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Both are trainees ("Auszubildende") under the German apprenticeship system, and thus covered by special rules and regulations. I am not the instructor, just someone she trusts. We work at the same company, and in the past I have been a temporary mentor

Today one of our trainees (software developer) came to me in tears, lets call her Alice. She read in a chatroom meant for the apprenticeship (where she Alice, the other trainee and the instructors are present) that the costs for books are being covered for the new trainee. Alice had to buy all books and materials by herself.

Alice believes this is due to the fact that the new trainee always complains that she is broke. Alice gets the same amount of money from the company as the new trainee, just lives in a cheaper apartment. While crying Alice told me how she skipped lunch for weeks to make ends meet and pay for everything. And she feels treated unfairly.

I can understand how she feels, I have student debt myself. But I am not sure what to tell her.

I was thinking about 3 options:

  1. Say nothing, it is in the past
  2. If she needs materials again, treat what has happened as a precedent and ask for similar compensation
  3. Complain to the instructor, hoping to get some money back.

What kind of advice can I give Alice? I am afraid she might burn a bridge with her instructor in her last year of the apprenticeship. How (and if at all) should she raise the issue with her instructor?

(Additional Information after the first answer: Alice did ask for the books to be paid in the past, the answer was "No". "No, unless the books are usefull for all developers here and you keep them at work")

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 3 '18 at 1:25
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    Re Close Votes: From the very first edit the question is exploring 3 avenues. To me, choosing between them is a goal we can address. Please be careful with your close votes. – rath Nov 3 '18 at 20:31
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    Do you know if there was a change in policy, or is this a case of different treatment? – gnasher729 Nov 4 '18 at 0:28
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A key aspect that only came out in the comments is that Alice asked two years ago and was denied, whereas (I gather that) the new trainee asked recently. It sounds to me like company policy may have changed. Or the responsible manager or HR person's thinking may have evolved.

Things change. Sometimes for the better, as here: trainees get more stuff than they used to get. Sometimes for the worse: my company used to pay part of my local transit costs; they don't any more.

Here is what I would suggest you suggest to Alice: first, she should calm down. Then she should go to her manager and lay out the facts: she asked to be reimbursed for the exact same books two years ago, and wasn't. She has learned that trainees are now reimbursed. Is there any way she could be reimbursed retroactively? And she should be prepared for a "no", because it's likely enough that this is not possible for tax reasons after two years.

She should first calm down, and not talk of "injustice" or similar, because, as I state above, things change. Perks come and go away, and unless they are mandated by law or stated in the contract, what management giveth, it can also taketh away. If too many perks are taken away, then the thing to do is not to get emotional about it, but to deal with it professionally. Which may mean taking stock of the situation, weighing the pros and cons of a given employer, updating one's CV, upping tent pegs and moving on. Emotional outbursts will be remembered, and not well.

To be brutally honest: making sure she does not get a reputation of being emotionally unstable is more important than getting reimbursed for books.

Yes, I understand the advice about considering one's continued employment at a given place is not fully applicable to a trainee. Then again, it may be useful to remember that she is close to finishing her apprenticeship. Best to make sure she gets a good reference (Arbeitszeugnis) in case she decides that another employer might be preferable after she is done.

Of course, I assume that any new materials she will need (and that meet the criterion of being useful for others and remaining in the company) will indeed be reimbursed. If they are not, then this changes the matter.

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    While I agree Alice should be calm when she approaches her manager about this, I want to point out that instructing her "calm down" as this answer could imply is probably about the worst way to get this to happen. I would comfort her, say it certainly feels unfair, and her boss would know more about what happened. But, before she goes there, she should make sure she's maintaining a professional appearance, and is collected enough to avoid saying anything hurtful in the moment that she'd regret later. – Nic Hartley Nov 2 '18 at 17:11
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    i believe the core of this answer, and what makes it better than the current top answer, is: "perks come and go away". two years is a long time. – Woodrow Barlow Nov 2 '18 at 18:18
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    Telling someone to calm down never works, or at least it breaks the person more than anything (it's contradictory to how they feel; if anything, they'll simply lock their emotions, resulting in more internal damages). It's better to acknowledge their feelings and to work out the situation into what we want to tell them. – Clockwork Nov 3 '18 at 13:41
  • Just to add: life is not fair, and part of growing up is it realize this am come to terms with it. Of course one cannot tell her. A possibility to calm her is to tell her that all the apprentices went through the same thing as her (if this is true; of course except everybody else under the new rule). – lalala Nov 4 '18 at 12:42
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    I am currently a trainee in Germany as well and so far my company paid for every book that I asked for, as long as it was too boost my results in certain tests and such. I found a (german) website which covers this a bit, but the answer is not what Alice wants to hear (basically its up to the employer). – XtremeBaumer Nov 5 '18 at 10:05
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Ultimately this is a case of "you can't get what you don't ask for". The company wasn't aware Alice struggled to pay for her books, so they let her pay for them. Alice's peer has conveyed that they would have to struggle to buy the books, so the company has graciously offered to cover the costs for them.

