can I ask my boss to tell me more about why she wants to meet?

A reader writes:

My manager has the bad habit of sending emails that say things like “can we meet tomorrow?” or “can we talk tomorrow?” at like 4:30 p.m., leaving people to wonder what the topic of conversation will be about. At the end of my six-month probation, she emailed me on Friday at 4:29 that we would have our meeting next week, leaving me to think about it all weekend.

Annnnd she just did it again. Emailed me while I was out on lunch asking if we could discuss my workload on Tuesday (it’s a long weekend for Canada day). I’m a little freaked out and now have three days to dwell on it.

Every so often she’ll ask me how I’m doing. I do feel a little bit like I might’ve been letting things slip lately, so I’m concerned this might be a “you’re not performing to standards” talk. Perhaps they’re planning to add something to my workload; it could be innocent. But why do people do this?!

I sent a reply back to her and said “Yes, sure. Do you mind if I ask if this is a bad conversation or a good conversation?” But I doubt I’ll get a response (and don’t want one if she answers bad), and I’m having regrets about asking.

From a manager’s perspective, it’s really easy to forget that this kind of thing can freak some people out. Managers have tons and tons of utterly mundane meetings all the time, and so these kinds of requests feel really routine. They are really routine.

And I’ve got to say, a request to talk about your workload sounds pretty normal/unremarkable to me. While it would be nice if she had given you a little more context (“I want to see if you have room to take on project X,” “I don’t have a good sense of what your capacity is right now,” or whatever), I don’t think it’s unreasonable that she didn’t. That’s true even with the three-day delay in there. This kind of conversation is such a normal part of work that you’d be asking her to do extra emotional labor in reassuring you every time she asks for a routine meeting.

That said, if your manager had written to me, I’d point out to her that vague meeting requests can make people uneasy — especially if they’ve had bad managers in the past — and so it’s kinder to give at least some context when requesting a meeting.

And really, that’s something you could request too, by saying something like this: “Any chance that you can include a bit of context about the meeting topic when you invite me to one? I have a tendency to worry otherwise.”

But I’m not sure that would actually solve the problem, because she did tell you this latest one was about workload and she would probably assume that “let’s have our end-of-probation meeting on Monday” was enough context too. I think what you want is for her to tell you more than the basic topic — you want enough detail to know if it’s good or bad, and that’s the part that’s not super reasonable to ask for. (That’s why I don’t love that you asked her “Is this a bad conversation or a good conversation?” If it’s a bad conversation, there’s a reason she didn’t tell you that in advance and so she’s not likely to say it now. And it doesn’t allow for nuance, so it just puts her in a weird position in having to figure out how to answer.)

The better approach is to try to adjust your own reaction — by reminding yourself that these sorts of requests are a routine part of work, by thinking about what types of things she’s asked to meet about in the past, and by reflecting on how she handles it when something does go wrong. (There’s more advice on that here too.)

{ 150 comments… read them below }

  1. AMPG*

    I feel you, OP. I’ve been unnecessarily freaked out by what turned out to be routine meetings AND blindsided by serious performance talks that I thought would be about routine workload reviews. It sounds like you two don’t have a regular check-in set up. Would it help to do something like that, even half an hour every other week? That would probably help you feel like you’re on the same page, so you’d have a better idea if an upcoming conversation would be positive or negative, plus it would give you defined space to discuss routine things, so you won’t get so freaked out by every meeting request.

    1. Green Goose*

      Yeah, the serious performance reviews out of the blue are pretty brutal, and really unfair to the employee because it forces someone to be ill-prepared for an important and significant meeting. I’m also the type of person who needs a little time to absorb unexpected and negative news (I don’t need days but I can’t be bombarded with something and then immediately snap back with the perfect or final answer), so I really don’t like the feeling of being ambushed. This has happened to me a few times in the working world, and after feeling shellshocked the first few times, now I just tell people that I need some time to think over what they said before giving them an answer.

      1. Super Anon for This*

        I have had the same experience as AMPG, I described it below in response to another comment. If you are calling someone in to a bad meeting, they deserve to have some time to prepare to defend themselves. I was called into one once about something that had happened a few weeks ago and it took me like 5 minutes to recall the extremely minor event that was supposedly the very, very bad thing I had done. Even though it was very minor and I didn’t do anything wrong, I think that taking so long to remember it didn’t make me look better in my manager’s eyes.

        1. Green Goose*

          That would add another level of stress if it was something the boss had been stewing about for weeks.

        2. Eversong*

          Ooooh, I feel you.

          I used to have a team leader and a manager, who would call me into a bad meeting, unload all kind of accusations on me and if I couldn’t recall where this was actually coming from, they’d bring in examples from half a year ago. Mostly minor incidents that I seriously couldn’t remember and so couldn’t defend myself against.

      2. Tim*

        I’ve had a similar issue with a surprise interview for my current job.

        I had been working as a contractor and was being taken on full time. At first it was decided I would simply be switched to a permanent contract, however HR informed my manager that a formal process must be undertaken. My manager advertised the job (stating that there was a preferred candidate for the role) and I applied, with the intention that I would simply be offered the job and appointed; unfortunately HR came back and said we had to have an interview. My manager assured me we’d just have an informal interview the following Monday, however when I was walking home from the train station Friday evening (the day the application window closed) my manager rang me up and told me there’d been a last minute applicant and he was obliged to interview them too – there would now be a formal interview on Monday.

        On the Monday, I was required to continue with my prearranged duties, which that day included crawling around under the desks setting up some new computer monitors. My competitor showed up suited, booted and polished (as you’d expect) and his interview, as far as I can tell, went very well. I had been busy on the weekend with prior engagements and had not prepared at all, was hot and sweaty from my work and was further wrong-footed by being called into the interview an hour early. Suffice to say my interview was very poor, though I did get the job based largely on the fact I was already doing it.

        Not an experience I’d like to repeat!

    2. Obelia*

      I was just going to say the same thing. It might be that your boss is just creating ad hoc meetings where a regular check in would be more appropriate.

    3. Parenthetically*

      Yeah, same. “Hey, got a minute?” turned into, “Close the door, here’s this person to yell at you about something you’d completely forgotten even happened,” and, “Do you have some time to sit down and meet together next Tuesday?” became, “Let’s have a super-fun and productive brainstorming session about the creative future of this whole enterprise!”

      I like my boss, I do.

  2. The Other Dawn*

    After reading a similar letter here awhile ago (probably a couple years), I’ve always made it a point to say what I want to meet about. Or I’ll just say, “Don’t worry–nothing bad!” I’ve had vague emails from bosses before and it was stress-inducing to think about all weekend long.

    1. a Gen X manager*

      Agree – I always make sure to say “everything is fine” (unless it isn’t, which is rare). The staff teases me about always saying that, but before I started doing that people would be noticeably edgy about being asked to meet (and then it would take a while to get to the point in the meeting because they’d be waiting for the other shoe to drop!).

      1. Kate*

        I’ve had a boss who tried to relieve the atmosphere by building a running joke about how he’s going to fire “Sally”. She seemed cool with it, and liked joking along. And then he could make it clear a meeting wasn’t about anything out of the ordinary by joking that he’s just going to fire you. It wasn’t awesome, but it set the tone that nothing he wanted to meet about was fire-worthy.

        It didn’t work very well when he got fired.

    2. Green Goose*

      Agreed. When I need to check in with my interns at a later time (later in the day or week) I will give them context about what we need to discuss. Things can get pretty busy at the office and sometimes I only have time to tell them to check in with me before they leave, but I wouldn’t leave it ominous like “we need to talk before you leave the office today.” I also really hate when other people do it to me and I can’t resist the urge to ask what the meeting is about.
      I think it is worth bringing up with your manager because like Alison said, your manager might not even be aware of what she is doing. I like Alison’s wording too.

