We are a small company of 4 people (including my boss) and are facing a difficult situation.

To put this into context, we are underpaid compared to the market, every hour is clocked by the minute, minimum holiday leave, and she gets all the benefits with minimum effort.

Our boss is taking maternity leave and leaving the company for at least six months, and not planning to replace herself. She is asking us to take the responsibility of running all the aspects of the company (client facing, HR, finance, etc.) and is not willing to give any incentive. She is planning on changing our contracts (e.g. increasing the notice period).

We are fine with running the company, but it is quite a significant shift in responsibility with no benefits except an eventual career progression. We would like some outside point of view as to whether it is worth fighting for basic rights or should we just walk away (which means the company would shut down)?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Apr 9, 2017 at 21:27
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because significant details in the background of this question, i.e. how such a complex, multifaceted situation arose, are missing. Possible answers must necessarily be either very terse and general or very speculative.
    – user42272
    Apr 10, 2017 at 5:51
  • @lion, since you are willing to continue working for her at this company, my advice is to write a mail on behalf of (and signed by) the entire staff saying that you accept the higher responsibility only together with a correspondingly higher salary!
    – Sam
    Apr 12, 2017 at 10:14
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    Since you're taking over HR, wouldn't you be able to give yourselves a raise?
    – rath
    Oct 10, 2017 at 14:58

13 Answers 13


Whether or not the company shuts down is not your problem. It's not your company. Focus purely on what is best for you. If you're not getting basic rights and pay, then you should have been job hunting for a while already.

  • 132
    Brief, to the point, and spot on. I would just add that the owner does not seem very concerned about the staff, the staff should not be that concerned about the owner. Apr 6, 2017 at 19:57
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    If possible, I would mis this answer with @AaronHall 's advice : fill my CV with plenty of sellable skills, and only then look for a new job. With a much better resume. But of course, it has to be doable(I overloaded myself once with work. My health told me "never again").
    – gazzz0x2z
    Apr 7, 2017 at 7:50
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    @Kilisi I am going to go ahead and read into this question. If I was asked to "run the company without additional compensation" and then I chose to "focus purely on what is best for me" then either I have to power to renegotiate compensation as a manager (part of running the company) or I don't (I am not really running the company). After sitting on both sides of the table, I would suddenly become pro company survival.
    – emory
    Apr 7, 2017 at 13:43
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    While this is very good general advice, it is an empty platitude at this point. You are telling someone to focus on what's best for themselves when they ask what course of action would be best. The poster needs to know what to do next. Telling them what they should have done months ago isn't overly helpful. They now have extra leverage. Should they use it to negotiate better compensation? Should they take on the extra responsibility while looking for new work? Should they quit, then look for new work? Take the extra responsibility and use it to give themselves a raise?
    – Shane
    Apr 7, 2017 at 14:04
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    @Lilienthal the biggest problem with this answer is that it does not provide actual advice or specific actions the asker can take. The implied suggestion is to look for another job now, a fine suggestion, but reactive instead of entrepreneurial. It also ignores the opportunity in the situation to demonstrate good stewardship, as well as the downside of leaving immediately: Will the asker leave the new firm as soon as they ask him/her to take more responsibility? I think Brock Adam's answer below best represents my take, and so I think writing my own answer here is unnecessary.
    – Aaron Hall
    Apr 7, 2017 at 18:54

The company isn't going to survive. There's no way a company of four people can survive if the boss is absent and the other staff aren't motivated and committed (and authorised and skilled) enough to keep it thriving.

So your choices are to leave now or to wait until it all goes pear-shaped.

  • 3
    Second this. I've been in an absent-boss situation. All of us that were left without a supervisor were interested in making things work but even then the lack of a functional boss made it very hard to change course. Apr 7, 2017 at 0:02
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    OO, beware! No one has yet pointed out your potential liability if the company folds while you are at the helm. I would extend the last line of this great (+1) answer to "your choices are to leave now or to wait until it all goes pear-shaped and the boss sues you".
    – Mawg
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:09
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    @Mawg I did not think about that. Sues you for what?
    – emory
    Apr 7, 2017 at 13:45
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    @emory The boss left her company in your, what she assumed, capable hands, otherwise why would she have logically trusted her employees. It was functioning before she left. It failed after she left. To the best of her knowledge, it was because of your mismanagement. In her eyes, you've breached her trust and failed her assets, causing her financial harm. Even if she doesn't have a case she can win, you would still have to mount an expensive defense. It's not a position I'd like to be in.
    – Shawn
    Apr 7, 2017 at 14:39
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    @Shawn Except that if the boss leaves the care of the company to potentially unqualified persons, and it goes defunct while the boss is gone, then the boss really doesn't have much of a leg to stand on. Sure, in America you can sue anyone for anything, but there would be an easy counter-suit here for poor workplace practices and company mismanagement. The boss made a large business mistake that cost three people jobs at that point. Apr 8, 2017 at 1:02

