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

A reader asks:

I manage a team where, due to the nature of our work, I need to give our employees frequent informal feedback. We employ a young workforce; the bulk of our employees are 18-26 years old.

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

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

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 162 comments… read them below }

  1. Kevin Sours*

    Imposter syndrome is a thing. I guarantee you that a lot of experienced people are *thinking* it, they’ve just learned to shut up about it.

    It’s also been my experience that a lot of senior managers are blithely unaware of power dynamics and how they alter the perception of the words and actions of managers.

    1. Eldritch Office Worker*

      Yep, absolutely. And in an HR setting I’ve definitely been asked it by people over 20.

      1. Daisy-dog*

        For sure. I’ve had someone who was 65 ask me if she was going to be in trouble in a certain situation with a power differential. (She wasn’t.)

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Usually when people ask this they’re coming from a place of anxiety or bad past experiences. I think this is kind of hostile in that context.

              1. MustardPillow*

                As an anxious person who relies on humour I would find that comment hilariously reassuring. If I said that to a manager and her response was that, I’d laugh and relax knowing it wasn’t so serious as “your job is at risk” and probably one up the sarcasm and make her laugh too. I hope this person is in management!

      2. Anona*

        It has nothing to do with age. It has everything to do with negativity. Percentage wise, how many “discussions” initiated by a manager are positive? The best days at work are when I do my job and don’t see management at all. And I don’t even answer to them. I answer to their boss or higher. So I can imagine the dread for their direct reports.

        1. allathian*

          That really depends on the workplace, and the manager. I’m an experienced, senior SME, and I can do my job pretty independently. We have weekly team meetings and monthly 1:1s, just to normalize the fact that talking to the manager doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, never mind scary. I’ve worked for my current manager for about a year, and I can’t remember her ever initiating an unscheduled call, or even a call at very short notice (defined as less than a day, because we have very flexible working hours). There have been a few emergencies when I’ve needed her input ASAP, so I’ve called her.

        2. Bankerchick*

          Exactly. I recently left a what I now realize was a somewhat toxic work place. Lots of “coaching” but everything was what you did wrong and never any appreciation for the millions of things you did right (and was paid below market rate- so can’t even use the old”look how much we pay you” as a sign of appreciation) Anytime the manager called you in, you were pretty much in trouble. Even though you had ages all over the board, it was like high school. Getting called into the principal’s. Again, best days were when they didn’t even acknowledge you were there.

    2. Jzilbeck*

      I deal with imposter syndrome constantly, not to mention I am a middle child so it’s been ingrained in me for a lifetime that if I’m getting called over for something, I’m probably in trouble lol.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        Family conditioning is hell, isn’t it? My parents rarely wanted to ‘have a talk’ with us kids unless it was for something (they thought) we did wrong. They were also into slapping, pinching, ‘spanking’, and beating us for our real or imagined infractions.

        So yeah, I still clutch a little when my boss messages me on Teams to ask, ‘Hey, you got a moment?’ I’m in my 60s and thankfully have learned not to blurt, ‘What did I do wrong?’ but it’s still my first, frantic thought.

        1. works with realtors*

          I have requested bosses give me a summary of why we need to talk off the cuff, because I’m conditioned from childhood that any random talk is me getting in trouble. I’m almost 40. I also try hard to always say why I want a minute of someone’s time cos you can see folks visibly tense up sometimes! Wild how this started when we were kids.

        2. That One Person*

          I’ve explained to a friend a time or two that “We need to talk” isn’t a great request phrase for me especially when it might just be them ranting about something or wanting a casual chat since that’s my “I’m about to be broken up with” phrase in my psyche. They felt sufficiently bad about it after that explanation.

          Even at work though I know my boss is approachable and even when we hop into a quick Teams call there’s bound to be some casual chat to catch up for a moment before we talk about whatever question I brought up. I know this, but I still worry even a smidge until we’re talking or every time I send an email and get a very brief acknowledgement response. I’m not owed a long response it’s just my perception changing the tone he means and I have to remind myself every time. I like Alison’s suggestion though to explain – especially to the newer to the workforce folks – that “talks” aren’t generally “in trouble” situations so much as a part of learning/teaching the job and more of a regular check-in.

    3. Jess*

      I basically think “OMG am I in trouble” anytime a manager at work wants to talk to me. It’s almost never that, and rationally I know that’s not why, but I always have a worst-case scenario in my head. I’ve heard some managers say things like, “Hey it’s nothing bad, but I need to talk to you later” to stop people from freaking out. Although then if it IS something bad, I guess you will be freaking out because they won’t have warned you away from it…

      1. tangerineRose*

        I’m in Gen X, and I’ve been in the workforce a while, and I don’t think I’ve ever once asked my boss if I were in trouble, but I frequently worry when the boss wants to talk to me (and my current boss is very nice!) (also, I work hard).

    4. DrMrsC*

      +1 I’m really good at my job and have been doing it for over 25 years in a professional environment – I still immediately have the “called to the principal’s office” gut check anytime my boss asks to speak with me. Instead of coaching staff not to have what is likely a very gut reaction, maybe give them a hint of a heads up on the subject matter rather than the painfully vague “stop by my office” kind of thing. Hearing, “hey stop by my office when can, I have some program news to share” lands entirely differently than the ominous, “I need to speak with you.”

      1. Raerae*

        This is such a good suggestion. People these days (including me, and I’m almost 40) like to be prepared for what’s coming. Good or bad. Blame covid? Call it a sign of the times? Send an email. Don’t be coy. “Can you stop in for a quick meeting at 3? You got a customer compliment/you’re getting a raise/we need to put you on a PIP.”

        Then I can pre-freak out (or not freak out, if there’s no need).

        1. Covered in Bees*

          This also makes practical sense. I had a boss who would shout people into her office. Even after I adapted to this (she was the CEO) it was frustrating because without context, I could never bring her the info she wanted. My role touched on literally everything we did, so I couldn’t even guess. I asked her and her assistant to let me know the topic so I could give her accurate info and it never happened.

      2. ferrina*

        Yes! I def have a quick anxiety attack when my boss wants to “talk to me”, and I can trace that back to a boss that always said something negative to me whenever we spoke (srsly, we could chat about the weather and she’d make a comment about how I was irresponsible in not motivating my employees more on rainy days).
        It helps SO much when my new boss says “Hey, question about XYZ when you’re available.” Cut back on my anxiety attacks by 1000%

        1. Koalafied*

          I had a boss who really didn’t like delivering bad news, so he always saved anything bad for the very end of our weekly check-in. He’d wait until we’d gone through everything on our agenda, made sure I didn’t have anything else to ask, and then say, “Oh, one more thing-” like it had just occurred to him and that’s why he hadn’t mentioned it earlier. It took me a couple of years to pick up the pattern, because he didn’t have to deliver bad news that often, but once I noticed it became impossible not to be subconsciously waiting every time for, “Oh, one more thing-” to pop out!

            1. Reluctant Mezzo*

              This reminds of what the How It Should Have Ended people should have done with that show. “Just one more thing…” And the bad guy’s friend clocks him from behind, and the two dispose of the body.

