes of actually being forbidden by company policy, all the way to being an entirely private, personal opinion of your boss about how social relationships in the workplace ought to work.

Don't try to guess what your boss meant. The only way to proceed is to politely ask:

Why is a boss offering help to an employee outside of work inappropriate?

And potentially repeat the question until concrete reasons are given and there is no room left for interpretation. At that point, you should have a pretty solid answer to your question.

Depending upon that answer, and your own personal code of morals and ethics, you can then take a decision about whether this is a company, and/or boss, you are happy working for.

  • You've omitted the clarification already mentioned by OP/the boss. "it was innapropriate to offer outside help because we are the bosses and she is an employee". That clearly confirms that this isn't just a personal opinion, but a professional one. – Flater Aug 6 at 13:20
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    You are correct - I was just being concise but I will include that to add that context, however my point still stands - why is this the case? To me it remains unclear whether it's because of company policy or private opinion. – davnicwil Aug 6 at 13:23
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    @Flater That sounds like a completely personal opinion to me. If my boss said that, I would (and have, in similar situations) replied "Fortunately that is an opinion rather than a fact. I respect your right to have such an opinion, but I do not share that opinion." – Aaron Aug 6 at 16:23

A point I didn't see anyone else bring up, in this level of detail at least:

Your boss may be concerned about your future interactions with the employee. In particular, what if the mattress isn't returned?

  • You could allow a personal issue between you and the employee to impact your evaluation of the employee's performance negatively.
  • If you wound up in a position where you had to fire the employee, you could:
    • postpone the firing until you can try to get the mattress back, or
    • feel it necessary to discuss getting the mattress back as a part of the firing, which could confuse things, and could even make the (ex-)employee feel like you were fired because she didn't give back the mattress - which could lead to a lawsuit against not just you, but the company.

It's possible your boss has seen similar situations unravel and become problems for the workplace in general.

[Aside: While I know workplaces are not families, you may want to treat such situations as you would if the same thing was happening with a family member. I dearly love my son, and have been willing to loan him things (mostly money) over the years. And, I do expect him to pay me back (eventually). That said, I don't loan him anything if I'd be overly disappointed to never get it back.]

I agree that you should ask the boss exactly what they meant, if nothing else to make sure you aren't violating any company policies, and understand where the line for such things is (if you don't already).

In general, this is a delicate topic, going in the realms of power abuse or even legal issues (corruption).

In your particular case, you did perfectly well. There was another human in dire need, you helped her in a way that was quite appropriate (i.e., you gave her some object which fixed her problem, but did not enable her to do anything bad with it - i.e. you didn't give her a gun or drugs or a big lump of money etc.). While reading, I was afraid that you offered her to sleep at your house or at a back room at work, but you did not do that either. You did not give her anything of high value which would give you power over her. You likely would have done the same for everybody else, but are in no position to do so anyways because your store of spare mattresses is probably limited.

The only ethical dilemma could arise if, at some point in time you are asking for favours with the clear though of the mattress in your mind; or if your now-employee would need to make a decision which somehow impacts you, and then decides solely in your favour because you gave her the mattress, in a shady way... which, try as I might, simply can see no possible scenario for.

One thing not quite related to your question: when I do things like this (i.e., help others out with items), I usually make it a big point to give gifts, not loans, because that removes any chance of this being construed as getting power over the other person. "Here, take this old mattress. You can keep it if you like, or give it back if you don't need it anymore, up to you." But this is not a criticism, just my personal preference.

  • I think the third paragraph is sligtly paranoid. Would you think this way if you are about to save drowning kid (that may turn in a serial killer and targets at your neighbours instead of yours because of the save)? – Crowley Aug 9 at 14:54
  • @Crowley, yes, that is exactly the point of my 3rd paragraph (it's playing advocatus diaboli, with me ending to say that I do not hold this possible). Did that not come over so clearly? – AnoE Aug 9 at 18:12

This is solely dependent on your cultural background and the company culture.

If the company treats employees as human resources, pun intended, your boss was "right" and you acted inappropriately.

On the other hand, as @Heinzi commented under the question, if the company follows "the employees take care of your business, and you take care of your employees" motto you did exactly that and you were right. Your boss acted inappropriately.


You saw a teen in a need and you personally had been teen in need as well. A lot of people cannot understand why I am (trying to be) nice to shop assistants (I used to be one years ago). Your boss might misinterpreted your words and don't have same teen-in-need expirience. You can discuss with them this topic to see theri POW and explaint them yours.