    3. BRR*

      I once had someone from senior leadership come over and tell me ahead about a meeting before I got the invite. It would have made no sense to meet with her one on one. She started a couple months before me and met with everyone in the department and didn’t want to exclude me. If she didn’t tell me what it was about, I would have probably soiled myself (especially because I had been fired from my previous and first job with no notice).

  3. Parfait*

    I always assume sudden meetings with management are going to be to fire me. It almost never is.

      1. Murphy*

        I got fired once that way. Grandboss asked to meet with me at 4:30 that afternoon. Completely joking, I asked “ooh, am I in trouble?” She said, “We’ll talk about that later.” So then I knew it was coming.

      2. Parfait*

        Once it was.

        Once in 30 years of employment is a pretty good rate, and yet! I still get that chill of fear in the pit of my stomach.

        1. Bryce*

          The brain likes to hang onto bad situations. I got rear-ended once when I stopped for a yellow light and the guy behind me didn’t, and five years later I still tense up at every traffic light.

    1. Anon Anon*

      Me too. Hell, last year, I was pulled into a private meeting with my boss and HR, and I thought for a moment that I was going to be fired before I realized I was being stupid. Instead, it was to talk to me about my latest promotion. I think once you’ve had one bad boss where these kind of meetings were reprimands, I think often the default is to assume the worst.

    2. kittymommy*

      My company has a reputation of doing these type of meetings, So yeah, any type of sudden 4:30/5:00 meeting seems everyone into panic mode.

    3. Zara*

      Me too! I am so grateful when a manager takes the time to add a little “nothing bad!” to a meeting invite.

    4. Artemesia*

      I always feel ridiculous for having this ‘I’m in trouble response to any vague overture from a superior’ I think this is often a consequence of particular kinds of child rearing by fear as well as individual temperament.

    5. Tim C.*

      Agree. But the other way to think of it is a manager is not going to schedule a termination or serious discipline 3 days in advance.

      Be worried when you hear “Meeting in my office now. Bring your coat and keys.”

      1. Time Bomb of Petulance*

        A termination or serious discipline meeting can definitely be scheduled multiple days in advance, especially if the boss has been meeting with HR/legal and getting his/her ducks in a row.

        1. Tammy*

          One of the companies I worked at liked to schedule these sorts of meetings with HR/Legal and the boss ahead of time, but not add the to-be-terminated employee to the meeting invite until right beforehand. I think part of this was to minimize the amount of “what is this meeting about?” anxiety, and part of it was to avoid giving the employee enough notice to do something retaliatory (delete data or something before the meeting).

        2. K.*

          I was laid off at a meeting that was scheduled weeks in advance. My then-grandboss worked at our global headquarters out of the country but came to our offices about bimonthly, and always scheduled meetings with us when he was here. They were just face to face check-ins. I didn’t think anything of that meeting request because it was SOP. That time around, those meetings were to lay each of us off.

      2. Dachelle*

        I was fired (well, given the choice to be terminated or accept a separation agreement and resign) at a performance review meeting that had been on the calendar for a month. No idea going in that I was in trouble at all. So, yes, you can be fired at a scheduled meeting.

    6. ThatGirl*

      I always assumed things were fine at my last job, and then a meeting was announced with two days notice and no context and 15 of us got laid off. So I’m gonna be more paranoid now.

    7. If it's OK with you, I'd like to remain anonymous.*

      When I was about six months into my current job, things were going OK, but not great and I had no idea if my boss liked me. I didn’t have a lot of work to do and my boss only a few weeks before had asked to see details of how my main project was going (it was asked in a way that made me feel like he wasn’t pleased with my performance).

      My co-worker at the time did not like our boss. Then one Friday my c0-worker left about 2 pm which was normal for her on Fridays. My boss was in a meeting when she left. A few minutes after he returned (so now after 3pm, still on a Friday), he called me into his office and had me shut the door. I thought it was coming… and then he told me my co-worker quit (she left a note on his desk while he was in the meeting and would not be returning on Monday). What a weird turn of events.

      1. designbot*

        I had one kind of like that. Our HR/Office manager asked me out to lunch one day which was unusual–we had an office culture of bringing lunches and all eating at a big table together. I’d been sort of let go over coffee (it was complicated) from an internship years before, and this felt a lot like that. I was super nervous, even emailed myself some files for my portfolio in advance! Turned out they were firing someone I worked closely with and wanted to make sure I’d be okay taking over a lot of her duties since the plan was to get by for a while before replacing for financial reasons.
        I think a lot of the time we have an instinct about the tone or seriousness of something but without the details assume the worst for ourselves. Sometimes it’s the worst for someone else, or sometimes it’s serious but in a good way.

  4. LoV*

    I’m in complete sympathy with the OP. I hate it when managers do this. I used to work in a place that was pretty harsh and it seemed like people got pushed out fairly regularly, so random meetings with management always made me nervous.

    1. SystemsLady*

      Mine is the opposite, my boss is usually super understanding but his meeting request emails are generally “Subject: call me Message: Give me a call when you get a chance”

  5. LSP*

    To quote the great magizoologist, Newt Scamander, “My philosophy is that worrying means you suffer twice.”

      1. Myrin*

        I don’t know, I think you can realistically assess that a situation might have a bad outcome without actually worrying about it.

  6. Toph*

    If I feel the need to ask in this type of situation, I usually just go with “Should I be concerned?” and then they can say yes, no, maybe, or elaborate. I think this is a more neutral thing than “good” vs “bad” because there are plenty of times the conversation is not going to be pleasant, but not a reprimand sort of meeting. There’s plenty of bad news that isn’t “you really screwed up” or “we’re cutting the department” or whatever.
    But generally my thinking is…if there’s something you might be in trouble about, unless your manager sucks, you probably know already and have been waiting for the shoe to drop. On the flipside, if your manager does suck, and has a tendency to surprise you, upset about things you thought were non-issues, that speaks to a much bigger problem in the mutual communication that goes way beyond vague meeting requests.

    1. a Gen X manager*

      Yes! and even if your manager does suck, wouldn’t you usually know when you’re not performing or made a mistake that would justify a meeting?

      1. Bellatrix*

        If you have low self-confidence or imposter syndrome, you’re basically always thinking you’re horrible at your job and every little misstep feels like a failure. So I understand why someone with that mindset would worry – and “just stop worrying” isn’t very good advice in such cases.

        1. Parenthetically*

          This is a really important observation — especially since so many of us do deal with impostor syndrome!

          1. Zombii*

            Seriously. And some jobs make it so much worse. Like a call center where “all” calls are recorded and x% of calls are reviewed and policies about what you’re allowed to say to who that change constantly. Or a retail store with unrealistic expectations and frequent secret shopper visits.

            Any time I had a meeting at either of those jobs, I’d know about two dozen minor ways I’d screwed up that week. Did it matter? Depended on the manager and whether they had empathy for humans.

        2. Kate*

          That’s also why it doesn’t relieve me when people say “oh, X should have seen/probably saw it coming.” I’m mildly anxious about what-have-I-done-wrong, and I cope by reminding myself of all the positive feedback I get. So if I were getting signals that I’d done something wrong, I’d actively try to reassure myself that there’s a lot I’m doing right.

          I don’t want to have to guess if I’m in trouble or not, because if the responsibility is on my then I will be constantly stressed about it and seeing signs.

          1. Observer*

            This is a really good example of why dealing with anxiety is not just about learning to function with it, or getting past “the worst that could happen thinking:, but also needs to include learning to figure out when it’s the anxiety (or imposter syndrome / low self esteem) talking, and when you are getting bona fide signals that there is a problem.

      2. AMPG*

        I got totally blindsided by a meeting like this once; I was told it was a meeting about “prioritizing job functions,” which made a lot of sense since I was still being trained, but it turned out to be a dressing-down about how I was doing almost everything wrong, including composing email. And my manager really did suck, which is why I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong. I was also a bad fit for the job, and it may not have been salvageable even with better management, but that definitely sunk things.

        1. fposte*

          So this is getting to the question I would want to ask the OP–would you have preferred advance notice that this meeting was about deficiencies in your job performance?

