what to say when employees ask “am I in trouble?”

A reader writes:

I am a mid-level supervisor of a team of nine and oversee a shift of 30 at a public safety 911 dispatch center in a major metropolitan area. We process a few thousand calls into our center every day, and as you would expect, EVERYTHING we do at work is recorded and monitored by the leaders at my level. In order to keep our operation running tight, we need to give our employees frequent informal feedback about their performance on a 911 call with a citizen, on the radio with a field unit, or on their interactions with a coworker. We employ a young workforce; the bulk of our employees are 18-26 years old.

Often when I approach these employees, they try and start the conversation off with “am I in trouble?” This happens in any setting, whether on the open operations floor, or if I call them into my office to discuss an incident. When they ask this, it kind of derails the conversation and I have to spend a moment reassuring them that I simply wanted to remind them of a policy, offer praise, or ask them why they chose a particular protocol. Some employees do this on almost every interaction with an authority figure.

I make every reasonable effort to make my expectations and feedback really clear. Personally, I make a point to not chase after people to micromanage them. However, our managers will occasionally direct us to do some hand-holding, which I think is some part of the problem.

Some of our supervisors are double or almost triple the ages of their subordinates, and some have extremely outdated leadership styles that come across as abrasive or unapproachable. I am 31, and make a point of reading and podcasting with the intent to improve my environment at work, while making myself really approachable.

I am looking for a way to respond to these employees when they ask this, and also for some sample scripts on how to direct them to not do that during future interactions.

“Am I in trouble?” is the kind of thing that’s not uncommon to hear from a 20-year-old employee, but is pretty rare to hear from someone with more professional seasoning and polish. (They might still be thinking it! But they usually know it comes across a little oddly to say it, since it sounds more like a parent/child dynamic than a work dynamic.) So you’re right to find it a little off, and to want to coach them on it.

If someone just says it once, you could just look concerned and respond with, “No! Did I do something to make you think that?”

But if someone asks it more than once, it makes sense to be more explicit, which could sound like this (say it nicely, not like a lecture): “You’ve asked that a couple of times now, so I want to make sure you know that the vast majority of the time I ask to talk to anyone, it’s to give information, input, or feedback — which is often praise. It’s pretty rare for someone to be ‘in trouble,’ and that’s not the way we’d really describe it anyway. When there are problems in someone’s work, we talk those through and figure out how they can do better. Even when the problems are serious, it’s still not about getting in trouble — it’s a two-way conversation to figure out how to move forward. So I don’t want you to worry that every time I want to talk to you, it’s something bad — that’s unlikely to be the case, even if it’s a correction.”

If you can, make this a real conversation, not a one-way pronouncement. There might be some interesting discussion that stems from this — like you might find out that other managers are framing things in a way where “getting in trouble” is pretty accurate. Or you might find out that your employee has been misinterpreting some fairly routine feedback, and it’ll help to explain more about how feedback works and that getting input from a manager is a pretty routine part of having a job. Or who knows what — but there are a lot of potentially useful directions this conversation could go in if you broach the topic and signal that you’re open to it.

{ 211 comments… read them below }

  1. steve*

    I once got called into the boss’s office and asked if it was bad news. He said yes and fired me. :-0

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Yes, asking “Am I in trouble?” doesn’t really do anything useful. If you are in trouble, well, that question didn’t stop you from being in trouble. If you aren’t in trouble, it just makes you look really insecure.

      1. steve*

        A couple of months before that I refused to work with a winch that we repurposed to work as a overhead crane type thing. The cable would slip of the drum and dropped the thing we were lifting by about 3 feet. I said it was unsafe and he said if I didnt want to do that I could just go home. I said okay and I would see what OSHA had to say about it. Of course he called me about an hour later and said we would do things correctly. But you cant threaten OSHA and keep a job. There would be no way to prove that is why I was fired, but I knew my time was limited when I said that.

        It is one of the reasons I am against OSHA. They have some huge fines and use them to force their way. I read about some of the safety rules in Europe and they are more complementary with business and rule setters working together to have a safe place. OSHA is not a friend to either employee or employer in many situations. That is off topic though. But I have spoken bad about OSHA here before and didnt want to come across as a hypocrite.

        1. Weird Science*

          OK. Not sure what any of this has to do with the post? Is this just you wanting to rant about OSHA? I’m sure I’ve seen you do that several times before in comments here. :/

          1. DArcy*

            He’s apparently claiming it would come across as hypocritical (???) if he didn’t badmouth OSHA anytime anything even remotely related to worker safety comes up?

        2. Penny Lane*

          You’re against OSHA? Why are you not against the employers who refuse to obey safety regulations? The logic seems a little … off.

          1. Jessie the First (or second)*

            No kidding – especially as an employer that would fire you for wanting to abide by OSHA rules is not really the type to keep your safety in mind if there were no such thing as OSHA to begin with. I’d rather be fired than dead, myself.

          2. Wintermute*

            I think what he’s against is the idea of a government agency that is an outside dictator of standards with an adversarial relationship with industry, as opposed to say the European, and Canadian model where the standards body is set up BY industry and operates more as a mediator and go-between between the employees and employer with an eye to facilitating both of their needs (ideally, in practice… well… opinions vary)

            The biggest critique of OSHA and agencies like it is that they operate without understanding the practicalities of the industry and economic realities of the work. It’s easy to dictate “the right way” in a way that is completely impractical from a cost and time standpoint and if the law has to be flouted in order to get the job done, then it makes compliance a game of “don’t get caught, do whatever, and threaten employees to go along” as opposed to “work together to make it as safe as it can be while still being practical.

        3. Molly*

          But OSHA is why the employer stopped doing an unsafe practice, thereby protecting the safety of employees such as yourself? It may be a hassle to deal with the regulations, but the mere mention of OSHA and your workplace became safer. Seems like a useful organization to me…

      2. Penny Lane*

        I think when this board has talked about unwritten blue collar vs white collar standards and norms, this is one of them – a belief that a boss talking to you can only be because you’ve done a bad thing and need some correction.

      3. Life is Good*

        Yes. It. Does. (make you look really insecure). At old dysfunctional job, I had an employee in her late 40’s (!) who would always ask “what did I screw up now”? every single time anyone approached her with a question, suggestion, idea – you name it, always the same response to saying her name. I stopped trying to placate her by answering “oh, no you didn’t do anything wrong”, “you’re fine, nothing’s wrong”, etc. I realized that she was looking for validation that she was the most fabulous tea pot researcher in the world and what would I do without her. I started ignoring her question and launched right into why I was there to see her. It took a few sessions, but she finally came around and stopped doing that to me. Maybe that would work for the OP, though maybe their employees aren’t looking for constant kudos.

        1. Faintlymacabre*

          Oh god, I just had a flashback to an old boss who would ask “What did you screw up now?” when you went to speak with her in her office. She meant it jokingly, but… it got super irritating after awhile. The only screw up was staying in that job for as long as I did.

      4. LAVEndarsblue*

        Or perhaps it’s because many bosses only call you into their office to criticize. I’ve had plenty of bosses who would let me know what I could be doing better/different, but seldom wanted to conference with me to discuss what I was doing well-exceeding at. Plenty of managers see their role as one finding and fixing flaws. They don’t see their role as one who builds strengths. All stick, no carrot. My current manager meets with me 6-7 times a year to discuss how My job is going and ways she can help me meet my goals (training, extra assignments,special projects) which has defused the uh-oh response when I’m asked if I have a moment to go to her office.

        1. LAVEndrsblue*

          It also helps that the meetings are scheduled weeks in advance, so even though we might discuss recent events, there is no fear that something recent has triggered the need for the discussion. Pre scheduling makes it clear that the meetings are check ins.

      5. Gadget Hackwrench*

        It wont stop you getting in trouble for sure, but I think that what you’re missing is that if it’s a no it doesn’t JUST make you look really insecure, it also ALLEVIATES that insecurity. Thing is, at least from where I sit, it’s not a thing people say that makes them look more insecure than they are. It’s a thing that people say because they ARE insecure. Young people… not just 20 somethings but into the early 30s, don’t have a concept of “job security.” We’re terrified of being unemployed (again.) We all know SOMEONE who’s wound up couch-surfing or living in their car eating beans out of a can back during the recession. There’s a direct line in many of our minds between “Can I see you for a moment?” and becoming one of those people yourself. I’m not saying that makes it okay, but I’m just saying it DOES serve a purpose, because if they say “No,” then you can breath again, assured that your life isn’t about to topple down around you. Sad but true. I don’t SAY it myself, because of course not… but I still can’t keep it off my face apparently, because the first thing my boss usually says when I get to his office is. “It’s nothing bad…” He’s a good guy. :)

    2. Elmyra Duff*

      My boss at OldJob came to retrieve me from the break room on my lunch break. I asked if I was in trouble. She said nothing until we got to her office, and, yeah, I was fired, too. It was a great day.

      1. Adlib*

        Yep, that happened to me too. I didn’t ask, but I basically got the silent treatment until we were in his office.

    3. ThatGirl*

      When I got laid off last year, I did not realize it was coming (a little naive in retrospect), and when my department head said “let’s go downstairs, and then you can leave from there” and I joked “…but not for good, right?”

      Yeah, it was for good.

