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Ask HN: Startup CEO giving employee grief for quitting
56 points by kelvin0 on Oct 3, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments
Someone I know has been working at a startup for a almost a year. 2 months after their (2 weeks) vacation they decide to quit for another (closer) job.

This is what the CEO wrote to that employee:

"I would like that employees don’t take two weeks of paid vacation then give notice the next week, feels like stealing from the company but that’s life. I really wish you hadn’t, it leaves us with a terrible experience from someone we I enjoyed working with. Especially when that money really matter to us."

That employee had glowing reviews from his colleagues during their time at that startup. The CEO even tried to cajole them into staying. Also, that employee still has not received last months pay ...

Are all startups like this?

I left a startup job recently. They did a stellar job handling it. They spent a day or so making offers to get me to stay, then the remainder of my last two weeks listening to my reasons for leaving, making plans to fix their problems (so nobody else would leave), expressing their appreciation for my hard work and helping me find leads for a new job. At least three people on the executive team offered to provide a glowing reference for me, should I ever need one. My last paycheck was deposited a couple of weeks after I left. One of the classiest groups of people I may ever have the pleasure of working for.

I should point out that they lost nothing by this.

An employer who sends nasty emails and withholds pay is ruining the possibility of a valuable future re-hire, causing needless guilt, turning his own employees against him, building himself a poor reputation, and begging for a lawsuit. It's a heavy price to pay for his own pettiness.

Out of curiosity, why did you leave? This has not been my experience with most founders, so it sounds like you hit the jackpot. Would you also be willing to share what company this is?

It's a Utah company called DirectScale. The company is really great, but some circumstances surrounding the product and work environment were making me feel really unproductive. Which might not be a big deal for everyone, but it was for me. I rode it out for a few months, lobbied for some changes, and eventually decided it was time to move on.

I'm assuming this is only an issue because your company probably has an "unlimited" vacation policy. I'm also assuming you're in the United States.

In any traditional salaried role with a fixed amount of PTO an employee is paid out for any remaining PTO when they leave. "Unlimited" policies are a mess, for among many other reasons, because they allow companies to skimp out on paying time earned.

There is nothing unethical about what the employee did. They earned that time and/or value, and were compensated for it in the only way the company allowed them to be compensated for it. If the company wants a different set of incentives then they should change their vacation policy to a real one.

Your CEO, on the other hand, absolutely acted in an inappropriate way and, assuming they continue not to pay the employee, is acting illegally. Not all startups are like this but it is admittedly amateur hour at most of them.

This annotated be emphasized enough. Unlimited vacation time is a fraud and leads to employees taking less vacation days. Peer-pressure is insanely strong and employees directly, compare their performance to others.

That is not always the case. My last job had unlimited PTO and some of us took 20+ days per year.

20+ days is nothing to write home about with unlimited PTO. Many jobs in Europe have anywhere between 21-25 (or even 28) paid vacation days per year. As a standard. I'd imagine in order to justify unlimited PTO you would have to be able to take at least 30-40 days per year without any issues.

20 days does not seem like an extravagant ammount

Around here anything above 15 is a lot.

Yeah, anytime I take more than 10 days off in a year, I know that I'm pushing above the average. And that counts days around the holidays too. Every year I plan to take one vacation in the summer for a long weekend, or a full 5 days off in a row if I can.

What is around here? I ask as a (outside of DC non govt) worker with plenty of days (23-24 not including any holiday)~. Might want to avoid that area :)

This is so sad 20+ days is considered great for unlimited PTO??

Funny, most places in Europe the law requires at least 20 days, some places it's even 25 or more.

I have unlimited and I am taking 35 days off this year. Not including the 9 days paid holidays I get. I took around 30 last year and had 10 paid holidays. My previous company gave us 24 days PTO, no paid holidays (we could choose which holidays we wanted to take off but we'd have to use PTO). At that company I consistently took off 30+ days total.

I am in the US, both are US companies. I could not handle having less than 40 days off a year and make it clear before hiring that I am going to take plenty of time off. Yes I am productive, no I do not work long hours (~35 a week at both places)

Impressive. What area/industry are you in that you can find accommodations like this?