          1. AMPG*

            That’s a good question. It might have been worthwhile to hear something like, “I’m concerned about progress on timelines and I want to make sure we’re on the same page.” I think I would’ve been OK with that. However, I’m generally pretty good about receiving negative feedback and I understand why many managers wouldn’t want to do something like that for fear of making the situation worse.

            As things happened, because I wasn’t expecting negative feedback, I spent a good chunk of the meeting itself completely disoriented. My boss didn’t give me any kind of intro or framing once we were face to face, and so it took almost half the meeting for me to realize, “Wait, these are not good things she’s saying. This meeting isn’t really about task prioritization.” If she had started the meeting by saying, “There are several things I’m concerned about as you’re settling into your role, and I want to make sure my expectations here are clear,” it would’ve helped a lot.

            1. fposte*

              Thanks, that’s really useful; your point about it wrong-footing the meeting itself in a way that could have been cleared up is really good.

            2. hugseverycat*

              I’ve had a similar experience. A manager called me into a meeting and then started talking in vague terms about a bad thing people shouldn’t do. This was a call center environment and they were talking about how “some people” might be trying to avoid taking calls.

              It took me several minutes to realize they were informing me that I had been accused of this behavior and should knock it off.

              FWIW, I wasn’t doing the thing they were accusing me of, at least not on purpose. We were using a new call routing software and some people had figured out how to view who was next in line to take a call. Someone apparently saw me log out of the queue when I was next in line a couple times. The thing is, I had no idea how to view who was next in line. I was just leaving the queue for normal reasons, like going to the bathroom or getting coffee, and the fact that I was next in line for a call was a complete coincidence.

              This particular manager ran a pretty dysfunctional ship; everyone was always watching everyone else to evaluate whether they were working enough. I had one coworker who had a spreadsheet to track everyone else’s comings and goings. Management later changed and this coworker got fired.

              1. Kate*

                Ugh, I had an upper manager who would do stuff like this. Just drop inconspicuous “X is really important, right?” comments. I’d respond like, “Yep! It sure is! We’re totally on the same page here.”

                It took me a while to realize that her comments were a passive-aggressive way of saying “I’m not happy with how you do X, I want you to change how you handle it.” It was especially hard when she’d drop those comments into a group meeting, because it made me think that she and I were co-presenting this important task X to other participants who knew less about it than we did.

                1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

                  Ye gods, that sounds like something my old manager at ToxicJob would have done. So glad I don’t have to deal with her shenanigans any more.

              2. Genny*

                Did you work for my old manager? Because this was him to a T. He would call me into his office and spend the entire time talking vaguely about “how things work in the company” and then ask if I understood. Being a new grad, wanting to please, and not realizing what he was doing, I always said yes. He fired me a few months later for not correcting the mistakes he told me about. To this day, I’m not sure how I would’ve fixed them because he never gave me anything concrete to work with.

              3. Zombii*

                *call center refuge high-fives*

                Fwiw because maybe this was similar where you were, the call center I worked at had policies against management accusing people of not following procedures/purposely avoiding working/anything that could result in job loss because apparently you can qualify for unemployment in this state if you quit after being told that your job is in jeopardy (or that’s what someone in upper management thought?), but only if it’s clearly stated as part of a formal discussion about performance improvement.

                So like 1/3 of the building is on PIPs at any given time, and they say failure to meet the PIP will mean “moving on to the next step” or similar euphemisms that specifically avoid saying “you will lose your job”—and just being on a PIP is no evidence because literally everyone who’s worked there for more than 3 months has been on a PIP for something at some point.

                Tl;dr: Most call centers suck and don’t know how to manage people or run a business.

                1. hugseverycat*

                  It was so silly really. I still don’t know why everyone was always so upset at this job (I actually still work there but no longer take phone calls). As call centers go, it is extremely cushy, especially in Tier 2 (where I was working). Our product has an extremely seasonal usage pattern, so we would be busy maybe 3 months out of the entire year, and the rest of the time we would have minutes or hours or days between calls in Tier 2. We got paid extremely well for a call center. We all had tons of opportunity to work on other projects and with other departments, since we had so much downtime and everyone at the company, including the call center, were in the same building. And yet everyone was always angry at each other all the time. Who knows.

                2. hugseverycat*

                  But your story does remind me of the previous call center I was at, which was for a major movie/tv streaming company (yeah, that one). They have a company “value” of only hiring the best, and I eventually learned that their managers would basically fire their way to getting “the best”. Team managers were very competitive with each other, and if someone wasn’t a “rock star” they’d get fired sooner rather than later. You know, cool company, cool city, pay was somewhat above average; there’s no shortage of new hires to winnow.

                  Anyway, when I was new, before I understood this culture, I knew I wasn’t doing as well as I’d like, so I initiated a meeting with my manager asking if I could get some extra help or coaching. He said “sure”. Later that same day he pulled me into a meeting with his manager to put me on a PIP. This was literally the first day we had ever talked about my performance. He also didn’t make it clear at all that this was a serious thing that could lead to firing, so I left the meeting a little annoyed that I had been reprimanded for a performance issue I had literally just asked for help with, but not really understanding that I was one step away from losing my job.

                  I did improve and shortly thereafter transferred to another team. It wasn’t until later when I was prepping for an interview for a promotion that someone brought up my PIP as a really bad thing that meant I was probably bad at my job and I shouldn’t go mentioning it cavalierly.

          2. Observer*

            The thing is that there is a value to a track record of being warned, because then if you are not being warned, you know you can breath easy. As it is, no matter what, the OP is worrying.

      3. sam*

        well, not if you’re getting laid off because the company is having…other issues.

        (been there, done that).

      4. Lindsay J*

        Nope. Not if your boss decides to fire you over something that was completely arbitrary and objectively not a big deal. I was completely blindsided, and didn’t know he was firing me until halfway through the meeting when he gave me the paperwork to sign.

        Even once I knew the meeting was bad and I was in trouble, I still thought it was more “verbal or written warning” trouble than “fired despite having no prior write-ups or job performance issues” trouble.

        However, he was a really terrible boss, and I still think the firing had more to do with other circumstances than me personally. (I was the highest paid person at my level at the time so I think I was fired to basically make it look like he was doing *something* to fix some department issues going on at the time. He was let go very shortly after I was – a matter of a week or so.)

        The thing I did wrong was to print a report for the wrong date, after working a 20+ hour shift. (I got confused after midnight whether the computer wanted the operating day or the actual day). It was a report that my coworkers in the same role didn’t print out at all. And it was literally just printing it, so anyone further up the chain could look at it, see that it was the wrong date, and reprint in in 5 minutes or less before anything was done with the data.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think “should I be concerned?” will get you reassurance when everything is fine … but won’t actually get you a real answer is it’s not. Most managers aren’t going to say “yes” to that question; they’re going to equivocate.

      It’s also a kind of weird question to ask routinely if you don’t have any reason to think there are problems; it can make you appear like you’re not very confident in your work. That’s fine in some positions but can be problematic in others. (And it’s going to be much more weird if you’re in a more senior role.)

      1. Toph*

        It may be a poor example because I’ve never asked it thinking there was something wrong with my work, but I have asked it and received a “yes” (not in those exact words but confirmation that it wasn’t a good news meeting), but my relationships with my coworkers are very transparent. That said, I don’t ask it routinely, only if I genuinely have no idea what it could be about and the request were vague enough to seem ominous, and that situation is rare in the first place.

      2. Artemesia*

        I know someone who asked ‘should we be concerned’ when the boss from the main office was to make a site visit. They said ‘oh no, this is just a visit to check in.’ The entire office was closed and everyone was fired.

        You don’t get square answers in these situations. It sucks that such a vague meeting is announced before a 4 days holiday weekend — but no question will set the mind to rest.