If an employer is ever taking advantage of your good nature and asking requirements of you that are not commensurate with the compensation provided, especially if you know you can potentially do better, both financially and upward-mobility-wise in the same position elsewhere, then in my mind there's only two options:

  • A: Approach them in the spirit of compromise and mutual respect for one another and lay out your expectations professionally with options that might include them providing tangible equity in the business. In writing, legal and binding, not just words....

  • B: Realize only you are the one responsible for yourself, and if it's in your best interest to leave. Then leave... if you are truly imperative to the operation then the owner/manager will have no choice but to adopt option A with you and everyone wins. If not, then call it a life experience and move on professionally.

I like @Kilisi's answer though, it's the cliff notes version. :)

  • 4
    While I think it's likely OP will have to walk away, I think the approach and attitude laid out in A is much more likely to be productive, at least at the outset. +1.
    – Joe
    Apr 6, 2017 at 22:12
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    You incorrectly split your first paragraph into two sentences which makes it hard to read. Consider rephrasing and simplifying that section.
    – Lilienthal
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:31
  • @Lilienthal could you suggest the correct way it might be written? I can not see any grammatical error in its current form and I would hate to embarrass the mother I grew up with or her PhD as an English professor. Whom at the moment is unable to provide a correction necessary if one is to be had. :)
    – Chris W.
    Apr 7, 2017 at 15:13
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    @Chris: Your first sentence starts with "if", but the "then" is stranded off in its own sentence.
    – user56728
    Apr 7, 2017 at 21:49

....we are underpaid compared to the market, every hour is clocked by the minute, minimum holiday leave, and she gets all the benefits with minimum effort.

It's a small business, so while these are four pretty significant red flags in and of themselves, the small nature of this company can semi-excuse these. However, she's leaving for half a year. There's quite a bit involved with keeping the lights on for that amount of time. She's putting a TREMENDOUS amount of trust in you, her employees, but if she isn't also willing to compensate you for your significant sacrifice, that shows a good bit of short-sightedness on her part. That is probably the biggest red flag of all and cannot be excused by simply being a small company.

Take the other two employees out to lunch and have a very serious discussion about what the plan is. You are small enough that the decision of any one of you will affect the other two. You all need to take a serious look at what you want. If you really want to see the company succeed and are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to cover for your boss, then do it. It will be difficult, but in the end, it will be very satisfying for you if it works out. But if any one of you decides to leave, it would probably be wise for all of you to bail out.

Frankly though, unless you are all related to your boss, it seems VERY shady that she's looking to walk away for that long, even for maternity leave. There may be some underlying financial issues with the business that you aren't privy to. Yet, as soon as she leaves, those problems become yours to deal with. I don't know what type of person your boss is, and it may be paranoia, but this just reeks of her prepping to hang all of you out to dry and bail herself. Legally it's her business, but she can claim that she left it in your hands, and if it tanks ( or worse, if it's already tanking ), she blames you for its demise. She may not have legal standing and may eventually lose any case brought against you, but can you afford to defend yourself in court?

At the very least, leaving you like this shows a large bit of naiveté on her part.

This is a very non-trivial thing she's asking of you. You three employees need to talk out a plan and approach her together about how she plans to reward the three of you for taking on this responsibility. To be honest, if it's something less than offering a partial partnership before she leaves (including giving you more insight into the state of the company), it may be time to walk away.