    4. aes_sidhe*

      At my last job, I took my usual vacation in July. I got a call from my boss’s husband at 9:00 pm on the Sunday night before I was to go back to work, and I naturally asked if everything was okay since it was so late at night. He called to fire me over the phone, and my boss didn’t have the guts to do it herself.

        1. aes_sidhe*

          I wish I were kidding. My boss made her husband call me and one other woman to give us the “you’re laid off” speech in the middle of the night on a Sunday. Eventually, the company ended up outsourcing our jobs overseas, but I was one of the first to be let go before it was all over. It was the only time I’ve ever been laid off from a job, and it was a surreal experience for sure.

          1. Jennifer Thneed*

            I got laid off over the phone once, in a small conference room with an HR person present. Because there was some rule(?) about how an actual manager has to be present for layoff meetings, even if it wasn’t YOUR actual manager. That was weird and a little surreal but it was a big division in a big company, whatever.

            In another job, I got fired by speakerphone. They insisted that I had to come in for a meeting that we couldn’t have by phone, I simply had to come into the office. I was never there usually because I was out in the field delivering trainings, and it was a 40-mile drive from home. So I drove in and — no boss! I got to have a conference call with my boss who was in another state and a very unhappy HR person in the room with me. (She maintained her professionalism throughout but was clearly unhappy on a personal level about how our boss had handled this, and she shared this with me afterward. The best part thing – in my vindictive opinion – was that they’d expected me to bring in my laptop and all my equipment, but since I had cancelled a training session to attend this meeting, I didn’t dress up and I left my laptop at home. They had to send a special messenger to pick it up, and I didn’t mind them bearing that expense one tiny bit.)

            1. Nerfmobile*

              This is similar to my layoff horror story. I worked for a huge multinational that had people all over the place and they were doing massive layoffs. EVERYONE was scheduled to have a F2F meeting with their manager on a certain date based on their site, and managers with people at a different site were supposed to fly in to the other site on the scheduled date for the meetings. In the meeting you would find out if you were staying or being laid off.

              Well, my manager had three people who reported to her at my site, so she was supposed to fly in and meet with us individually that afternoon. But she got sick and couldn’t fly in. So she pinged the other two people separately and had quick phone calls with them, which they bounced out of happily afterwards. But she didn’t ping me. So I IM’d her that I was available anytime she wanted to chat, and she responded with the equivalent of “cough cough, can’t talk now sorry”.

              The writing was on the wall then, but I had to wait until my scheduled time in the afternoon. The rest of the folks I worked with onsite were very sympathetic and took me to lunch, though nothing was actually said. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when I walked into the meeting room at my scheduled time to find a VP who was a couple layers up my chain of command, but the lowest one in that chain onsite at the time, and my manager on the phone. The VP gave me the layoff packet, because the rule was someone in your management chain had to be there in person for the conversation.

              So, decent policy but really poorly handled by my manager to telegraph the decision in advance by not waiting for the schedule time for the conversations with the other folks. We’d originally been scheduled one immediately after the other in the afternoon, which would have not given me that 4 hours to stew and get resentful at her about it. (That was over 10 years ago, but those things really stick, don’t they?)

  2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    My mom works with a lot of younger individuals (both high school kids and fresh out of college with minimal working experience). Whenever she first calls them into her office and has them shut the door, they always jump. She always makes sure to do it fairly early on before it could be negative feedback.

    If they do or don’t ask if they’re in trouble, she always starts off with, “It’s nothing bad. And if it ever is, you will definitely know.” They might ask once or twice after that, but it’s rare.

    1. Kyrielle*

      …I love that she makes sure that their first encounter with that isn’t negative!

      1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

        It’s because she has me for a daughter. A natural worrier. So she’s taken from that (and some stuff I’ve taught her about what an anxious person tends to go through) to help reduce fears. Not that she babies them per se. But she views it as training them for bigger and better things. She’s actually had several go on to be leaders in the local area – so I’m very proud of her!

              1. Canadian Natasha*

                Because then you have to worry about tripping on the cape, if the cape abides by the business casual dress code if it has a collar, whether you may be mistaken for a supervillain, etc.

  3. Karyn*

    I was guilty of this in my second and third jobs, because my first professional job was such a hellscape that you WERE in trouble any time a manager wanted to talk to you – it set me up to think that that’s how “normal” workplaces operate.

    By the time I left my last job (for self-employment, where I’m always in trouble with myself!), the only time I would panic is when my manager would call me from the first floor (I was on the second) and say, “Could you come to my office?” THAT would freak me out, and then it would turn out that he just needed me to get a file or help him figure out something in Word.

    1. Runner*

      Yes, and unfortunately, in almost any kind of call center situation, this is the case. You actually are in trouble. I can’t imagine it’s less the case with a 911 call center.

      1. Emergency*

        I worked in emergency dispatch for years and actually, it IS less the case, because frequently they take you aside, pick a sample of your calls at random to play back to you and check youre following proceedure – most of the time those sessions were routine and you got a “good stuff, carry on”. They also need you to confirm anything you may have heard if the call is needed for evidence, etc, so its one of the few call center environments I can think of where they’re more likely to ask you questions about the caller, not what you said to them.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I also have the impression that it’s the kind of environment where coaching would be so very much more important.

    2. why not friday?*

      Yeah, I think that a lot of this is operational-based … like, are the other managers only talking to people when they are, in fact, in trouble? I think I was on my third professional job before I had regular meetings with my boss to go check in on how my professional goals were coming along, how I was doing on a certain project, etc. I had no point of reference and thought every time she wanted to talk to me it was because I had done something wrong … because previously, that was the only time I was approached by my manager. (also, maybe key point: previous managers, if they gave praise, would do so out in the open and NOT call me to their office, which heightened the school-esque “ooooooooooh” factor when someone would get asked to step into a managers office)

    3. Sparkles*

      That’s how it has been in my last 3 jobs. My managers never spoke with you unless you were in trouble. I think I may have even said it a few time (jokingly). I guess I never really looked at it as an issue. Even if I don’t say it, I definitely think it and it makes me nervous.

    4. LouiseM*

      Great point! Toxic jobs really warp our idea of what is normal for a boss to say and do.

    5. Razilynn*

      A previous job had 1-on-1 employee/manager meetings scheduled weekly, so every Wednesday I would get to here about everything I did wrong last week. My disgruntled and non-people person manager would list everything I “sucked at” and angrily stare at me while I tried to explain myself. A cancellation of said meeting was a godsend, but she still gave us unprovoked “feedback” on a daily basis…in front of whoever was present at the time. Nothing says “morale booster” like being berated in front a dozen employees!

    6. MJ (Aotearoa/New Zealand)*

      You’ve just reminded me of one job that had quite a formalised end-of-year review process, with a formal sit-down with your manager and a rating of your performance throughout the year. I started that job partway through the year, and for some reason my boss never got around to telling me about the process. So the first I heard about it was a calendar invite, subject “Performance discussion”.

    7. PM Punk*

      I totally feel you on asking that question after working toxic jobs. I’m a young-ish professional who only just stopped asking that question every time my supervisor asked to speak with me because A) in my experience it had never been good news, and B) I now have a new supervisor who doesn’t make feel the need to ask if I’m in trouble.

      In my previous career as a small town journalist, anyone being pulled aside by my boss was never, ever a good thing and it took me a long time to realize this was not normal.

  4. Alli525*

    I was guilty of this a few times in my 20s, which was mostly a reaction to the toxic workplaces I’ve been in over the years, and to well-meaning employers who really needed to lead with the lede instead of beating around the bush when offering constructive criticism. Basically all I wanted to know was whether I needed to brace myself for tears or not.

  5. Crystal*

    I think it may also be an anxiety thing. I used to catastrophize everything in that short walk 3 minute walk from my boss calling and saying “come to my office” and my getting there. I asked him repeatedly if he could give me some indication what it was about when he say “come to my office” and he never would (and still doesn’t) but what he did say was that if it was something bad he would say so, so my default should be that it is not something bad. It worked! You may try that, OP?

      1. Crystal*

        Yeah that was one of my attempts at clarification and he still wouldn’t do it, he just says “come to my office” and hangs up the phone, but yes, and excellent idea!

      2. Kyrielle*

        I wish I had been used to using this one! I have worked hard at not worrying about meetings with the boss, as they usually were more positive than I worried and it’s not like worrying *helped*.

        But on a couple memorable occasions when my boss thought I’d be able to just respond about the details of something I hadn’t worked on in several months, asking if there was anything I needed to prepare might have made the meeting more productive! (As it was, notes and followup, but reviewing it first would’ve helped.)

        I was known for being able to answer lots of obscure things – but I needed time with my files, the code, and past emails for that. It wasn’t “Kyrielle has the entire system in her brain” it was “Kyrielle has a good idea of what search terms will find information about any given topic, finding the original discussion of it so she can refamiliarize herself”. It didn’t work so well without that search step. ;)

        1. AnonEMoose*

          I’m a bit like this, too. Give me the time and information I need, and I can find just about anything and figure out the answer/options (if any). But I generally won’t answer some things off the top of my head, because so much depends on certain specific details.