      3. SarahTheEntwife*

        I so feel you on this. And I have regular meetings with my boss, but somehow there’s still that twinge of anxiety when I see “meeting, my office” on my calendar. Yes, anxietybrain, it’s the same meeting you have every two weeks, which sometimes is just a five-minute “yup, still working on the thing, waiting on X from Y, no other issues” conversation.

    3. fposte*

      Yeah, I think you can talk to your manager about generally wanting a heads up on what meetings are about in advance, but reassurance-seeking behavior about an individual meeting, which is what I would read the OP’s request as, can cause more problems than it solves. If it *is* what the manager thinks is bad, that’s then created a new problem (I doubt the OP would be happy just to get an response that says “Bad” and nothing else); I have to say also that I’d be a little put off by getting an email like that in the first place so I’ve got a raised eyebrow at my employee for a situation that didn’t need to elicit that.

      This is a little related to the “it’s beneficial for people to receive feedback well”; it’s also beneficial for people to make conversations with them easy. The more handling we need, the later we’ll get told anything.

      1. NW Mossy*

        This is so well-articulated, and really dials into why it’s so beneficial to cultivate the ability to have a neutral, calm reaction to a meeting on a topic that hasn’t been provided yet. These happen all the time at work, and for good reason.

        I generally don’t schedule ad hoc meetings with my team members to talk about performance because I use weekly one-on-ones for that, but I do occasionally schedule one-on-ones to talk about an important announcement that will impact people without telling them the topic ahead of time. Staffing changes are the most common reason, followed by circumstances that will result in someone being out suddenly for a period of time (such as a death in the family). It’s the kind of news you want to deliver live and have them hear the message and be able to ask their questions at the same time, so dropping it in the invite takes away a significant part of the purpose of meeting. Also, putting it in the invite creates so much space for speculation and between-the-lines readings that aren’t reality but take hold like kudzu.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I’m fine with being asked if there’s something that needs to be prepared, as JM suggests, and I’m generally pretty good about telling people ahead of time (usually we already know anyway) about what a meeting’s about. But sometimes I don’t and I can’t do telegraphy on it, and I think staff are better off not scratching the itch to try to get hints in a case like that.

      2. The Rat-Catcher*

        “The more handling we need, the later we’ll get told anything.”
        I mean, you are always on point with your comments, but this just blew my mind.
        Like, everything about my entire last two years of employment just made sense, right now.

      3. Mallory Janis Ian*

        “The more handling we need, the later we’ll get told anything.”

        So true. At each of my last several jobs, there has been one person who is the last to be informed of anything because they need handling disproportionate to the subject being discussed. One person was fairly high up, and her superiors would collude with her direct reports to handle situations around her, because her “everything is a narrowly-avoided disaster” mindset was undermining her so severely.

  7. Jillociraptor*

    This ship may have sailed with your manager, but when I start working with someone new, I like to have a general working styles conversation, including a discussion about how we both like to give and receive feedback. I can share that, while I certainly understand that I need to accept critical feedback gracefully no matter how it’s offered, I find it most useful to receive feedback in writing, and then be able to follow up with a conversation. That lets me explore the issue and come ready with a proposal to improve it, rather than reacting on the spot. All of my managers have been receptive to this, though of course it’s not always feasible.

  8. Tammy*

    I try to always give context if I can – “can we chat for a minute about where we’re at with Project Y?” or similar. If the meeting is something whose topic I don’t want to announce openly because my team and I all sit in a single big room (for example, if someone’s getting a bonus), I’ll say something like “can I chat with you for a minute? Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.”

    I’d like to think I’ve built up some trust with my team around this, but man, I KNOW how anxiety producing it can be. I’ve been at my current company for almost 5 years, and just received my 3rd promotion to Senior Manager, and I still fight those pangs of imposter syndrome that tell me I’m in trouble when my grandboss asks for a meeting.

    1. Toph*

      For me, even just your choice of the word “chat” is helpful. “Can we talk?” is some sort of movie-cliche bad news segue. “Can we chat?” is much somehow more neutral. At least if the request is in writing. I’m sure said outloud it’s possible to make “chat” sound threatening, but in most cases, “chat” is just…lighter?

      1. Lindsay J*

        I was just thinking that I like the phrase “check in” as well, because it’s less intense (provided it is a check in on say workload or something like that, and not a job performance issue).

    2. Kate*

      I guess I’ve just no thought about this too much because my bosses have been so comfortable with quick chats like “hey, are you free?” or “I have a question about Y” that I interpret most ad hoc conversations as being neutral or even good opportunities for me to be valuable.

    3. PlainJane*

      Great approach. And building trust is key. Regular meetings, focusing on fixing problems rather than placing blame, and an honest yet kind approach to giving feedback all help in that regard.

    4. Observer*

      The thing is that the OP’s manager does seem to be giving some context. So, unless the manager has a habit of blindsiding people, there’s not much more that the OP can do without looking needy.

  9. HR Expat*

    I’ve definitely had the awful boss in the past who did this, so I feel your pain OP. One thing that has helped me (besides an amazing new boss) is to ask if there’s anything I need to prepare for the meeting. If it’s a routine workload conversation, she’ll tell me to prep all my current projects and look at my bandwidth. If it’s a not so good conversation she’ll give me an idea what she wants to discuss and I usually know what I’ve done wrong in advance.

  10. JM*

    When I’m on the employee side of this kind of thing, I tend to find asking “is there anything I should prepare for this meeting?” to be a productive way to get more context without sounding like I’m worried or stressed. Of course, my manager can always say “nope!” But it tends to open the door for more info about whatever we’re going to discuss, and often times she will say “prepare by thinking about X which is what I want to talk about.” Or something along those lines.

    For what it’s worth, I had a lot of bad managers in my youth and still get that jumpy feeling when I get a vague meeting request, but just fall back on what you know about your relationship with your manager and how more often than not, the meetings are good/neutral.

    1. sam*

      This is what I was going to suggest – I’ve had managers who would do this, or simply put meetings on my calendar that just had “meeting” with zero context. It almost always ends up being some sort of catch up on current projects, or to talk about a new project, but I find it’s a good way to get a little info by asking if there’s anything *I* should prepare for the meeting.

      This way you’re not asking if you’re in trouble, or if the meeting is good or bad, but you’re looking like you want to be proactive (to the extent possible) in advance of the meeting.

      Sometimes, of course, my boss keeps things close to the vest because the projects we work on can sometimes be extremely confidential, and my assistant has access to my calendar (even within the legal department, we go out of our way to keep certain things, like executive compensation issues, or hirings/terminations, really under wraps). So he’s actually doing it to keep things extra-super-duper confidential until we can speak and he can explain that I shouldn’t talk about XYZ with anyone. So that’s another thing particular to my job that may or may not be applicable generally.

      1. PlainJane*

        “This way you’re not asking if you’re in trouble, or if the meeting is good or bad, but you’re looking like you want to be proactive (to the extent possible) in advance of the meeting.” Yep. I’ve used this approach for a few years now, and this is exactly why. I hate being blindsided in meetings, even if it’s something generally positive. Give me a chance to think about the topic, and I’ll be much better able to participate productively.

      1. Kat*

        This approach has worked for me too. I’d still be worried if the reply was simply “no.” but it often does coax a little more info from the manager. “No, I’ll be giving you an update on some potential future projects.” Or “Just be ready to discuss Client X’s timeline through December.”

  11. WG*

    What I’ve sometimes done is responded back inquiring about more context for the meeting, mentioning that I want to be sure I’m prepared for the meeting. Asking if there are topics, subjects, details, reports, etc. that I should have ready or bring with me to the meeting.

    Or, in your case, where this has happened several times, maybe have a conversation with your boss and ask if it’s possible for this type of detail in future meeting requests. Let her know you want to be sure you’re fully prepared for future meetings.

    1. Nonprofit Chicago*

      Great advice! I would recommend just replying with “Absolutely. Can you please let me know what this is concerning? I’ll make sure to be prepared to discuss.” My old boss would do this all the time and he would always then let me know the meeting topic.

