when giving good news, my boss first pretends to be upset as a “joke”

A reader writes:

Recently, I was called into an “emergency” meeting with my grandboss, supposedly to discuss budget problems on a program I am leading. This worried me, because I hadn’t thought there were any budget problems, and I hardly ever talk to her (and, wouldn’t expect to, unless something was Very Wrong). When I got there, both my boss and his boss grilled me about the project for a minute or so, before telling me they had lied — we weren’t there to discuss the project at all and in fact they were giving me an award for my performance on it!

A few months ago I got promoted, and a similar thing happened. My annual review was unusually very tense. I was grilled on my goals and projects in a stern way that seemed a bit out of place, and was asked things like “why haven’t you started this yet?” And “how much did you REALLY contribute to that?”… And was surprised with “I’m promoting you!” At the end of the 30-minute meeting. My boss later told me he had been trying to worry me as a joke.

My bosses found both of these things hilarious. And I feel like I should too. But I hate it! I have anxiety issues that I struggle with, and although I think I’m good at masking that, and seeming calm on the surface, I have a hard time calming down after stuff like this. In the annual review, I was so worried about the tone of the conversation that my stomach was in knots, and I didn’t ask questions like I normally would. In both instances I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy the moment because I was recovering from worry.

I guess this is a small thing, and I should probably feel grateful I have bosses that recognize my work and have a sense of humor. But, these tiny pranks bothered me so much that I was wondering if it was worth saying something (like “please don’t do that again if you care about my mental health! I don’t like it!) Or should I let it go?


Your boss and his boss are asses who don’t understand power and the bounds of exercising it. Nor do they understand humans.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who would have genuinely enjoyed being the target of these “pranks” and would have enjoyed a jovial, unfeigned laugh at the end of them. That doesn’t change the fact that most people wouldn’t, and that making someone feel anxious and fearful isn’t a funny joke.

When “relief” is the best case outcome of a joke targeting someone whose paycheck you have authority over, your joke sucks.

And the authority piece of this is really crucial. When you have authority over people, you need to exercise it in a way that’s respectful of the people living within that control and indicates you’re sensitive to the potential for abuse inherent in that power. A boss who think it’s funny to trick you based on his power to levy serious, life-changing consequences on you isn’t a boss you can trust.

You’d be right to feel rattled and alienated by this even if you didn’t struggle with anxiety. Many people would! Your anxiety makes this even more upsetting, of course, but please know it’s understandable to take issue with this regardless.

So yes, do say something to your boss. I’d word it this way: “A couple of times now, you’ve made it seem like you’ve had serious concerns about my work before giving me an award or promotion. I wanted to ask if you’d please not do that again. Both times, my stomach was in knots and I was extremely worried. It wasn’t fun for me and I’d rather not go through that again. I also want to be able to take you seriously if there ever are serious issues with my work and not need to wonder if it’s real or not.”

If your boss is a mostly decent person who just didn’t think this through, he’ll respect this. (There are mean-spirited jerks out there who wouldn’t, but the type of manager to ignore this sort of direct request is pretty rare.)

{ 302 comments… read them below }

  1. Hills to Die on*

    Ugh. He’s either a sadist or a boor. I can see why that would be upsetting. I hope you will talk to him.

    1. Artemesia*

      Many people, me included, would be a tad panicked just to be asked to ‘stop by my office later’ — this is a bit silly, but common. To be told you are in trouble, enjoy the anticipation of maybe losing your job — well hard to see this as anything but monstrous. For the joke to be carried out for a few seconds ‘well I have some bad news’ and then ‘we are promoting you so you will be moving to a new office’ — maybe, tolerable and can be viewed as a ‘joke’. To announce doom ahead and then carry it on with quizzing you about some failing for half an hour — this is not by any stretch a joke. This is pure and unadulterated bullying.

      1. Quagmire*

        One time, my boss asked me to come into his office ASAP, and at the same time, our HR guy was returning some papers to him, and I just about shit my pants. And that was an accident, he didn’t know HR was going to be walking by. He apologized when he saw the absolute horror on my face! I can’t imagine if he just let that play out for the lolz. I probably would have just never come back.

        1. RabbitRabbit*

          I had a Compliance officer at my workplace e-mail me before a long holiday weekend, asking to set up a highly confidential meeting with me the following week. I did only semi-jokingly ask for a little reassurance and got it, but it still left me adrift the whole weekend. (No, it was not at all about me.)

      2. Archaeopteryx*

        And even if you know you shouldn’t have any reason to fear being fired, it’s still incredibly stressful to be forced to defend your contributions, or to fend off what seem like unreasonable accusations. Basically the boss is making OP think he’s a jerk, then going, “Surprise! I’m actually a different type of jerk!”

      3. Sleepytime Tea*

        I had a boss who did this same thing when giving me a bonus. She tried to act stern when asking me to come to a conference room to maybe worry me a tad, and then surprised me with a bonus instead. It didn’t really bother me because she gave in within a few moments of being in the conference room, so the “joke” lasted for less than a minute. But if it had been any longer than that I would have thought it was truly terrible. She and I were on great terms and knew each other well, so her judgment was ok there. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case for the OP though, and they DEFINITELY carried it on way too long.

        Fun side note: the bonus I was given was in lieu of a promotion and pay raise, was quite small, and accompanied by a pedantic “thank you” letter from my director saying basically “thanks for running the entire department by yourself and supporting the entire western world in our pricing program (we won’t recognize you with an actual job title, promotion, or pay raise) but thanks, have a few bucks.” I pretended to be appreciative, but I was seething.

        1. Door Guy*

          At least you got a few bucks…I just got a comment from my manager that “people up high have noticed” when they dumped me with my fellow supervisors entire workload when he got a promotion, and they didn’t even attempt to replace him for 6 months, on top of being told that the promotion I got (the week before my coworker got promoted out) was a “Pseudo” promotion with no official title or monetary compensation, despite my having been told for the last 1.5 months that it was an actual title change and salary increase.

      1. Officious Intermeddler*

        Came here to say that. One can’t help but wonder if they got the idea from The Office and somehow missed the part that the bit was funny because it was so wildly inappropriate.

      2. Arts Akimbo*

        I know, right?? Is this The Office Day on AAM? First we had the Party Planning Committee, and now this!

        Pam: “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t fake-fire people anymore!”
        Michael Scott: “HAHAHA, send in Erin!”

    2. MommyMD*

      This is horrible. I’ve worked at my hospital for 21 smooth years. Yet every single time I’m called to admin or HR I think I’m fired. It’s a horrible feeling. Bosses are sadist jerks.

    3. MommyMD*

      Start bawling LOUDLY the next time they do it. Movie level bawling. It will be the last time. Throw a few quivering sobs and gulps in.

    4. charo*

      THEM, not him, them.
      It would be tempting to respond in kind next time they call a meeting, and tell them a funny joke like, “The client just said they’re backing out and going elsewhere.” Or “Actually, it looks like the vendor has closed shop after we paid them upfront.” Or something to freak them out. Then, “JK!”

      But they might not enjoy that prank so much. The fact that it’s 2 men pranking 1 woman is a problem for me, too. So unprofessional.

  2. Prof. Kat*

    Sounds like this boss views Michael Scott from The Office as a role model.

    (For those who haven’t watched the show, Michael pretends to fire several people throughout the series as a “joke.” It’s clear in context that this behavior is HORRIFYING, and not funny to anyone but Michael himself…but apparently, the LW’s boss didn’t get the memo!)

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Honestly, that should be taught in all business classes. Rule No 1: did Michael Scott do, say or support it in The Office? Don’t do it.

      1. Lady Jay*

        Lol. I operate by a similar principle. If what I’m about to say/do reminds me of something Michael Bluth (or any of the Bluths) said/did, I don’t do it.

        1. i_am_eating_cheetos*

          “Whenever I’m about to do something, I think, ‘Would an idiot do that?’ And if they would, I do not do that thing.”

        2. MasterOfBears*

          I had a very nice, very naive college friend who ended up on a pick up artist blog and somehow thought it was good advice. He just wasn’t getting how gross it all was until one of our friends stopped him dead with “Bro. Can you imagine Dennis Reynolds saying what you just said?”

          The look of horror on his face was immediate and hilarious

    2. Kathleen_A*

      I mean, pretending for, like, 10 seconds that there are problems and then shifting to, “Just kidding!” – that’s not too bad, though I still wouldn’t blame the OP for not enjoying it. But prolonging the “joke” for an extended conversation is just clueless, stupid and cruel, even if that’s not the intention.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          This honestly reminds me of the office “prank” where they told their coworker she was being arrested and didn’t back down until she cried so hard she threw up. It’s that level of awful.

          1. Fortitude Jones*

            Oh yeah, I remember that letter! The one where they had a coworker’s spouse dress up like a cop and stand outside the window for the prankee to see. They sucked so hard for that.

          2. RUKiddingMe*

            Yeah, this is horrible. It’s sadistic and abusive. If I were OP to be honest I’d probably already be looking for another job. I know that there is no way I could keep living like this at work…always wondering if they are serious this time or if it’s just another joke.

      1. Reba*

        Agreed! OP, I noticed that you repeatedly minimized this “gag” in your letter… “small thing,” “tiny prank” — but you don’t have to! (Nor do you have to be “grateful” for bosses who are douchenozzles.)

        Alison’s script is excellent, I just wanted to encourage you not to similarly minimize the impact this is having when you have this conversation. Or, to be ready for them to minimize it again — “only a joke, geez lighten up” — you can say, “I know this was intended as just a little joke, but now that I’ve told you how it came across, I hope you can understand that it’s not little to me.”

        Good luck!

      2. Noah*

        That was my reaction. For a second I was thinking, “well I could see how that would be funny,” then I realized they persisted with this for half an hour. TWO OF THEM, at that.

      3. Jaydee*

        The only way this works is something very quick like the boss saying “We have some concerns about your performance” and then right away “We’re concerned we haven’t recognized you for how well you’ve been performing lately!”

    3. Granger Chase*

      For me the worst one was when he told Pam she didn’t get the sales job, and then it turns out he was just kidding. But then he adds that Ryan didn’t take it so well when he offered him the job and then told him he was joking! Ughhh

      1. Nessun*

        I honestly don’t know why people find that stuff funny. I can’t watch sitcoms or similar “embarrass someone” moments without feeling so utterly embarrassed myself. It’s horrible to do these things to someone – why watch other people go through that? To each their own, I guess.

        1. Mpls*

          +1 – I can’t stand the vicarious embarrassment. I can’t watch The Office for that reason. No matter how many people recommend it.

        2. Daffy Duck*

          Right with you! Embarrassing or being mean to someone (Married with Children) is not funny!
          Yes, I have a sense of humor. I only laugh at FUNNY things.

    4. pentamom*

      This was my first thought, too. I’m always amazed that there are real people in the world who do Michael Scott things.