        2. Wannabe Disney Princess*

          I also use it because I’m a worrier and I know this, so when I feel a pang of losing control, this gives me that sense back. Because even if they don’t respond or they say no or whatever…I at least can go in knowing that I did what I could.

    1. Anonymeece*

      A supervisor – not mine – used to do this all the time. He just sent vague, “I need to talk to you immediately,” emails that made me fret all day before I visited and he just wanted to touch base on something. It was nerve-wracking and he was a really nice guy, so I know he didn’t mean it. I mentioned it to my supervisor and she said she did the same thing, and actually asked him to include some context in his emails in the future. :)

      I like your suggestion! Just providing some context or deliberately making it casual, “Can I talk to you about some policy updates for a minute?” is all it takes. It’s mostly the *not knowing* that gets me. Even if it is bad, I would rather *know*!

      1. Ms Mad Scientist*

        100% agree with this. I make it a point to say what things are about if I ask to talk to someone “Do you have time to meet later? I’d like to talk about X project.”

      2. Crystal*

        Yes, my boss is also a nice guy and doesn’t mean to but it is such an anxiety trigger for me. I’m like DUDE, ANYthing besides “come to my office” is better. ANY context. At all.

  6. Murphy*

    One thing I can tell you not to say, particularly when the employee says it as a joke, is a very serious,”Well, we’ll talk about it later.” It ruins the surprise of getting fired. (Ask me how I know this!) (Not bitter. Not bitter at all.)

    1. Lissa*

      What do you (or other people!) think someone should say if they *are* going to fire someone and the person asks something like “is it bad news” or similar? I can’t think of any good response that would not be awful in some way for the person hearing it…

      1. OhNo*

        Being an anxious person myself, hearing straight up that it is bad news actually calms me down. I know if I were the one asking, a simple (compassionate, if possible) response would be the way to go. It’s never going to be a nice thing to hear, no matter the phrasing, but it can at least be to the point.

        Fore example:
        “Is it bad news?” — “I’m afraid so. Let’s step into my office for a moment.”
        “Am I in trouble?” — “No, but I do have some serious concerns about [thing].”
        “Did I do something wrong?” — “Not exactly, but I want to clarify this policy for you.”

      2. Murphy*

        That’s a good point. In my case, my grandboss was asking to meet with me hours later than right at the moment, so there probably was no good truthful response. I was on edge all afternoon, particularly when my boss left before the workday was done, which was so very unlike her. (Yeah, she didn’t even fire me herself.) In that case, there probably was no good response.

        Nothing is really going to take the sting out of being fired, but I think being called into the office immediately would be better than anticipating it happening later. And if you’re going to talk about it right then, it doesn’t really matter what you say in response, because they’re going to find out in a minute anyway.

  7. Amber T*

    My CFO will instant message me to ask me to swing by. It’s always a work related thing – asking me to look into something, can I assist with X, etc. But *every time* I see that “hi – can you swing by” pop up onto my screen, I get the instant (and fleeting) feeling of dread. Comes from being a goody-two-shoes in school and never getting in trouble (I got ill and threw up the one time I got detention in the 4th grade when another kid spoke to me during quiet time and had to be sent home).

    1. Elizabeth H.*

      I do too! A request to speak in the absence of context always seems so ominous to me. It’s like ‘We need to talk.’

      1. Cedarthea*

        This even happens with me with my parents (I’m in my 30s). Due to a really toxic work environment I have a bad reaction to “Can we talk” even when it comes from my mother. She has been accommodating to me and now will text and say “we haven’t talked in a while, when can we chat?” or “I need advice on my website, can we talk this evening”.

        With my own teenaged staff (I run a summer camp), I try to do such regular check ins with them, that it takes away the terror of coming to the office. Also, I have candy and it’s away from campers.

      2. Sylvan*

        Same! I got mostly conditioned out of it as an office assistant, but it spooked me at first.

        1. Cedarthea*

          I was an office admin/communications/outreach/membership when I had the toxic boss, and I have the same reaction to “Can you do me a favour?”.

          Just ask me for what you want because whether it’s work or a favour, I’m probably going to do it, but I need to know what “it” is.

    2. Parenthetically*

      My boss texts me occasionally to ask me if I have a minute and I respond this way too. I partly blame him — he is very conflict-avoidant (and managing-avoidant generally) until things become really acute, so there have absolutely been times when he’s called me into his office to deal with a coworker issue that completely blindsided me — and partly my own anxiety.

    3. CMFDF*

      one time, our CEO yelled out of his office near the end of the day, asking if anyone knew if I was still there. I was, so I hurried over. He had a legit question about something, and I had an idea what he needed, but the short walk there was so anxiety ridden because I didn’t generally work or speak to him. Imagine how much worse I felt when I got there and the HR guy also happened to be in his office for an unrelated question.

      I almost threw up. (Everything was fine, though).

  8. Maude Lebowski*

    Ok, veering off topic here, but is the typical 911 call centre staffed by people so young? 26 is not so young and those employees probably have a brief but meaningful work history, but 18 seems awfully young to be doing such high stress work that probably relies on knowledge of a lot of protocol. Or is that just me being agist? It makes me think of any call I have made to my city’s 311 line – I don’t get the impression I am talking to someone who is 18, but rather to a lifer working for the city… and that’s not super high stress work like 911 is. OP, is this normal in the world of 911?

    1. Brett*

      On top of being high stress, bad hours, and a generally bad work environment, dispatch pays pretty poorly too. The result is very high turnover. Most people I knew who worked dispatch were just using it as a stepping stone to a better non-commissioned job elsewhere in public safety, resulting in a pretty young workforce on the floor.

    2. paul*

      They can be high turnover; you’ll get a lot of relatively young employees simply because it’s a relatively small percentage of people that last super long.

    3. Ainomiaka*

      I would be fascinated to see actual stats, but this skewing young wouldn’t surprise me. It’s highly stressful work on the phones at all hours. Each of those is hard to recruit for. Lots and lots of people opt out of work that meets that description as soon as they have enough experience to do so.

    4. why not friday?*

      I work for a medium-sized city government and we have our own 911 dispatch center in my building – I stop in regularly because of some of the work I do. I can say this: turnover is incredibly high for new hires; our staff is 75% lifers (people who have been with us for 20 years) and 25% new hires (and it’s the new hires that we can’t get to stay – we just keep hiring for the same positions year after year after year because the new hires will make it to MAYBE two years before they quit. Or, are fired. Frankly, one EPIC fail on a call that hits the news media can definitely cost you your job, even if you’ve been doing “okay” up until that point. They might really fight for an “excellent” employee but for just okay – you’re gone.) Stress is unimaginable (every one of them has said that they have had to hear someone take their own life over the phone). Health is very poor; we’ve tried things like getting them standing desks and ergonomic stools and all the rest, but the vast majority of dispatchers who have been with us for five or more years are obese. And if someone calls in sick for the morning shift? Guess what, someone from the night shift is FORCED to stay. Not optional. We have minimum staffing requirements that we have to abide by, legally, in order to even answer one call – so if John’s kid is puking and he calls in sick, Jane gets drafted to work late no matter how tired she is or how much she was looking forward to bingeing on Game of Thrones and drinking a six pack.

      Honestly, I don’t think someone could pay me enough money to be a dispatcher.

      1. Maude Lebowski*

        Huh. That’s brutal sounding all those health issues… and ya, I bet they hear horrible, horrible stuff.

        I just googled my city – Toronto – where it is a part-time job run through the police that starts at nearly $32/hr. Which is the pay I think you would need to attract kind of what I want in a 911 operator…. something like a calm-in-the-face-of-everything professional (like an air traffic controller – but even they have not got the brutal stuff a 911 deals with… abuse situations, suicide…).

      2. paul*

        yeah, I looked into it because ours is always hiring and I’ve got experience doing phone intake and pre screening, and dealing with irate/panicking people…but no thanks. The hours are what killed it for me TBH, particularly for the pay involved. I can’t find a listing opened right now, but when I was looking it was like 12 bucks an hour or so. Chic Fil A pays more.

      3. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        Yep. I interviewed for a dispatcher position at one point when I was financially desperate, but just the test had me tied up in knots. It’s brutal!

    5. Maude Lebowski*

      Huh, I had no idea. I honestly cannot imagine this being poorly paid work. This might be a difference between USA and Canada thing (maybe? Or, like, a union / non union setting issue?). In my city, the job seems to be part-time work that encompasses both 911 operations and police dispatch and it starts at $31.97 an hour: http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/communications/training.php

      1. Brett*

        $19.50/hr starting here and you work 12 hr shifts as alternating 4 days on, 4 days off, 3 days on, 3 days off (so it works out to no overtime over 2 weeks with unpaid meal breaks). Right now, dispatchers don’t get raises because they are classified as civilian jobs, so you stay at starting pay until you get promoted to a supervisory position. Dispatchers can collectively bargain in our state, but cannot strike or unionize (the bargaining unit is only in effect during contract negotiations, and only if the government agency chooses to bargain collectively).

        To make it worse, last year they mandated dispatchers pay 4% off the top into the police pension, but without a social security exemption. They don’t vest into the fund until 7 years.

        1. MakesThings*

          WTF? That sounds like despicable work conditions for people who do literally life-saving work. Something is deeply wrong with the system if this is the situation.