      1. DDJ*

        This is why I always make sure my employees know exactly what to expect going into any meeting. I personally like to be prepared when I’m asked into a meeting. I have so many balls in the air that if I were asked to speak to any one particular thing without having any notice, it would probably not go as well as it could. Even if I can do a quick 5-minute refresh on whatever the topic is, it’ll make for a much more effective meeting.

    2. Stuck in the middle (management)*

      Yes! This is exactly what I was going to propose…”Is there anything in particular I should prepare for our meeting?” may be a way to get the info you want without adding to the freak-out level.

  12. Competent Commenter*

    How about just asking for some context so that you can prepare for the meeting? I would answer something like, “Sounds great, I have space on my calendar for that. What are we going to cover? I want to be prepared with any figures or notes you might need.” I was able to head off a “planning session” request from a new and rather frustrating boss. She wanted to schedule a half-day retreat for the two of us at her house (oh God no) which I was pretty sure was going to boil down to her telling me how to do my job. She didn’t know my job duties or how to do my job, and is an “advise first, listen impatiently to your explanation that you already do that later” person. When I asked her what I should do to prepare, I was able to introduce the idea that maybe I was already doing some the things that she had in mind, like yes, I already have a strategic plan and yes I have already met with the rest of our team and have their list of priorities and I’m working through them. We ended up having a quick standup meeting and I got most of her questions answered without the need for retreat. A win!

  13. Rabbit Gal*

    I feel you, OP. I have the same reaction to vague requests for meetings with my manager. My manager does suck for a lot of various reasons, but she’s improved on asking me to keep in touch more so we can keep up with everything. I work at home, so it’s not like I can just pass by her desk. Thanks for the letter!

  14. ArtK*

    Urgh. Hate this.

    For me, it’s not so much angst about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but just frustration that I can’t prepare for the meeting. Our CEO’s admin is particularly bad about this. I’ll get an invitation (along with 4-5 other people), “Discuss FeebleCo.” I have no idea who or what “FeebleCo” is. It turns out that they’re a potential customer who wants some custom work done and I’m asked, on the spot, whether we can do it or not. Without any details of what it is that they want. Forwarding a single e-mail with the customer’s request would have avoided a lot of me saying “I don’t have a clue. I’ll get back to you on that” over and over again.

    Rule of Memos: Make sure you know what your audience *doesn’t* know. Don’t assume!

    1. The Rat-Catcher*

      This, I think is why my supervisor gives me a heads-up of what we’re going to discuss before meetings. I’m an admin and I keep track of a lot of different things, so if I go in blind, there’s a lot of “let me pull up that spreadsheet” and “let me find that email” that I could have done ahead of time. It’s more efficient for everyone if I am at least on the right topic.

    2. Kate*

      That’s so bad. My sales team is really great about making sure we present well to prospects, so we have a nice system of looping in the subject experts when and how we’re most productive.

  15. the gold digger*

    it’s really easy to forget that this kind of thing can freak some people out

    We have a (wonderful) intern this summer. My boss was telling her how much it used to freak me out when he called me into his office.

    “Like a rescue dog that’s been mistreated!” the intern said.

    Which was the perfect analogy. (Except my boss has never had a pet.)(Ever.)(But it worked for the rest of us in the conversation, all of whom do have pets.)

  16. Jen RO*

    I usually add ‘don’t worry, nothing bad!’ whenever I schedule an impromptu meeting with a report. It usually works to avoid them stressing out…

    …except the last time, because she only saw ‘can you meet me in the conference room’ and not the following ‘it’s something good’. She came in all stressed out, thinking she had made some mistake… but actually her raise had just been approved and I didn’t want to wait until our scheduled 1-on-1 to give her the good news.

  17. Poster Child*

    I always give context when I request a meeting with a team member (“let’s catch up on project x”) or if I ask for a quick meeting about something else I’ll say it’s nothing bad or to worry about and those will be meetings that are immediate so there’s no time spent worrying anyway. However, I wonder if OP is giving the boss enough updates – if not that could be prompting the excessive number of meetings requested. Or do you have regular one on ones with your boss where you can give project updates? If not (although it’s your boss’s responsibility) you could ask for them so you both know there is a regular check in on your work. But I find that I ask for more updates when people are not giving me very many or don’t make much progress between updates or seem to need that update deadline to get work completed. So think about whether any of those situations might apply here.

  18. Anon for this*

    My boss (one of them) emailed me last week to ask whether we could have breakfast the following day. We *never* meet for breakfast. (I don’t see her often because I’m a consultant and am based at a client.) Cue anxiety. When I said it wasn’t a good day, she said she’d have to phone me because she *had* to speak to that day. Cue more anxiety. It turned out to be nothing about me, but by the time I’d found that out I was extremely stressed. And this is a person who is generally pretty sensitive and considerate of her staff. It just didn’t occur to her that it might worry me.

    1. Ramona Flowers*

      I wish I knew what it was like to be the kind of person who wouldn’t think of that.

      I just don’t get how it’s not obvious!

      1. DDJ*

        I’m in the same boat! I’m sure my employees must think I’m a bit of a weirdo since I’ll include a full meeting agenda on almost every invite (unless I’ve spoken with them about the subject matter and meeting expectations previously). I do suffer from anxiety though, so I think I’m particularly in-tune with that ominous feeling that a person can get when they’re asked into a meeting and don’t know what the subject might be.

        Plus I think it’s important to give people a chance to prepare.

  19. nnn*

    An option, if it works with the personalities involved:

    Go to your meeting on Tuesday, and when the manager tells you they’ve called in you for something benign or routine, give a half-comic sigh of relief and say “Whew! I wish you’d mentioned that in your email last Friday – it sounded ominous!” Then segue back to the business at hand.

    In my own workplace, we were able to get management to eventually give a bit of context for meetings simply by having everyone casually mention that ominous-sounding things sounded ominous whenever the opportunity to do so arose. Of course, YMMV.

  20. Mike C.*

    I can’t understand why it’s so difficult for many managers to understand this. The majority of us live in a country where we can be fired with no notice and no reason at all. So when we get a meeting with no notice and no reason, it’s perfectly natural to worry about these things.

    1. Rikki Tikki Tarantula*

      I wonder how many of them don’t understand it and how many understand it and do it on purpose to keep us on our toes/get a thrill from the power dynamic.

      Yes, I’m feeling cynical today, why do you ask?

      1. Rebecca*

        My ex manager did this. She would run around and yell “IN MY OFFICE” and we’d all go in, stand there, and wonder what was going on. Then she’d stand there and hem haw around, say how much she cared for all of us, and then bring up some performance issue that one person had, after going around the barn a few times. It was awful. I privately asked her if she could please address those issues privately, nope, she didn’t want to single anyone out. Or maybe give us a head’s up for meetings so we could plan, and again, she wouldn’t. She liked it that we were always off balance and didn’t know what was going to be discussed. She actually said that she preferred it that way so we didn’t have time to discuss anything ahead of time with each other.

        Notice I said “ex manager”. Thankfully.

        1. Toph*

          I can never decide if I like it when horrible managers make it so plain that they are horrible. I mean, I guess it’s plain anyway but on the one hand it’s SO obnoxious when one likes to announce outloud some power dynamic bs they like to pull, stating directly that it is indeed a power play and they enjoy it vs those who do it but have the sliver of decency to not going around talking about how much they enjoy effing with their employees. The former is more cruel, but yay honesty so one can flee more promptly? The latter leaves the possibility they don’t realize how much of a jerk they are, or maybe learned it from other bad managers and are just mimicking bad behaviour, which probably doesn’t mean room for reform, but does leave the tiniest chance of it.

        2. the gold digger*

          The CEO at OldJob (NotSergio from NotArgentina) would do this – swoop in, announce a meeting in five minutes, and not give us any more information. This usually happened about ten minutes before noon, which was when most people took lunch, and the meeting would last for however long he wanted it to last. We were hungry, we didn’t know what he wanted to accomplish, and we didn’t know when the meeting would end and didn’t know if we could last that long before going to the bathroom.