Developer for 2 relatively small Saas apps (< 50k users). Not in remotely the same industry as each other. One privately held, one not. I don’t think it’s industry specific or particularly common, but I’ve had a couple of job offers and seen/heard of other places with comparable benefits. A lot of it is company culture and negotiation. If a company already provides 28 days and you interview well, you can likely get that increased.

PTO payout is state by state and I’d bet pretty unusual, but California and Massachusetts have it.

27 states + D.C. treat earned PTO as wages that must be paid out (one or two states do allow employment agreements to opt-out of this).[1]

Even when working in non-required states, I've always had an employer pay out (e.g. at Microsoft in WA).

[1] https://www.workplacefairness.org/vacation-pay

I’ve always had employers pay out PTO in WA except for my last one, but they did give me some severance ... but I know they don’t pay it out as a rule.

I’ve heard that in the retail sector it is somewhat common not to pay out. That to me is akin to stealing: the employee earned those hours and the employer is refusing to pay.

All startups are not like that.

That e-mail is 100% amateur hour:

1) It's not really the employee's duty to sacrifice vacation time or pay because the company he or she works for is hurting for money.

2) Regardless, CEOs can't "think aloud" or make vague threats like that. It's whiny and childish. If the goal is for the employee to give money back -- that's insane. If the goal is to prevent employees in the future from taking vacation within a certain timeframe of leaving the company, the CEO needs to talk with his current -- not former -- employees.

So the CEO is upset that someone used their earned benefit and then left ? Yea, what a great leadership example. /s

"Are all startups like this?"

No, just the shitty ones you don't want to work for. Btw, if it happened to a co-worker, it could happen to you tomorrow. I wouldn't work for a CEO who cries over someone using their benefit.

More often than not, employers at startups seem to take routine employee departures personally. Common mistake. Probably has something to do with the amount of personal energy most founders have invested in recruiting, and how difficult recruiting has become.

Not an excuse, just a rationalization. Fairly common. Not at all excusable behavior on the part of the CEO.

Take it as proof that you were a valued member of the team. There's a chance you'll hear something like "CEO casually remarked you weren't that valued anyway", etc.

Honestly I've seem startup CEOs act like they just got dumped by their girlfriend after a good programmer leaves, even if they've went above and beyond and stuck around for several years.

I wouldn't say its proper practice, BUT... 2 weeks notice is best, at least for courtesy. It's not always easy to get another person in there when they have to trace footsteps. BUT its not illegal, just frowned upon.

Where I worked, it wasn't a startup, but a small business that had been fairly successful. I was hired for cheap and taken advantage of... anyways, I had worked there for over a year and then found another job because I couldn't stand the tyrant boss any longer. He basically cursed me out on my final day. And he withheld my last paycheck for almost a month, claiming that I still had his key, which I had returned to his wife (who was his payroll accountant).

Some more details here: http://confessionsoftheprofessions.com/the-opportunity/

Another job I had would not give me my 3 weeks paid vacation... I had to get the Union involved after a month of not getting my "vacation paycheck" (company offered option for paycheck instead of vacation) who were just about to use their lawyer. Company me that paycheck in just a few days.

What makes you think they didn't give two weeks notice?

Maybe they did. Just saying it is common courtesy. If they did.. then... I can't see an issue for taking your vacation and then cutting out.

If they have worked there for nearly a year, I would hope that they would have more than 2 weeks vacation time accrued? I am guessing there was also some more vacation time that needed to be paid out?

Secondly, you said your friend quit 2 months after taking their vacation, but the CEO's email says "take 2 weeks vacation then give notice the next week". Did you friend actually give notice to quit a week after vacation (i.e. give them about 6 weeks+ notice that they were leaving) or serve notice 2 months after returning from holiday?

Having been a business owner who has hired staff in the past, yeah it sucks when employees quite while on holidays - mainly because it gave me no time to plan to hire a replacement, or to have them help train/handover to the replacement staff member.

But if they have taken holidays that were legally owed to them then there is nothing I can do about that, and it would be unprofessional to vent about it as it is well within their rights (albeit inconvenient to the business).