    6. Naptime Enthusiast*

      Our city dispatch for 911 EMT and fire calls is run by our fire department. The minimum age in my state for becoming a firefighter is 19 and for a police officer is 21. Most of the people who work in those roles have been taking courses and preparing for years before that, some as young as 15 years old. When it comes to First Responders, it’s something you either have or don’t regardless of your age.

    7. Maude Lebowski*

      [Am I reposting here? Where did my post I just wrote go?] Anyway, I just googled my city – Toronto – where it is a part-time job run through the police that starts at nearly $32/hr. Which is kind of what I want in a 911 operator…. something like a calm-in-the-face-of-everything professional, like, you know, an air traffic controller.

      1. Elsajeni*

        (Posts containing links are automatically flagged for moderation to prevent spam, but Alison usually approves them pretty quickly.)

    8. AnonEMoose*

      I was a 911 operator for about 6 months years ago. I have great admiration for the people who can do that job. I am not one of them. Among many other things: No 5 year old should know exactly what to tell the 911 operator when Mommy’s boyfriend is beating her up…again.

      Years later, the memory of some calls still breaks my heart a little when I think about them. There were funny stories, too, and a surprising number of people call 911 when they meant to call 411 (if you do that, just say so…don’t just hang up). But yes, it’s a very, very hard job.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I am not cut out for that kind of work either and greatly admire the people who can do it.

    9. Fake old Converse shoes (not in the US)*

      Because it’s sadly treated like most call center jobs? Few or no requirements, high stress, long hours, rarely rewarding and low pay.

    10. Hiring Mgr*

      I was wondering about this too…I had always assumed that 911 people were part of the police or fire departments

      1. AnonEMoose*

        Not where I live, anyway. In smaller places, maybe – but even there, I wouldn’t necessarily count on it.

    11. Anonymousaurus Rex*

      I used to work for my (mid-sized) city’s fire department. 911 dispatch jobs were usually a “first step” kind of job to get on your resume if you wanted to move into either police or fire. There are definitely some city employee lifers, but there were also some pretty young dispatch people. The minimum requirement was EMT training, as well as the obvious job training. It was pretty popular as it pays considerably more than Ambulance Operator jobs (which also require an EMT but are close to min wage and considered the best way to get into the fire department by many).

  9. Gen*

    I totally agree with Alison’s wording, but I just wanted to add my two cents.

    Having worked in that kind of environment (where every call could be someone’s worst day ever) I also got used to ‘manager walking toward me with a neutral expression meant bad things’. Some of our managers would use the same face when intending to tell people ‘you missed an address detail’ and ‘your patient died because you screwed up’, so everyone was on edge that this feedback would be the real bad kind. Managers smiling, making non-angry eye contact or giving a friendly wave as they walked over made a world of difference for anxiety levels and the managers who did that were usually the most popular.

  10. Brett*

    Part of this might be perceptions of what happens when other dispatchers are called into the supervisor’s office. Most people don’t know that a co-worker was called in for a routine review or to be praised for their handling of a call.
    Everyone knows when another dispatcher was called in to be suspended or to be informed they were being sued for 7-figures.
    At last job, I worked regularly with a major metro dispatch office. Unfortunately, the state allowed individual dispatchers to be sued for errors and the dispatch agency was pretty much forced to suspend a dispatcher every time they were sued. So that type of extreme bad news did happen several times a year. Combine this with all other times a meeting with a supervisor meant the dispatcher was being served for a civil suit (or by the defense in a criminal trial), and I think our dispatchers were pretty wary of any meetings with a supervisor.

  11. Argh!*

    Are the reminders so urgent that they can’t wait for a regular one-on-one?

    There are regular one-on-one meetings, right? For the newest people, they’d need more frequent meetings. For older people, perhaps just an email saying “Last night xyz happened and you responded this way but remember, you’re supposed to respond that way. Please respond to this email so that I know you’ve read it. Thank you.”

    That’s actually better documentation if there is a problem with the employee anyway.

    I agree with the young’uns. Being called to the boss’s office, especially without any heads-up about what it’s about, should be reserved for super important stuff, so I would expect a dressing-down in that situation.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It depends on the job, but in lots of jobs it’s really normal and routine for your boss to want you to stop by and it’s not for stuff that could wait for a regularly scheduled check-in. Some jobs are more collaborative than others.

    2. Naptime Enthusiast*

      I disagree, if their job is to answer calls all day and there’s a procedure they’re not following, it should be fixed immediately rather than waiting for the next 1-on-1 in a few days after they’ve made the same mistake 10 more times. And for younger employees, that face to face feedback feels a lot better than the email you drafted up. I know there’s nothing wrong with it and it’s very straightforward, but without a lot of professional experience I would read that email as very cold and disappointed. Sure it would be a good way to document problems with an employee, but is that really necessary for one-off mistakes?

    3. Jesmlet*

      If they’re answering calls all day and you wait several hours or days to give them the feedback, they may make the same mistakes again or not remember the actual incident in question.

    4. Kate*

      Since it’s a 911 dispatcher, it may be that the issues do need to be addressed immediately so the employee doesn’t make the same mistakes on more calls. And personally, I’d be more upset getting an email like that since I’m a worrier and would assume the boss was really annoyed by the violation of procedure. A conversation lets the employee see that the boss isn’t mad, but still needs to correct the procedure. It also lets the employee give their side if there is one. Perhaps they responded to xyz in the way they did because of abc reasons that the boss couldn’t tell from the recording, or something like that.

      1. LouiseM*

        Agreed, I think the email seems like a bigger deal than a quick in-the-moment correction.

      2. mrs_helm*

        If they’re getting feedback so regularly, it should be possible to normalize it, though. (Which is what regular one-on-ones do.) Maybe just making a point of saying “feedback time” instead of “we need to talk”, and making sure it happens for everyone at least daily?

    5. MillersSpring*

      You’ve got a really strict idea about being called to the boss’s office. I have a few examples of benign reasons:
      – I need to ask an employee a sensitive question.
      – I need her to sit in on a phone call.
      – I need to tell her something confidential.
      – I need to show her something on my screen or ask her about it.
      – I need her help, perspective or input.
      – I need to give her instructions, and it’s more convenient, quiet or private in my office.
      – I need to spread out some papers on a larger desk.
      – I don’t want her colleagues or anyone walking by to overhear.

      Asking someone to come in my office means nothing and anything.

      1. Argh!*

        I never have my reports come to my office outside of scheduled meeitngs for any of those reasons except #1 & 3!

        1. Fergus, Stealer of Pens and Microwaver of Fish*

          You never have something you’re working on that you could use the input of one of your reports for? I mean, I guess it depends on the job, but I probably spend time in my boss’s office daily on all of those things except 1 and 3.

  12. Let's Talk About Splett*

    Anyone want to share how they *knew* it actually was A Bad Talk?

    1.) I knew a round of layoffs was literally happening at the moment, and everyone knew you got called into the HR Director’s Office to get the ax, then back to your desk to pack up. My ex-boss walked up to me and just said, “Come with me.” and didn’t say where and wouldn’t look me in the eye. Sure enough, I followed her to the HR Director’s office.

    2.) At another very large company, everyone knew you the drill was if you were let go, you got called on the phone to come to HR on another floor. I came back to my desk one day after working away from it and saw the name of the HR Generalist on my phone, but she didn’t leave a voice mail, which was customary at that company. She didn’t do benefits or on-boarding so I had no reason to talk to her as part of my job. Sure enough, five minutes later she called back and asked me to come to her office.

    1. AMPG*

      I knew my final “check-in” meeting when I was on a PIP was going to be me getting fired. It was a really bad hiring match in general and there were some bad management practices in place (it was a very small non-profit startup), and I was already suspicious that I had no way to make it off the PIP successfully. But in the next-to-last meeting I was going through all of the ways I had met the goals of the PIP, and my boss said, “Well, there’s still the matter of cultural fit, which we can talk about next time.” And then I was sure.

    2. Murphy*

      I alluded to this above, but my grandboss came to my office and asked if she could meet with me at 4:00 that afternoon. Completely joking, I said “Ooh, am I in trouble?” She said very seriously, “Well, we’ll talk about it later.” Texted my husband and told him I was getting fired.

      1. Jen S. 2.0*

        Ha, mine is similar. I knew I was on very thin ice at my first job out of college. Big Boss had written me a long, pointed email a few weeks earlier telling me that the quality of my work was not acceptable … and I had made a mistake the previous day. Nothing that was the end of the world, but I knew I was in trouble; it wouldn’t have been a firing offense another time or on its own, but it was the last straw.

        I got a Post-It on my monitor while I was out getting lunch asking me to meet with Big Boss at 2:00. I knew it was likely my last meeting, and it was.

        Note: I hated the job and sucked at it, and was already interviewing elsewhere. Being let go was not a huge surprise and was a bit of a relief.

    3. CMart*

      Working at a restaurant, everything was discussed out in the open (or you were pulled to an empty section to sit at a table with a manager) unless it was something serious.

      So the time the Regional Director was at the store, and my General Manager caught me as soon as I came in to say “please come to the office once you’re settled” I knew it was something bad. I wasn’t fired, but I damn near might have been due to a really serious longtime customer complaint that had escalated to the chain’s owner.

