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posted: 1/26/2014 6:12 AM

Helping a colleague who's homeless, not hopeless

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Q: A competent junior co-worker recently confided to me that he has been living out of his car since his lease ended a month ago. He has acquired credit card debt while being underpaid and working long hours for two years at our 50-person organization. His finances are reaching a breaking point. He has resolved to give up on Washington and move back to his parents' home if he does not receive a raise. I think he could get a raise if someone higher up knew his situation, but the prospect for raises this year is dim at our organization. We don't work together directly, so it's hard for me to lobby on his behalf.

I hate seeing my friend and co-worker driven to this point. He has refused all my offers of help so far and doesn't want me to tell anyone. Do I have an obligation to say (or not say) something to someone at my organization? I know this is personal, but I feel my organization should know that a staff member has been driven to homelessness by his paltry compensation.

A: I'll understand if you feel the urge to climb onto the CEO's desk and demand justice. But I'm not sure your friend would appreciate your revealing what he probably considers a humiliating situation. Also, you might not persuade management to give him a significant raise, especially if there are other, equally deserving junior staffers scraping by at his same pay level.

But you can still help as a friend, colleague and mentor without betraying his confidence, making him into a charity case or getting too entangled in a personal crisis that may be more complicated than his net income.

As a friend, see if anyone you know is looking to sublet a room. You can also treat the guy to an occasional meal and a sympathetic ear.

As his colleague, you can plumb your professional network for opportunities and talk up what you know of his skills and work ethic.

As a mentor, you can offer to review his resume.

Most important, you can coach him to advocate for himself with management: "I can't afford to stay here at my current level" might work, but it would be more effective to illustrate why his performance merits a raise -- or truthfully mention the tempting offers he's considering from competitors.

And if all else fails, his briefly retreating to the parental sanctuary, assuming it's safe and supportive, might not be the worst outcome while he regains his footing. If nothing else, it frees up mental bandwidth for long-term planning that would otherwise be spent pursuing things most of us take for granted, like a hot shower.

• Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office. You can find her on Twitter @KarlaAtWork.

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