Should the company have realised "Wait, now that we're paying for X's books - who is in nearly the exact same position as Alice - and we let Alice pay for the books herself, shouldn't we reimburse Alice for the sake of fairness?".. probably, but there's a few lines of thought here:

  1. Things get missed, the persons involved maybe never made the link between buying the books for Alice's peer and Alice having bought her own books, if it was brought to their attention they may immediately see that the only fair thing to do would be to reimburse Alice.
  2. They're deciding to "try it on", basically they may know that for fairness sake they should reimburse Alice, but are going to wait for Alice to raise it first - If she doesn't raise it she clearly doesn't care and its extra money for the company coffers, if she does raise it they may be willing to reimburse her for fairness sake.
  3. they don't care, they may think Alice already paid for her books and has a lower cost of living so could clearly afford it over X.

In any case, this is all purely speculation and the only way to get a resolution is for Alice to speak to her manager/boss/whoever, raise her concerns and the fact the she clearly finds this unfair, and to see find out what the companies opinions on this matter are. Crying to a friend about it is helping nobody, you cannot answer for what people in the company were thinking at the time decisions were made - this could have been a simple mistake or an active decision for whatever reason, possibly based in false assumptions.

Edit: In response to your statement that Alice has asked for the books to be paid for before, this changes things a little. If she has a paper trail she should raise it to her managers and state she asked for these things previous, was told no, had to buy it herself and now her peer has had the exact same request accepted. Again, we can only speculate the reasons for this. Alice needs to speak to her higher-ups about this.

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    Yes, of course the company should treat all of the trainees equally. It shouldn't depend on who complains the most. If they are going to cover the cost of materials for one trainee, they should cover it for all trainees. Otherwise you get into exactly this situation. – DaveG Nov 2 '18 at 13:01
  • I edited the question and put some additional information in there. – Pudora Nov 2 '18 at 13:02
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    @DaveG Agreed, but if they did this as a one-off quick thing then it's easy to see how they might have overlooked the level of "unfairness" this would create.. Basically I'm saying it might not be malicious, just decided with very little foresight. – Trotski94 Nov 2 '18 at 13:04
  • @Pudora updated – Trotski94 Nov 2 '18 at 13:13
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    @alephzero That analogy doesn't apply. There's no disability here. It's simply a case where the company is showing favoritism by providing needed work material to one employee and not another. – DaveG Nov 3 '18 at 12:18
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What you should do: Nothing. Empathize with Alice, but this is real life, you are not her mom, you should not get involved. One of the lessons of joining the workforce is to stand up for yourself, don't look for others to do your work for you.

What you should tell Alice to do: Alice has 2 choices (the bottom 2; I don't think option 1 is really a choice if Alice feels this strongly). Alice should decide whether she wants her money back retroactively or going forward. Be aware that if Alice wants the money back retroactively, that's going to be a lot harder; it might be too far in the past to retroactively "make it right" (even though Alice reported the issue at the time. This is unfortunate but true). I think Alice will have more luck going with option 2, to set this situation as precedent and ask for free books going forward.

But the bottom line is Alice is going to have to do this herself. If you step in for Alice now, you will be stepping in for Alice forever, and you don't want that, both because it makes you look like an insubordinate employee and also because you will have Alice's stress on top of your own. Set the precedent with Alice now that she has to take care of her own problems.

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First off, I'm agreeing with all the answers saying you shouldn't be intervening specifically on "Alice"s behalf. In a lot of these situations, the person is really just looking for a sympathetic ear, not some White Knight to ride in and solve everything.

However, its quite possible that, as a responsible employee, it should be reported to the company that the other trainee was not the only one with this company-induced problem, but rather it appears to be a general problem. The company really needs to look at some way to make this situation less financially onerous on its destitute trainees. They shouldn't have to be skipping meals to buy training materials.

Going around a bad system on a case-by-case basis only for those ballsy enough to complain is simply bad policy. Fix the system.

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I only partially agree with other answers, so here's mine. I also don't know about German apprentice laws nor culture.

I've read Alice's request for the books - which was denied - was two years earlier than this new trainee's request - which was accepted.