    5. Flower*

      At the summer camp I worked at (and now volunteer at), the staff counselors (kind of supervisory, kind of support staff) – who do not actually have hire/fire power – jokingly fire each other and long term counselors they’re on good terms with all the time. I think it works because it’s quick one-offs and there *isn’t* that actual threat. (Plus it’s usually used when someone really needs a break (“you’re fired, go take a nap”) or for totally absurd reasons.)

  3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    Oh, OP, I am so sorry. Your bosses are so off here that it’s giving me fremdschamen. I don’t have anything to add to Alison’s advice, except extreme sympathy and warm thoughts. I think this would give anyone—even folks who don’t deal with anxiety—high blood pressure.

    Alison has nailed it—it’s not funny to “joke” like this when you have positional power/authority over someone else. I would be so tempted to see how they’d react if someone in an elevated position did the same to them. I suspect they’d immediately figure out how unfunny they’re being.

    1. Nicki Name*

      Princess Consuela, thank you for introducing me to a new word.

      OP, it’s not you, this would be a horrible thing to do even to someone without anxiety issues.

      1. Sandan Librarian*

        Just adding my thanks here, too. I love learning new words and this one is so much better than saying “second-hand cringe.”

    2. Exhausted Trope*

      Princess, I had a similar thought about the HBP issue. Should the boss try pulling a “prank” like this again, the OP could fake chest pains, “I’m having a heart attack!”
      And then spring a “just kidding” on them! I bet they’d think twice before pulling one again. If they don’t, they are monsters.

  4. Myrin*

    I bet “repeatedly pranking my coworkers by pretending to fall down while walking through the office” friend-of-OP’s from last week would feel right at home with these two clowns. Unbelievable.

    1. Doug Judy*

      It baffles me that people who do things like this think that means they are funny or clever.

      Nope, it makes you a dick, Beefer.

  5. Attempting2Direct*

    Oh nononononono. This isn’t a you thing, I would be so bothered by this as well. Take heart that you’re not alone in your reaction and best of luck!

  6. Jennifer*

    Reminds me of Michael Scott and his “fake firings.” I see why Stanley finally snapped. Funny on the show, not so funny when you think your livelihood is at stake.

    1. RUKiddingMe*

      Even though it’s just a show it’s so not funny after a while. I can normally keep tv shows/movies in perspective…they are just characters being portrayed by actors. But some of them, and Michael Scott is one, just piss me off so badly that I start to hate the character, who I know isn’t even a real person, and eventually even dislike the actor who is doing a great job portraying a massive douchebag. It’s a vicious cycle…

      1. Pomona Sprout*

        I have only watched ONE episode of The Office and it upset me so much that I never wanted to watch it again. I don’t even remember what the episode was about, just that Michael Scott was pure evil, and I found absolutely nothing funny about it! Still don’t get why that show is a hit. I know lots of people love it, but I. Don’t. Get. It.

  7. Falling Diphthong*

    It reminds me of the CEO on a pranks-gone-wrong open thread, who called the entire company together to tell them that the company had been sold and everyone was being laid off. Except Psych! it was a joke.

  8. Mainely Professional*

    This joke works for little things, for a MINUTE at a time. Over unimportant things. It’s a one liner that lasts a few seconds of pulling a “down” or “serious” face before letting everyone know everything turned out great.

    1. londonedit*

      Coming here to say this. The only way it works is as a ‘So, we’re not going to give you a £500 bonus like everyone else. *pause*. We’re giving you a £1000 bonus, because you’re so amazing!!!’ Even then, I bet the population would be split between people who would think ‘Oh that was brilliant, the way they made me think for a tiny second that I might not get a bonus! Made it even better!’ and people who would think ‘Christ, why do they need to play around and try to be funny, just give me the good news and don’t give me a minor heart attack first’.

      You don’t bring someone into a meeting and berate them and make them think there’s something horrendously wrong, and then go ‘Ha ha! Jokes! You’re getting a bonus!’ Firstly because it’s just mean, and secondly because what happens when they actually do genuinely need to give bad news? Everyone’s going to spend half an hour thinking ‘OK, ha ha, they’re doing their usual schtick, where’s my promotion…’ and then it’ll be even more crushingly awkward when they have to say ‘Um…no…we are *actually* going to have to get rid of your whole department, sorry’.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        The population would be split.
        I suspect this is along the lines of people who LOVE surprises and want to go through massive contortions to bring them off (“Can I ask my partner’s boss to give him 2 weeks off, but keep it secret?”) and people who want to know what’s happening so they can plan.

        1. RUKiddingMe*

          Agreed. I am in the second group. Just be straight with me, let me plan, etc. Oh and “this is work, not middle school, grow up already, thanks.”

        1. Sally*

          And the reason it worked there is that they were close, and he knew he could pull her leg, and she wouldn’t be too upset in the end (one hopes!). In the OP’s scenario none of those things are true.

          1. MayLou*

            It still wasn’t great then, in my view. She was a single parent trying to claw her way out of poverty, she was used to being screwed over by richer, more powerful men, and she’d worked like hell. It was cruel, even if it was intended to heighten the delight later. He knew she’d default to thinking the worst, that’s why he thought it was funny. If she’d had more self assurance and confidence in fairness, she might have interpreted his words more positively, and I think in that situation he wouldn’t have said it.

            Wow, I have a lot of feelings about this, it turns out.

      2. Jadelyn*

        My boss did this to me with my last promotion. “So, I was only able to get them to move you up to 90% of the midpoint for your salary range…” with sad face, then immediately followed with “…but it’s 90% of the midpoint for the salary range of an Analyst, which is going to be your new title, so still a net gain over Specialist.”

        If he’d dragged that out for HALF AN HOUR I’d be looking for a new job.

    2. Banana Bread Breakfast*

      When this is okay to use:

      Getting back in the car at the gas station with your friend: “Did the have the soda I wanted?
      You, downtrodden: “No.”
      Friend: “Ah, bummer”
      You: “Sike, they had it AND the candy bar you like!”

      1. Jerk Store*

        Or when it’s your *own* news that you are relaying, like “I didn’t get hired at the Supervisor job; they offered me Deputy Director instead!”

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Right. When I was in a trainee program years back, I had to take a certain number of really difficult exams in order to attain a designation I’d need to get licensed in my industry. Anyway, I was panicking about the first major test because I had been out of college for five years by that point and wasn’t really used to studying for anything anymore (and I was a journalism major, so rarely had exams to begin with).

          I took the exam and passed, but my manager had seen how stressed I was leading up to it, so I decided to pull a prank on her when I got back to the office. She inevitably asked me how I did on my exam when it was over, and I frowned and put my head down a bit and said, “I failed.” She yelped, “What?!” and collapsed back into her chair with a panicked expression on her face, and I knew the joke went too far at that point, so I fessed up. She laughed and said, “You little shit! [We had that kind of relationship, so it was okay and I laughed before anyone wonders.] Don’t ever do that to me again! You almost gave me a heart attack!” I didn’t realize how deeply invested she was in me passing ‘til that point, so I honored her request and never did it again.

          I guess certain jokes of your own also aren’t great depending on the context, lol.

        2. Ralkana*

          I actually just did this to my parents. “My boss sat me down today to talk to me about transitioning me out of the assistant manager role…” *wait for alarmed looks* “… and into the manager role!”

          I wouldn’t have prolonged it any longer than that!

      2. RestingLichFace*

        Or birthday surprises! One of my nieces wanted some nice Birkenstocks for her birthday but my sister couldn’t afford to buy them herself and asked if I’d mind splitting the cost. After a bit of ‘argument’, I was able to assert my authority as the elder sister and pay for them myself. My sister then sorrowfully told her daughter that she was very sorry but she couldn’t afford them, which was quite true.

        The look on my niece’s face when she opened her present. So worth it.

        1. Matilda Jefferies*

          I’m curious, though – was it worth it to her? To your niece, I mean. Did she think it was worth the extra few days or weeks of thinking she wasn’t going to get the present she wanted, for the few seconds of joy on her face when she found out she was?

          I’m not asking to be judgmental, but to offer another perspective, because if I had been your niece in that scenario, I would not have enjoyed it at all. After the initial excitement had passed, I would have been left with a feeling of “my mom and my aunt lied to me to make me feel sad.” The surprise at the end wouldn’t have been enough to justify the retroactive weirdness about it all.

          Again, no judgment, because there are lots of people who do enjoy this kind of surprise. And if your niece is one of them, that’s great! But it’s worth checking your assumptions on this kind of thing, because there are also lots of people who don’t.

          *Alison, I’m aware of the potential for a derail here, so please feel free to remove this if it’s too far off topic.

          1. RestingLichFace*

            You aren’t my niece, though. And since you aren’t my niece and don’t know me or my sister or my niece, your own hypothetical reaction is irrelevant.

            1. anonymous 5*

              Except that it’s in line with the consensus here, that this kind of “joke” doesn’t actually play well except in some unbelievably specific circumstances.

              1. EventPlannerGal*

                The fact that something is a consensus opinion here does not mean that it is a consensus opinion in the general population. Many of the consensus opinions on this site are, at best, highly idiosyncratic.

                1. anonymous 5*

                  The consensus also corroborates the answer given by the expert in this case, so I don’t think we need to worry about it being idiosyncratic here.

              2. RestingLichFace*

                Hmm, yes, a personal story is so obviously a non-specific circumstance and it’s entirely normal to only do family jokes that follow the consensus of the internet.

            2. Matilda Jefferies*

              That’s great! If your niece truly enjoyed the whole experience, then everything is fine. But my point is that not everybody does, or would, and we can’t always predict how other people will react. And especially in cases where there’s a power differential like in the OP, it’s best to err on the side of caution for something like this.

          2. TootsNYC*

            well, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone thinking they aren’t going to get the present they wanted.

            If the sister hadn’t been involved, that WOULD have been the answer.
            It’s perfectly OK for a child to figure out how to live with the disappointment of not getting the present they want. In fact, I think it’s kind of important.

            So the kid got that important life lesson, which is NOT a harmful thing, and then got the fun of finding out she was receiving something she hadn’t expected.

            It’s not the same as telling someone something BAD is going to happen.

          3. LilySparrow*

            Not to be judgmental, either, but “my mom and aunt lied to make me feel sad” is so extreme and distorted that I would be extremely worried about a young person with that mindset. Especially since small children don’t usually pine for Birkenstocks, so I’d assume this was at least a tween, if not a teen – old enough to cope pretty easily with Mom not being able to afford expensive brand name items.

            Nobody lied. Nobody wanted her to feel sad. She didn’t even know the aunt was involved.

            I hope you’re okay, because that’s a very dark headspace to be in.

            1. Matilda Jefferies*

              You’re right, it is a bit extreme. And @RestingLichFace, I’m sorry about that – I didn’t intend to imply that that was your intention, or your niece’s interpretation.