It also comes down to whether the employer lets their employees take their leave in advance (e.g. your policy is 4 weeks holiday per year, and a staff member wants to take the entire 4 weeks when only 6 months into their employment). Some companies let you do that, sure - but in THOSE cases, if the employee quit while on holiday then there is a real issue because the took an extra 2 weeks holiday that they hadn't yet fully accrued. Though in your friends case, unless they had taken other leave earlier in the year, they may still be within their accrued allowance?

If they give appropriate notice what is the difference whether the employee is on holidays or not?

Having watched from the sidelines while workplace relations break down a few times, it always amazes me how simple forthright communication could solve many of the issues both parties have.

Too many on both sides treat employment as a battle to be fought rather than a mutually beneficial arrangement.

2 weeks vacation per year is fairly standard in the USA.

Sounds like a terrible CEO. That is completely inappropriate and unprofessional.

Sounds like the kind of place where the CEO will say those kinds of things because "we're all family here". But I'm guessing if something unprofessional went the other way, there'd be hell to pay.

Not getting paid is often a sign that the company will collapse in the near future. For the best that they left.

In the state of California, much of what you described is illegal. I suggest you have your friend speak with an attorney.

Almost all states have wage laws that dictate when a departing employee must get their last check, and it's typically the last day of work or the next scheduled pay date.

No need for an attorney. Write a letter to the state's board of labor. They do not mess around with issues like this.

Immature response from an immature leader.

Startups… not all of them can handle (let's just call it) "rejection". I've seen other reactions too, so — no, they're not all like that.

Fuck that company. Employees are entitled to their pay and vacation as stated in their employment contract (or whatever the laws are in the jurisdiction in which they're working), in return, all they owe is to do work as stated in their contract. A year of work has definitely earned 2 weeks of vacation...

"Are all startups like this?"

Small startups are gangs of young people trying to do something.

They vary as much as the social nuance among groups of friends at University.

Although the statement is unprofessional, it's mild on the scale of 'things that go on'.

Founders and employees are under an incredible amount of pressure - 'early employees' are not just 'employees' - there's a sense of commitment beyond that, and usually people have a lot of identity derived from their endeavour as well, so it's 'human' that someone might take it all personally.

Bill Gates used to scream and yell at his team regularly, and there are a ton of stories about the 'old Jobs'. I'm not validating their behaviour, rather, just pointing out that it's all a little spurious.

Generally holiday time is prorated throughout the year. If the employment package includes 2 weeks of vacation and you work from Jan 1 through Jun 30, you have 1 week of vacation time with that employer. Entirely fair to use them, especially if vacation time rolls over and accrues year to year. I can understand the employer being an ass about taking holidays, a lot of American managers are, but perhaps the manager should first be looking at his employment vacation policies.

Many jobs will pay you accrued leave time. Presumably they either felt they had to take it before quitting, pointing to bad HR policy, or perhaps their time away from the job gave them reason to consider their career. Either way this sounds abusive, and in a world where you're one tweet away from a PR nightmare, potentially more damaging to the startup than whatever money this employee "stole" by quitting.

Except it's not. That's their leave, not his. They haven't stolen anything.

Not paying the employee, on the other hand... that's theft.

I would say this is more about that person who wrote that message, not about startups in general. Because in the end, large company or startups, its peoples decision how to react to things.

Unprofessional but not uncommon. I've had the misfortune of being called an "ideal employee" at a review only to be lambasted and threatened with legal action after quitting.

What legal action can the possibly threaten?

A late response, but the legal action was threatening to sue me for infringement of their intellectual property because my portfolio included projects I worked on there. It was an obvious case of Fair Use, but like the other guy said, suing me would have been pocket change for my employer and devastating for me regardless of who won. So I took down my portfolio.

All sorts. As my first lawyer pointed out to me, just because you will probably win a suit eventually doesn't mean that you'll enjoy the long process or be happy about the money you're spending. If you can even afford to spend it.

Are all startups led by manipulative people? Nope.

Your friend made the right choice.

Not all startups are like this. This CEO is a textbook emotional abuser. Unfortunately this strategy generally works pretty well.

Not all startups are like this, this is an issue with the CEO. Some "leaders" take leaving a company personally.

There are shitty startups, just like there are shitty enterprises.

Anyone can be petty.

Isn't leave paid out anyway when you quit?

Why do you think businesses like "unlimited" time off so much?

"Unlimited" means "no accrued time".


It depends on law in the state you're in.

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