          And then he would ask us (every. single. time) to rate the meeting, one to five.

          Do not ever give an honest rating on a question like this. Not with a boss like that.

          (He is the CEO the board fired last year, much to the delight of everyone who has ever worked for him. Karma, baby.)

  21. Anonymous Poster*

    This whole situation has made me really appreciate my current workplace’s practice of regular 1-on-1 meetings, where all these sorts of things get talked about. Good, bad, neutral, whatever, but it all can be addressed in these regular meetings so there are no surprises. It also in a lot of situations obviates the need for these sorts of ominous meetings – we can talk about anything I might have observed working with a coworker or a customer (good and bad), we can check in regularly on how things are going, talk about my goals, or whatever’s important.

    I really think that regular check in meetings can make most of these “see me” meetings not needed, since there’s already a regular chance to talk through these things.

    It won’t make all of them go away, of course, but then those probably are the meetings that you should think more about and prepare for mentally, or they’re more of an emergency/urgent sort of thing. But routine meetings really help!

  22. Ramona Flowers*

    Also some people just do not get that things like this can be anxiety inducing.

    Once I was out at a conference with a colleague and my manager emailed me saying not to come to the office the next day and to meet at a location off the premises.

    Colleague and I assumed we were about to be fired.

    The actual reason was incredibly mundane and my manager said it hadn’t occurred to her that it would come across that way!

  23. Kate the Little Teapot*

    How about taking the angle that you want a bit of context so you can be prepared and also not take up too much of your managers’ time?

    “Sure, I’m happy to meet next week. Can you tell me what it’s about so I can be ready?”
    “I’d be thrilled to give you a status update. What projects do you want it on, so I can review them?”

  24. Hannah*

    I think if she gives you a general topic, like “workload” or “TPS reports,” that really needs to be enough for you to gather your notes and thoughts on said topic, and not spend your energy trying to guess whether or not she is mad at you. Meeting with your boss is a normal thing, for everyone, whether they are a star or the office slacker. Remind yourself of this when you feel yourself going down anxiety lane.

    Also, would it REALLY be better to have her confirm for you that it is criticism you are in for? Probably not, so what you are really asking is “Can I ask my boss to reassure me she is not going to criticize me?” and while that would be great, it’s not that realistic or professional sounding.

    I’ll also point out that it’s likely she’s sending you these emails at 4:30 on Fridays because that is when she prepares her own schedule for the next week, not because she just wants to spend her weekend imagining you squirm.

    1. Willis*

      +1 to your whole comment. It’s nice to have a little context to prepare general thoughts, but having the boss try to categorize it as “good or bad” is not appropriate. Plus, a lot of conversations I have with people at work aren’t positive or negative comments on me (or them)…they’re just about work.

  25. Close Bracket*

    “This kind of conversation is such a normal part of work that you’d be asking her to do extra emotional labor in reassuring you every time she asks for a routine meeting.”

    That kind of emotional labor goes with the job. Think it’s too much effort to tell an employee why you want to meet? Pick a job less people oriented than “manager”.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It’s true that there’s lots of emotional labor that goes into managing and is part of the job. But reassuring someone about whether each individual routine work meeting is good or bad really isn’t a typical expectation, and that’s especially true as you get more and more senior.

      1. Super Anon for This*

        I don’t think that’s really fair or, as we’ve seen from other commenters, a good way to manage. It leaves you to be totally blindsided with no warnings.

        I am in a position right now where managers don’t warn employees and do “emotional labor”. You think you are fulfilling all of your work duties, looking for areas to pick up extra work even, your coworkers and bosses are all friendly with you, laughing and joking, and no one says a bad word about your work. You even ask one boss about something you aren’t sure about, and they say your work was fine.

        Then you are asked into your yearly performance review and get told that unless you shape up you’ll be fired in a few months. The things you supposedly have been doing wrong, which are in themselves silly, no one has complained about at all. And that thing you asked about, that you were told was fine? The manager you asked about it, who told you it was fine, actually complained about you and it to your direct manager. I guess because they didn’t want to do the “emotional labor” of honestly telling you it should have been done differently? So instead you were blindsided weeks later.

        I know some of my experience is because I was lied to and had bad managers, but I honestly don’t think it is too much “emotional labor” to expect managers to tell an employee when they are having a bad meeting or not. Doctors have to tell people their loved ones are dead or dying. This is just a single sentence when you request a meeting.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But that’s a completely different kind of problem. They’re managing poorly and not giving candid feedback. That’s not okay. But it’s not the same thing as a trusted, competent manager who manages appropriately being obligated to reassure someone before every meeting.

        2. Tammy*

          Then you are asked into your yearly performance review and get told that unless you shape up you’ll be fired in a few months. The things you supposedly have been doing wrong, which are in themselves silly, no one has complained about at all.

          As Alison points out, this is a pretty profound failure of management, and is quite different than having to constantly reassure a team member that every meeting is routine and not because they’re in trouble. I often say to people who report to me, “if we get to your performance appraisal and there’s anything on that form that’s a surprise to you, I’ve failed as a manager.” And I work really hard not to fail on that kind of stuff, because taking care of the people I’m responsible for is important to me.

          That said, I do try to tell people “nothing’s wrong, just need to chat about X” when that’s true. And I do try to be as honest as I can when there’s something wrong. But if I had a team member who was constantly asking for reassurance that she wasn’t in trouble every time I needed to talk to her about something, that would frankly be a little concerning.

          1. Toph*

            Yes exactly. My company actually has an official “no surprises in reviews” policy. So to your point that if a bad annual eval is genuinely surprising, you’ve failed as a manager, where I work it would subsequently factor into the manager’s own eval and officially reflect poorly on the manager also.

      2. Student*

        I think giving people a meeting agenda should be routine for most business meetings – even if it’s a single keyword or a one-sentence agenda.

        Sure, not appropriate for every working environment or every circumstance. But good practice to avoid exactly these kinds of things and keep everyone on topic.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Sure, but as we see in this letter, sometimes that one sentence or topic isn’t enough to make people feel reassured — the OP’s boss is giving her a general idea of the topic (“end of your probationary period,” “workload”), but she’s still worrying about whether that “workload” meeting really means “You’re not getting enough of your work done” or “You screwed something up really badly, was it because you’re overloaded?” or something like that. It’s great to give the topic, and it may be helpful to add “Don’t worry, nothing bad” or “nothing serious” when that’s true, as a few people have said they do, but there’s a limit to how much reassurance you can reasonably expect from a boss, and (speaking as an anxious person) that limit is almost certainly somewhere below “the level of reassurance that would make an anxious employee stop worrying.”

  26. RFan*

    As a manager, I think I have built enough trust to schedule a meeting or stop by without having to say something along the lines of ‘all is ok’, ‘nothing bad’, etc. I am very empathetic, and aware that every word a supervisor or manager says can be weighted much more heavily. They often don’t have to prepare anything except I want F2F time about something.
    When you have a hundred employees and a Board,there’s only so much time. I have had awful bosses, and been laid off too, but would have rather had a manager that actually wanted to meet with me and would make myself available.

  27. Katie the Fed*

    I learned this one as a manager when I messaged someone and said “can you stop by please” and he was literally SHAKING when he came to my desk. I was so surprised – I’m really quite gentle and nothing to be afraid of. Even when I’m upset it’s not THAT bad. So I’ve started now saying “can you stop by when you get a minute please – just want to ask you something about the briefing yesterday” or similar.

    1. PlainJane*

      I learned this when an employee told me she’d hardly slept the night before, because she was worried about our meeting. I don’t even remember what the meeting was about, but it was some routine thing. I felt awful, and since then I’ve tried to be clear about the purpose of any meeting I schedule with an employee.

    2. ancolie*

      One of my former bosses learned this because of me. He sent an IM asking me to come to his office when I was off my call. I apparently LITERALLY looked like I was expecting him to shoot me when I came in.

