Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

Overworked and Underpaid? You Have 4 Options

If you’ve ever felt like you were being taken advantage of at work, this is a career Q&A you can’t afford to miss.

Dear Pat,

I need serious guidance and I am hoping you can help me.

My boss and I started at another company; I was his intern until he eventually quit his job to work on his family’s business. He immediately hired me on his team. I have been with this company for over two years now straight out of college.

People are always envious because our work environment is very unconventional—pool table, flat screen TVs, a rock wall, funky furniture, the works. My job was always fun and I enjoyed going to work each day. I consider my team, including my boss, who is the CEO, all to be friends. I’ve attended his family’s Christmas parties, funerals, and even was a part of his sister’s wedding.

Being that we have less than 10 people on our team, I have to take on many roles. I am the IT department, the web developer, the graphic designer, the event coordinator, the writer, the sales department, and more. I constantly have to be five different people at once, which leaves me overwhelmed. Playing different roles isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it keeps things interesting and I am always learning new things—but the problem is that I am very underpaid. I graduated with a degree in computer science, yet I make $15 an hour, which doesn’t nearly cover my bills.

I have not asked my boss for a raise, because financially I know the company is struggling to break even. It’s hard to even bring the topic up when I hear my boss complain daily of not having enough money or when I hear that he only received half of a paycheck to make sure we all got paid. It would take years for me to get to the salary I deserve, but my expenses and student loans aren’t going to wait for that to happen. If I leave, I would cripple the day-to-day operations, and there aren’t going to be too many tech people willing to do the work I do for that amount of money.

Furthermore, I feel like I would hurt my boss emotionally. He is too physically and emotionally dependent on me. What do I do?


Dear Torn,

In order to best answer you, there is one critical question we need to answer: Do you have equity in the business? Since you don’t mention it, and you do mention that the company is his “family” business, I am going to assume the answer is “no.” Please note, I would answer your question differently if you had equity.

However, assuming you have no equity and are not a partner in the business, I believe you are being taken for granted and even potentially exploited as an employee. This is sad, but it happens all the time. That said, since you are allowing yourself to be exploited, you have all the control in the world to fix it. You are the keeper of your own destiny, and since this is your first job out of college, you can easily write it off as a great learning experience.

It feels like you know exactly what you need to do but just don’t have the courage to do it—or have allowed yourself to feel guilty. Further, your boss is quite skilled in his approach to make everyone feel like family. But the truth is, you are not family—you are an employee and should be compensated fairly based on your market value. While the culture sounds fantastic and enviable, in the end you are working to make money and gain skills that will add to your overall career goals.

Further, a boss who is struggling for food is a huge worry. Perhaps the money the company does make could be better spent covering necessary costs over pool tables, flat screen TVs, rock walls, and funky furniture.

The good news is, you are gaining great experience with a startup company across a whole host of functional areas of expertise. The other good news is that you have options:

1. Ask for More Money: Ask your boss for a raise to fair market value based on the role you assume with the company.

2. Ask for Equity: It is hard to say whether there is value in having equity in this business, but that is something worth considering. But remember 10% of nothing is nothing, so if the company really is doing poorly, consider this option wisely.

3. Leave: If a raise or an equity stake is not possible, you need to let your boss know that you really have to leave the firm. You can be very polite, nice, and extremely sincere given your history—you can even offer to find and train your replacement. But if he is unwilling to raise your salary, he certainly has to understand.

4. Job Search: The last option, and what you should likely do in any case, is to begin to explore options in the marketplace—confidentially, of course. You’ll learn your worth, and if you come across something that you love, you resign and tell your boss it’s because you got an amazing opportunity that you have to pursue. You could do this option without ever having to complain about your salary.

In the end, only you can decide what is the best option for you. I’m not close enough to be able to say what best suits your situation, given it has a lot to do with your relationship with your boss (and only you can truly know the dynamics of an interpersonal relationship).

Good luck, and I would love to know what happens in your situation.



Have a question for Career Therapy? Email

Photo of stressed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.