    4. Anon Today*

      We always used to joke that you knew you were being fired, if you were asked to go into a certain conference room when the leadership team was all in the office, on a Friday before a major holiday. That was all fun and games until they started using the same conference room to tell employees that they were promoting them.

      1. Decima Dewey*

        My brother, who’s in food service, tells me that when a chain restaurant wants to fire someone, they take them to lunch at a different chain. So if the employee makes a scene, it’s not their problem.

    5. Ama*

      We have a lot of all staff meetings at my office, but only four times in five years have we received a same day staff meeting request with no details. Three of those time it was bad, or at least extremely disruptive, news involving someone’s layoff or surprise resignation. One time the senior staff wanted to surprise us with a party recognizing our efforts at the end of our busy season. I think someone must have mentioned to the senior staff how much everyone assumed it was another bad news meeting because now if we’re having surprise treats, our meeting request says something like “End of Season Celebration” so people don’t panic.

      1. DataQueen*

        We have those to mask when someone else is being fired. They’ll call an all-staff about something silly, so that they can meet with Fired Guy in private, make sure no one sees if he’s emotional, allow him to gather his things privately, and leave. More than once, we’ve left an all-staff to see someone’s completely cleared out desk. They’ll usually say, “Hey Data Team, hang back after the meeting for a second” and tell us about the Fired Guy, but sometimes it waits til a later department roundup.

        1. Gatomon*

          The one time it happened on my team, they called us our department into a surprise meeting while the Fired Guy was collecting his things and being escorted out. It was a “tell the customer you will call them back and hang up” kind of a roundup. Fired Guy knew it was coming though, and we all knew he had a meeting with HR at that time because he blabbed, so I think it would’ve been very obvious had they put something on all our calendars.

    6. ThatGirl*

      I said a little of this above, but.

      Last year, I was scheduled to be off starting on a Friday through the next week for a cruise. On Wednesday, an all-department meeting was announced for Friday, with no context given. We were told everyone who normally worked from home had to come in.

      I of course said to the head of my department, I won’t be here Friday, can you tell me anything. He said he would catch up to me Thursday.

      It just didn’t feel right — but I also wasn’t that suspicious because no layoffs had been announced. Still, I was definitely anxious about the whole thing. All day Thursday I was half anxious, half excited for our trip. Thursday afternoon he finally came by, said “hey, let’s just go downstairs and meet real quick and then you can go” and I said “not for good, though, right?” and he didn’t say anything.

      Sure enough he led me into the small conference room by the front door, with an HR rep waiting and the VP on the phone to officially let me go and told me the rest of my department was going to find out tomorrow (they gutted us – outsourced 80% of our jobs).

    7. Detective Amy Santiago*

      At ToxicOldJob, my teammates and I were in frequent contact with HR because our direct supervisor didn’t understand our job and wasn’t really qualified to be our supervisor (we had been under a different department, but when the head of that department left, they switched us to this other one). I had a meeting with my supervisor’s boss and HR one day and got a written warning and reiterated that my work load was untenable and that I needed more support.

      Naturally, it was not forthcoming. About a month later, I got an email around 3pm from my direct supervisor saying “can you come to [hr rep]’s office?” and I just knew I was getting fired. I didn’t say anything to my teammates, just got up and walked down there and yep, that was it. It sucked, but it ended up being the best thing they could have done for me because I was so drained (physically & emotionally) and my mental health was awful that I never would have been able to job search. Plus they had to replace me with two people.

    8. DataQueen*

      When I was laid off, i was a remote worker, so I was used to just phone calls with my boss. She scheduled a check-in (subject of meeting was literally “Check In” at 8 am, and i didn’t even think to look at the invitation. If i had, i would have noticed that it was a conference line. But groggy eyed and before my coffee, I just dialed, not realizing how weird it was to call into a conference line for a 1-on-1. Thats when she said, “Okay so I have Big Boss HR Guy on this line….”

      I was more pissed that i was having to deal with this without coffee than the actual layoff.

    9. Sam.*

      Last summer, a high-level, well-respected person in my office was “laid off” (read: fired), which never happens here and therefore caused big drama. It’s a very collaborative office, so I generally don’t think twice if someone above me asks me to come by their office or wants to talk. But on that day, my supervisor shows up at my door, unusually stiff and formal, and asked me to go to Grandboss’s office right away. I was pretty sure I hadn’t done anything, but it was very, very clear that I was about to hear Bad News. They only called in those who worked closely with her, but everyone else knew something was up, because a series of people being summoned to the big boss’s office was not normal.

    10. Quoth the Raven*

      I was doing Sales full time for the local Comic Con (which was way out of my field of experience and interest; I’m an interpreter/translator and they offered me the job directly). My boss and grandboss were in the office (it’s not common for them to be there, let alone at the same time) — my boss simply told me “Hey, can you join us for some coffee down the street?”

      We’d already had a talk before because I was not a right fit for the role, and I was not very satisfied with the role either (they had promised and offered many things that never came into fruition) so I just knew it was bad news.

      I wasn’t fired, but they did tell me they weren’t happy with my performance (and I told them, in turn, I wasn’t very sure I wanted to go on). I was put in PIP, and ended up resigning a month afterwards — it just wasn’t working for either of us.

      I still work for them as an Interpreter Supervisor, which is a lot more in line with what I do regularly.

    11. Susan Sto Helit*

      At my company, if your whole department gets summoned to a meeting at 9.30am, there are going to be layoffs. Then it’s just a waiting game to find out who it’s going to be. And of course you’ll get to find out that your job is probably going in front of all your colleagues, some of who will be fine, so that’s always fun. (Thus far it’s never been me, to my occasional disappointment. The payouts are good.)

    12. Decima Dewey*

      When I saw a memo for a meeting the next day on every desk in the department except mine.

  13. Naptime Enthusiast*

    I grew up in a house where you were praised publicly and chastised privately. If my parents asked to speak with me or my brother in another room we both worried, and that definitely carried over into work when I first joined the professional working world. I would ask my first manager “Is everything okay?” and good on him for not rolling his eyes, but I finally learned after a few months that anything that wasn’t office chit chat or a quick workload update would be discussed privately.

  14. RabbitRabbit*

    I once had Compliance at my institution e-mail me to schedule a meeting which I was to Not Talk About, for after a holiday weekend. I somewhat knew the director who had e-mailed me, so I only-partially-jokingly e-mailed back something like “way to make me feel comfortable over the weekend” and she tried to reassure me that it wasn’t about me. (It wasn’t. But experience from the dysfunctional manager I’d had before made me gunshy.)

  15. Genny*

    A couple thoughts. If the work force skews young, you may be dealing with people who are associating “we need to talk” with being called into the principal’s office to be told something is wrong. You could also be dealing with people who had a toxic first job (fast food, retail, etc. aren’t exactly known for having the best, most effective managers), so they may be extrapolating from that experience. Or you could be dealing with a people who have perfectionist tendencies, anxiety, an over-active imagination, etc. Basically, there’s no one universal reason for why people do this. Really the only thing you can do to prevent it is give cues (verbal and non-verbal) when you can and generally show yourself to be the type of manager who provides feedback is a helpful, collaborative way.

    1. Susan Sto Helit*

      My first performance review in my first proper job, my manager sat me down and started by saying that I didn’t need to worry about what would be said, and that nothing that came up in a performance review should ever be a surprise – ie if there was a problem with my work I should already know about it, because a good manager would already have discussed it with me. No manager should be letting issues pile up until they can dump them all on you at review time.

      It’s something I really appreciated and try to remember for myself (though I do still hate performance reviews).

  16. Brett*

    Another issue that could be specific to dispatch centers…
    In the center I worked with, keeping dispatchers on the radio/phone was the single most important thing. In order to actually pull someone off the floor, there had to be an extremely important reason. I think in most people’s minds, when they are at work, important=bad.

  17. Melissa C.*

    When it’s nothing serious, my boss will send a quick message on IM to the effect of “Can I borrow you for a minute?” But I know it’s serious when she asks me to come into her office and close the door…and even more serious when the CEO is also sitting in there! (In that instance, there were layoffs and our team was affected so they wanted to tell me in person.)

  18. Jesmlet*

    Everything Alison said, but also any time you make a new hire, it might be worth explaining what the feedback process is so they know what to expect. If you head off any of their fear of “trouble” any time you approach, they may be more receptive and less terrified of consequences for minor corrections and comments.

    1. jo*

      A great idea! Then, if the employee still gives into temptation to ask “am I in trouble?” you can remind them about the earlier conversation.

  19. irritable vowel*

    I think asking this can also be a way of taking control of the conversation, whether the employees realize this or not. Once they’ve asked “am I in trouble?” you’re immediately put on the back foot and either have to reassure them “no, no, it’s just that I wanted to talk about [whatever]” or you have to say that yes, actually they are in trouble, in a way other than how you had planned it. By asking “am I in trouble,” the employee is essentially telling you what the next thing out of your mouth needs to be. That, to me, makes it something that needs to stop happening immediately – they’re setting you up to have conversations that you’re not in control of.

    1. jo*

      Yeah, I agree! In OP’s place I’d consider ignoring the question and starting the conversation in the way I had planned. Maybe I’d do this after a single brief chat along the lines of “here’s what will happen if I need to reprimand you, and in the meantime I’d prefer you stop jumping in right off the bat to ask if you’re in trouble. Let me say what I came to say.”