              It just…it feels weird to me. I don’t understand the benefit to setting someone up to feel sad or disappointed or whatever, only to turn around and say you were just kidding. Maybe it makes the surprise better, if it’s preceded by (or cancels out) a perceived letdown? I think that’s the stated rationale, and I understand that most of the time it’s done with good intentions. But when this has happened to me, both as a child and as an adult, I’ve found that the setup has a more lasting impact than the outcome, and I do feel a bit betrayed by it all – as if it’s a joke at my expense.

              1. Kiwiii*

                I’m the same way, honestly. I don’t like when people do anything to manipulate my emotions, especially if the result is more or less than I’m sad and they’re happy (even if momentarily the intention is that I’ll be happy, too). It’s such an icky feeling.

          4. Salyan*

            Meh… no one’s guaranteed the presents they asked for. I sure didn’t get them as a kid (hey, even now as an adult!). If a kid’s sad because they don’t expect to get what they asked for, they’re a wee bit entitled IMO.

          5. Just Elle*

            I agree with this. My first Christmas with my husband, I really wanted pearls. He found a ‘pearl themed’ scratch off ticket and gave that to me first as a “sorry I couldn’t afford the real thing, lol” gag gift, before eventually handing over the real thing at the very end of present time.
            I really, really hated it. The sadness/disappointment I felt, especially at the way he meanly poked fun about it, really undermined my joy at getting the gift. Why couldn’t he have just given me the gift and let me be happy? What was the benefit in making me sad first?

            Maybe I’m ridiculously over sensitive, but I don’t think enough people would be all hardee-har-har what a good joke, to offset the risk that an overly sensitive person be secretly really sad about it.

        2. TootsNYC*

          My mom did that to me with a Santa present at Christmas. I wanted a guitar, it was the only thing I wanted. We were in a store, and I pointed to one on the wall and said, “There’s my Christmas present, guys!”

          My parents had already purchased one for me. But my mom thought, “Part of the fun of Christmas mornign is the surprise–she’ll be glad of her guitar, but that is going to be missing!” So she said, in this very disappointed tone, “Oh, honey, I wish I could afford it!”

          I felt like a cretin, because I knew my mom enjoyed getting us something we’d like as the Santa present. So I spend the next two or three weeks dropping big hints of all kind of other things that I’d enjoy finding under the tree. Because I was convinced I wasn’t going to get it.

          When I came out from my bedroom to see it, the high was unbelievable.

          But one key difference–my mother didn’t threaten to punish me, or to create a negative. It was just a positive thing that wasn’t going to happen.

          I.e., there was no authority or punishment or negative consequence. Being disappointed isn’t a negative consequence.

          I’m trying to think where I’d find a similar tactic acceptable at work.

          Maybe “I couldn’t get you one of the 2017 models for your company car, I’m sorry to say. I hope you can make do with a 2019.”
          Or “The big boss didn’t think your project was funded right at $120,000; he thinks you ought to have $150,000.”

        3. Patty Mayonnaise*

          For some reason I can’t reply to Matilda, but I think it’s perfectly normal and generally not upsetting to tell a kid/your spouse/whomever that you didn’t get the thing they asked for so it would be a surprise! The whole point of birthday presents is to create some kind of subterfuge – it’s a cultural expectation in the US at least. Unless you have trust issues within the family or other negative dynamics happening, it’s kind of strange to me that someone would be so upset that a white lie was told that it overshadowed your family going to extra lengths to make your dream gift happen.

          1. Lilysparrow*

            And it wasn’t even a lie. Mom just said, “I can’t afford it.”

            She went above and beyond to get the aunt involved. It would have been really stupid to tell the niece “maybe I can ask your aunt to help out with it,” because what if that didn’t work out? Then
            a) she would have been voluntelling Aunt as the responsible party for the gift without asking her first, which is obnoxious and bad for the sisterly relationship;
            b) If Aunt couldn’t help with the gift for whatever reason, it would have damaged Aunt’s relationship with niece, because she’s making it look like it’s Aunt’s fault the gift didn’t happen; and
            c) she would have gotten the girl’s hopes up for nothing, creating a bigger disappointment.

            Better to keep quiet and wait and see if it can be a surprise. I think allowing a small disappointment and being discreet is just what rational parents do all the time. I know that there are people who are scarred by horrible abusive parents, and that’s awful and sad, and I have a lot of sympathy.

            But if “anything that remotely reminds me of something my abusive parents would do” is automatically ruled out, you don’t wind up with a healthy perspective on good parenting and good family relationships. Not at all.

    3. Elemeno P.*

      Yes, this. My work uses ID cards to get in buildings, and they often get demagnetized and stop working. They also stop working if you leave the company. Sometimes my card has malfunctioned when I tried to open a door and my boss said, “Oops, guess you’re fired, sorry” in a joking tone before getting the door for me. That’s fine! Actually pulling me into an office and acting concerned my performance would not be fine.

      1. londonedit*

        And even that sort of thing is only funny until it goes wrong – I’ve read all sorts of stories here about people who have done the whole ‘Ooh, am I getting fired?’ joke reaction when their boss has asked them into a meeting, and it’s all fun and games until one day the boss says ‘Er…we’ll have to talk about that later…’

        1. Sally*

          I did something stupid like this once, and I’ll never do it again. I heard a friend say, “don’t cry” (as a joke) to someone who was sniffling due to allergies. I thought this was clever, so I started saying it to anyone sniffling until the one time the person was actually crying. I felt like an ass.

      2. Antilles*

        Agreed. There’s a big difference between something that’s obviously a joke and setting up a realistic scenario.

    4. smoke tree*

      I’m finding it hard to believe that the bosses are well intentioned, because they seem to derive quite a bit of glee from berating their employees, even employees who are doing a great job, apparently. Grilling someone for a whole meeting and then giving them a promotion isn’t a hilarious bait and switch, it’s just needlessly cruel.

      1. AKchic*

        That’s how I feel about it too. There is absolutely no reason to keep it up for 30(!!!!) minutes. That is beating a dead horse into an unrecognizable mush and calling it gourmet, organic, homemade applesauce.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Yep! I feel like 30 seconds is already too long for this sort of “joke” – 30 minutes is horrifying.

      2. Spencer Hastings*

        THIS. Plus, a massive waste of the time of all three people in the meeting. They could have spent those 30 minutes on something actually useful.

    5. LKW*

      Agreed. I was in a discussion recently and someone made a perfectly reasonable request and I responded “So, I hear you making a perfectly reasonable request for us to coordinate and communicate about this topic. I’m sorry but I don’t think that I can encourage that sort of behavior so I’m going to need you to improve your ESP skills mmmkay?”

      And I swear I could hear everyone’s gears turning into the WTF position so I paused and said “And I am not being serious, your request is reasonable and I expect everyone to keep coordinated on this point.”

    6. LilySparrow*

      Yeah, I can see it working with most people if it’s just changing the tone of voice in the middle of the sentence.

      “Well, …I have some news.” And then switch up to the happy news.

      It’s still a tired Dad joke, and would get old really quickly, but it wouldn’t be nerve-wracking like the original scenario.

    7. Watry*

      When I got CurrentJob a friend drove me to my interview and I was highly anxious. When I came out, she asked me how it went and I said “well, I think it went pretty well, they seemed to like me…AND ALSO I GOT THE JOB!”

      And that is the most something like that should be.

    8. Gumby*

      TBH, I find it annoying when they pull that stuff for 10 seconds on shows like SYTYCD. They apparently think it ups the drama and the viewing audience love it (or be sitting on the edges of their seats being really engaged or something) but really? I’m sitting here going “stop being mean and give real feedback.”

      1. fhqwhgads*

        YES. You nailed it. This sort of thing is “stall and create false suspense before going to commercial” shenanigans for reality competition shows. Not something reasonable bosses do to real life employees they value.

    9. Elenna*

      Yeah, like, if this was done to me for 5-10 seconds I might think it was funny, or at least get why someone might think it was funny. 30 MINUTES? That’s just terrifying.

  9. kittymommy*

    One of my bosses is like this. It is not funny. No one finds it funny (except him). Most people he does it to laugh uncomfortably to humor him but the few times he has done it to me I ignore it and move on to what I need to discuss with him so I am one of the few people he does not pull these “pranks” on.

    1. Daniel*

      “…but the few times he has done it to me I ignore it and move on to what I need to discuss with him so I am one of the few people he does not pull these “pranks” on.”

      Ooh, I like this advice. But agggh, this whole situation would piss me off.

  10. CatCat*

    I’m so sorry this happened to you, OP. It’s not funny and should not happen to anyone. I hope you will speak up about it and that your bosses will take the feedback seriously and not try to minimize it (e.g., “lighten up” or “it was just a joke”). If they do try to minimize it, don’t get defensive, hold firm: “Please don’t do it again.”

    Please update us in the future.

    1. Lime green Pacer*

      One day, they just might give someone an actual heart attack.

      Signed, spouse of someone with heart disease and anxiety. Fortunately, it’s diagnosed and treated, but that’s not the case for everyone.

    2. EPLawyer*

      $10 says they will double down and say “we’re just joking. Can’t you take a joke?” Then complain about OP’s lack of sense of humor.

      IF they do this, go over their heads. Go to HR if you have a functioning one. This is not acceptable.

  11. Anon for now*

    Ugh, my current Grandboss did this to me when I was *interviewing.* I was offered my job, and then when their first choice fell through for a similar job in the same department, I was offered that job instead. Grandboss called to offer me the second job and said it was my choice, but he’d make my life hell if I didn’t pick the second job. He thought he was making a funny joke, but I almost turned down both jobs just because of that! But I really wanted the first job, and took it, and everything is fine.

    And most of the time I like Grandboss, but that was a very accurate glimpse of his character and attitudes. Anyone who is willing to make that joke to someone who is considering uprooting their life (taking this job entailed a move across the country in under three weeks [Grandboss also grumbled that I wanted the extra week] is someone who, regardless of how they view themselves, is *not* sensitive to the concerns of the people whose lives they have power over. And he’s shown that over the years, in little ways and occasionally big ways. So pay attention to what your bosses are telling you when they do stuff like that. If they think that’s a joke, there’s something seriously wrong with how they view the world.

    1. Matilda Jefferies*

      I had a similar situation when I was leaving my last job. I talked to my boss in person, then sent an email to Grandboss that said something like “just to let you know I’ve resigned, great new opportunity, pleasure working with you, blah blah.”

      I got nothing but radio silence from Grandboss until I happened to bump into her in the lobby a week or so later. She said “I shouldn’t talk to you, you’re dead to me now, haha just kidding isn’t it great about your new opportunity!”