          1. Irish Teacher*

            Oh, this would REALLY annoy me. I like things to be clear. It even annoys me when we are having a meeting about something important at work and the principal starts by thanking us all for staying late for it and “as you know, we’ve heard from the board about x and I felt I should let you know their decision right away, as a group…” and I’m just thinking, “would you just TELL us?” Knowing there could be bad news right at the end of a meeting and that the boss would give no prior hint would have me very on edge.

      3. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

        I just sent out a round of 1:1 invites with the subject line “good news!” and I still have one person panicking. (I’m going “Dude, I have sent out meeting invites with the subject line ‘good news’ three times now, not including this time, and the previous ones were all, without exception, telling you about impending raises or bonuses. What do you think this one might be?”)

        1. Squeakrad*

          I’m really surprised more people aren’t suggesting giving your reports an idea of what you’re chatting about. If it’s absolutely good news then let them know that but if it’s something that needs correction or feedback, let them know that too. “I’d like to meet to go over some feedback about your last project.“ If you frame it this way and you keep meeting with them overtime they will realize hopefully if there’s nothing super distressing about getting feedback even if it’s something they’ll need to improve.

      4. philmar*

        But in 25 years you haven’t trained yourself to think: it’s unlikely I’m in trouble, there would have been indications ahead of time, I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m fine at my job? I was the same way, where I would light-headed with fear, and I had to make an effort to tell myself the above. It would have made me look immature if I said “am I in trouble?” every time I was told to stop by my boss’ office. They can feel free to think it, although I would argue that isn’t great for your mental health, but they shouldn’t say it out loud.

        I used to work in an environment that had a PA system and occasionally I would get paged to call or go to the office of my boss/his deputy. I would say 90% of the time it was because he had a question or needed me to take care of something and didn’t want to dial all of the locations I could possibly be in.

    5. CoveredinBees*

      I think the part about checking in on why they think they’re in trouble is helpful. There may be a culture issue at the company.

      I think age may also be a factor. Most of their experience has probably been in school and they’re equating your meeting with them to being called to the principal’s office. Even getting pulled aside by a teacher was very rarely a good thing. If you’re in a workplace that is particularly hierarchical, even more so.

      Mentioning why you need to talk to them can be very helpful. (“Bob, can you stop by my office for a minute so we can go over last week’s llama report?”) Context can help.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        Part of is the simple reality is that the words of somebody who holds your livelihood in their hands are going to ring with a great deal of import. Regardless of whether or not they want them to.

      2. Ampersand*

        I think it’s partly age but also human nature—I’m in my 40s and still experience a jolt of panic when my manager asks to talk. I’ve just learned to ignore it because I know what my brain is telling me (be afraid! You’ve messed up!) is wrong, and I definitely don’t ask if I’m in trouble. My colleagues feel similarly—we don’t get a lot of one on one time with our manager, or much feedback, so any time he asks to talk it’s important. If we had more face time this would be less of an issue, I think.

        On the flip side, I’ve managed employees who had the same reaction to ME, and it was always surprising to hear anyone ask me if they were in trouble. These were people in their 20s and 30s. They were not in trouble—the mere idea was amusing—but I get where they’re coming from. That’s why I think it’s human nature. You just have to learn not to ask if you’re in trouble. Ask for clarification if need be.

        1. Anona*

          It’s not amusing. Some people lose their jobs when a manager says “I need to speak to you”.

          1. Ampersand*

            I agree it’s not generally amusing. But my specific reports thinking they would be in trouble with me *was* amusing to me in that situation. Some of them had known me for years at that point, and my management style was not one where anyone would get into trouble. That just wasn’t a thing, and I assured them they had nothing to worry about. But given that reaction to me, and my reaction to my own manager: it really seems like this issue spans multiple ages and groups.

      3. usually anon*

        Sometimes age is a factor the other way too. Being old enough to have experienced crappy management and being blind-sided by political maneuvering or malevolent coworker can lead to expecting random bad news from bosses.

        1. GlitterIsEverything*


          It’s taken me years to even start to heal from really awful managers in my work history. When you have history with a manager who only wanted to talk to you when they were going to write you up or fire you, or who never said anything about little things on the day-to-day until they built into something big on your annual review, or any number of other bad management practices, it’s hard to get to the point where “can I talk to you?” doesn’t trigger All The Anxiety.

    6. AnotherOne*

      I have to repeat to myself sometimes- no, I’m not gonna get fired. it’s all okay- when i get called into a meeting and i don’t know what it’s about.

    7. PlainJane*

      Yup. I’ve learned (sort of) to hide my anxiety attacks whenever a manager wants to talk to me, but man, are they still there. (Possibly because I had a history of people being sugary sweet, giving tons of compliments, and then blind-siding me by suddenly saying that something is a serious problem.)

      When you depend on a job in order to pay the rent, then any scenario in which it’s possible that your competence is about to be questioned (and yes, we all feel that way about a lot of things) is going to lead to severe anxiety.

    8. mreasy*

      It’s just not office-appropriate, though. You can secretly believe you’re “in trouble” or talk about it to your friends that way – “I got in trouble at work today, ugh” – but it’s just not work appropriate to refer to it that way. It could be more common with folks who have been in retail & food service, because in my experience in those types of jobs, there is a lot more of a “punishment” or “write-up” culture where issues are communicated in terms of being in trouble. It’s a kindness to explain to them that this isn’t how jobs work or should work, but honestly, after one explanation they’re asking you to console them for giving them feedback – and that’s not the job of a manager.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        “in my experience in those types of jobs, there is a lot more of a “punishment” or “write-up” culture where issues are communicated in terms of being in trouble”

        This can happen in any job in any industry. And depending on where someone came from in their last job, this could be both a real fear and illustrate the way these things were discussed.

        That doesn’t mean their framing shouldn’t be challenged, but just because they’re in an office doesn’t mean they’re in a mature or safe environment. This feels a little like the bias towards the supremacy of white collar work that commenters complain about here a lot if you’re not acknowledging that. Telling them that’s not how jobs should work isn’t simply a kindness, it may in fact be new information that they need to be taught to be successful in your culture.

        1. RhondaDawnAnonAnon*


          I was just coming to write something like this. Stupid as it is, there are workplaces that operate on a mentality of “we’re going to write you up like it’s junior high detention.”

        2. Chirpy*

          THIS. The office I worked at was definitely not always a safe or mature workplace. I’ve definitely worked “less prestigious” jobs that treated people more respectfully.

          1. allathian*

            Yes, this. I guess I got lucky, but except for my very first boss in my very first retail job ever, the vast majority have been decent people who treated their employees with respect, regardless of age or the perceived prestige of the job. The problem with the first store manager was that sometimes she was really kind and effusive, and at other times she was moody, cranky, and sarcastic. You learned quickly to gauge her mood and judge when it was OK to ask to change shifts, and when it wasn’t.

            I was 17 when I started working for her. Rules were a lot more relaxed then, I was allowed to sell alcohol and tobacco despite not being allowed to buy them, drinking age 18 here. Now you have to be 18 just to handle money for your employer. Most of my coworkers were around the same age, or in their early 20s, with a couple older employees. All of us young ‘uns liked to speculate between ourselves that she was either bipolar or on drugs (!)… Not exactly mature behavior, but we were very young and didn’t know any better.

    9. Anona*

      And a lot of managers ARE aware and like the sense of power they get from shaking someone up.

      1. fleapot*

        Absolutely true.