      I’d also be tempted to answer “am I in trouble?” with a lighthearted:
      “This isn’t the principal’s office.”
      “Save that question for your mom.” Or,
      “Why, do YOU think you should be in trouble for something?”
      But unless the employee is very thick-skinned and/or has a tough sense of humor, I wouldn’t actually advise it!

      1. Gorgo*

        Or tell them “there’s a reason you say ‘is there a problem, officer?’ when you’re pulled over, and not ‘am I in trouble, Mr. Policeman?'”

        1. PersephoneUnderground*

          Isn’t that the same thing though (except for “Mr. Policeman”)? It’s just the formalized version. Strangely enough, I think you just explained why they ask- the same reason you ask when pulled over. They see being called into the manager’s office as similarly likely to be because of a problem. Why and what to do about that is the tricky part.

          1. tj bag dog*

            “Is there a problem” is much more passive than “am I in trouble”, which is useful when you want the burden of proof to be on the other person.

            “Is there a problem?” could preface all manner sins from “you as an individual have done something wrong” to “your work login was deleted in a freak IT accident, here are the steps we are taking to remedy it, please do X, Y, and Z today instead, kindly don’t broadcast our mistake”.

            (the latter is something that happened at my old call center job, to a coworker. She basically spent 2 weeks off the floor assisting the office manager until she could be re-entered into our system and take calls again)

          2. Jennifer Thneed*

            Because there are actually things a cop might pull you over for that are not about “being in trouble” (read: speeding). Things like, one of your tail lights is out, which is a safety hazard and worth being told about.

            (Granted, this is less likely in an urban area, but it’s still true!)

      2. Someone else*

        The part of the letter that stuck out to me most was that the asking this has been derailing. So, while I appreciate that most of your list here was intended as funny, it made me realize, I think besides the OP heading this off a bit more at the pass by preemptively establishing that not all conversations are Conversations, I think she should avoid any kind of statements like the above. If part of the concern is that the person, by asking, is derailing the meeting, the best bet for stopping that may be to just say “No.” and then immediately launch into whatever they’d intended to say originally. Like literally spend the shortest amount of time/words possible on the question and just immediately move on to whatever OP really intended to discuss.

      3. AnonEMoose*

        “This isn’t the principal’s office” could work, if the person has the kind of sense of humor to appreciate it. One thing I did learn in my time working there (and in some of my work experience before that) is that, in that environment, people do tend to skew toward a darker sense of humor. It’s a defense against some of the stuff they have to deal with.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      @ irritable – I can’t really blame them if that’s the case- if you reverse your phrasing, they’re setting you up for a conversation *they* are more in control of. That probably makes things a bit more comfortable for them and gets immediately to the critical information they want/need (need on an emotional level- why am I in this meeting? should I worry? am I getting written up or fired?). It also defuses that if the immediate response is no, and prevents them from spending the first few minutes of a conversation waiting for a shoe to drop. After all, generally the manager has all the power in this sort of relationship- you can’t really blame the employee for trying to be a little more in control of a conversation, especially if experience from other places or managers makes this type of convo potentially scary.

  20. Collarbone High*

    Can I nominate this LW for the next in-depth interview? I would be fascinated to read more about what running a 911 call center is like.

    1. anon24*


      I work in EMS. I talk to dispatchers all day long over the radio. I would love to learn more about their jobs.

      Also, to any 911 dispatchers out there: I appreciate you all so much!

  21. Sm-access!*

    At age 56, I still struggle with the whole, “Am I in trouble?” emotion whenever my supervisor wants to speak with me out of the blue. It’s that momentary pit in my belly, racing heartbeat that generally subsides rapidly–but I know that it stems from an earlier supervisor who used the stick way more than a carrot. I am an outstanding employee, and was then–but was a constant churning mess because I always felt threatened about “being in trouble.” I was a wreck by the time I finally quit that job. THANK YOU ALISON for your perfect response. And thank you OP for recognizing how this can scar someone.

    1. Mel*

      Yeah, I get that momentary pit in my belly too, but I’ve never actually showed outwardly that brief anxiety or asked “Am I in trouble?”.

      In my current job the call into my manager’s office has only ever been “trouble” once. It was a mild reminder that I shouldn’t be looking at my phone/doing something not work related on my phone during our morning stand-ups.

  22. jo*

    These young employees are probably pretty fresh out of school or low-level jobs. They may not have much experience being spoken to/pulled aside by their school instructors or previous managers for anything other than unpleasant reasons. That, plus immaturity, can lead to noticeable anxiety around authority figures! The OP has a great opportunity here to show employees that (at least with her) it’s possible to have positive and neutral interactions with your manager.

    At my worst job to date, I tried to start off my relationship with my manager on the right foot by asking to have a brief check-in conversation every week or so, or asking to sit down for a few minutes every few days to talk through rookie questions I had. I’d been lucky to have a series of good managers up to that point, and they taught me to expect that it was normal to converse with one’s boss without it being scary. But my new manager always seemed surprised I wanted to do that. Basically, she didn’t feel she had the time for it, and she didn’t want to make time, even a little bit. (I wish she had; she might have saved herself the time to find and train my replacement less than 2 years later!) She encouraged me to email her my questions instead. I looked to other colleagues for mentorship. Eventually I learned that if my manger called my desk phone or asked to speak to me personally, it was either because I was “in trouble” or she had an unusually urgent request. By the time I left that job, I was constantly plagued with an uneasy feeling that she didn’t like anything about me or my work.

    When your boss has nothing positive to say to your face, it screws with your head over time.

    1. jo*

      Oh, and I feel I should clarify that in this office of fewer than 30 people, everybody else had a collegial relationship with their direct manager that involved significantly more face time than I got with my manager. So while the dynamic I describe above might be totally normal in a lot of workplaces, in this context it wasn’t in line with company culture and left me feeling like the red-headed stepchild of the office. Context and norms make a big difference.

  23. Anonymous Educator*

    Slightly off-topic, because this is about much younger people, but I used to work in a school in which adults at all-school assemblies would say “I need to see so-and-so and so-and-so after this meeting” and then follow it up quickly with “You’re not in trouble.” That last bit always made me cringe. I mean, is the idea that you not tacking on the last bit means they are in trouble? In which case, maybe they won’t come see you after the meeting…

  24. Eye of Sauron*

    I have a slightly different but along the same lines issue working remotely from the team I manage. I found myself only calling my reports when something not wonderful was going on and using email and IM for the return stuff.

    Luckily I had this epiphany fairly early on so that I could mend my ways before it got out of hand. My suspicions were correct when I started calling for small stuff and I would get nervous reactions. This of course doesn’t mean that I use email for serious coaching sessions, but I’ve been able to get past the phone=bad news thing.

    Now my funny story about expectations of bad news… I unknowing scheduled all of the performance appraisals for my team in the conference room that is known as the ‘firing’ room. Apparently this is the place where they fire people because it’s outside of the badged/secured area. So all day I had been calling people down to the ‘firing’ room to give them their good appraisals. They all laughed when I apologized for it the next day after the last person I met with told me why everyone had been freaking out.


    1. WeevilWobble*

      If your work has a firing room there are a whole lot more issues going on there. Sounds like a dreadful place.

      1. Eye of Sauron*

        It’s really not. It doesn’t have any more firings than average (it probably has less). People there just have really long memories.

        To put it perspective I was the topic of conversation for weeks, because I brought in a personal coffee cup.

  25. Lillian Gilbreth*

    Twice now I’ve been called into a manager’s office for no stated reason (he’ll call and say”hey can you drop by when you have a sec?”) and completely freaked myself out about it. Both times it was to offer me a case :)

  26. weho*

    “you might find out that other managers are framing things in a way where “getting in trouble” is pretty accurate”

    I would suspect that this is the case. It sounds like a punitive workplace overall and if it is, employees are going to think and behave in this way, because they are being trained to expect scoldings/accusations/punishment. This may be more than the OP can change him/herself, except maybe with interactions with his/her own team.

    1. Anon Today*

      I agree. I think if the other managers are being punitive then it’s going to be really tough to get the behavior to change. I still have anxiety because of a crappy manager from 15 years ago. Now, I don’t verbalize that anxiety, but I still have it, based on one crappy manager from years ago. If I was regularly getting reprimanded and scolded, I don’t know that I’d be able to successfully reprogram my behavior for another manager within the same organization.

    2. PersephoneUnderground*

      Yeah- at least lots of call centers (even if this one isn’t like this) can be very structured with formal discipline and write-ups for infractions. They might be used to only being called into a manager’s office for a write-up or other discipline if they have experience at call centers before this job. It’s a juvenile way of phrasing things I guess, but it does get right to the meat of the issue. Maybe it’s actually good that they are comfortable enough to ask you this, instead of being too afraid to ask what they need to know!

      Another possibility is it’s meant to defuse things for them since they know you’re probably not pulling them in for punitive reasons but their instincts are saying they must be in trouble in this situation.