  • 2
    This is a very well articulated answer with thoughtful, wise suggestions. How one could bring the partial partnership to the table and what outcome do you think would be reasonable? Apr 7, 2017 at 18:41
  • Take this one seriously - at least until/unless you are sure its not an issue
    – Stilez
    Apr 8, 2017 at 8:56
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    @jazzytomato I'd say the best way to broach partnership would be to simply ask. It doesn't even have to be a large percentage for these 3 employees. And they all 3 should probably ask together as part of a larger meeting to discuss what the owner's expectations are and what responsibilities will be granted to the 3 employees. If she says no, or won't agree to an amenable partnership, then I think it would be time to very seriously consider moving on. Time works in the favor of these 3 people, and it's difficult to find, hire and train new employees. Especially if the boss expects so much.
    – Shawn
    Apr 11, 2017 at 14:37

Do not consider the options to be mutually exclusive.

You should be doing all 3 of the below:

1) Continuing to do your job, to the best of your ability.

2) Negotiate on salary. If you think you are underpaid, the boss saying you aren't does not mean you should stop trying. Of course the boss doesn't want to pay you more, it's her money otherwise.

3) Spend evenings and weekends looking for a better job.

Important to note:

Do not quit your current job until you have a signed contract for a better one. Do not tell anyone at work that you are quiting, do not threaten to quit, do not apply for jobs at work/on the clock, or using work resources.

An employment contract cannot be changed unless you agree. Don't agree.

A contract that gives one party a benefit (such as extending notice period) but no benefit to another party (such as extra pay) is not a valid contract under the law (in Australia at least). Regardless, don't sign it, because demonstrating that in court will take you time and effort.

If your co-workers find jobs sooner than you, that will possibly help your negotiations for better pay, which is why it is important to keep up the negotiations.

  • 3
    The problem is, the company without a head is certain to bancrupt, and he won't even get his wage. Better quit now than work for nothing.
    – user50700
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:29
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    @9ilsdx9rvj0lo The asker says "We are fine with running the company," - so how do you know the firm will go bankrupt? Also, wages are a priority debt under bankruptcy - so they are more likely to get their money than other lenders if what you say does happen. Suggesting to quit without another job lined up is pure foolishness.
    – Aaron Hall
    Apr 7, 2017 at 18:40

Think about what you are being asked to do. Basically learn all aspects of running a viable business, AND your own money is not at risk. Nor are you paying big bucks to attend workshops and seminars that offer a tenth the experience. "Go getters" leap at this kind of fortuity.

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

-- Famous, and very successful, old dead white guy

You should endeavor to take on as much responsibility as you can and do the best you can. You'll learn a ton and you'll never have a better safety net for the inevitable learning-curve/mistakes.
Even if your boss is not grateful, you'll be that much closer to being able to run her company without her (which she will come to rely on), or to switch employers, or to start/run your own business.

This can be a godsend, you should treat it as such.
In summary:

  • Do as much as you can, the best as you can, concentrating in on the most important first.
  • Do not complain. Complaining will not help, but cheerfully pitching in will further your career.
  • This is an unprecedented opportunity to learn crucial skills and get payed for it.
  • The more you learn, and the more that the boss can rely on you to do, the more independence you will get. If raises come around, you will be first on the list.
  • The more you learn, the easier it will be for you to switch jobs or start your own business.
  • If you don't step up, not only may the business flounder, but the stink will also tarnish your career. (Managers do judge you by where you've worked and how well that firm did. Lying about work history is even worse. And, word gets around, regardless.)

Wow, the comments show that Churchill was right (^_^) :

A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

To the naysayers:

  • Regarding lawsuits: This is FUD overruling statistical reality. If the OP acts in good faith and obeys relevant laws, even most dreadful owners will not sue. And if they do, the suit will be without merit and will not succeed.
    If you're worried, Keep a simple daily log of key activities, and this will further indemnify you.
  • "Why should someone learn extra things being already underpaid," overworked etc...
    (1) Everyone is overworked. This is not an excuse! The trick, as always, is to prioritize, delegate if possible, and communicate.
    (2) You are learning "extra things" now, so you can get more money and better tasks later. It's very sad that this has to be stated these days.
  • "The boss will not give me credit, a pay raise, etc." (1) Try it and see. Even bad bosses reward good results more than lackluster effort. (2) You're not doing it for the boss! Think of it as taking an advanced business course. But instead of risking everything you own AND also paying thousands of dollars for the education, somebody is paying you. Even if she paid you nothing (intern), it would be worth it!
  • 4
    I was going to answer this exact thing - if you have any desire to make any kind of carreer, this is probably the best opportunity you'll ever get as you can basically do whatever the hell you want and the risk is all carried by your boss.
    – Erik
    Apr 7, 2017 at 5:14
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    I feel like my career has been advanced more by working highly competent coworkers, not by picking up the slack for the less competent ones or trying to make the best of bad situations. Apr 7, 2017 at 5:38
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    "take on as much responsibility as you can and do the best you can" - and, of course, if you run the company into the ground, the nice boss lady won't sue you. After all, you tried your best, and she has already shown how nice she is by paying you so generously.
    – Mawg
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:11
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    Unfortunately I have not enough priviledges to dowvote this terrible advice. Why should someone learn extra things being already underpaid, and probably not getting money at all because the company is not likely to survive?
    – user50700
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:32
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    @9ilsdx9rvj0lo - "Why" - BrockAdamses answer explains exactly why. This is the correct answer. It is 100% obvious that the OP should have a substantial paper trail for all actions. For example, he will obviously ask his boss for clarifications on ongoing relationships with clients (in mails) and so on, and will obviously write the mails in a way which makes any court cases by the boss futile, later. This particular instance might be a bit extreme, but cases like this (higher-ups taking a leave and asking for someone to drop in) are excellent opportunities!
    – AnoE
    Apr 7, 2017 at 14:53

Just agree that no one signs the contracts.

If she's putting one of you in charge of HR and finance for the 6 months while she's gone, then just give everyone a raise and tell her it was necessary for retention.

If she doesn't like it she'll have to come back to fix it.

Ultimately with this kind of attitude the company isn't going to survive so I'd start looking for another job.


This is an unpopular opinion, but you should just drop this company like it's hot. Find a different job after you quit this one. Weak leaders and bad bosses will never produce something sustainable.

You should also convince all of your coworkers to leave with you. If you like what you do for a living, you can all just make a company that does exactly the same thing. This way you'll all actually have equity and a stake in the company that you're running. It's a much better deal than running the company with no benefits.

Be a greedy here. Mutiny.

Just make sure you talk to your boss about this and explain why what she's doing is unfair. She's still HR for a little bit right. Might as well discuss the situation with her first.

  • Perhaps it might be better to practice with someone else's money first (and an established client list) in order to discover whether they can actually run a company or not? You make it sound trivially easy, just a matter of doing what you do "for a living". Apr 7, 2017 at 22:23
  • @KateGregory I do, but that's because they'll have to assume that responsibility either way here. It's not a question of if it's easy. It's a question of what they're going to get in exchange for assuming that responsibility. Essentially they don't have a choice. It's going to happen.
    – user53651
    Apr 7, 2017 at 22:29
  • 1
    Nonsense. They could get regular jobs with no business-running part. They could start a new business and have no salary, no already-sold work, and no reputation. They could go months or more with no income, and needing to spend money to try to land work. To suggest that running something like this "is going to happen" is ridiculous, and to ignore the issue of salaries, rent, and other expenses even more so. Apr 7, 2017 at 22:33
  • @KateGregory you're right that doing on your own is more difficult, but their boss is thrusting them into this sort of position anyway and they don't feel well lead or fairly compensated. This is how they remedy that. Little bit more work. Magnitudes more payout. It's a greedy mindset to have, but it seems worthwhile here. Leaving the company also gives them the choice of finding a new job which leaves them in a position without solid income for an undetermined amount of time.
    – user53651
    Apr 11, 2017 at 21:54

Surprised no one has suggested this idea yet: have you considered offering to buy the company? If the core business is sound and you think you could run it better if you were the boss, consider offering to buy her out!

You could structure it a number of ways where you might not have to pay a lot out of pocket. If the company has revenue you could probably get a loan, too.

Your bargaining power is pretty high. If she doesn't want to sell the company to you, and you walk away, she gets nothing, the company goes under, and you can just go get another job or startup your own company on the side.

I recommend the book Getting to Yes if you decide to pursue this option. It's a good read just for employment and negotiation in general.

  • Good idea. Even better than mine. Only drawback is that it significantly increases the costs, risks, and needed drive to the OP. Apr 8, 2017 at 21:16

Personally, I would slowly begin searching for new employment.