      Then, more silence. I finished my notice period and left, and she never once picked up the phone or even sent a sincere email to wish me well. I don’t think she would have said anything at all if we hadn’t happened to see each other that one time. Which makes me think, maybe her little “joke” was more truthful than the disclaimer that came after it. Actions speak louder than words, etc.

      TL;DR – these “jokes” often reveal more about your personality than you might intend! You need to tread very, very lightly here…or better yet, don’t do it at all.

  12. BigTenProfessor*

    I had a boss that would send emails like, “I need to talk to you one on one, please stop by my office when you’re back from lunch (it’s nothing bad!)” and it was such a relief, every time.

    1. valentine*

      it’s nothing bad!
      I would especially resent this because they could’ve just said what it was. I’ve felt like OP over needless/ly secret meetings with no (shared) agenda. Either I don’t care or an email would be better.

      1. OtterB*

        Eh. If it’s something complicated or sensitive enough that it needs a face to face meeting and not just an email in the first place, I think it’s reasonable enough to not go into specifics.

        1. Fortitude Jones*

          Yup. Say for example management wants to give everyone on a team except one slacker a bonus. Sending out a group email telling everyone to stop by their office(s) so they can get their bonus would be incredibly awkward for the one person who wasn’t getting it. (This example actually happened at one of my prior employers where everyone on my team except one woman received a bonus, but she later found out anyway and was pissed.)

        2. NW Mossy*

          As someone who’s more than once come back from vacation to find an email telling me I have a new boss, I strongly prefer a mystery-subject meeting where I can then ask questions.

        3. Jadelyn*

          And some people just aren’t email people. My former manager is that type – she uses email when she has to, but strongly prefers voice-to-voice communication (whether in person or over the phone). To her, it makes more sense to use email just for the initial touch and then have the actual conversation in person – it would take longer for her to type out an email, even for a relatively simple thing, and she’d rather I come over and she can just tell me to my face.

      2. pamela voorhees*

        I’ve done this to volunteers I coordinate before, but it usually goes down as “I don’t have time to tell you this slightly complex thing right at this second because you/me/both of us are needed elsewhere, but I don’t want you to leave without knowing you need to talk to me first.” I assume this is the same sort of spirit, where I know I need to tell BigTenProfessor something, but I’m needed in another meeting and they’re about to go to lunch, but I also don’t want them to leave tonight without talking to me first (or worrying!)

    2. 5 Leaf Clover*

      See, this is a boss who remembers what it’s like to be an employee! That little sinking feeling you get every time your boss “needs to talk to you” – even if you know it’s probably OK. OP’s boss has clearly forgotten this, and lacks the empathy to imagine it.

      1. Quill*

        The exact sinking feeling I’m feeling now while waiting for my teleconference to my mentor to connect even though I 1) know the subject of the meeting 2) was told yesterday I did a good job at it?

      2. smoke tree*

        My boss once sent me an email with a really ominous subject line but it turned out to be about sharing a gift basket.

    3. MistOrMister*

      I wish more bosses would do that!! I live in dread of the “come see me” email because it always has me wracking my brain to figure out what I did that I’m about to get fired for!

      1. Autumnheart*

        I had the opposite happen, a couple recessions ago. My then-manager said, “Hey, can you give me a hand with something real quick?” so I followed him into an office….and was told I was being laid off.

        As a mechanism for delivering bad news, it wasn’t bad (definitely better than “Mystery Mandatory Meeting at 3pm Friday afternoon YOU MUST ATTEND”, in an email that you get on Thursday, or Friday morning). But it still felt like, “Aw, man!”

      1. Lissa*

        I thought this too! That’s the problem with reassuring someone everything is OK – what about when it’s NOT ok and IS bad news?

        1. SS Express*

          Then at least you only worry when it IS bad news – in which case having a minute to prepare yourself for that would probably be a good thing – and don’t worry any of the times that it’s not.

  13. Maude*

    If he does it again, give it right back to him and if he is “jokingly” grilling you about your work, then grill him right back. His so-called joke is “funny” because he likes to see you squirm and worry. Imagine his surprise if you come back at him guns blazing.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      People usually can’t do that to their bosses.

      Which is Alison’s main point, that regardless of how funny you find this between peers it doesn’t work with the power dynamic of boss-subordinate.

      1. MissVicki*

        I totally agree—she’s right on when she talks about the power imbalance. It’s just totally obtuse on the bosses’ parts, and hopefully they’ll be able to hear the letter writer on this issue. I had a boss who didn’t always respect the inherent power imbalance between us, and remembering some of those messed up moments between us where I didn’t have the power to do anything about the dynamic between us can still infuriate me. It was a good lesson to me as I moved on and started to manage. You get paid more than the people you manage to keep this kind of stuff in mind.

  14. CatMintCat*

    I came to my current (g0od) job from a very toxic place. My reaction to this “joke” would not have been pretty, I’m afraid.

  15. lyonite*

    Yeesh. From the title I was expecting something like calling a meeting and opening it with “I’ve got some bad news for you–your taxes are about to go up, because you’re all getting raises!” Which would have been dull and dumb, but this is actively cruel. I hope your boss responds to Allison’s script, and doesn’t decide to double down because they feel like they need to prove that actually, this must be a great joke if you responded like that.

  16. KHB*

    For a project at work, I’ve just had occasion to read the 1999 paper that’s the basis for the Dunning-Kruger effect. One of the experiments they did was on the subject of humor: testing whether people could accurately assess what other people would find funny. The people who were really bad at that, thought they were really good. I think that’s relevant here.

  17. kiwidg1*

    A long time ago, when I was in the military, I got a call at 11pm to come in because a major inspection was kicking off. This wasn’t unexpected, so I got into uniform to go in. My husband, who is was also active duty, offered to drive me to work.

    First, my husband has NEVER offered to drive me to work. And he knew what it meant when this inspection was kicking off, so why would he want to go to work with me? Whatever.

    So we went in and he waited in the car (again, weird, whatever). After about fifteen minutes in the office, a few of us that were called in found out we were promoted. Fun and laughs ensured, and my husband is sitting out in the car knowing I got promoted and he didn’t. Ooops.

    Then the general asked where my husband was and I told him. He said they were waiting for my husband’s commander to get there so his promotion could be announced too. :)

    Could have been a really ugly car ride home otherwise. That’s one promotion story that worked out for the best.

  18. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I’m curious what’s going to happen when someone screws up big time for real and s/he doesn’t take it seriously.

    1. Minocho*

      My mom used to send us out to get the mail on postal holidays as a joke. So one day, she asked me to get the mail, and I thought it must be a holiday for some reason, and said “No.”

      Mom was not amused. When I explained why, she stopped sending us out for the mail on holidays, though.


      1. JobHunter*

        Touchscreens are not my friends…

        Or bursts into tears after the ‘joke’ and takes the rest of the day off due to being so upset.

    2. Semprini!*

      I was thinking that too!

      My bad, irresponsible idea that OP definitely shouldn’t actually do is get all the employees together and have them all agree to treat any discipline, correction, etc. as a joke and look expectantly at the boss waiting for an award or promotion.

    3. JM in England*

      These bosses need to reread the story of the Boy who cried Wolf!

      As Snarkus Aurelius says, what if the OP is called into a meeting with them for a disciplinary or other serious matter, they will then think they are joking….only to find they’re not!

      1. Ghost Town*

        This is what I was thinking. They are setting themselves up to not be believed when they actually have to deliver bad news or harsh feedback.

    4. Avasarala*

      I was thinking that too! Next time you go into the boss’s office and they start grilling you, ask “OK what’s the good news? a promotion? a raise?”

  19. juliebulie*

    Well… a few years ago, on the day we were scheduled to get our increases, we all got a memo saying that the increases would be delayed for six months.

    The timing of this announcement was confusing because 1) why’d they wait till the last minute and 2) it was April Fool’s Day.

    One of those times where you hope it’s a joke… but we knew it was no joke because they didn’t have a history of pranking us.

    Imagine if OP’s boss/grandboss had bad news and it just happened to be April 1. Hilarity ensues?

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      And this is why, when I have to schedule workity things for April 1, or say that something is due on April 1, I tend to include “(no joke)”. Because, while I am not an April Fool’s Day joker, I know that it’s a Thing.

  20. Wing Leader*

    How strange, I had a boss do this to me once. I was in vet school and had just started as an intern in a veterinary office. The vet spent a few days telling me that he didn’t think my school was accredited and that my degree may be worthless. Turns out, he was doing it on purpose to see my reaction.

    Luckily, it didn’t really rattle me because I knew my school was accredited. I just thought he was off his rocker. But it was still a dick move.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      What exactly was he hoping to glean from your reaction if you did in fact believe him? Was he looking for you to get angry and throw something? Was he looking for you to dissolve into a puddle of tears? And if you had done either of those things, did he indicate why he would think that would give him relevant information about you?

      That’s such a bizarre strategy to get what is, I assume, an understanding of an employee’s ability to handle a crisis.

      1. Wing Leader*

        Yes, his main goal was to find out how I reacted under pressure. I “passed” because I didn’t freak out (because I knew he was wrong, but I didn’t tell him that). And yes, it was an extremely bizarre way to do things.

        This guy wasn’t a super well-liked vet. He was a fantastic vet, don’t get me wrong. But the problem was–while he was great with animals–he did not have the slightest clue how to relate to people. He often said things that came off as condescending or insulting, and I don’t even think he realized it. So that’s a big thing that played into it. He’s lucky my grandfather didn’t absolutely destroy him though.

        See, my grandparents had been using this vet for years. At one point, they kenneled their dog there for a few days while they went out of town. When they picked their dog up, she was bruised and sick. As if she had been neglected and possibly even abused in their care.

        Of course, my grandmother was horrified and immediately filed a complaint with the vet’s office. She talked to the vet personally, and he took swift action to find out what was going on and remedy it. He was also extremely apologetic to her. From what I remember, it was one of the kennel workers that was not properly caring for the animals. He was fired, and I don’t know if charges were pressed or anything.

        So, just to be clear, the vet acted like he should and took immediate action to make things right as much as possible, but the fact that it happened at all was enough to make my grandparents wary of that office. So, needless to say, my grandfather was furious when he found out how my new boss had “tested” me.

        1. Lissa*

          People like this is one of the reasons how the “I like animals better than people lolll” has become a quirky “relatable” trait people make memes about…sorry no I’m not OK with someone being rude to me just because they like dogs and cats!

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Vet work is a people job. If people don’t like a vet then that vet won’t see their animal.
            My husband repaired machines. He said it was a people job not a tech job. The bulk of his time went to talking with people to find out what was wrong (the fix was usually pretty quick) and teaching them how to use the machine in a specific manner. They would get their machine elsewhere if they did not find my husband likable.

  21. r.d.*

    Ugh. I’m sorry, LW. I had a boss that did similar things.

    “There is a huge problem with the major project that you just completed, so you must now come into an emergency meeting with me and upper management…. Just kidding it’s a surprise baby shower.”