  27. NotImportant*

    I don’t understand why supervisors prefer to say something as vague as “Can you come to my office?” instead of adding a few words of explanation, like “Can you come to my office? I can’t find x file” or “Could you come to my office and show me how to do x in Excel?” or “I have a question about x–could you stop by?” No explanation makes me think I’m in trouble, and sometimes just saying what they wanted would have saved time (like if they just want a file or an explanation for something that was done 10 months ago, it’s quicker for me to find it myself and send it to them than have to go to their desk and walk them through finding/searching for it).

    Whenever I e-mail/IM someone because I need something from them, I tell them what I need. I wouldn’t just say, “Can you come to my cubicle?” or “Do you have a minute to help me with something?”

    1. bopper*

      One time we were going through layoffs…everyone was wondering if they were getting laid off.
      I got a meeting put on my calendar by my boss that just said something generic like “i want to meet with you” or something. YIKES! Then the meeting was moved. PROLONGED AGONY… Then I get an email saying “cancelled the meeting,,,I got what I needed from Jane” WHEW

      1. EveryoneIsAnon*

        My supervisor sent me a meeting invite that said nothing but the word “discussion” once. I was really anxious about it since someone else had just been fired. They ended up canceling an hour before and never rescheduled. No idea what it was about.

        1. Witty Nickname*

          My VP did that to me once too. He put a meeting on my calendar for TWO DAYS LATER. It just said “I need to talk to you about something.” I hate uncertainty, so it was a long two days.

          It ended up being a discussion about a reorganization he was planning for our team, and he wanted to let me know that he was going to change my role (in a way that showed he had a lot of faith in me and was intended to be a next step in my career), but he wasn’t ready to announce anything to the rest of the team yet, and so he kept the meeting request really vague on purpose. I still think he could have worded it much better while still being vague though.

    2. McWhadden*

      I get in this case the OP doesn’t really have time to say much. She’s addressing specific issues or non-issues with calls in a fast-paced environment.

      But, generally, yes it makes no sense at all not to give some context unless it really is to fire someone.

    3. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

      I came here to say exactly that. In fact, Alison has recommended doing this in the past. I am surprised that she did not do it this time. My current boss will sometimes say, “Can you follow me to my office? Don’t worry, it isn’t anything bad.” That makes me feel better and I am 50 years old!

      1. (Mr.) Cajun2core*

        Or at least, if it is something bad, yet not something major, one can say, “Can you come to my office? I need to ..” verify something, get your side of the story, etc.”

    4. smoke tree*

      I once got an email from the company owner with an incredibly ominous subject line summoning me for a one-on-one meeting (this in an extremely laid-back office where scheduled meetings are very unusual).

      Turns out he was inviting the staff to open a giant gift basket the company had received over lunch.

    5. Alianora*

      Bottom Line Up Front. I’m still early in my career and don’t manage anyone. But I’m trying to make a habit of using very clear subject lines in emails and being very clear in my speaking patterns.

  28. designbot*

    The quickest response to this I’ve heard that kept it from derailing is, “This isn’t the principal’s office.”
    This carries the implication of hey, you’re not a child, stop expecting to be repremanded like one, and is also short enough that it lets you just dive right into what you were going to say before this question caught you off guard.

      1. AnonEMoose*

        It really depends on the work environment and how it’s said. There’s a huge difference between “Nah…this isn’t the principal’s office” said with a smile, and the same thing said totally deadpan.

        Plus, in that environment, people do tend to pretty quickly skew toward what I can only describe as a “darker” sense of humor. Mostly as a way of dealing with the stuff they have to deal with, or could have to deal with, every shift.

      2. designbot*

        I guess I’m in a field where it’s okay to say something that sounds harsh in the moment, if it helps someone out in how they’re approaching things. The same approach certainly won’t work in every environment. And as Moose mentioned, it could be spun in more of a jokey way if that’s more appropriate to your environment.

  29. Anonymeece*

    If it’s several people doing this, then maybe providing some context and gently letting them know that this comes across as unprofessional could help.

    I do know that I had one employee who was a little ball of anxiety. Every time I wanted to talk to him, he would get himself worked up and think he was going to get fired; even worse, he was a star employee. I finally sat him down one time when he was on the edge, asked him what he was afraid of, and when he said being fired over a complaint, I asked him what had happened every time there was a complaint (which was investigate -> determine validity -> talk to the person involved if it did have merit). After that, he got a lot better because he realized he wouldn’t get fired for no reason.

    So if you’re having the same person doing it every time, it might be worth it to go through it with them to help any anxiety they’re having.

  30. Dan*

    It’s fair to say that younger folk working in a low-wage/non-exempt environment are plenty used to speaking to managers only when the “news” isn’t positive. I spent seven years across three different employers in that kind of setting, and that’s how those conversations went.

    When I switched to a professional career that was more collaborative, my project leads “need to see me for a minute” quite regularly. After enough of those, you stop stressing about it, because they want your input or actually just want to start talking about project stuff.

    That said, I did have an official manager I never dealt with on a day-to-day basis. The time she wanted to see me? Those were the stress inducing times. Especially the last one, that was the layoff.

    1. GG Two shoes*

      That last one, did you see it coming? Was there a round of layoffs going on or was it out of the blue?

  31. LaurenB*

    I thought of the film Shattered Glass when I read this question. It’s based on the story of Stephen Glass, a wunderkind reporter who, it turned out, fabricated stories. “Am I in trouble?” was sort of the catch phrase of the character based on Glass. I think it was meant to show he was insecure, and played up his insecurity to disarm anyone questioning him. With the way the story turned out, it was extremely off-putting.

    I’m not saying at all that the OP’s staff members are being manipulative – I think they’re more likely genuinely scared they made a serious mistake – but just that the phrase itself does sort of infantilize the person asking. You want to encourage them to eventually see their performance in more nuanced terms than just fine/in need of disciplinary action. I think that would be really tough for me in a job where the stakes are so high, so I do appreciate where they’re probably coming from.

  32. McWhadden*

    If it happens with multiple people then there is probably something bigger going on. I’d definitely look into what other managers are doing. It’s so high-stress I can see if some managers tend to call people in and aren’t particularly constructive with feed back. Just barking out issues.

    Of course, it’s still not professional to say even if you do get in trouble every time you get called off the floor. And that should be addressed. But I’d see if there is a general issue causing so many of the employees to have this much anxiety over the prospect of talking with a manager.

  33. MarianCSRA*

    I once got called into a meeting with Manager and Assistant Manager. I didn’t say anything, but I must’ve had a look on my face. Assistant Manager said, “don’t worry, it’s nothing bad.” I proceeded to get reamed out by Manager for not handling a situation with another staff member the way she thought I should have. I never trusted anything Assistant Manager said again.

  34. bopper*

    I have been working for 30 years and whenever my boss says “I need to meet with you” without any other info I still feel like I am sent to the principal’s office or am about to get laid off.

    So my first suggestion would be to include why you want to meet. “Hey just want to chat about how things are going.” That way they can suggest any improvements/issues they are having as well as giving feedback.

    Or have it scheduled on a biweekly basis with everyone.

    If the only time you meet with them is that they have done something wrong, then they are going to always think that.

  35. Biff*

    I remember when I was working in a call center that the sense was that I was a small, naughty child and the feeling was EXACTLY like being in trouble. No one ever spoke to me with good news, and the feedback was, frankly, impossible to implement. I wonder if, unfortunately, some of that is also the reality here?

    I’d personally look at my feedback:

    1. Is the ‘coaching’ at all possible to implement? (I hated being asked to do stuff that my system didn’t support because the backend was so slow, or having to speak to people in a robotic way.)
    2. Is the coaching really in line with our priorities? (One thing my local 911 does that drives me NUTS is they collect my FULL name and phone number every call. This shouldn’t be necessary. I’m calling in for someone trying to break into my house, ffs, just get an office over here NOW.)
    3. Is most of my feedback bad news?
    4. How much utility does this bad feedback have? (E.g. — this person just had a very bad phone call and their next one was not great either, but it wasn’t really bad. Maybe just give them feedback on one.)

    1. MommyMD*

      Agreed that managers tend to give much more negative feedback than positive even to very good employees. A good employee can go months with no feedback at all and then one glitch and it’s the “we need to talk”.

  36. MommyMD*

    I think it’s pretty universal that no one feels good when a manager approaches them in a serious way. I think the am I in trouble is a forgivable response not warranting too much time spent on it.

  37. Student*

    Whenever I ask the boss what a random meeting is about – as in, he has his admin schedule an unexpected meeting with me and provides no context on what we’re going to meet about- I send an email asking what the meeting is about. I always try to be low-key about it, more of “Hey what did you want to discuss, so I can bring relevant info?”

    Since we speak/meet so infrequently, something like twice a year, I am internally always wondering if I’m in trouble. Usually, to some degree, I am in trouble or about to be involved in trouble.

    He always, without fail, writes a long email back as if I just said, “Am I in trouble?” explaining that everything’s fine, this is just some routine administrative thing.

    And then I show up, and I’m either in low-grade trouble, or I’m getting roped into somebody else’s trouble.

    1. AnonEMoose*

      If I had $5 for every time I’ve been roped into solving an issue caused by someone else…I’d be retired. Or at the very least, my mortgage would be paid off!