        People who haven’t been on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour are very fortunate. It can be genuinely traumatizing.

    10. SpaceySteph*

      Pretty much every time a manager asked to talk without context I wondered if I was in trouble. I never said it, but I definitely thought it.

      I’ve NEVER been in trouble at work, but its human nature I think.

    11. Jonquil*

      For sure. I am anxious, and I am always thinking it, whenever someone asks to talk with no context. And also from the couple of times early in my career where I was pulled aside and corrected on certain behaviours, and one particularly memorable time when I was, in fact, fired.

    12. KelseyCorvo*

      For sure. I wouldn’t ask because it would be putting the manager in an awkward position no matter what the answer is.

  2. Alex*

    I think this can also stem from having been in a situation with a difficult manager prior. Managers who berate people for mistakes, point fingers, and throw shame and blame around are going to create a dynamic where their employees are always on alert to being the target. This may not be you, LW, but even if not, your employees could have encountered someone like this earlier in their employment or even in their families or schools.

    1. KofSharp*

      Old managers and school, definitely. I know I learned from a young age that if there’s “feedback” coming, it’s probably not positive.
      It’s taken me a whole year of being full time employed at a better company that does give regular feedback so I don’t verbalize the “Am I in trouble” question.
      The best way I’ve found for managers to actually ask if you have a few minutes to talk is to add a little specificity to it. “Hey do you have a few minutes to talk about XYZ” instead of “Do you have a few minutes to talk”.

      1. Yoyoyo*

        I made the mistake of asking a newish staff member to stop by and see me when they had a minute because I had some feedback I wanted to share with them. The poor person was so freaked out, and all I wanted to do was pass along a compliment that another staff member had said about them. I was more careful with my wording after that!

      2. K*

        Parents as well. Any time my parents expressed a “you come to me” statement, it was because I was in trouble.

    2. Aggretsuko*

      Yup, that’s exactly where this behavior comes from.

      However, in some offices you know darned well if you get called in, period, you are in trouble.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        Yeah, I’ve had managers where the only feedback they gave you was about something being wrong, bad, or not the way they wanted it. All stick, no carrot. It leaves psychological marks…

      2. TiredButHappy*

        I haf a job where I couldn’t open my email without being blasted by nothing but everything I did wrong, and then things that went wrong that were not my fault but were unfairly pinned on me.

        When I would clarify that, say, the purple teacup situation was Jane’s, not mine. Or that things had been handled and it was not, in fact, a catastrophe, I would not get an apology, a thank you or anything.

        We were also told not to use the reporting system for punitive write ups, but we had a bully who did. Instead of the bully being told to knock it off, the “concerns” would be sent to us as feedback like they we real problems, when it was nit-picky stuff.

        Like we laughed too loud once. Or didn’t write something in a colour of pen she liked.

        The bully is gone now, I’ve heard, bit they went through multiple people after two of us left because of her.

        1. TiredButHappy*

          And after that job, it took me months to be able to take any critique or look at email without a panic attack. I’m so much better now.

    3. yala*

      Yeah, that was basically my first thought.

      Bad workplaces lead to bad habits/coping mechanisms. It’s *really* hard to unlearn those kneejerk emotional responses to certain cues. Not that they shouldn’t try, but it’s not easy or fast.

    4. Imposter*

      This, 10000%. Sadly I’ve had a few of these bosses and it certainly leaves its mark. I don’t use the word “triggered” lightly but that’s really how it feels, I immediately start overthinking about what this could be about and start bracing myself for this meeting which turns out to be nothing. I don’t know if or when I will unlearn that reaction.

    5. Bella Goth*

      Absolutely this. I started a new job a few months ago, and one of the first things I let my (fab) manager know about is a couple of phrases an old manager used, which usually meant she’d found something to give us into trouble for. It’s 30 years later and I still twitch and panic when I hear these and think “What have I done?” or more to the point with that manager “What has she decided is my fault?”

  3. Kenobia*

    It would be useful to understand more about what is being said to them when you approach.

    I would definitely consider an all-hands specifically about room awareness *AFTER* I looked at what I was saying and how I was saying it. I had feedback from my teams that certain phrases are quite scary to hear so I provide context first or use different, less worrisome wording.

    1. BethDH*

      Also, is there any way you can make feedback part of a routine check-in? Make them shorter but more frequent if needed. That reinforces the idea that this feedback is routine rather than extra.

      1. Koalafied*

        I was thinking something along those lines reading a lot of the comments above from folks who say that their manager wanting to talk to them always produces anxiety, which makes me think their managers must not want to talk to them often?

        Obviously different jobs work differently – I’ve had managers who approved my PTO requests and expense reimbursements and helped me manage work volume, but who were not subject matter experts in my area so couldn’t actually provide much in the way of work product-related feedback. I’ve also been the manager in that situation, with someone reporting to me because they need a manager for HR purposes, but whose work was entirely outside my wheelhouse. In those cases the contact between manager and report is going to be a lot less frequent, and it’s easier to get anxiety about the meetings because they’re less routine.

        But with my current manager (who does do the same kind of work I do) it’s rare that a workday goes by where I don’t talk to her about something, and we have a 45-minute check-in every week that we usually use every minute of. It’s too routine to be something I’m even capable of having anxiety about (and I’m a VERY anxious person by nature). Familiarity breeds comfort, so if there’s a way to have more frequent contact between the manager and employee, in a way that doesn’t just feel like a waste of time/meeting for meeting’s sake, like shorter/more frequent check-ins, that could likely help!

        1. Irish Teacher*

          Certainly as a teacher in Ireland, it would be pretty rare to even go into the principal’s office. I think I’ve been in there maybe 5 or 6 times in the five years I’ve worked in the school – to let them know my father had died and I needed time off, to let them know I had an operation coming up and needed time off, to ask about my timetable for next year (the principal had specifically told us he was going to try and have a fair bit of our timetables figured out by the end of this year, but that he wouldn’t have them fully made out or available for us, so come to his office and he’ll be able to at least tell us which classes we’ll be teaching but not what times the classes will take place) and a couple of times to get things. I think it is partly because they are not subject matter experts and partly because…well, my school has a staff of about 60 and managing staff is only a small part of a principal’s job. So there isn’t time.

          So yeah, people will sometimes be concerned if the principal wants to see them. In reality, it is rarely that you are “in trouble.” More likely, it’s either a change to your timetable (“the Irish teacher is going on maternity leave and we are finding it difficult to find a full-time replacement so I am wondering if you could take on some of the Irish classes and I’ll ask x other teacher to take over your y classes” or “I know you haven’t taught your second subject in five years but would you be comfortable taking it on next year?”) or a serious discipline issue with a student (the deputy principal would deal with most of these but there are exceptions) or something to do with an activity the teacher is running or something like that.

          I definitely think that if you are talking to the manager regularly, the anxiety is likely to be less than if it’s a very occasional, only if the matter is serious, kind of thing.

    2. Gracely*

      Yeah–my boss routinely leads with “everything is okay” or “no one’s in trouble” and that really does help.

  4. Bunny Girl*

    How are you approaching or reaching out to people to ask them to talk? Are you just coming by or emailing them and saying “Hey we need to talk”? That could set off some anxiety in a lot of people. Maybe try saying “Hey I want to talk to you about how well you did on project X, would you mind stopping by?” Or “Hey there seems to have been some miscommunication about Policy Y, would you mind stopping by the office to clear that up?” Just giving a little more context could go an extra mile.

