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I am a project manager in a tech start up and a key colleague is leaving over pay, where I have not been given the budget to properly replace him. Boss wants me to replace an experienced hire with an unpaid intern.

I have told my boss that this is a really bad idea, but he feels that we will get by and is not listening to me. He also gets irritated when I make him aware of the risk from letting him go. I am now really concerned that even if I do find a replacement he won't have the skills to help me sign off work adding to my stress. If that happens I will be accountable for failing to deliver the project.

How can I persuade my boss to change his mind and give my colleague a pay rise?

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  • 2
    Is it possible that while you think this person is paramount to your team, your team isn't exactly mission critical to the company as a whole right now? That may be why your boss isn't interested in throwing more money at it. Jan 24, 2017 at 19:55
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    Aren't you the one that is planning on quitting soon? Jan 24, 2017 at 20:39
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    If you're in tech, interns expect pay. You're going to be scraping the bottom of the barrel when you "hire" unpaid interns when you consider that middle of the road students can easily get $20-25/hr. This is one of those "polish your resume" red flags. I suspect other senior talent will be leaving soon. Jan 25, 2017 at 1:50
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    I don't mean to be disrespectful, my honest impression from all your questions here so far is you may have been pushed into management before you were ready. A manager should be a lot more confident and a lot less clueless when dealing with undesirable situations. I don't want to discourage you from asking questions here, but I think taking some focussed management training or classes would help you a lot than getting advice here on a case-by-case basis.
    – Masked Man
    Jan 25, 2017 at 10:43
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    I understand that Masked Man, I am still junior and it is my first management role, where I am not working under a senior PM. This is also a very tough environment to manage in, not having a clearly defined budget etc I think a lot of PMs would struggle.
    – bobo2000
    Jan 25, 2017 at 10:55

6 Answers 6

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Your company doesn't have the money to keep someone who seems like a good employee. Now they want to replace someone who was been doing important work with an unpaid intern. I think you should see where this is going, which means you update your CV, update your linkedin profile, and look for a position at a company that can afford to pay you, and other good employees, a decent salary.

As usual, you give notice when you have a signed contract, and not earlier.

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There may be no good solution to this. There are several bad ones. The fundamental problem is that your boss plans to hold you accountable for a project which you do not have the necessary resources to complete.

Sounds like either

  • The project is delayed
  • The project is of poorer quality
  • You and your team go above and beyond the call of duty to meet unreasonable demands
  • Your boss allocates the appropriate resources to this project

Your most responsible course of action is to seriously, politely explain to your boss that these are the options and that one of them will happen if he replaces the experienced hire with an intern. Don't tell him that this is a "risk". Explain in no uncertain terms the consequences of this replacement. The sooner you do this the better. If your boss refuses to accept your evaluation then stop explaining and pick one of the first three options.

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    And given the boss you're dealing with, you probably shouldn't don't do #3.
    – Erik
    Jan 25, 2017 at 11:26
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    Remember the engineering golden rule: "You can do it cheap, you can do it well, you can do it fast. Pick 2." The boss is already choosing Cheap, so that narrows down the options left.
    – Seth R
    Aug 26, 2022 at 18:07
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You don't indicate a jurisdiction, but in many places what your boss is proposing is flatly illegal. In the U.S., for example, the fact that the intern is replacing a paid employee means that they must be paid at least the minimum wage under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers are not permitted to replace salaried employees with unpaid interns.

See, for example, this fact sheet for information on when an intern is, in fact, an employee. Pay particular attention to point #6 of the seven-part test:

The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.

Since your boss wants to "directly" replace a full-time employee with an unpaid intern, their work clearly and unequivocally "displaces... the work of paid employees". That being said, legally, they're an employee and are therefore entitled to minimum wage.

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    Deleted mine since your answer says the same thing. If the boss tries to argue that everyone does this, OP can point out that there are cases of businesses getting sued: buchalter.com/publication/… (But really, they should get out ASAP)
    – BSMP
    Aug 26, 2022 at 19:02
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So for me, there are only 2 remaining avenues:

  1. As above, look for a new job. Get a new job and get the hell out of there.
  2. Hire an intern and hope for the best.

Either the boss is rubbish, or the company is in trouble. Either way, this doesn't end well for you and there's not really much you can do about it.

Perhaps if you issued an ultimatum (say to your boss, we need budget to hire a guy or i'll leave) it would highlight the severity of the issue. BUT, this could leave to you having to hand in your notice without a job lined up. If your boss isn't listening, then it's a desperate last throw of the dice. I wouldn't necessarily suggest it, but if you want budget for a guy, then it may be the only way to get through to him.

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I think you should reframe the whole situation. When you do not have the budget, replacing key employees is not something wise to do; you'd better figure out why you ended up with inadequate budget and seek ways to have the budget and keep your keep employees, rather than kick key employees.

That is, the logic of your boss is flawed and as long as you are trying to act according to it, your actions would be wrong as well.

Therefore you have two options:

a) given that you have tried already to persuade your boss, to no avail, accept doing what he asked you to do, but with written stipulation you'd not be held responsible for consequences. "If that happens I will be accountable for failing to deliver the project." - you should take action that you do not be held accountable.

b) consider what'd be the worst consequences when that key employee is removed. Bankruptcy? Shrinking the size of the company? Remaining in a mediocre, yet stable state?

You should have a strategy for each of those.

If you expect the company to go bankrupt withing six months, then start looking for a new job ASAP. It's always easier to find a satisfactory new job when you are already employed, rather than when you are unemployed.

If the worst thing to happen is a long-term state of mediocrity, then you'd better not argue, follow orders, pretend to feel ashamed when the boss reprimands you for poor performance and make the best use of your time in the company.

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The problem is your boss does not think you are a good employee. He would rather do your job for you, even if that means ignoring your analysis in favor of what he has surmised you were trying to tell him.

Please deal with that problem. You can try writing a detailed question for us where you talk about what went wrong in your relationship with your boss that has led to this situation. Or you can do lots of reading on your own on what is a rich and complicated topic.

Sure, you can leave, but as it stands you'll be a second-in-command who leaves whenever you can't properly manage your own relationship with your boss. That's quite a critical skill to be missing. (Or maybe you really are talented and your boss really is not. In which case, sure, you can leave.)

Just some ideas, of things you can say or ask your boss:

  • "I was wondering if you could tell me what you think made him a stellar employee?"
  • "Do you admire his position? Is there anything about it you feel you can't do?"
  • "I'm worried that we've been making mistakes on issues that I had the right insight on." (riskier! but more on the right topic!)
  • "I view employee recommendations as a really critical part of my job and think I'm good at it. Are there other skills that you value in me if you don't want my opinions on these matters?"

You also have the option of strategically jeopardizing your relationship with your boss over this. "This is a big deal. We will fail if we mess this up. I will not work on a failing startup."

But like I said y'all got problems. So good luck.

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  • At the end of the day you can point out the above and for the record I record all risks now in a RAID log, but the person running the company is always going to want to run it there way. At which point when a risk becomes an issue there is nothing you can do but to say 'well I pointed that out a few months ago'. Boss gets irritated when I do that.
    – bobo2000
    Jan 25, 2017 at 8:41

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