  38. Jessie the First (or second)*

    OP says this: “Some of our supervisors are double or almost triple the ages of their subordinates, and some have extremely outdated leadership styles that come across as abrasive or unapproachable.”

    OP herself is not like this, but could her employees’ reactions here have something to do with the culture of the organization – the other “abrasive or unapproachable” supervisors? Even if they do not interact with your direct reports, perhaps those supervisors have contributed to a level of fear at the workplace.

    Of course, even if true, “am I in trouble” is not a great thing to say and it would be kind of you to point that out to them. I’m just wondering if it is coming from somewhere more than simply being new to the workforce. If that could be the case, it might be a good idea to go right to the longer script Alison suggested, without waiting for multiple instances.

  39. Lissa*

    This topic comes up a fair amount – how to ask someone to a meeting without freaking them out, and similar subjects. Full disclosure: I am totally one who is convinced I’m getting fired any time my supervisor wants to see me, though I usually try to keep it to myself! Anyway, a lot of advice comes down to saying something like “I’d like to see you in my office regarding Joseph’s time-off request” or whatever it is to let them know it’s nothing bad.

    But…what if it IS something bad? If you have got in the habit of explaining why to reassure the person they’re not in trouble, should you just say nothing about the reason and then they’ll know/assume they are in trouble and freak out more, or should you be upfront and be like “I need to see you in my office about your future with the company’s very short time limit” (ok not really that..)

    For people who ask “am I in trouble” would you rather hear “yes” if you are, or nothing?

    1. Jennifer*

      It really depends on your office culture. In some offices “see me” is ALWAYS because you are in trouble, and sometimes it’s not. And if you go from a “see me” office to one that isn’t, that will still remain in your brain for a while.

      I don’t think any supervisor is going to say yes to that. There’s probably some kind of liability issue if they gave you the heads up, I suspect. I think they’re more likely to just say nothing and let you twist in the wind.

  40. aes_sidhe*

    I’ve only asked once at my current job if I was in trouble. It was because all three partners at then law firm called me and a paralegal into the front conference room. Since it was so weird and out of the ordinary, I asked before I could stop myself and couldn’t have slapped myself after I’d said it. Thankfully, it was because we were getting a bonus after the firm settled a lawsuit.

  41. LadyCop*

    Ugh. This is why I am so glad I work in an area that tends to have older/more experienced dispatchers, and not just warm bodies who can talk on the phone…

    Anyway, I was originally thinking this wouldn’t be a surprise if the person was someone who regularly has been in trouble at this job or previous jobs, or if people regularly are “in trouble,” but since those aren’t the case, it seems like they think talking to the supervisor is like being called to the Principal’s office. I’m glad OP wants to help guide them out of it!

  42. selena81*

    i think at least some of them are so used to adults sugercoating any criticism that they have gotten paranoid about feedback and are always looking for hidden meanings (what slang is used for ‘you suck’ in this particular group?)

    in that case you really should be honest with them: be clear about ‘i just wanted to go though some stuff with you, you are not in any problem whatsoever’, but also do not shy away from the rare ‘yes, i am afraid you are indeed in problem’

  43. mAd Woman*

    I manage young professionals (21-25) and I get asked this pretty routinely as well. If it’s a fairly serious issue that has not yet come to written warning status, I might say “I’m not taking disciplinary action but this is something I need you to focus effort on.”
    But most of the time, it’s routine feedback or even praise so I’ll just say something like “what made you think that?”
    They also get jumpy when I close my office door during a meeting with them so now I just close it every time, so it’s a neutral thing.

  44. KR*

    I’ve so seen this with young people! I’ve also had to tell them that I’m not mad at them, and they’re not in trouble, I just need them to do x as opposed to y, or let them know that their next project is different or something. I think it comes from school and low wage entry level jobs where if you have to be pulled in to talk to the boss it’s usually only because you’re doing something wrong that needs to be corrected. They just expect it.

  45. Starling*

    To be fair, the only reason anyone got called in to talk to the bosses in my old dispatch center was that they were in trouble. The staggered shifts we worked meant that we seldom had the boss around. The best way to keep your staff from fearing one-on-one meetings is to meet occasionally to say good things or talk about professional development, not just to tell them they screwed up.

    (It was a highly toxic workplace–management always responded to any serious incident by putting a written reprimand in one of the dispatchers’ files, regardless of the quality of work. I once was handling a SWAT call-out at 4 am, with one other dispatcher present, but handling a medical call with a suicidal person. Nobody ended up dying! It was a good outcome! But I got written up for putting a police captain on hold so I could talk to SWAT on the radio as they made entry.)

  46. Violet*

    In 2016, while I was a GTA, I was emailed to attend a meeting with the head of school, in a week’s time and I was never told what it was about. Found out at the meeting it was about several complaints laid by students. The meeting was about how bad I was as a GTA. Last month I found out that another GTA had almost the exactly same experience as me. One of the common factors is that we are both transgender.
    When management won’t tell what the meeting is about, other staff tell you rumors about what the meeting is about you tend to panic.

  47. Gatomon*

    Even if it’s not spoken aloud, so many of us are still thinking, “am I in trouble?” Part of it I think is that, when you’re growing up, a private meeting with a teacher or coach or parent like that usually is A Bad Thing. Praise is typically given in front of others, but not negative feedback. I think a lot of us learn that private conversation = negative. Whereas in the workplace, usually positive and negative feedback is given in private.

    Then there’s bad manager tactics. Many bad managers will call you into their office with no warning or heads up so you can’t prepare at all for the meeting. I had one that would reschedule our required check-ins endlessly, then decide it was “hectic” and she’d just tell me to “grab her” whenever we were both free. So I’d have to chase her around to complete the stupid meeting where she’d drag me through the mud. The other manager in that office was a fan of the classic drive-by “come to my office.” Both were just trying to keep you unprepared and wrong-footed for the meeting.

  48. ????*

    My coworkers do this so much that a couple weeks ago my boss began our last one-on-one with “don’t worry, you’re not in trouble.” It actually kinda backfired and just made me more nervous. So don’t do that OP.

  49. Junior Dev*

    Do employees get regular feedback? Like a weekly or monthly one-on-one with their boss? I’ve been struggling with the “every conversation with boss is scary” mentality after a job where the first time my boss talked to me one-on-one was to put me on a PIP and the second time was to fire me. But at the new job I’ve been meeting every week with my boss and it’s done a lot to defuse the anxiety. It helps normalize the idea of asking questions and talking about things before they become a huge deal.

    Maybe it’s not possible to do a weekly one-on-one for every employee, but you could do weekly for their first few months and monthly or quarterly after that.

  50. BritCred*

    I know at one place I worked the terrible phrase was “can I have a word…?” Some people think thats a soft way to get you in their office for anything simple to job losing without everyone else knowing. The issue is in 3 workplaces that sentence was a headsnapper… you heard it and you looked at who it was being said to because something was wrong.

    Often it wasn’t as bad as we all thought but there were enough times that it *was* bad enough to be memorable.

  51. Gaz112*

    OK, I’ll admit I do this.

    Mostly because I’m worried that I’ve done something wrong (even when I know I haven’t) – I’m just looking for them to say that everything is ok, not looking to be told that I’m fantastic etc (I know I’m not).

  52. HRM*

    I work in HR and I frequently have employees of all ages ask me this when I call them or ask them to stop down to my office. Even if they’re the ones who asked me a question, like about their benefits or something, I still sometimes get the “uh oh am I in trouble?!” Lots of people in past jobs have referred to my office as “the principals” office. That said, everyone always seems to be smiling/laughing when they say this stuff to me so they’re just joking.

    Anyway my point here is that I think this is a common thing to say to any authority figure. I hate it though because it’s important to me that the staff doesn’t see my only or primary function as disciplining or firing people and I’m sure you feel the same way. I always try to joke back with them like “oh come on, you know I have good news usually!” or something to that effect. It doesn’t always curb the behavior but it does keep things light which seems to help.

  53. lnelson1218*

    After a couple rounds of lay-offs at a previous job, I did have to start off a lot of conversations: nothing is wrong, I just need information/form/whatever the case actually was. People were really sensitive when HR reached out to them

  54. Didi*

    The best way to combat this is to have regular 1:1 meetings with your direct reports, so they will get used to speaking with you and feel comfortable raising issues. If the only time you talk to your boss is when he or she is giving you negative feedback, you’re not wrong to be paranoid.

  55. Strawmeatloaf*

    I know I won’t ask it, but I will think it because of my old Toxic workplace that anytime you were talked to, it was bad, always. And sometimes when people didn’t talk to you it was bad (aka suddenly yelling at you because as a file clerk you were supposed to know where a specific thing for a specific file that you had never seen before was after handling hundreds of pieces of paper every day. Yes, you were supposed to know literally everything in every file, even things that were brand new and you had never seen before).

    Now I still have some anxiety when I go into my boss(‘s) office, but not nearly as much.

  56. Liz*

    I’ve also had a toxic call center job where a supervisor meeting with you was a bad sign. Nursing school clinicals were the same.

    Is the dispatch center unionized? Members have a right to have a union rep present during disciplinary matters.

  57. Noah*

    “If that’s how you react to your supervisor wanting to talk to you, from a big picture perspective, you probably are in trouble.”

    Okay, don’t say that. But think it.

Comments are closed.