    The first was said with ominous undertones where I was fairly convinced I was about to be publicly chewed out and possibly fired.

    I was near tears when I entered the room. I did not enjoy the baby shower. I was distracted and stressed.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      I had a surprise baby shower at work. I met with the art person to go over the art in my chapter, and then when the meeting finished surprise! now it was a baby shower. There’s no reason to preemptively terrorize people.

    2. Zephy*

      Wait, was the baby shower for you? If you were the one who was pregnant at the time, that was an incredibly cruel thing to do!

        1. Hlyssande*

          Holy crap, the stress from that could have caused some serious complications! WTF were they thinking?!

    3. Liane*

      Ugh that IS a jerk move. When I went on maternity leave, I got a surprise shower.
      BUT boss didn’t use a one on one with him as the ruse. He had told me, “On your last day before leave starts, the team is going out for lunch & we are treating for you,” so I wasn’t stressed for days/hours–all I didn’t know was there were gifts.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      And I thought my grand boss was a bit rude when he called a meeting on my manager’s last day to “discuss coverage”…and let her do a full presentation before saying we were going to have cake.
      (A presentation she’d already given us and revamped because apparently he hadn’t thought it enough… )

    5. LilySparrow*

      I did once participate in a version of this prank.

      I was an admin supporting the department head “Bob” and temporarily supporting the deputy head “Jane” while she was between admins. It is relevant that Jane couldn’t keep an admin because she was a micromanaging, manipulative bully. She was also a ruthless player of office politics, and had mentally divided the world into 2 categories: people to suck up to and people to trample on. She spent far more time planning petty power moves than doing actual work.

      Regardless of that, it was office tradition to throw a small baby shower with cake for anyone in the department who was expecting. In planning, the office manager rolled her eyes and said, “Bob wants us to throw a shower for Jane. But Jane always pretends she’s too busy for parties so she can snark at everyone who goes. How are we even going to get her to show up?”

      I volunteered to get her there.

      So when the time came, I rushed into her office and said, “Quick! Bob is in the conference room, and he wants you to come, now!”

      Now, being Jane, she wasn’t concerned about her job security, but she was extremely concerned that Bob was having a meeting she wasn’t invited to, or had missed the invitation to.

      Her: What’s it about?
      Me: Shrug
      Her: Who’s in there?
      Me: **Everybody.**

      I took so much pleasure in watching her gears grind, while she tried to come up with a way to make Bob think she was already in charge of this mystery meeting, and trying to figure out whether she was better off going fast, to look like she was rescuing everyone, or taking her time, to look more important and busy than everyone else.

      And then when it was cake and presents from people she mostly treated like crap, she was actually (momentarily) ashamed of herself.

      I regret nothing. It was a good day.

    6. Harper the Other One*

      Oh, that’s awful! I’m sorry :(

      I almost didn’t go to my work surprise baby shower. They set it up as a “mandatory Sunday night meeting to discuss merchandising” (I was working as a coordinator at a retail chain.) I thought it was ridiculous and also spent a week beforehand worrying about getting in trouble re. payroll stuff because they didn’t have a plan for how people were going to clock in and out for the “meeting.” Then the day of, the weather was awful and I lived a lengthy highway drive away. I only went because I felt like a supervisor should be a good role model for attendance, even if the meeting was stupid. The shower did end up being fun, but even that small, almost entirely pleasant surprise was enough to really throw me off my game.

  22. Alex*

    Ugh maybe you work for my old boss. He used to make comments that would purposefully lead me to believe I was about to get fired before giving me some other (but not as drastic) bad news. Like, “uh, Alex, as you know we’ve been having some budget problems, and this has lead us to take a stern look at our workforce and we’ve had to make some really tough decisions, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to…..ask you to work late next week.”

    Ha ha ha! Alex, you thought you were going to get fired, but it’s just that you have to work late! Ha ha! So funny!

  23. Anonymous Because Embarrassed*

    This probably isn’t a great idea, but… LW, is there a way you can become a little more annoying on the topics your bosses were “complaining” about, on the grounds that their performance caused you to think about being extra careful? If you can find a plausible way to give them consequences, even in the form of a few extra check-in emails, it may help.

    (I base this on my experience as a child whose mother would pretend I “lost” things if I put them in the wrong place, supposedly to teach me a lesson; one day I actually did lose a small piece of costume jewelry, but after I hassled her about it for three days straight because I thought it was one of her games, she stopped doing this.)

    1. Shirley Keeldar*

      I sort of wish the OP could “quit” as a prank, preferably in the middle of a high-stress, high-stakes project only she can handle….but yeah. Probably not a good idea.

    2. SS Express*

      I actually think this is an amazing idea! Follow up with lots of “so you’re really not concerned about the way I handled the Penske file?” “Please find attached an update on the Penske file, as you can see it’s still within budget like I said” “Did you see my report on the Penske file? Any issues?” “Do you have time today to go over the Penske file with me? Can we set up a weekly check in?”… and when the boss tries to say he was just joking and nothing’s wrong, just go “oh right…but really, you’re happy with everything here?” then escalate to “I guess it just seemed like you came up with those fake concerns so easily that I can’t help but wonder if some of them were real! So, just to go over the Penske file one more time…”

      I do love the fake quit too though. You could play it as a calm, sensible approach (“I tried my best, but I guess I’m just not cut out for this work so I think today should be my last day. Thanks for everything…Joking? Come on Bob, you don’t have to backpedal. It’s clear you aren’t happy with my performance and there’s no sense keeping me in a job where I can’t succeed.”) or a furious I’VE HAD IT WITH WORKING MY ASS OFF AND STILL BEING CRITICISED I QUIIIIIT.

  24. Hey Karma, Over here.*

    My first instinct would be to go to them when you finish a project say you are resigning effective immediately, just kidding! We put the XYX project to bed! Hahaha!
    My second thought is to ask them if this would be funny.
    My third thought, now that I’ve calmed down is to lay it out for them. “The jokes about my job and performance really upset me. I’ve worked in places where I’ve gotten no feedback along the way and had real bombs dropped on me and it was not fun at all. Can we come up with another ice breaker for these types of meetings? Thanks!”

  25. That One Person*

    It’s one thing if you joked that way and they played along for a second, but it is definitely another to initiate it to someone lower on the totem pole because unless they’re egotistical they’re likely to take it seriously. I used to joke come review time at my last job that oh boy I’d surely failed and was awful, and my manager would smile and laughingly agree before talking about how I succeeded and where I needed some work. If she’d come on strong like these guys before revealing she was joking I would’ve become intensely more nervous about manager chats.

  26. SheLooksFamiliar*

    ‘I guess this is a small thing, and I should probably feel grateful I have bosses that recognize my work and have a sense of humor. ‘

    Oh, OP, I feel for you. This is NOT a small thing, and you’re not wrong about this being a terrible way to share good news. Your bosses mean well, but that doesn’t make it okay. I can’t do more than offer empathy and sympathy, and my hope for your bosses having a long overdue, ‘Aha!’ moment.

    1. One of the Spreadsheet Horde*

      This is not small and this is outside the bounds of having a “sense of humor”. It’s cruel and sadistic, they’re deriving pleasure by enjoying a laugh at your stress. I’m sorry. That’s messed up.

      I’m not sure how I’d respond in that situation since massive anxiety would be my default response. I’d be so busy trying to control my emotional response to address it. At best, maybe I could do the confused deer in headlights look repeating “I’m sorry, I don’t get it” until they’re so uncomfortable that they drop the joking attitude and hopefully don’t repeat it.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Please note that I don’t think what they’re doing is okay, not by any stretch. But I think, in their immature, unprofessional way, they do mean well. I’ve worked for people who did similar things and know they were genuinely puzzled by the lack of positive response.

        1. Observer*

          I disagree that they mean well. There are some people who are “genuinely puzzled” when you object to objectively abusive behavior, too.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      OP this is not a small thing and it is definitely not humorous. It’s sadistic.

      I remember at one time reading a list of things bosses should never joke about:
      rates of pay
      the size of the task on hand (tiny or enormous)
      quality of work
      mistakes in general and definitely mistakes that are not real

      Of course there are many other things such as physical appearance, background, mannerisms and so on. What I have here are just some of the things about the job itself that a boss should never joke about.

      What they did there is a type of abuse of power. They know you can’t leave the room and you probably will think you cannot push back. So they knew they had the upper hand. Topping all off they felt they had to work in pairs to do this, kind of gives it a feel of ganging up, right?

      If they pull this again, I would be sorely tempted to interrupt and say, “Is this where we spend a half hour saying ‘no X ever’ and then at the 35 minute mark you guys say, ‘just joking’ ?”

  27. cmcinnyc*

    These people aren’t going to change if you say something. They’ll just think you’re a stick in the mud. I’d be job hunting.

    1. Fortitude Jones*

      Job hunting over poorly planned jokes is a bit extreme, especially since it sounds like OP gets promotions and awards for her work where she is.

    2. Former Govt Contractor*

      Seriously? Job hunting when OP is hitting it out of the park, before even using words to express discomfort over a small thing?

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I tend to agree. But my practical side says, give them a chance to fall on their faces IRL first then figure out the job hunting thing after that.

  28. mark132*

    It might be funny for ten seconds maybe once every other year and if its rather obvious. so “we are sending you on a 3 month business trip to Greenland this December”, but for thirty minutes on “real” stuff? nope.

  29. Alianne*

    Oh nooooooo, this would trigger my anxiety something fierce, and there would be a non-zero chance of me literally getting sick with panic the longer they dragged it out. I am so sorry you have to deal with behavior like this.

  30. ThursdaysGeek*

    Additional wording could include: “It takes away all pleasure from the good thing you had planned, because I’m still recovering from the bad things you were pretending about. Do you want me to not enjoy promotions and awards? Because that is what is happening.”

    1. MicroManagered*

      I’d add this if the boss/grandboss tries to defend with “Oh come onnnn, it’s just a joke!” but otherwise it sounds adversarial.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I would do the first half, absolutely, and in the first conversation.

      But not the second; the second half is pretty scoldy.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Eh, that could be tweaked. “So instead of enjoying this X, I am still shook over the earlier statements of [impending doom].”

  31. TootsNYC*

    I stopped myself from doing something similar, though on a smaller scale.

    A subordinate had converted from hourly freelance to full-time exempt.

    About a month later, he sent an email: “I don’t feel well, I’d better stay home. I can make up the hours on Thursday and Friday evenings.”

    I started to write him an email that begin with, “I don’t approve of how you want to handle this. As a full-time employee, you have sick leave.”

    I was sort of aiming to be funny by giving him a jolt of “oh, I’m in trouble!” Then I realized that he’s not the sort of person to find that particularly funny, so I wrote: “Welcome to full-time employment! You have sick leave. See you tomorrow–and not on Thursday or Friday evenings.”