Another issues mentioned here:

  • Doing something for favour expecting "favour" in return is, in my eyes, sick. If I ask someone for a favour in return I still expect it may be rejected. If someone did a favour for me, I personally feel obliged to do a favour in return.

  • Favouritism and possibly jealous colleagues. You helped a teen so they does not need to sleep on floor and can have softer, warmer and drier place to sleep. Anoyone jealous about not-recieving such help or argumenting you helped TINa and not me, has social skills comparable to a rock.

You are doing the right thing regardless of the consequences.

First, this teen should be at least 18 otherwise you should let her parents know you are helping her.

Second, other employees won't be jealous because you helped a coworker who was homeless. Teenagers know kindness when they see it and, unless it's in a hard neighborhood, they won't punish you for it.

Third, you are in the hospitality business. I don't think I would want to eat food from a place run like it was a regiment of the Marines where compassion is discouraged. This is a restaurant. You feed people. You give sustenance and comfort. You guys don't hang out together? It's a restaurant for goodness sake. What do they make the cakes with fake sugar? Keep doing what you are doing. The world and your restaurant need more people like you.

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    You may want to tweak this a bit. Not to be cynical, but the question isn't about what is right or wrong, but whether it is professional or unprofessional. If you can edit your post a bit to reflect that, it may be better received. – Richard U Aug 8 at 12:58

Boss is right.

Although his reaction seems extreme, cold, and unsympathetic, I believe this is probably a case of "nip in the bud." The problem is how does the relationship evolve, how does it affect morale (preferential treatment or the appearance of preferential treatment), and what are the consequences.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with helping someone, possible consequences are: what happens when she pops your air mattress? Do you attempt to recover the lost money? She can't afford rent, how can she afford to buy a $100 replacement air mattress? After a month of non-repayment, do you now resent her? Does that effect your treatment of her in the workplace?

Maybe you are content with taking the loss, but the boss doesn't know that. And he doesn't want to deal with future issues--maybe their car broke down so now you feel compelled to loan your other one; maybe they got kicked out of their friends house, so now they're sleeping in your living room.

Obviously relationships require leeway and judgement, even professional ones, but your boss is simply erring on the side of caution. From the organization perspective he is correct.

  • If other employees are concerned about preferential treatment, surely you can explain that it's your policy to make your air mattress available to each and every employee who is currently homeless on a first-come-first-served basis. If people can't understand that someone who is literally homeless might get a small favor that isn't otherwise offered, that's really their problem. – Zach Lipton Aug 11 at 3:44

@FlashMom Your boss wants to create the idea that management is aloof and unconcerned with employees' needs -- outside of the strict labor-for-wages relationship, naturally. By only approaching them as a manager, not as a concerned fellow human being, the two of you maintain an air of authority. (See the works of Fein and Schneider for more information.)

One concern at any workplace is getting the "end effector" employees to do as they're told -- without substituting their own vision of what ought to be done. Not to say the managers are always right. But they are always in charge, and they always want to stay that way. (Your boss is telling you to take that attitude with the employee, and in telling you so, is taking that attitude with you.)

It's true, by helping out in this small way, you are making it possible for the employee to be in good shape to work when she shows up. But you must appease your boss. Tell him you won't do it again, and then don't. (Be true to this in thought, word, and deed for at least a few months. Then you can help out again, if you want to, just don't let him find out.)

I was burned out of my living quarters many years ago. The company I worked for let me stay at the nearby corporate apartment until I could find a new place. But this was a favor from the corporation itself (a name anybody would recognize) rather than from an individual in the company.

  • Upvoted because, while this whole line of reasoning sickens me (wich is why I suppose it was downvoted) this is the kind of mentality that some employees in some parts of the world have to deal with. Just because it's bad, doesn't mean it isn't true. – Douwe Aug 8 at 8:21
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    1. You don't need to tag your answer with the @ symbol. 2. You didn't actually answer the question (whether it was appropriate). Preface your answer first by addressing that directly, and then you can devote the rest to your theory about aloofness, end effectors and so on. – Brandin Aug 8 at 13:09

Do you think what I did was okay or is my boss right and it was inappropriate?