  28. Long time lurker*

    My manager does this sometimes and it drives me insane and makes me hyper-anxious. I have the bad combination of a mild anxiety disorder (which I have not disclosed and do not plan to disclose because it doesn’t affect my work, but it makes these kinds of things a bit more difficult for me to deal with than other people might find it) and a history that includes a boss who pretended to my face that everything was fine while undermining me to everyone else at the organization.

    I’m lucky in that I have a lot of job security and I’m very confident in my work at my current job, and my manager has clearly indicated to me more than once that he is very happy with me overall, but the vague ‘can we meet on Tuesday?’ emails twig my anxiety pretty significantly. :(

    So: no advice, just commiseration and confirmation that you’re not out of line in how you feel.

  29. RabbitRabbit*

    I once had Corporate Compliance ask to meet with me, and I was a wreck by the time of the meeting. I didn’t think to ask for a topic, and when two of them turned up I felt ill. Turns out they just wanted an explanation of what constituted a particular billing code that my department used, and they were perfectly happy with the explanation and went on their way. I half-suspected that they scheduled regular “no-fault” visits just to see people smiling as they left somewhere.

  30. C.*

    If I get an e-mail like this, I’ll respond with something like “Sure! Anything in particular I should bring or prepare for?” as a way to feel out what the meeting will be about (and, by extension, if it will be a good one or a bad one).

  31. Joe X*

    Are these meetings are regularly about “bad things”? That will tell you whether you need to worry or not. If they are, then you already know that it’s something to worry about. If they aren’t, then you know you don’t need to worry. If they are half and half, then ask what it’s about.

  32. Allergist*

    Didn’t see this on the responses so far but this kind of response to simple “discuss workload” meeting invites is an example of how being in a toxic environment can warp your thought processes and negatively impact your performance in new roles.

    I struggled with worry and anxiety before meetings and then started asking for context and various other related items And I quickly got labled as high maintenance.

    It took a couple of years before those meetings became routine to me and stopped striking fear.

  33. Ambulance Chaser*

    I once had a TERRIBLE boss. A CEO who regularly cheated his business associates, lied to government regulators, didn’t pay debts, and never communicated with me even in the midst of crises. I was a department of one.

    After almost a year of working there and trying to do every (stupid) thing he asked of me, I heard rumors that I was being replaced.

    I came back and the CEO texts me “What time are you in tomorrow?”

    I was coming in early because I was trying to work on a government-imposed deadline that the CEO never talked to me about and didn’t know anything about. I text back “8 am. Is everything okay?”

    CEO texts back “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”

    Yep, it was to fire me. Then he asked if I could train my replacement. (I later found out the replacement was woefully unprepared for the job and had several violent and fraud-related criminal incidents in his past. The CEO tried to un-fire me but I left anyway for greener pastures.)

  34. Bea*

    Sadly whenever I get sudden meeting notices, I always know what they mean immediately but I’m also lucky that my boss will follow up the requests with an email about what is going on (note: they are never about me, I just have to be the first one to know about downsizing or schedule’s being cut). As management, I’ve also had to go grab someone who didn’t have email so it wasn’t a meeting request, it was just my goofy self going down there and tracking someone down all “hey can you come upstairs to talk to the boss?” and you can’t just blurt out “because he’s going to fire you.”

    I’m sorry for everyone has has had to go through vague meetings being scheduled at the end of the day. I have cried in private over the stress it causes me, I cannot imagine the panic it causes others.

  35. Youth Services Librarian*

    Ha, my director does that! She sends “I need to talk to you as soon as you have time”, “see me as soon as you get in” etc. So far the reasons have ranged from getting a raise to a question about the budget to incidents with teens to who I think might be plugging the toilet…. (spoiler alert – it was NOT the teens). I’ve mostly just learned to live with it.

  36. CPA2Be*

    I deal with this too! Would responding with something along the lines of “Sounds good. Is there anything you would like me to prepare for our time?” be an option? It seems like it would provide a non-awkward way of asking/finding out what the meeting might be about.

  37. Greg M.*

    sympathize so much right now, I ahve an appointment Thursday to discuss the results of my bloodwork. no idea what that’s going to be at all driving me nuts.

  38. boop the first*

    This would stress me out too. It doesn’t happen in my jobs because managers are so busy that they just wander up to me and go “how are you doing?” right on the spot, and yes, it DOES secretly mean “why is ____ not done yet?”

    I have a not-quite-relative who does that sort of thing on purpose, where she’ll call up out of the blue and say “I would like to have a family phone conference at 7pm on tuesday”, and she will outright refuse to elaborate because she WANTS everyone to have a fit and a fuss and suffer for days on her behalf. And it’s always negative, and it’s always manipulative and overdramatic as all hell. And it’s always about nothing.

  39. Clara P.*

    Doesn’t always work, but you might also fish a little with, “Is there anything I can do/need to do to prepare/need to bring (like my laptop)? I’m assuming if it’s someone getting reprimanded, the answer would be no, but often I get a response like “Sure, bring xxx report or xxx budget or do some prep work on xxxx”.

    1. Book Lady*

      I made a similar comment below! This has been my go-to strategy for vague-sounding meetings.

  40. OP/Lw update*

    OP/LW here. Not sure anyone will see this but I had my meeting. It wasn’t good; I would classify it as a verbal warning.

    The meeting started with my manager saying she noticed my productivity had been lower, which segued into her doing the thing mentioned up thread where she talked around a subject without coming right out and saying what she meant. She talked everyone in the office following summer hours and sticking to your posted hours. Basically she did not come right out and say it but I suspect she means she’s noticed I’ve been late a handful of times and wants me to be more conscious of my work hours. I think she thinks my productivity is suffering as a result.

    In addition, she mentioned that there were some “sensitive personalities” in the office who had taken issue with my attitude. I freely admit I can be sarcastic and I need to learn how to reign it in. I don’t feel the feedback was entirely fair; I was essentially told that I am never allowed to tell people “that isn’t my job” even when something isn’t. One specific incident was brought up that I don’t think was fair (another admin in our office didn’t want to fulfill a specific job function, which I don’t know how to do. But I’m still in trouble for not jumping in to cover her. The coworker who complained about me is a running problem amongst many people that I feel like my manager is ignoring). However I will have a question for this Friday’s open thread about maintaining a better attitude and having more patience at work.

    But it is what it is. I’m here to smile and pick up everyone else’s slack. Shit rolls downhill and all that and as the lowly admin I am at the bottom. I’m coming to terms with that.

    Thanks for the comments and the response, AAM. Truthfully I knew as soon as I sent my email I shouldn’t have sent it, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I like the suggestion about needing to prep anything for the meeting and I will be using it in the future. And yes, for those curious I do have some anxiety issues. In this case I could feel that the talk probably wasn’t going to be good and that’s what made me nervous, though I do have to admit to being blindsided by part of it. Im in my late twenties and this is my first non contract job. So I’m hoping that this is something I can come back from and that it hasn’t tainted me or my reputation.

    1. DDJ*

      I’m really sorry to hear that. In regards to the “that isn’t my job” – I wonder, just from what you said about there being an issue with your “attitude,” if it’s just a matter of phrasing? I have one coworker who is very terse with that sort of thing, “That isn’t my job,” or “I don’t have time for that.” Now, I understand when something isn’t your job, you shouldn’t be expected to pick it all up. But you could ask “Did Manager ask you to bring this to me?” or “Let’s have a quick chat with Manager to make sure everyone is on the same page with this.” And then you may need to try to schedule some time with your manager to go over expectations and workload.

      There have been some great scripts on AAM for these types of conversations, but basically it amounts to a statement of the expectation and the “rebuttal” that focuses on a shift of priorities since, if you’re at a full workload, it’s not reasonable that you should take on extra work.

      “I understand that you’d like me to take on Project X. Since I’m at capacity right now, does that mean I should step back on Task Y or Project Z?”