Different policies for different colleagues seems like special treatment. Different policies two years apart seems like someone is growing up - let it be the manager or the organisation itself. So, the way I see it, Alice should be happy.

It's really sad what Alice had to go through. I'm not sure me myself could have done that - my respects to Alice for her dedication and involvement on making this job work. She should probably be happy because times are changing and things are moving forward and people now don't have to go through the same pain she had. She may even have had something to do with the policy changes. Maybe someone learnt - late? - what she's been through, or someone realised/guessed that, and decided to make a change. Things are better today, and that's a good thing - so Alice should be proud of her company being better.

I wish she didn't have to go through all that stuff, but we can't do anything to change that. So I kind of agree with half option 1 - it's in the past.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to be said at all. If Alice finds herself in a position in which she has to make personal sacrifices to cope with her job, she should try talking with her managers again. If the growing up theory is right, the company should consider her case and assist her. If they keep rejecting her, then you can start suspecting special treatments. So this is a bit of option 2.

I don't see asking for retroactive compensation doing much good. It's a bit of a hard position to defend - she was able to make it, anyway, even if it was not fair - and it could put her in a sensitive situation. What she can say, if she thinks it's worth it, is to recall the fact to her manager, and how different it is nowadays, and see if the manager makes the decision to compensate her. I think there's a subtle, important difference here between demanding or expecting to be reimbursed, and letting them notice the past issue and hope for them to want to amend it somehow.

The last question to address is what you should do.

I think you should let her know all of this. To empathize with her, to reassure to Alice that it wasn't fair then, and it will never be fair - and to let her know that's the reason it's great that they fixed the unfair policy. Support her, but help her see through his pain into the better place you both are at now. Help her see the bright side of the story.

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    I love this answer, but she has to be careful not to seem passive aggressive but honest. – Pudora Nov 3 '18 at 9:40
  • @Pudora Totally agree with that. – mgarciaisaia Nov 6 '18 at 11:13
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There is something you might tell her. It doesn't help with the immediate problem, but it might help her put things into perspective.

In many companies, recently hired IT staff earn more than longer-serving, theoretically more senior staff. That's because right now there is a shortage of IT staff, and changing jobs is an excellent opportunity to negotiate. "10% more or I won't start here" is much more credible than "10% more or I quit." Most people don't quit lightly, even if the job market where they live makes it relatively risk-free.

The lesson for Alice: In a few months she will either be looking for a job or negotiating about staying on. She should inform herself what Fachinformatiker earn in the region and negotiate accordingly. Can she wait that long?

Also consider:

  • Alice will soon end her apprenticeship. Why is she getting the same amount as someone in the first year, anyway? It is common to increase the Ausbildingsvergütung year by year. Somebody (and that might be you or the Betriebsrat if you have one) could raise that issue, without direct reference to Alice.
  • Alice may qualify for Bafög. Has she looked into that? In extreme cases, she might qualify for supplemental welfare (Aufstocker).
  • Regarding fairness and making ends meet, the housing market is overheated in many German cities right now. Someone who has rented her flat last year and not two or three years before might face substantially higher rent, at no fault of her own. This other trainee might be in an even more desperate situation than she.
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    Thank you for your input. But it is the opposite way. The new trainee gets Wohngeld and Aufstockung and she could get Bafög if she wanted. Alice doesn’t qualify for anything because her parents have too much money, but won’t give her any. Alice also gets more money now in third year as before, but that doesn’t change the situation 2 years back. – Pudora Nov 3 '18 at 15:37
  • @Pudora, then there is the main point of my reply. She might prepare herself mentally to negotiate a realistic salary once she finishes, Even if the company where she works now has a Tarifvertrag, there is no law that she cannot demand and get more. The Tarif sets a lower limit. – o.m. Nov 3 '18 at 15:49
  • I still like your answer :-) don’t worry – Pudora Nov 3 '18 at 18:02
  • @Pudora, it's a long time ago and things may have changed, but in my time the rule was that in this situation you could apply for Bafög, tell them that your parents refused to pay, you would get the money, and your parents would have to pay it back - the intention of Bafög is that everybody can get an eduction. This will not help the relationship with the parents, but most parents would be ashamed of themselves if their daughter had to go without lunch. – gnasher729 Nov 4 '18 at 0:26
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Empathising with her is fine, but:

Option 1 is the best; it's third-hand information and it's not your problem. You don't have all the information or the authority to do anything about it except create some drama.

At most, refer her to someone who may be able to help her.

The only other suggestion I have is, if you own some of the required books, you could lend them to her in a personal capacity. But even this I would be careful about, since you don't want it being read the wrong way, or something to happen to your valuable reference books. Most books I have lent out, never made it back.

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