Yes, it was inappropriate. You are not a social worker, you don't have responsibility to help anyone who needs money in your organisation. What you did is like expecting Bill Gates cover up personal credit card debt for a Microsoft employee. Has Bill Gates done it?

What you should have done:

I am sorry. I am happy to offer you more hours for more money.

Please don't cross the boundary again. Please apology to your boss, and ask back for the mattress.

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    Yeah last time I saw a manager open the door for one of his employees who was carrying stuff. I was shocked by the inappropriateness - does the guy think he is a porter? – Voo Aug 9 at 8:07
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    Equating lending an item that you don't even need right now with a "money transaction" is rather crass. But then I just gave a colleague of mine a donut that I bought myself. And I won't even get it back (hopefully), is that a problem then? Sure I wouldn't lend a luxury car to an employee, but certainly there's a sliding scale involved here. And a bloody air mattress is certainly closer to a donut than the car. – Voo Aug 9 at 8:40
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    So the moral prerogative is established via frequency? – Voo Aug 9 at 8:54
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    So loaning a personal item is a "money transaction". Sharing food is not a money transaction, because it is common. But... offering to alter the schedule in favor of an employee, to provide them more hours and therefore more money is not a money transaction? And what you did is like expecting Bill Gates cover up personal credit card debt? That's a ridiculous comparison. – Beofett Aug 9 at 14:13
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    lacking money like in this question The question isn't about someone lacking money. It is about someone who has been kicked out of their home. Homelessness is quite a bit more complicated than just lacking money. Depending on where you are, housing may not be available, and even if it is, the process of signing a lease and moving in is not instantaneous. – Beofett Aug 9 at 16:04

The problem, as your boss sees it, is that you as a manager gave a benefit to an employee that other employees didn't receive. Now other employees may ask for similar help, and if they also don't receive what they believe they should be given they will complain.

Your boss wants to keep the peace with all the other employees, and your actions while noble open the company up to potential morale issues for the rest of the employees.

Your obligation to the company is to let them know when an employee is facing issues that might impact their ability to make shifts, or to remain employed. Then you ask your management what can be done. Options could include helping them find sources of assistance that don't require your employer directly helping.

in your question you explain:

Obviously, there are boundaries we, as management, do not cross. We don't hang outside of work for instance

This is another boundary. You reached into your pocket and provided help. You avoid hanging out with employees outside of work, even if you are spending your own money because you don't want to show favoritism. That describes what you did here. It was noble but now your boss has to handle the potential impact.

The relationship between the two people involved is boss to employee, any benefit given from a boss to an employee that doesn't follow corporate rules can be seen as showing favoritism. Your boss wants to avoid that.

If have seen cases where managers were fired because of this type of favoritism. They couldn't maintain order if other employees saw this favoritism.

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    The OP didn't offer help in the name of the company. OP offered help from person to person. That dramatically changes the applicability of this answer. If the blow up mattress was the restaurant's property, then this would apply, but it's simply not the case here. This is a case of one person helping another, regardless of them being coworkers or their professional relationship. – Flater Aug 6 at 13:16
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    I object to "a benefit to an employee that other employees didn't receive" (and other things, but I'll address this one). Other employees generally are receiving the benefit of a mattress to sleep on. Even if they weren't, other employees have no expectation of receiving the same personal gifts that everyone else gets. If I hand Bob $50 and say "Just felt like doing something nice to a random person today. I rolled the dice, and they chose you."... nobody else would expect that I owe them $50. – Aaron Aug 6 at 16:18
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    "Now other employees may ask for similar help, and if they also don't receive what they believe they should be given they will complain." I think if you have multiple employees in the situation of needing to borrow a blow-up mattress to sleep on, you are way, way, way beyond the point of "potential morale issues" for your employees. – Wildcard Aug 8 at 5:00
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    "Hey, I can't afford a textbook for my class... will you give me an extra $120 so I can buy it?" followed by "but you loaned so-and-so a bed when they were homeless!" does not strike me as a likely or reasonable outcome. In fact, I find any example of "could you give me money" to be a stretch for a complaint of unfairness when compared to loaning a personal possession that is not currently in use. – Beofett Aug 8 at 19:45
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    @mhoran_psprep I just want to tell you if I was an employee at a company that behaved like you propose I'd start searching for a new job. Such an immoral behavior just to avoid some imaginary damage to the company is why HR often has an abominable reputation. – Voo Aug 9 at 21:16

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