    And in pondering, I realized, if I wanted to do that kind of joke, I’d need to do it in person, and very broadly, so it was clear that I was joking from the very beginning. I have done something like this, where my delivery of bad news is a little over the top, as a hint that this is not the “real” part of the conversation.

    And when I hand someone something to proofread, I’ve been known to say, “Be extra careful with page 4; it’s going to be really tricky,” and page 4 is a full-page photo. But I’d never say, “I wasn’t happy with your proofreading of page 4.”

    Though I have done this with my kids. My kids asked if they could have a chocolate chip while I was making cookies. I said, “No, of course not! You can’t have a chocolate chip–what are you thinking!” very seriously. Then, “You can’t have A chocolate chip, but you can have five.” Or, when I’m done mixing the batter, I’ve called out, sternly, “Kid, I need to speak with you!” and when they come into the kitchen I hand them a spoonful of batter. But their apprehension doesn’t last long (and I hope it’s not high–i’m not the kind of mom to make their lives horrible for a scolding, and scoldings are rare and pretty mild, so the stakes for them are pretty low). And after the first time, they’re totally on to me, and they’ll deliberately ask me if they can have “a” chocolate chip.

    My brother once “got” my nephew this way; they were at the pool with the baby, and nephew had been earlier with the visiting uncle/aunt, who were filming. Nephew wanted to go get his swimming suit and was begging, begging, begging (nicely, but nonstop). Dad comes over to the edge of the pool and says, “Kid, come here,” in a tone that implies “I’m about to warn you about being annoying and tell you to go sit down and be quiet.” Kid sinks a bit and comes over to get the mild talking-to — and Dad yanks him into the pool in his clothes. “Get me again, Dad!”

    So there are times when this sort of artificially created contrast can be fun.

    But at work, I think it’s horrible to ever say to someone who works for you “let’s talk” or “I need to see you” without giving an accurate hint about the framing. It’s just rude.

    1. Jules the 3rd*

      As someone with lifelong OCD, not diagnosed until adulthood, and with a kid who’s showing some signs of anxiety: Be really thoughtful / careful about this. It’s not actually about the real past experience for some people, it’s about ‘it’s going to the be worst possible outcome’ as their default.

      Parents usually know their kids well enough to make that assessment well, but I know parents who have reduced their kids to tears because they got so wrapped up in the ‘funny surprise’ that they forgot to really check where the kid was at.

      I just avoid it entirely, myself. There’s enough funny cat pictures (Category 3 PURRicane!) for us to share and build on (it’s all about your purrspective, after all) …

    2. Fiona*

      I’m not trying to come down on anyone’s fun, but in all the instances you describe, the payoff doesn’t really seem worth the minor stress it causes or feeling like one is “in trouble.” I think the better contrast is what someone described in a separate comment. “Did they have the X I wanted?” “No…they had something better!” etc.

      In general, the things you describe seem way more fun for the person conducting the “joke” than the person receiving it, if that makes sense.

    3. Turtlewings*

      Fwiw, I laughed out loud at your “page 4” joke just now. Kudos on realizing your employee would not be amused and rephrasing! Three cheers for being considerate and self-aware.

    4. LilySparrow*

      I think the fact that the kids tried to initiate the joke next time, shows that the tone & context worked well.

      1. Washi*

        Yeah, these all seem cute to me! Just because some people have at times misjudged other people’s reactions to jokes doesn’t mean a parent can never know their kids well to mildly prank them. My mom would sometimes randomly decorate our doorframe so when you opened the door there would suddenly be streamers in your face. That would be awful for some kids…but I loved it! I’m not going to crush every cute story of a joke that went well with “what if secretly the kid hated it.”

  32. LCH*

    they really haven’t considered the boy who cried wolf part of this prank. the next time they tell you there is a problem, you could automatically be like, oh haha, great joke guys! ok, see you later!

    1. blaise zamboni*

      Honestly I’d love for OP to reply to any actual performance issues with some version of “Ha! Great joke! But seriously, thanks for the raise!” And then walk out. But somehow I don’t think Boss would find that so amusing.

  33. Allypopx*

    Also OP – NO DON’T BE GRATEFUL. Don’t normalize this or internalize this as good or ideal because you’re going to carry that with you to other jobs, as we all have to consciously try not to do with toxic work problems. Don’t make this a you problem. It’s a them problem, and it’s cruel. If you’re in a position to push back so it doesn’t happen to other people, or you, please do. This sucks.

  34. Goldfinch*

    TIL I’m old AF, because the references I was expecting in regards to this terrible boss are twenty years older than Michael Scott.

    Despite that, LW, the constant comparisons to hyperbolic comedy villains should tell you something.

  35. Liar Liar Pants Dracarys*

    This kind of thing is terrible.

    A couple of jobs ago, the head of HR (who was a notorious gossip and bully) called an admin (who had been the bully-target for months before this as well as after) into her office and told her to bring her badge. It was April 1st. She and her cohort (also a bully who atttempted to target me but I wasn’t having it) thought it was absolutely hilarious and were outright offended that she didn’t feel the same way. It was a private firm and the two of them were untouchable…. Until the firm was purchased by a larger, corporate operation and fired them both. I was gone by then, but the news still tasted delicious.

  36. OP*

    Thank you to Alison and to everyone who has commented. I think I’ve gotten too accustomed to these people because I actually thought Alison might reply that this is something I should just let go of because it is a small, weird quirk. I’ll plan to say something to my boss the next time I meet with him. He’s actually not a bad guy, and I’ve known him and my grandboss to be otherwise professional, so this is kind of weird. The only thing I can think of is that I’m generally a high performer so they thought it was safe to joke with me, and don’t necessarily do it to other people? But, I still don’t like it. I’m glad it’s not just my anxiety or about me being a stick-in-the-mud.

    1. Sue*

      I’m thinking it will go well. He sounds kind of thoughtless to me. He is comfortable with you and so “pulling your leg” seems fun to him. A quick mention that it isn’t welcome should set him straight. And don’t forget to update us on how it went. Everyone loves the updates.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I wondered if it was like the boss version of a “dad joke” where they’re trying to defuse a potentially emotional situation (even a positive one) with dumb humor. Since they’re otherwise good bosses, I’m guessing they’ll be okay with your feedback that the joke isn’t landing like they assume. And that’s absolutely fair feedback – it’s not about your anxiety at all, it’s about them choosing a terrible way to share positive information with you.

      1. smoke tree*

        Even so–half an hour of intense questioning! That’s ridiculous. Hopefully being told directly to cut it out will get through to them.

        1. The New Wanderer*

          Oh yes, I was definitely reacting more to the first example of just a minute of harsh interaction before the big reveal. The surprise promotion following the half hour intense review, that’s just awful.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I would frame it as a personal preference, please would you, it does sort of rob me of the enjoyment.

      And I wouldn’t dwell too much on the anxiety.

      1. sacados*

        Agreed, I think this is a prime example of a place to use Alison’s patented “I know you mean well but this is just a particular quirk of mine” framing to help them save face and hopefully make the conversation go down easier.

        1. smoke tree*

          If you have an otherwise good relationship, I would personally avoid this approach, because I would prefer if they hesitate before pulling this on another employee.

    4. BRR*

      It’s not an uncommon thing for people to do as a joke but even in the best case scenario, they’re in the wrong. The references I think of are reality TV judging (Paul Hollywood specifically). They do this for dramatic effect. But that’s TV.

      1. londonedit*

        Yeah. ‘I don’t like that’ *dramatic pause, frown on Hollywood’s face, camera shots of other contestants looking concerned, close-up of the baker in question with their hands over their eyes* ‘I love it. You’ve done a fantastic job, well done, have a Hollywood Handshake’.

    5. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think he’s just a stinker when it comes to bad humor, like “dad jokes” kind of stuff. I don’t think he’s a total jerk by any means and if you say “Dude, this isn’t funny and you’re actually causing me stress when you act like this, since I take feedback really seriously!” it should go well for you. Most people don’t want to hurt your feelings or cause you stress, they’re just big ol chuckleheads.

    6. ThisColumnMakesMeGratefulForMyBoss*

      This is why I HATE pranks. They’re rarely to funny to anybody except the person who’s performing them. It’s definitely not your anxiety, and I wouldn’t even mention that part of it because to me it’s not relevant to why this isn’t okay. I’m super sarcastic and can joke with the best of them, but this is just plain mean. Good luck!

    7. LilySparrow*

      Yeah, it’s not your anxiety. This is legit not funny and way too heavyhanded. I agree with the advice not to even mention anxiety when you bring it up.

      This doesn’t bother you because you’re super-sensitive, and there’s no reason to give them that impression. It’s a bad idea in general, and they should know how it’s coming across.

    8. Harper the Other One*

      I’m glad you’re going to say something. And if it repeats, I don’t think it’s out of line to say that their repeated use of this kind of “joke” even though you’ve talked about it stressing you out makes you question if this culture is going to suit you. High performers often have lots of options and they should understand that means that refusing to be respectful can absolutely cost them good people (including you, if you decide it’s stressful enough.)

  37. Anne Elliot*

    I absolutely do not recommend bursting into tears — unprofessional, distracting, and unfortunately gendered — but . . . this guy richly deserves to have someone burst into tears after doing that to them. “Ha ha.”

    1. Minocho*

      Or what if someone get nauseous in response to stress, like that poor girl whose coworkers “pranked” that she would go to jail, with a fake police officer there to “arrest” her. Ugh. There’s so many ways this could go too wrong too quickly.

  38. atacrawl*

    My old company brought in an industry veteran at a high position to much fanfare a while back (she didn’t last long, a different story). We were in the kitchen and she told me a tale about the time she called her assistant, FIRED HER… and then was like, “do I have your attention? Good, now let’s talk about your promotion.” She laughed like it was hilarious. I gave a nervous chuckle but wanted to shout “you’re a horrible person!” I mean, what if her assistant had said “fine, F you!” and hung up?

  39. Jamie*

    My stomach hurt just reading this.

    I kicked someone off my internal audit team once for messing with people in similar ways. Even though he wasn’t their manager, I had worked hard to get people past their fear of IA and see it as a cooperative effort and that did not help.

    Not only was this not funny if it was a moment, but they took it way to far. Poor OP.

    1. TootsNYC*

      This reminds me of a moment in the kids book “King of Shadows” by Susan Cooper.

      A kid joins a theater troupe, and they’re doing trust-building exercises, and our hero is in the center of a group, falling/being pushed from person to person, and one person decides it would be funny to let not catch him right away.

      The troupe leader kicks that other kid out immediately.