    1. Emily*

      Yes! Nothing gets the ol’ anxiety brain churning like an ambiguous managerial request to talk.

      1. Abby*

        Most people have been in a situation where that conversation has been the “we can’t keep you employed any more” one. Using it at any time is poor form, but using it during an economic crisis is crappy behaviour. It costs nothing to put the topic of the meeting in the Google Calendar request, and it saves the poor worker so much anxiety.

        1. Koalafied*

          It also tends to make the meeting more productive because the other party has had a chance to do some background research/refresh their memory ahead of time on the work being discussed. Meeting with no topic too often leads to a bunch of, “I don’t know, but I’ll check,” responses to questions that could have been laid out in an agenda/topic emailed ahead of time, which would have allowed the meeting itself to be used for productive discussion of what the answers to those questions mean for the work going forward.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Yes, I hate getting meeting requests where no one tells me what they want the meeting for and will ask if none is provided (including my boss) just so I can show up prepared.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Yeah I think giving context is a gracious thing to do for people lower down the tree. Even if they wouldn’t ask, they will be thinking “is it good news or bad?”

    3. AnotherOne*

      This. 1000% this.

      Tell people EXACTLY what the meeting is about. Cuz that’s what gets the mind going.

    4. Chickaletta*

      Yep, this 100%.

      Plus, based on the OPs letter, it sounds like the majority of interactions they’re having with their employees ARE about discipline – (discussing an “incident”, “being reminded about a policy” etc are just diplomatic ways of addressing what an employee did wrong) so I’m not surprised that OPs employees are assuming that they’re in trouble when approached by OP. Like they said, this may just be the nature of the job, but starting each conversation with the reason why they are talking to the employee will help head off the “am I in trouble?” question.

      1. JB (not in Houston)*

        Not every time a manager has a conversation about something an employee needs to correct is “getting in trouble,” though, and it’s not a good thing if an employee sees them as the same. It can make the employee resistant to hearing any criticism at all. It might be a good idea for the OP to figure out if she’s presenting this kind of information in a way that makes them think they are being disciplined, and if she is sure that she’s not, see if the organization as a whole generally treats any correction as a disciplinary action. If it doesn’t, then she should maybe try to address with the employees the difference between discipline and correcting the way an employee is doing something.

    5. Anona*

      Yes. And LW is already annoyed about the response so it would be helpful to know their wording and tone. Employees can absolutely sense when BOSS is annoyed.

    6. nnn*

      Yes, that’s what I came to say! Leading with a tiny bit of context can avoid the need to derail the conversation with reassurance.

      Building on this, if it is a situation where you need to discuss an incident or remind them of a policy, a useful script can be “I want to discuss how to handle X next time.”

      That way, they know they aren’t fired (there’s a next time!), but they also know that the meeting is about X.

  5. Abby*

    What kind of employment contract do these young employees have? Is it zero-hours and/or casual/informal? Is it in a competitive field? If so, they may be genuinely fearful that any piece of corrective feedback from the boss may mean arbitrary dismissal and their replacement with another young worker.

    Even if they are on a decent contract, young people have grown up in a world of insecure employment and random “sorry, no work for you any more” bosses. There’s been an atmosphere that there are too many people, there’s not enough work, and the employer is doing you a favour by deigning to give you some work, and the tiniest error might jeopardise that.

    Don’t mollycoddle, but do reassure that their job is safe unless they do something particularly egregious. I suspect this may stop the “am I in trouble?” questions almost completely.

    1. Important Moi*

      “the employer is doing you a favour by deigning to give you some work”

      let me assure you it is not just young people who get that message…

    2. Fluffyfish*

      Just a note that while some people work on contract and it’s of course dependent on locale, many many many people, including in the US where this blog is based, do not have contracts and in fact are at-will workers who can be let go at any time perfectly legally.

      1. Eldritch Office Worker*

        Yeah it’s not just a matter of “not giving you work” people can be outright fired with no notice for no reason in most of the US. There’s a lot of anxiety attached to that.

        1. Abby*

          Just a quick note to say I really love posting online and being corrected and told that what I’m saying doesn’t apply in the US, as if computers suddenly stop working as soon as you hit the borders.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            You’re not being corrected, it’s being clarified for readers. The vast majority of which, for this site, are from the US. You can be correct and the clarification can still apply.

          2. Fluffyfish*


            No one corrected you. No one said you were wrong.

            I added additional information because while I know you are most likely referring to the UK, not everyone reading here does know that and it wasn’t mentioned.

            I really am not sure what is so offensive about someone adding additional information to clarify something for the majority of the audience.

  6. Anne Wentworth*

    I’m surprised Alison didn’t also address “and in the cases where they are in trouble, here’s what to do.” Answering that question with “yes” doesn’t sound like a good way to start a discussion about how to fix the problem.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      Technically it doesn’t look like she said the answer was yes? But since I have this conversation every few months myself, there’s just managerial ways of phrasing “Yes, you’re in trouble again.” Usually they list every single thing I do wrong, for starters.

    2. Irish Teacher*

      Yeah, I think that situation is harder to deal with than when their not, but even then I think giving a heads up beforehand about what the meeting is about would help. Rather than “can I have a word?” sort of thing, something like, “I need to have a word with you about the llama grooming reports” or “can you call in to my office as I think we need to clarify the policy on the making the handles of the chocolate teapots?” Even if the matter is “how come you never handed in any reports” or “you’ve been making the handles so badly that they are falling off,” at least the person has some context and can evaluate to some degree how serious the matter is likely to be.

    3. mreasy*

      The idea of “being in trouble” is for kids getting a time-out or being grounded. It is simply not a concept that applies in the workplace – or at least, in a functional workplace. If you have done something incorrectly, or something inappropriate, it is a discussion. You will be corrected and told to do it differently in the future, or not to do X or Y again. Nobody is being punished, it’s about adjusting behaviors for the workplace. Are you being put on a PIP? That is about adjusting behavior to make things work for you and the workplace. Are you being fired? You are still, even at that point, not “in trouble” – you just aren’t a good fit for the position, whether it’s because your skill set doesn’t match up with what they need, or because you continually sexually harass your coworkers. Might the latter get you “in trouble” with the legal system or law enforcement? Sure, but not your boss!

      1. Anona*

        “Trouble” equals corrective action or firing. People have fears and emotions. Semantics about wording doesn’t help.

      2. Science KK*

        Could you please email this to pretty much all the new folks at my workplace? People are seriously more concerned with “being in trouble” than doing things properly, it defies all logic. I have never seen anyone get yelled at either, and I’ve worked here for three years. I’ve made mistakes, I just own it and learn from it.

        But so many people just panic if they make a mistake, I haven’t figured out a way to convey it’s fine just ask for help and move on.

      3. philmar*

        I agree. I think there are 2 problems here: 1) vocalizing “am I in trouble” which makes the speaker sound immature and 2) feeling like they are in trouble when they are told to have a meeting with their manager.