      It doesn’t sound like you have a particularly good manager, so I’m not sure if the types of scripts on AAM will be effective…but I really hope they will be. There’s nothing more frustrating than a difficult coworker who, for some reason, gets away with everything and is completely ineffective, leaving everyone else to pick up the slack.

      Unfortunately, even really good managers sometimes have a habit of letting those people carry on as they are in order to avoid difficult conversations. Or they know that they’ve got people who CAN step up who are really competent and reliable, so they just let it slide.

      As a fellow anxiety-sufferer, I really would recommend framing clarifying questions surrounding future meetings the way it’s been suggested: as a request for context in order to make sure you can prepare for the meeting. If you get back “There’s nothing you really need to prepare,” then…that sucks. Because it gives you nothing to work with. But sometimes it’ll get you at least a little bit more detail.

      “But it is what it is. I’m here to smile and pick up everyone else’s slack. Shit rolls downhill and all that and as the lowly admin I am at the bottom. I’m coming to terms with that.”

      I used to be in a similar position, and one thing that really helped me was thinking of my job as a job. That’s all it is. It doesn’t define me, it doesn’t define my life. I went to work, I did my time, I went home. It’s a paycheque. Also? “Fake it ’til you make it” is my motto. Sometimes it applies to a task, sometimes to a day, and at times it has definitely applied to my entire job. Try to project an air of being calm and collected and positive. I have, somehow, managed to become known at work as the “perpetual optimist” and “cheerleader” when my actual inner thoughts are often the complete opposite. Sometimes, the less positive you FEEL about something, the easier it is to ACT positive about it. Which sounds weird, I know. But it just makes it a lot easier to deal with.

      1. OP/Lw update*

        Thanks for the suggestions for scripts – being that anyone can give me work, I think next time I will be expected to just get it done. The problem is that sets a precedent which concerns me (this coworker will take shameless advantage of someone who helps “just this once”) but I’m not seeing any other way around this.

        You are so right about my manager. We have a couple people in the office who are widely acknowledged to be just butts in seats. In the case of this coworker, I feel like my manager had gotten tired of trying to hammer things into her. Example: today my manager told me that if a file isn’t fully printed out, to print the rest out myself instead of chasing up coworker. I said, I do except a lot of the time what I need has not been put in our shared drive. Coworker “forgets” to put it in there. Stuff like that which is somehow reflecting more poorly on me.

        Fake it till you make it will definitely have to be my new mantra. I’m going to have to pay much closer attention to my tone of voice in particular as I know I can sound unintentionally sharp and/or snarky sometimes. Any tips for how to project a calm/composed/positive air when this is the tenth interruption in an hour and you’re bristling like a wet cat?

        1. Liz2*

          You document it. You send an email to the person you helped, copy your manager. You say you are glad you could help out with X and here are the steps in the future so they can handle it or in case you are out of the office some day and to feel free to pass it along. Then you end by addressing your manager and asking to let you know if there’s anything else around this type of task you could help with in the future.

          You’re documenting, you’re sharing, you’re creating procedures and you’re directly informing your manager of how your time is spent and how your role is perceived.

          Yes, your office persona needs to be “on” at all times, which is why the work you do needs to be rewarding otherwise you’ll burn out fast. No, nothing you do will make everyone love you. No, if your manager doesn’t care to deal with conflict there’s no way for you to win.

          But be on time, manage the time awesomely, document everything “extra” you do with a smile, and you can clean up what you can for yourself.

        2. Book Lady*

          This may or may not work depending on the kind of work you do, but is there a way you can work with your manager to set up a system for requests? Even just having people email you requests rather than asking in person, it can help you feel less interrupted. This might work better for things like, “Can you put together a customer email list for me in Excel sometime this week?” rather than, “Hey, can you print three copies each of X and Y and hole punch them and put them into binders? I have a meeting in 10 minutes and I need it.” (And yeah, the latter kind of environment can be really rough.)

          The other thing I would suggest, if you are getting longer-term projects from lots of different people, would be to keep a running to-do list on your desk. If someone emails or comes by with a request, say, “Sure, when do you you need that finished?” And immediately write it down with the deadline. That should help you organize your time better and prioritize your work. And, ideally, part of your manager’s job is to help you prioritize your time, so if you find yourself falling behind or having too much stuff on your plate, you can take that to-do list to your manager and say, “I’m been getting a lot of overlapping requests from Person A, B, C, and D and I need some help figuring out what my priorities should be. Can I go over my to-do list with you and see what the best use of my time is/what the department’s priorities are/what can wait until next week?”

          Good luck!!

    2. Snark*

      “I freely admit I can be sarcastic and I need to learn how to reign it in.”

      Take this from another sarcastic person: the failure mode of clever is asshole (with credit to John Scalzi). It’s very, very easy for the humor to leach out of habitual sarcasm, which then curdles into just being kind of unpleasant, snappy, and prickly. It’s rarely as funny as it sounds in your head, it’s rarely attractive, and it’s particularly inappropriate coming from junior administrative support staff. Sass and pushback would frustrate anyone, slackers and rock stars alike.

      “Shit rolls downhill and all that and as the lowly admin I am at the bottom. I’m coming to terms with that.”

      No offense, but as the lowest-level admin, how did you not know that this is basically your job description? You seem to have this expectation that you’re responsible for only the things you know how to do and which are in your job description. That’s not true for me in my mid-career, it’s not true for my boss who’s been doing this for 20 years, and it’s not true for an admin either. If a solid waste management plan needs written, this biologist gets his trashman hat on and gets it done. If you’re getting resentful about curveballs, that’s an attitude you need to work on, regardless of your position and field. “Other duties as assigned” IS your job, as a career professional.

  41. The Artist Formerly Known as AdminAnon*

    I feel your pain, OP. My last job was incredibly toxic and I am still having a hard time adjusting to my new job, even two years in. Last year, my boss emailed me and asked for a meeting and was very vague when I asked what it was about. Turns out, my co-workers were throwing me a surprise baby shower! I stressed about that meeting for a solid week. All that is to say that stressing yourself out doesn’t do anyone any good. Either it’s a normal meeting or it’s not great…and either way, there’s nothing you can do about it until you get there.

  42. Book Lady*

    When I get vague meeting requests, my typical response is something along the lines of “No problem. Anything specific I should bring or be prepared to discuss?” That gives my manager the option to let me know more details if necessary or to say, “Nope, just routine stuff” or whatever.

    I’ve also had (bad) managers that will do this kind of thing in order to spring things on me without any warning. If I’ve emailed in advance and haven’t gotten a response, then I have a bit of standing to say, “I’d be happy to give you more info on X, I just need an hour or so to go through my notes and give you a proper update. In the future, can you let me know what you’d like to discuss at these kinds of meetings so I can be more prepared?”

  43. gentlemeathead*

    This is the messaged I got from my boss.

    Hi XXXX
    Would it be possible to have a quick chat when you’re in studio?
    Let me know about your availabilities this week

    I mean I know she is a kind person and all and I have too much of patience, I empathize with others especially sometimes I can come off aggressive so I dont bother my manager if she is on a smoke break if I wanted to ask her anything, if they are having lunch I will not bother them etc

    But that was message I got and pisses me off to no end. I emailed her 3 times after that, what is this about, I am available now at the office, I can come by now if you want etc. No response. She responds to general office pointless chat emails but not to me.

    People are testing my patience and I am at a point that I have nothing to loose. Would it have killed her to tell me what it is about or respond to me that nothing to worry about?

    I gave up many job offers to be in this office because it lets me work from home whenever I want. I liked the freedom. On the other hand, I know she is a very busy person working until mid night sometimes due to the meetings and client touring. But I just cant understand why a bit of context would help, even after responding to her and asking what this is about.

    F this. I am out if I dont get a response any time soon.

  44. LordofFullmetal*

    I once had my boss say at the START of my shift “we need to talk” and leave it for the whole night.
    Turned out I was getting a raise. But he literally phrased it the most terrifying way possible. I had to ask his wife if I was being fired.

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