  40. FloridaAnon*

    This year for April Fool’s Day our owner pulled our funders in on a joke saying that we would likely be losing all of our funding. My spouse had recently lost his job due to health issues, and all our younger employees were devastated (myself included) because we did not know whether we had job security, and did not have substantial savings to get us through unemployment for long. The truth was revealed several days after the fact leaving many of us demoralized. Please say something, I know I wish I had.

    1. Jellyfish*

      Days?! That’s a terrible idea! I’d be in full job hunting mode by then, and I don’t think I’d stop once I learned they were joking.
      It’s really not funny to play around with people’s ability to pay rent.

      1. FloridaAnon*

        We were told on the Friday before, and then found out the following Tuesday. It was so completely out of character that none of us suspected it was a joke. There also seemed to be a complete lack of understanding as to why this was so incredibly cruel. I’m not in a financial position where job searching would have been the best bet at the time, but it did highlight for me a real lack of understanding by management as to how much more devastating messing with $ is for our younger staff members.

        1. Observer*

          Not just “younger”. I remember a few times when there was real concern that we would lose significant amounts of funding that we would not be able to make in a reasonable time frame, and it would affect a LOT of people’s jobs. No trolling – it was a mess that was not fault of our management. They were being very transparent, but I remember how hard this was, and the younger staff were not the ones that were the most worried. Fortunately, it worked out but it was a REALLY difficult time – anyone who was not in a two in a two income household were extremely stressed out, and a good proportion of those who did have a second income. Just the thought of losing insurance (and we had EXCELLENT insurance) was stomach churning for a lot of staff.

          1. FloridaAnon*

            Agreed. I think not knowing if you have job security is one of the worst feelings that people can go through in the workplace at any age. I think I specifically called out the young people in my office because we are also the ones being asked on a regular basis by sr. staff why we don’t own our own homes yet, take more vacations etc. And we’re all pretty blunt that we just can’t afford it.

    2. Minocho*

      I would want everyone to find another job for something like that. “We didn’t take it as a joke. We can’t trust you now. We can’t afford to depend on people we no longer trust for our livelihood.”

  41. bearing*

    This is like those horrible outreach activities where police announce they’ll be “ticketing” people with free coupons and such.

  42. Sue*

    This just happened at my work, and they even presented the video of it to all employees! I thought maybe I was being oversensitive, but glad to see I’m not. I’ve seen adults do this with children too – act like they’re in trouble then give them a surprise. The power dynamics are wrong. It’s like punching your kid so that when you stop & give him a treat, he’s “more happy” than before. I think the best thing to do would be to rush out of the room crying. Maybe that would stop it.

  43. Jellyfish*

    This sounds incredibly frustrating. I’d be suspicious of the good news after all that too, and I suspect I’d ask for clarification.
    “Wait, if my performance is such a problem, why am I getting a promotion? I don’t understand.”

    It’d be partly playing dumb, partly out of irritation, and partly out of a genuine desire to be sure I haven’t missed something in the conversation. Maybe if they have to explain their unfunny joke, it would take the fun out of it for them.

  44. Nanobots*

    This reminds me of my friend’s VP.

    During a rough transition where many people were quitting and the company was rebranding, he announced that everyone was working so hard and they were going to get an extra bonus for their effort. After half an hour, he announced it was an April Fool’s joke. One woman cried. Everyone was upset.

    I guess he’d never seen The Office or gleaned the entirely wrong lesson from it.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      WHAT? I cannot fathom how this kind of stuff is supposedly funny.

      I guess that VP forgot what it’s like to be making the wages of everyone else and to really need that bonus. It wasn’t going to be just another ivory backscratcher.

  45. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    What the actual fu*k

    This is something you do but only for that split second when you say “I need to see you in my office.” and then you come slinking in and you go “LOL it’s nothing like that, it’s actually good news, come sit down.” This guy is beating a dead horse and going so over the top, he probably learned it from the grandboss, ew. It sounds like “Initiation” and traditional hazing.

  46. cmcinnyc*

    So many people suggesting bursting into tears! I think I’ve worked with some right psychopaths because my assumption is that getting truly upset/tearful would just make these guys absolutely *gleeful!* (Yeah, no, I don’t *think* I’ve worked with some right psychopaths…) Being absolutely cold would be my suggestion. Just let the “joke” hang in the air like a fart. (And job hunting. I already said that. But job hunting.)

  47. One Way or Another*

    I am not saying it’s great behavior, obviously it’s not, but I’m not all up in arms about it and don’t necessarily think this means they are asses. I guess if there are other things they are doing that makes OP think that, sure, maybe they are but on this one thing alone? No, just horribly clueless.

    I think it’s reasonable to just talk to the boss and say, “Hey, I get that you think it’s funny when you pretend something bad is happening just before giving me good news, but I find that I enjoy the good news far less because I’m having to come back from being upset and can’t fully enjoy it. Also, I worry that if you ever actually have something serious to tell me I won’t take it seriously because I’ll be busy waiting for the punch line.”

    Odds are that will be sufficient to get them to stop, unless they truly are asses.

    1. Jellyfish*

      OP wondered if they were overreacting by being upset though, so I think many people are reassuring them that their bosses are indeed being jerks in this area.

      It’s hopefully well intended and just poorly thought out, but the bosses have done it twice now and let the “joke” go on for too long. That’s not just mistimed humor, but the potential beginning of a very unpleasant pattern.

      Better to say something now than wait and see if it happens again.

    2. smoke tree*

      But just think about that 30-minute meeting. This isn’t just an unfortunate, spur-of-the-moment decision to reveal the information in a jokey way. They clearly coordinated this, and maybe spent time thinking about what they were going to quiz the LW on. It’s hard for me to see this as anything other than taking satisfaction from making your employees squirm.

  48. Madeleine Matilda*

    OP – Your boss and grandboss are jerks. To think it is funny to spend 30 minutes making you think that you are in trouble makes me question their judgment and ability to be leaders. I hope once you talk with your boss as you said you planned to do in your comment above that they both stop this behavior. I had a college friend who over 30 years ago did something similar to me by rushing into my room to tell me there had been a serious explosion near my grandparents’ house. As I rushed to the phone to call them and started thinking about rushing to their home, my friend said “Ha ha , April Fools.” To this day I haven’t forgotten how I felt in the minute or so before she revealed it as a joke and I’m sure she would remember the very direct and blunt words I had for her once she did reveal the joke.

  49. DollarStoreParty*

    Is your boss’s name Michael Scott? This is right out of The Office, and if he’d watch it he’d see how upset it made the people on the receiving end.

  50. LaurelBee*

    Poster, are you in Virginia perhaps? This sounds *just* like my old boss. He actually was a sadist I think, so he would be the rare exception that would not honor a request. He gives me chills just thinking of him. He loved to keep everyone on edge, as much as possible. He would actually try to startle me in my cube – sneak up and then appear suddenly, looming over me. He did the exact same thing you describe – pretend he was mad at me/going to criticize before saying I had done a good job. I didn’t have an anxiety issue when I started there, I do now!

    True story – he left about a year before I did, but came back to visit every once in awhile. When I heard his voice, I would sneak off to an empty floor of the building and wait a half hour until he was gone so I wouldn’t have to risk seeing him. I actually would start shaking a bit, and my whole body said, flee! It’s the same response I got when I saw a bear hiking.

  51. Not Australian*

    I think if the OP could summon up a withering glare and an icy tone, “Oh, did you think that was funny? How strange!” might be quite effective. But I’m aware that’s a counsel of perfection!

  52. Quake Johnson*

    I feel if you’re going to employ this type of “joke” it needs to be BRIEF.

    For example one day last December my boss told me one afternoon to go to his office immediately after I finished the task I was working on. He happened to walk by shortly after I finished said task, pointed at me, snapped his fingers and pointed in the direction of his office. Briefly I was like “what the hell did I do???” but we got there and he actually just gave me a Christmas present early since I was leaving for vacation soon.

    It didn’t really upset me because it was really quick and I wasn’t like stewing in worry about it. OPs bosses turning the whole thing into a lengthy performance just screams “out of touch” to me.

    1. Grand Mouse*

      I would have a really bad reaction to this particular scenario (the snapping and pointing) because of past abuse so like.. this stuff really should be avoided

  53. Marny*

    This reminds me so much of those stories you hear about cops “pulling people over” to surprise them with gift cards. It isn’t cute or funny to upset people unnecessarily when you have that level of authority over them (even aside from the constitutional issues).

  54. TrekMyStars*

    I would hate this so much!!! I once had a boss pretend that I couldn’t have the time off for a vacation while I was trying to talk to him about it. He then was like “just joking” but it had made me so nervous I almost threw up.

  55. N2Dolfyns*

    My boss does the same thing. After 10 years I know if he says he needs to talk to me in that voice … I’m getting a bonus. When something really is wrong he is actually calm but direct – no “have to talk to you right now” angry crap. I also have anxiety and this took it’s toll on me for the first couple of years – now I’ve conditioned myself to not read anything into his demeanor when he presents himself that way.

    Sorry he does that to the OP, but it’s also kind of one those things where I think people only do that with those they are very comfortable with so, even though it sucks … better than really being in trouble.

  56. corinne_t*

    I actually had a conversation with one of the VPs at my company when I was very early in my career here about just this sort of scenario. He’d act like he was angry about something, and then give me a compliment about how quickly I was catching onto things. I finally chose to tell him that when he did that, it made me extraordinarily anxious (and also chose to disclose that I have an anxiety disorder compounding that). He was really kind, immediately apologized, and never did it again. I felt really grateful, honestly!

  57. Observer*

    OP, I hope you’re getting help with your anxiety issues. The thing is that when you have this kind of issue it can mess with your ability to figure out if your response is reasonable. So, while it was a good thing that you masked your anxiety, there is absolutely NO reason why you should feel like this is hilarious.

    The experience you went through sounds highly unpleasant in a lot of ways. It’s not a you problem, it’s a THEM problem.

    1. OP*

      Thank you for saying this. I’ve dealt with my anxiety for so long that when I’m upset about something, I usually default to “oh, something’s wrong with me again.” When I read Alison’s answer and realized my question elicited a “WTF” from her, that actually DID make me laugh. :)

  58. ClashRunner*

    I may have commented about this before, but I had a former boss who pulled stuff like this. They asked me to report to their office immediately, at 9am on a Friday, for an important meeting with them and HR. They started discussing my performance–in very negative terms–and would not give either me or HR an opportunity to comment or question. It turned out that it was a matter of a small performance-based bonus thanks to a donor, but my former boss let me think for 15 minutes that I was being fired, and even after I understood what was happening they made it clear that they disagreed with HR’s decision to award me the bonus.

    I had two exit interviews within that company–once when I moved departments and once when I left the company–and both times it was a serious topic of conversation with HR. That kind of power play is unacceptable, and because it was such a pattern with that boss, it continues to color my expectations and anxieties with managers.

    1. Observer*

      In other words, your boss wasn’t even pretending to joke. They wanted to make it clear that they didn’t like you and would not have given you the bonus had they had the choice.