        (1) they just need to stop doing. (2) is something they can work on themselves, or not, but doesn’t concern the manager. I used to have the anxious gut reaction of “am I in trouble” and every time I would talk myself through like, I’m okay at my job/I haven’t done anything wrong/there would be a warning sign/if I AM in trouble, we can talk through it and figure out how to proceed, it’s not an indictment on my worth as a human being. The manager should try to say something like “can you swing by my office so we can talk X project” or whatever, but there are also times when they can’t provide an agenda due to a need for discretion or they’re on their blackberry and sending a 1-line email on the road or something.

      4. Ellis Bell*

        I think this is true if you have good employers, a good contract or a good safety net. It’s also true that there are lots of people in insecure, easily replaceable jobs for whom losing their jobs can happen unexpectedly and be somewhat of a catastrophe for them personally.

      5. NotAnotherManager!*

        Thank you, totally agree! My job, as a manager, is to give people the tools, skills, and support to do their job, and I can’t do that without providing feedback, both positive and negative, and having one-on-ones with my team. Framing it like you’re being grounded or sent to the principal’s office is bad management and also not a good way to frame performance feedback (or even issues) at work. Thinking of feedback as being “in trouble” is not a productive way to look at things either, and I hate being asked, “Am I in trouble?”. I have to be able to give people info to do their work better without fear on either side.

        We normalize conversations, meetings, and feedback with/from your manager from Day 1. In early days, they are check-ins to make talk about questions related to orientation and training and make sure they’re getting what they need and meeting the people they need to meet. Then, it becomes about talking through how projects went, what can be done differently in the future, and more advanced training when appropriate. This helps to create a situation in which all contact with your manager is not negative and an assumption of bad news. It’s also two-way feedback where we can hear from our team about things they learn that may be helpful to others, training they’d like, and types of work they’d like to try.

  7. Umiel12*

    I started a new job many years ago after having left a really toxic environment. One day in my first couple of weeks I got an email from a supervisor letting me know to see them about a training issue. At my previous toxic job, “training issue” was code for “you’re in a lot of trouble.” I immediately started to panic.
    As it turns out, it really was just a training issue. There was a new employee orientation module they forgot to give me, and they just need me to complete it. My new job was at a counseling center, so all the staff were clinicians. The supervisor noticed something was off with me, so I told her about my initial reaction. She responded by saying, “You poor dear! They really gave you PTSD at the last place, didn’t they?”
    It was a learning experience, though. I’ve thought about that interaction several times over the years, and I learned to not let myself worry when I get called into the boss’s office.

  8. Butter Bonanza*

    “Am I in trouble?” comes across immature and defensive. I can’t think of any diplomatic way to say that to an adult though.

    Green covered something similar to this in a question from a manager whose reports were frequently fishing for reassurance every time they scheduled a meeting. This puling phrase “Am I in trouble?” is something between reassurance fishing and baby talk. No wonder it throws LW off.

    1. Chickaletta*

      I agree, it’s the kind of reaction a kid would have to their parent, not an employee to their manager. But Alison addresses this by suggesting a way for OP to dig deeper to find out if other managers are framing issues that way.

    2. PollyQ*

      Yeah, that’s where I come down, too. Worrying about whether you’re in trouble? Feeling that slight pang of panic? Sure, perfectly natural, and I suspect almost everyone has felt that at some point. Asking the question out loud, though–that’s reading immature, insecure, and/or unprofessional to me, and I would recommend no one ever ask it, even if it’s what they’re thinking.

      1. Rocky*

        Butter Bonanza, how about something like “Hi, Lucretia, the other day when I asked for a conversation you replied “Am I in trouble?”. I hope it quickly became clear that you weren’t! But for the future, if I did need to correct something, it wouldn’t mean you’re in trouble. It’s just a correction. I know you’re open to feedback [say this whether it’s true or not!] so there’s no need to frame it as punishment”

  9. I Need Coffee*

    It also stems from working for managers/companies who only reach out when there is an issue, never with praise. Goes back to toxic workplaces skewing your version of “normal”.

    1. JustA___*

      +1, came here to say this. I left a toxic boss over two years ago, and my supervisor is great(!) but I still flinch inwardly sometimes when she calls because for ~eight years I basically only heard from my manager about what I was doing wrong, never right.

    2. Canadian Librarian #72*

      Yeah, and this is super common for people who have experience in the service industry before transitioning to white collar work. I was never praised for my work when I was in fast food – any time a supervisor or manager wanted to talk, it was because either I’d messed something up or they thought I had. Unfortunately that really stays with you and it’s really hard to get over just because some white collar managers find it inconvenient.

  10. Melanie Cavill*

    I’ve been this person. Imposter syndrome, generally insecure employment, and being slightly neurodivergent all create a fun cocktail of spiraling internally whenever I get called into my lead’s office. It generally takes about a year of working with someone before I can really get over that – another thing to talk about with my therapist, evidently. It’s nice that the LW is trying to mitigate it for their direct reports! But I think time to build trust is also a necessary ingredient.

    1. mreasy*

      The issue isn’t worrying about being “in trouble,” though. It’s about saying that out loud, which is demanding reassurance and consolation from your manager, who is just trying to correct a behavior. The latter isn’t appropriate and would really frustrate me as a manager. The former is unavoidable for those of us with anxiety.

  11. LizIndeed*

    I feel like I recently asked my manager something similar- or tried to. But realized I didn’t have the appropriate words to ask.

    A financial issue happened involving extremely complex and rare circumstances, and while it wasn’t really my fault, it was still my responsibility to fix it.

    I found myself having trouble finding the words to ask my manager how serious an issue it would be if it wasn’t resolved. I didn’t want to say “would I be in trouble” but I think it came out like “how much trouble would this be for me?” or something like that. I wish I would have had better wording to more gracefully ask “if this went south, is my job at risk?” I mean- that doesn’t seem a half bad way to phrase it! But I didn’t want to imply being fired as an option, despite the fact it was all I was thinking about.

    It was less me worrying about being in trouble like a little kid, and more not understanding what the consequences for certain situations might be. In general financial “mistakes” ARE the type of thing you actually can get in trouble for, I feel. Which is different than things like “taking a long break” or “being late on a deliverable”.

    For reference, I worked extra on the beginning of my vacation and solves the issue, which in turn made me look like the situation’s hero. But it was still intense!

  12. Nynaeve*

    Alison’s advice here to respond to the question of “Am I in trouble” with the, possibly rethorical question, “No! Did I do something to make you think that?” is way off base IMO. Because, pretty much every time, the answer to that question is “Yes.” If you, as my boss with the authority to fire me with or without cause, have a habit of randomly sending IMs that just say “Come to my office” or like to swing by my desk and ask me to accompany you back to a closed door meeting with no context, agenda or topic laid out in advance, THAT’s what you did that makes me think I’m in trouble. And I know with absolute certainty that I am not alone in that assessment/gut reaction.

    Managers really need to be aware of the power dynamics at play and try to make there NEVER be a time when the only solution is to ask to talk to their report to “talk” with no notice. Save these things for the 1:1 you should be having regularly, schedule a meeting for a couple hours or days from right now and send a topic and agenda along with the meeting invite, even if it’s only for a 5 minute meeting, send the feedback in an e-mail with a clear subject line and an ask for follow up questions if necessary and an offer of a face to face about it or to put it on the next 1:1 agenda if more discussion is needed. But please, for the love of god, stop giving people these mini panic attacks as a regular part of just doing their job.