I say slowly, because there is some value to running a company on your own. Not many people can say that and the financial risk is all on the part of your boss. Depending on the field you are in, this could look really good on your resume. The issue is with whether or not you will receive a positive reference should the company collapse or you quit during your boss's leave. Make friends with your coworkers.

I believe there will be an eventual collapse. I've worked in an office with extremely low morale. Short of something drastic, like promotions/raises all round, people remain pretty resentful. It sounds as though they already are. Your coworkers will be keeping an ear to the ground for better jobs. In a company of four, I would think there is little wiggle room for financial incentive to offer in exchange for retention.

Lastly, you were unhappy with the liberties she was taking before her leave. What about after? She now has a child. Do you think she won't take more time off?

  • 1
    Your built-up friendship with your co-workers may be undermined if you walk out on them, leaving them the sinking ship of a company if they haven't already lined up another position.
    – Kys
    Apr 7, 2017 at 19:03
  • @Kys: Good point. Whatever the three of them decide to do, it would be best if they did it in unison.
    – Tom Au
    Apr 9, 2017 at 0:09

I am reminded of the scene toward the end of Hello Dolly, where Dolly tells Cornelius Vandergelder's two employees to set up a competing (hay and feed) business next door, until he agrees to make them his partners (and Dolly his wife).

I am assuming that this is a case of "founder vs.employees," and the three of you are in the same boat. If one of you is closer to the founder than the others, you may have to follow the lead of that one. Or perhaps you should be the leader, since you had the initiative to ask the question.

Basically, someone is handing her business to the three of you. This is an enviable situation to be in. You will get to run someone's business, learn the ropes, and at the end of six months, be able to run the same, or a competing business. Then you can follow Dolly's strategy.

If you can depend on your two colleagues, wait as long to do this as possible (until the six months are almost up). If they are less reliable, you may have to force the issue sooner. But this is a chance to catapult yourself several notches. Don't squander it.


There's a lot to consider here. There are 3 of you + boss. The boss has shown little thought for you all, and is away for months, leaving you all with the business to run as normal - but no definitive contact or route to get directions from her if needed. Nobody is described as having powers delegated to let them act as a director in her absence, which could be a serious problem, or having clear knowledge about all aspects of the business, If just one of you three goes, the other 2 probably couldn't cope, and the scope for blame seems large if everything isn't perfect. For all we known, you and your 2 colleagues might see eye to eye and get on fine, or not work well together. And the pay is dire.

I'm not usually one to advise drastic action, but as it stands this isn't sustainable. Too much can fall foul in a 6 month period. But equally, you and your colleagues may not want to leave as some answers suggest.

What I'd be tempted to do instead depends on how likely it is that the 3 of you can get on and have a common viewpoint. Can the 3 of you talk safely and honestly with "cards on the table", without word getting back to the boss? If you are "on your own", you have fewer choices. But if the 3 of you can talk, then you have other options.

Specifically, pregnancy leave doesn't wait for people, so your boss is over a barrel. If the 3 of you want to continue working, you are in a position to decide what you need, to make that safe and possible. Some things would be nice (extra pay?). Others could be essential (legal indemnity/insurance; agreement in writing of what is allowed/not allowed and that you can run the company as directors in her absence; her statement that you are allowed to follow your own best judgment if a decision is needed and she can't be contacted - get a lawyer to draft this, DO NOT try and do it yourself, and company to pay).

The bottom line is, she needs you (3), and you (3) need to be safe and fairly treated and not at risk. Those 2 goals should be compatible - if you aren't safe then you can't reasonably be in legal control for that time, so you will almost certainly have to leave (all 3 of you) or take a risk that it'll all be okay "somehow" and cross fingers. Like anything in business if she wants it, she may have to pay for it.

If the 3 of you find you can reach a common position, then maybe it's time to write her a formal letter signed by all 3 of you setting out that position, and summing up what you feel and will need in order to take on the role she blithely proposes.


Small company without boss means you're all the boss. Consider the freedom you have, you can make extra income by doing other work outside since there is no supervision. She can't change the contract without your consent. Just take it easy. Look for a new job if you want to leave. Or enjoy running new aspects of the company that you haven't tried before. Forget about the company shutting down, it's not the problem of the employee.

  • 1
    Your problem is that company has any money to pay your salary at the end of the month.
    – user50700
    Apr 7, 2017 at 10:33

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