      That’s nasty in so many ways, but at least there is no pretense there.

  59. Madeline Wuntch*

    I once made a joke as an unpaid intern, at the going-away pizza party they provided, along the lines of “and they didn’t even get their moneys worth!” ayy to pretty hearty laughter, if I do say so myself, and the boss many-levels up (that I’d maybe been introduced to, once, or maybe this was the first time) said, “that’s my line!” and I was like….what…no…that’d be really mean, dude. I mean, I didn’t say anything, because, power, intern, young, etc. BUT COME ON, first of all – stop trying to ride my coattails, joke-wise, I made a successful joke in a mildly awkward situation, let me have this, and second of all – no, that’s the kind of thing ONLY I can say, if you said it, that would probably make me cry and third of all YOU DON’T KNOW ME, you never bothered to involve yourself in my experience at all, leave off.

  60. Call Me Dr. Dork*

    There was an HR guy a couple of jobs back who promulgated a “joke” that he was going to impose a business dress code starting the next week since there were outside visitors coming to our area. We lost several person-days of productivity while all us developers and techies sat around and wondered what to do about this. This was on top of “jokes” in presentations by the CIO about how our jobs could be sent to India.

    Ha. Ha. Our whole highly-productive team moved on to other jobs within 18 months. So funny!

  61. MCMonkeyBean*

    This is so much worse than I expected based on the headline.

    I have no idea how common it is in real life, but I feel like people on TV constantly do that thing where they’ve been waiting on news and all their friends gather around and they pretend to be bummed and then say “Just kidding! I actually *did* get into that college/get the job/win the lottery/whatever!”

    Even that might be kind of annoying but at least in those cases it’s usually about their own news, and it’s only a few seconds.

    A person in a position of power over you actively scolding you when you haven’t done anything wrong is *not* indicative of a good sense of humor. It’s mean. And setting up a whole falsely presented meeting in advance, making the “joke” premeditated to a really weird degree makes it even worse.

  62. Kiwiii*

    Omg this exact situation happened to me in my work study position in college. When I was promoted to a supervisor position, they started out by pretending to be upset, critiquing my interviewing skills, and accusing me of slacking. All of that combined with an overwhelming semester of coursework and terrible, terrible anxiety around authority made me burst out crying — which then made my supervisor chastise me for being too sensitive before they announced my promotion.

    A few months later when I had a serious customer complaint and then another time when we had to escalate a problem to management (I was … not a great fit for supervisory work there), the meetings that followed started the same tense way and I had no idea if I was supposed to be taking them seriously, but I’d still get a panicked anxious feeling in response to the meetings that I carried with me through my next couple jobs. At my job TWO YEARS later, when I finally got a supervisor who was wonderfully communicative and understanding, I’d cry whenever we had 1 on 1s (even and especially when she complimented me) because I’d never had an experience with a supervisor who didn’t try and make me fear them.

  63. Essess*

    I would bluntly tell my boss that I need to be able to trust them to be an effective employee and this type of deliberate psychological torture destroys that trust.

  64. Achloryn*

    I actually got anxiety just from reading this. Then it made me angry. You should be able to talk to your boss about your performance without getting anxiety spikes because your boss thinks he’s being funny. This needs to be put a stop to.

    1. Kristine*

      I got anxiety reading it too. I hate “hahaha, you’re just too sensitive,” techniques. This isn’t big of me, but I wonder how they would react if a similar “joke” was played on them, because these two seem to be utterly clueless if not downright sadistic.

      1. JM in England*

        This kind of behaviour could probably induce a meltdown in some people (myself included) who are on the autism spectrum, mainly due their difficulty interpreting social cues….

      2. Queer Earthling*

        “You’re too sensitive” is actually a triggering phrase for me and my sister due to abuse from a relative. I would be so happy to see that phrase banned. Even without history like ours, is it EVER constructive?

        1. Vicky Austin*

          My answer to “stop being so sensitive” is “I’ll stop being so sensitive when you stop being so insensitive.”

  65. Yuck*

    This is abuse. They are getting their jollies from freaking out someone who they have power over. I don’t see how this is any different then the older kid dangling a shorter kid’s backpack out of his reach and laughing about it. Not to profile but I notice a lot of older men seem to think this kind of “joking” is perfectly acceptable when the target is someone younger/with less responsibility. Push back or see HR.

  66. JoJo*

    I recently went to pick up my pet at the place I board her when I’m out of town, and when I got there a staff member pulled me aside and said “Can you come up with me?” to get my pet. I am not an anxious person but I immediately thought something must be wrong — my pet was sick, dead, or maybe had done something she’s never in her life done before (like bite or attack someone, or destroy something, presumably if she were indeed sick or in pain or something). The staff member said, “It’s nothing bad,” but wouldn’t tell me why I was going up.

    It turned out they were decorating with candid but professionally mounted photos of some of the housed cats (you sign a waiver the first time you go saying your cat or dog might appear in photos etc). And there was a beautiful fun portrait of her playing! It’s beautiful.

    I bring this up only because I don’t even suffer anxiety — but the staffer said when she asked me to go up the way she did, my face went white. It was incredibly stressful for those few minutes.

  67. tomatotomahto*

    My VP does this! He’ll frequently preempt praise with some sort of accusation “You can’t have done this thing that Jane said you did” “I can’t believe you made this mistake”… the first time it really got me, but now I just don’t take him seriously. He’s also a fan of “I don’t care what Sansa says about you, I think you’re doing a good job!” jokes.

    Difference is, the joke lasts maybe two minutes and is immediately followed by lots of reassurance – which is how this sort of joke *should be* done, if at all. What your boss is doing is weird and mean.

  68. Scout Finch*

    Many moons ago (in a non-professional job), a friend/co-worker called me on my day off & said “Can you come to work? Boss wants to see us all (about 6 people) ASAP!” I lived nearby, so jumped in the shower & ran to work.

    When I got there, my boss had a present (not sure how he found out I liked this thing that was a special gift given at our hotel/casino) for my birthday. Scared me to death on the phone, but he didn’t keep the ruse alive at work. As soon as I walked in, they gave me the gift. I had forgotten it was my birthday, so it was kinda nice.

    This was the early 80s – and I was in my early 20s. But if they had drug this out for 30 minutes? On, heck no!

    1. nnn*

      I’m surprised they’d think interrupting someone’s day off (on their birthday!) to make them come into work is a good idea!

  69. Kate*

    I’ve been following along AAM for some time, and am hoping the community can shed some light on this: what’s up with the term grandboss? Linguistically, I get it (I am a human and understand the nature of grandparents), I just don’t know why it’s so common. I find it infantilizing and reinforcing of the perception that your work team is a family, which it’s not. At a previous job, the boss’s boss was called a skip-level. While that may be a bit jargon-y, I like that it’s concise and doesn’t remind me of a granny. It also helps to take the illusion of age out of the equation.
    What do you all think – what’s with the love of grandboss?

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I think it’s just lingo at this point, just like all the acronyms around that we use in the online-language world we exist in.

      It was never a thing in my world until AAM and I think it’s like Fergus or Teapots, it’s just the dialect of the forum.

    2. Close Bracket*

      I heard grandboss way before AAM, and I’ve always worked at fairly large companies. There was no attempt to make coworkers into family. It’s just a term that is easy to understand bc it’s so close to another term. You’ll notice that nobody talks about work siblings or work cousins or work aunts/uncles to refer to people who report to your manager, people who report to a manager who is peers with your manager, or managers who are peers with your manager. It’s just one term that is family-like, there is not an entire jargon devoted to analogizing your work relationships with family.

    3. Rick Tq*

      I don’t read any ‘work is family’ vibe in the terms, Grandboss and Greatgrandboss are quite concise ways to refer to 2 and 3 levels above you in the management chain. Boss’ boss and Boss’ boss’ boss are harder/longer to type and read (IMO). Skip-level might have made sense at your previous job but I’ve never heard that term in Southern California..

      Since the terms aren’t gendered I think they took off here at AAM.

    4. Mockingdragon*

      I think it caught on just because “grandboss” is shorter than “boss’ boss” and is a little sillier. I’ve never thought harder about it than that.

    5. PharmaCat*

      I totally agree. My boss is my +1, my grand boss is my +2, etc. So if I tell you I’m presenting to my +5, you know it’s a really big deal.

  70. S*

    This is a REALLY common tactic in schools. Calling parents saying they need to come into a meeting regarding a write-up, so the parents take time off of work, expecting the worst. The kid is told they got a write-up and come into the office. They start off very stern, then it’s like “surprise! It was a positive write-up! Here’s some candy!”

    As a student, I would have hated it and been in tears before I even entered the office. And if they schedule even a day in advance, chances are, the kid is already grounded (or worse, depending on the household) at home. Just give the damn award and send the parent a nice email.

  71. StaceyIzMe*

    I hate to say this, because they’re SO over the line of reasonable professional conduct. But- I don’t think you’re going to shift them successfully. This is a routine they’ve apparently worked up. You could try the countermeasure of refusing to take them seriously when they give you the GOOD NEWS, well after you’ve moved on and are enjoying your promotion or award or what have you. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Focus squarely on the questions they’ve asked and continue to circle back to them randomly in subsequent meetings. Ask for their input. Extensively. Resolve to leave no stone unturned in your quest for “data”, “clarity” or “baseline for improvement”. If done randomly and sporadically, it’ll never fully attach to the meeting where you had the good news and you can gaslight them to your heart’s content until you tire of it.

  72. Theelephantintheroom*

    My dad is like this and it MAJORLY fucked up my ability to read social cues.

    As someone else said, people will panic over just being asked to “step into my office.”

    My own manager once surprised me with an award for good work and her method of getting me alone was, “Hey, I have a project I’m having some trouble with. Do you have some time to sit and brainstorm with me?” And it was much more effective and didn’t make me anxious. It can be done!

  73. AnonforThis*

    When I’d been in my current job for about 6 months, I got a meeting invite from our VP. I panicked, as we’d had a ton of turnover at that point and things in the group really weren’t going well. The invite was very vague, and it was set for a date over a month away. When it finally came, the VP said, “I meet with everyone for a check in…you didn’t know?” I really wish that had been in the invitation so I didn’t stress out for a month. Why are people like this?

  74. KatyO*

    I find this only amusing as a premise to get someone into a meeting without giving away the true reason for it. You can’t drag that kind of conversation on like that and expect people not to be annoyed. Especially when it’s related to an annual review. That’s not really the time for joking around.

    Sounds like the boss isn’t comfortable giving positive feedback so he’s trying to find a way to deliver it so that you’re so happy the first half of the meeting was a lie that you don’t need a big dose of positive feedback. Does that make sense? He’s just going about it all the wrong way. This sort of “joke” really shouldn’t drag on for more than about 60 seconds.

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