    1. tired exec*

      That sounds like a you problem that you need to do some work on. As a manager I will try to give staff context where I can. I cannot always do that for a variety of reasons–sometimes it is a rush and I do not have the time to think of the perfect diplomatic wording. Sometimes it is something sensitive that I cannot allude to without revealing the whole thing before we meet. As a manager I will give context when I can and I will ensure my team hears plenty of praise from me but if you are fearing that every single discussion with your manager will be bad when the history does not support it, that is something you need to work on from your end, not just say your manager is the one who needs to change.

      1. Canadian Librarian #72*

        Sure, but if it’s common enough (and I can assure you that it is extremely, extremely common), who cares if it’s a “you problem”? Can’t we be sensitive to how we might come across to others? Or is this just a “personal responsibility at all costs/suck it up buttercup/bootstraps, b*tch” kind of thing?

        1. N.J.*

          I agree with Canadian Librarian. Some of us are heavily context dependent in our interactions. If I’m not given context and info for a situation, I will co strict my own meaning based on tone, body language, what I know about you, whether I’ve done anything that could be a mistake or problem recently etc. we are told constantly as people and employees to adapt to the communication, personality and working style of our superiors. This is exhausting! It might be a lived experience thing or a personality thing, but for myself at least , a lot of physical and mental energy goes into preparing for meetings, putting myself in the tight frame of mind, gauging the feelings and motives of the people involved etc. It would be nice if bosses, who have so much power over their employees, expended effort to just make the context plain and try to meet their employees halfway with info, communication, working style etc.

        2. tired exec*

          I literally said that I work on my side of this as a manager. But there are times when I cannot do it for very legitimate reasons so it is in an employee’s interest to realize that they need to work on their side of the equation, as well. The poster I was responding to sounded as if they do not understand that “never do this” is not realistic and that they play a role, as well.

          1. Chief Petty Officer Tabby*

            Might I suggest saying, “Oh hey, I need to update you on something quickly, come to my office.” It doesn’t expose sensitive info, bit it sounds less DOOOOOOOM than just, “Come to my office!”

    2. I should really pick a name*

      The thing is, in a normal office you shouldn’t have that reaction.

      Unless you’re always in trouble when your boss asks to speak to you, there’s no reason to assume you’re in trouble.

      If my boss asks me if I have a moment to meet in his office, it probably means he’s got some free time to go over something that wasn’t important enough to schedule in advance.

      1. New Jack Karyn*

        I don’t think “should” or “shouldn’t” are particularly helpful in this case. People feel how they feel–from school experiences, family of origin, or previous toxic jobs. They can help how they react–they can try to reframe the request in their brains, ask their manager to give a little context when possible, whatever–but they’re gonna feel how they feel.

        1. I should really pick a name*

          Fair point. I think I was more reacting to the idea that a manager can’t have an impromptu conversation with an employee because it might make them nervous.

          1. Eldritch Office Worker*

            Managers that employees don’t trust can’t, but they’ve usually built that situation. If the employee is acting based on unrelated past experience, that’s something the manager can address with Alison’s language.

      2. allathian*

        My manager’s so busy that only genuine emergencies warrant an unscheduled call. We have 1:1s often enough (once a month) that less important stuff can be saved for those, or typed out in our Teams chat. If it’s something actionable, I definitely prefer getting it in writing. Thankfully I’m comms-adjacent, so this works for my manager as well (a person with a strong preference for verbal communications wouldn’t be able to work in our team).

        Granted, we’re hybrid, and added to that, I work at our head office and my manager is at a regional office, so that walking by their office just doesn’t happen. With former managers who worked at the same office, I’d sometimes drop by when I saw that they weren’t busy, or they’d drop by my desk. It was fine, although given the choice, I prefer it when it’s not an option to just drop by.

    3. Anona*

      Agree. If a direct report fears for their job and has no idea why they are being approached, it’s not reassuring and it’s almost sarcastic to reply “did I do something to make you feel that way?” A bit hostile even.

      1. fleapot*

        I had an Evil Boss a few years ago who called me into his office and railed on me for a wide range of shortcomings. I’d been consistently disrespectful to my coworkers, I wasn’t following directions, etc. When I said that I was shocked to hear this and asked for examples, he had none. People had complained, and my behaviour had “escalated” over a period of months, but he couldn’t remember the details of even one complaint.

        I’d asked him within the previous week if he had any concerns about my performance—he’d been prickly, and I couldn’t tell why—and he told me that everything was fine.

        I’m neurodivergent, I’d disclosed my diagnosis to him, and I am 99% sure that he knew that telling me “your coworkers don’t like you, but I won’t tell you why” was going to be literal psychological torture. It escalated to constructive dismissal within a couple of weeks. I lost my income and was severely, dangerously depressed for months. I’m still not really okay—not least because, as an autistic person, some version of “people are mad at me and I don’t know why” is basically a daily occurrence for me, and there’s no way to avoid the trigger.

        (It turns out that Evil Boss had done almost exactly this to multiple previous employees. HR knew and refused to act. He’s since been fired, but it took years.)

        Long story short: a context-free request to speak to my manager will literally raise my blood pressure, and I’ll probably respond with a more office-appropriate version of “am I in trouble?” (like “is there a problem?”). I would very possibly burst into tears, on the spot, if my manager responded with snark. I would definitely cry in the bathroom or in the car on the way home. I was absolutely not a cry-at-work person before the incident with Evil Boss. I hate it, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be “not a cry-at-work person” again. Something broke. I didn’t break it.

        IDK if that’s a useful perspective, but… yes. That kind of response is not just hostile; it’s potentially cruel.

  13. Luna*

    I have had a lot of bad experience when bosses want to talk to me, especially if it’s a request to come into their office for a talk. It usually meant that, yes, I was being let go. (And, to date, none of those being let go had anything to do with a mistake on my part) It’s trauma caused by bad experience. I try to work on it.

  14. Kel*

    Are you being explicit about what you’re talking to them about beforehand? If you’re sending a meeting request, is the person fully aware of what the meeting is for? Or are just asking them to come to the office, with zero context. Because I’d also end up thinking I was in trouble.

    1. Lena*

      Yeah, my current manager has a bad habit of sending “I need to talk to you, come to my desk when you’re in.” IMs with no context. It gave me mini heart attacks for the first few months until I realized that’s just how he is.

  15. RJ*

    I’ve been blindsided by two toxic workplaces and four toxic bosses so even though I’m a senior level finance employee, I’m still both wary and cautious when I’m called into an impromptu meeting. There’s a level of risk in every employment situation and though I don’t phrase it out loud, I think it. I expect that due to my past history, I always will.

    1. Anona*

      Agreed. I just ask point blank what manager wants. I’m not going into a meeting with zero context. But this approach won’t work for some people.

  16. Critical Rolls*

    Here’s how I feel about it. “In trouble” is an anxious and strangely juvenile way of framing things, and I’d want to send a clear message about it right away. Managers should be communicating freely with employees, and barriers to that communication ought to be addressed immediately.

    “You seem to ask that often when I want to have a word with you. That’s not really how things work here — my desk is not the principal’s office. I’ll often have a brief chat with you to get an update or pass on information. But even if you’ve made a mistake, you’re not “in trouble.” I need to let you know to correct the issue, and how to do things differently in the future, but generally that’s a normal part of learning your role. Now, [pivot to original reason for speaking to employee].”

  17. Canadian Librarian #72*

    Yeah, it’s a bad look to ask this, especially in these words.

    However, there’s not much that’s more anxiety-inducing for an early-career employee than to be asked, “Can you come to my office?” “Please come see me when you get a chance.” And so on. Obviously the person asking knows what they’re going to talk about, but the person who is asked is immediately running down a list of the possible ways they’ve unwittingly screwed up, and mentally checking their savings account to see if they’re going to be able to make rent after being fired.

    If managers/supervisors can take the three seconds to add any hint of what the conversation will be about , or even perhaps to say “nothing serious!” it would do wonders.

    1. Canadian Librarian #72*

      Hit submit too soon: a better way for the LW’s employee to phrase this would be “anything I should be concerned about?”, not “am I in trouble?” The former should be kept to a minimum, but it’s better than casting yourself as a kindergartner who’s been monopolizing the pencil crayons.

    2. Nynaeve*

      This. And, it’s worth pointing out, that for me and least and I am sure most of the people who have these responses to these sorts of vague meeting requests, by the time I have walked to your office, adrenaline has flooded my system and I am on the cusp of full on fight or flight mode. So whatever message you were going to deliver, be it good or bad, I can’t focus on because I’m busy trying to counteract the hormones flooding my brain and either not cry (it it was bad news, or even constructive feedback) or come down from the relief high. So, I’m not internalizing whatever you’re trying to say anyway.

  18. Irish Teacher*

    I agree with those who’ve said that it’s possible rephrasing the initial comment might help in some cases. I’m just thinking of when I was subbing in a school and was away for a day my last or second last week, interviewing for a possible position for after that job ended. The next day, the deputy principal came over to me and said, “Irish Teacher, I’m very sorry to have to tell you this, but…” Yeah, my immediate thought was that either the teacher I was covering for was coming back earlier than expected and I wouldn’t get my final week or whatever was left or else I was in trouble, until she continued it with “I forgot to pass on the work you left to the people who covered your classes yesterday.”

    I was a bit more experienced than your employees, so didn’t say it but was definitely thinking it.

    And yes, for the younger members of staff, the 18, 19, 20 year olds, school may also have something to do with it. I know as a teacher, we sometimes forget just how much students assume it’s bad news when we want to speak to them. I was reminded of this very forcefully one day when a student was absent when I’d been asking whether students were planning on taking the higher or ordinary level paper in the exam. The student returned very close to the deadline, so I called her out of class to ask her rather than waiting until later in the day when we had class and the look that crossed her face when I came to the door and asked her to come outside for a moment. I had to reassure her that no, you haven’t done anything wrong. I just want to know which level you want to try in the exam.

    I do think asking it can also be…sort of preemptative. Not sure how to word what I’m thinking and I’m not saying it is exactly conscious, but…there is a sense that if you ask, “am I in trouble?” then even if you are, it tends to go a bit easier. For one thing, nobody is inclined to say “yes!” and for another, it sort of immediately sets an impression that you are aware you may be in the wrong and open to correction.

    1. New Jack Karyn*

      I’m a teacher, and I make it a point to try to pull kids aside for positive and neutral things all the time, just for this reason. They get used to me saying, “Hey, you got a minute?” and they don’t get freaked out. That way, when I do need to discuss a ‘trouble’ thing, they’re not flooded with anxiety and can actually talk with me.

  19. My Useless 2 Cents*

    I think it’s just a matter of familiarity with the working world. The more familiar you are with talking with the manager or the boss the more comfortable you are when they approach. I don’t think there is a lot that managers/bosses can do other than be friendly/approachable and not just single out employees when they do something bad.

    Although, I’ve been in the working world and out of school for more than 20 years and there are still times I feel like I am being called into the principal’s office when I have a meeting in the big bosses office. At this point, I don’t really know if I’ll out grow the feeling. I don’t think it’s imposter syndrome at play, just a really ingrained school mentality. (Always been a “good girl” and get very nervous when I break or don’t know what the rules are.)

    1. Kevin Sours*

      Honestly I think there is a *lot* that managers can do. The most important is to try to get out of their own heads. *You* know the meeting is no big deal but your employee doesn’t and can’t. Your words have more weight than you want to them to. You can’t do anything about that but you can put effort into communicating clearly. “We need to chat about the {project}” hits different from “we need to talk”.

  20. Anona*

    I don’t know of a single person in my large workplace that doesn’t feel a certain amount of concern, or even dread, when approached by management or HR. It’s very rarely to say you’ve done a good job (even if 95 percent of the time you do). We aren’t happy to see you. And I’m in my fifties. My position is equal to a manager and I still say it.

    1. Chickaletta*

      For sure. My boss is a SVP who reports directly to the CEO and even he has confided in me that he’s afraid every time the CEO walks into his office it’s a termination meeting. This feeling spans titles, experiences, age – it’s universal.

  21. Dr. Rebecca*

    I’ve been in workplaces where admonitions took the form of “Hey! Rebecca! Cut that shit out!” shouted across the factory floor, and I’ve been in “stop by and see me after you’re done teaching for the day” workplaces, and I prefer the former. Because yeah, being called on the carpet, quietly, when there’s a power differential, and knowing that you can be fired but won’t know if/why/how until the end of the day is alarming and anxiety producing. The former has three advantages: it immediately ties behavior to results, it ensures that I know I’m not getting fired or otherwise disciplined, and it allows me to go back to my day without stressing about what might happen later. Because this seems to be so endemic in your workplace, OP, are you certain you haven’t made them *feel* like they’re in trouble?

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      Follow-up: do you *need* to pull them into a meeting to praise them/give feedback? Can’t you do that in the moment/informally?

      1. Chris too*

        Yes, this is what I was wondering too!

        I’ve never worked in a tight-spaced “cube farm” place so quite likely I’m missing something – but we have lots of quick informal discussions in corridors and quiet places in the building. If I were actually called into somebody’s office it would be pretty jarring.

  22. Elizabeth West*

    “Can we talk?” is the scariest phrase ever uttered in the world of dating. “Can we meet?” and “I’d like a word” with no clarification whatsoever are the work equivalents. If the OP says this and pulls people into their office to talk privately every time they have feedback, yeah, people are going to feel like they’re in trouble or something bad is about to happen.

    If this is the case, maybe some of the feedback and praise or a minor correction can be addressed on the spot. “Great work on the Jingleheimerschmidt account, Bob,” or “Your spreadsheet redesign is great, Bob, but I’d like us to keep using the old format; it integrates better with System B.”

    1. RedinSC*

      I had a boss once who’d wander up to you and say, “can we talk” then followed by, “let’s go for a walk”

      EVERY SINGLE TIME I thought I was getting fired. Even once I figured out that this was just how he did his staff check ins.

  23. Mill Miker*

    This is such a hard feeling to shake. I recently had a conversation with my boss about how I didn’t think I was actually a good fit for the company, and that it was in both our interests to transition me out.

    Shortly after that I got booked in a meeting with grand-boss, and my gut reaction was still “Am I in trouble? Are they not happy with my performance? Are they going to fire me?” And it’s like… I had to tell myself “Yes, more-or-less. You literally asked for this. It was your own idea.”

  24. Tuba*

    OP, the blog advice is fantastic. I do want to add the element of reflection though. I’m in my 30s and *still* get the I’m in trouble feeling when I’m interacting with micromanagers that like to nitpick at every single thing. If I move a mountain and the reply is “this internal summary document describing the mountain you moved had a typo on page 7. What can we do to prevent that from happening again?” then yes, I will feel in trouble when I am called in to chat. Every time. Or similarly, if I get 10 “corrections” that are subjective notes being framed as errors it’s infuriating. You can ask me to make the change but don’t you dare call your personal love of borders on photos an error unless it’s in a style guide. If you preferred I do something another way, let me know. But don’t talk down to me or act as if your way is an objective truth. I always do feel in trouble.

    I strive to be better in my own management. I always ask myself 1) Is this a mistake or is this a preference I have? If it’s a preference I frame it as such and say I’d prefer you it this way for X, Y, and Z reasons. Do not frame differences in doing something as mistakes unless the way to do it was already outlined or truly so obvious they should have known. I also consider if there is value in the employee’s method if it’s really just a preference of mine. There have been a couple times when I caught myself and said “you know what, this is great and keep it up” after giving it more thought.

    I also echo the comments about prior managers. You don’t know the baggage folks might be taking in from prior employment. I can’t count how many times managers in my early garbage customer service jobs seemed livid at me if I didn’t do things the exact way they wanted. Sometimes the way they wanted was better, but I *still* felt in trouble due to their tone and glares.

    1. Cat*

      I agree with you about the micromanagement. My old job was insane. I had to have over and hour meeting explaining why there was a typo (out of 64 pages). It wasn’t even a document i had created or reviewed, but i was considered responsible because i was team lead.

      People would regularly get “in trouble” (written up) for minor or preferential things, or because the managers had decided they didn’t like that person.

      My one manager also used to play this game when I was new where she KNEW I didn’t know I was responsible for a particular piece of work or how to do it even if i did know i was supposed to do it. She wouldn’t say anything until immediately after it was due then asked me if i had turned in the thing.

  25. Lab Boss*

    The younger age also makes me wonder if it’s not as much genuine worry as it is trying to tell a joke. I work with college students and new hires and it seems like there’s a swing towards dark/catastrophizing humor, like if you can joke about the worst then it won’t be as scary. I’ve learned that for a lot of younger people, responding to a closed-door meeting with “Am I finally fired?” is intended more like an ice breaker than a genuine question about whether there’s a problem. Tone of voice and body language are going to have a huge impact, of course.

    (Note ahead of the comments that I know not EVERY younger person jokes this way, it’s just a trend I’ve noticed as being rather common).

  26. Daisy-dog*

    I rolled out a performance review process at a company that hadn’t had a formal process in quite a long time. My number one recommendation was to schedule the review in advance. (We had warehouse/technician positions that didn’t have set calendars.) Because I knew that so many people who were being called into a closed-door meeting with their manager would panic about being in trouble.

    Yes, it is something that is super common with those that are new to the business. But also it’s super common for those who aren’t.

  27. AngieM*

    I’m in my 40’s and still feel like I’m in trouble whenever I have a meeting with my manager. I think the reason for me is that I never receive feedback, good or bad, and in general he doesn’t talk with me at all. When I approach him for a question or concern I have about something I’m working on, I get scolded for interfering or overstepping. I don’t understand why this happens. So when a meeting request does come my way from him, yes, I always feel and sometimes will ask if I’m in trouble. I need to mentally prepare myself for whatever may happen. I usually just try and deal with it as it comes.

    1. allathian*

      You have a bad manager, I’m sorry. He may assign you work, but otherwise he’s not managing.

  28. Just Me*

    I admittedly did this about six months ago leading into a meeting, and I’m definitely older than the age bracket OP mentions. Sometimes this is meant as a joke, and sometimes it’s just concern or anxiety that comes from being new-er to the workplace and not knowing what to expect from professional 1:1’s. I honestly think OP might be taking it *too* seriously–she could just respond with a breezy, “No, why would you be?” before launching into business, or “No, we just need to quickly go over the protocol for xyz…”

  29. Uhhh*

    Although I rarely say it, I generally think that whenever I get asked to my bosses office or HR. I’m in my late 30’s and in a fairly high position in my organization (my direct boss is the COO) Both my boss and the he folks are really great people, but I have had some horrible managers and been disciplined for doing exactly what my manager (in a previous role) told me to do in writing, and had my position eliminated after vastly exceeding my goals (and beating previous performance records for the role). The previous person in the told that did so got a large promotion. I say all that to say this, many times the reaction can be due to previous trauma a person has experienced in a work environment causing them to be overly watchful and seeing red flags where there may not be any, just due to their experiences

  30. Ozzie*

    I have had managers who simply said “can I speak with you later?” without any context whatsoever, and never in a cheerful tone. They also were not good managers. This came on the heels of a job where “come to my office” resulted in firings more than once, and scoldings regularly. It can be conditioning from previous experiences, even in professional settings. Explaining how this works in a healthy environment – and also maybe not saying it in a way that can come across as doom and gloom to someone who has seen this turn out the worst – is good feedback to give, but recognize that it can be really, really hard to unlearn this, and build trust in actual good managers.

    1. Ozzie*

      I will say, I also have an anxiety disorder. I’ve explained this to people before – the kind of reaction an ask like this can cause with no context – and my manager and my now-boss who is amazing have gotten really good about scheduling these types of thing with given context – even something as brief as “to talk about job transition” or whatever. It makes the anxiety zero, and imo giving context is good practice in pretty much all contexts anyway.

  31. Where's My Mojo*

    I’ve been guilty of thinking this before, and I often think it now too. It’s definitely “baggage” I’ve carried with me from earlier jobs, where yelling at employees / grossly understaffing / blaming and spot-firing / public shaming was commonplace. I think Alison’s advice to gently establish norms at the current job is a great idea — I had a similar chat with my current manager and that made all the difference in our interactions.

  32. Somebody*

    Well, from my first job at 16 until starting my current employer at 28, I can attest that the only time managers or HR wanted to speak with someone was 99% of the time they were in trouble.

    There’s always a reason why people act the way they do.

  33. Flare*

    I have been managing people for roughly 25 years, and I can count on about half of one hand the number of times someone I wanted to talk to has been “in trouble,” all of which were times their behavior was SO egregious and aggressive it was clear there was going to be no saving this relationship. I have been asked by folks if they were in trouble many times, though, and I usually just say nope, I don’t do “in trouble.” Worst case, I do, ” we have something we need to figure out,” and then we do, and then no one is in trouble. Some of them need to have the experience of a corrective conversation before they believe that, but I mean, I have no interest in making someone feel crappy about their effort, and I think that’s not a productive strategy, and it’s totally worthwhile to me to explain that at length.

  34. Karak*

    It’s a bit tiring that people are saying it’s “immature” to communicate very clearly with their boss without a performative song and dance. They want to know if they’re in trouble, they asked.

    The employee needs to know if they need to steel themselves for the conversation. Talking at them comes off as corporate-speak. Be blunt back.

    “No, you’re not. If you ever are, I’ll start the chat with “there’s an issue”.”

    And maybe coach employees to a more general “is everything good?” rather than “am I in trouble?”

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