the top boss wants to meet with me and I don’t know why … is this bad?

A reader writes:

I work as a college instructor. I got an email request for a meeting with the president of our college for this coming Tuesday.

I called to confirm the meeting with his secretary and also to ask how I could prepare for the meeting. Her response was he just wants to have a conversation.

The meeting request was just sent to me by his secretary and all my interactions with my supervisor and our vice president have been positive up to this point.

Should I be concerned I’m getting reprimanded or terminated?

It’s highly unlikely that the college president wants to meet with you to reprimand you or fire you; those are things that would normally come from your manager (or with a firing, sometimes HR). Someone multiple levels up from you isn’t normally going to be the one handling those things, unless you messed up in a truly spectacular way (meaning a media attention/lawsuits/ruined careers sort of way, and you’d probably know if that had happened).

Things this meeting could be about:

– he’s meeting with a smattering of people across the organization to get input/take temperatures/do a general meet-and-greet (this is the most likely, if I were putting money on it)
– he just found out he was childhood best friends with your aunt and wants to meet you
– your family is extremely rich and he wants you to hit them up for money
– he wants your input on something involving your boss (this one is unlikely given his position, but if he weren’t the president and was instead a few levels down, it could be possible)
– you’re winning an award
his DNA test revealed you have the same dad (probably not)
– all sorts of other, non-horrible things we can’t predict

Think about all of the times you needed to meet with some at work about something mundane and routine. It’s highly, highly likely that this will be in that category.

To make this more broadly applicable, all of the above would also be true even if this weren’t a college president. If this were just your boss’s boss or one more level up, I’d still be telling you the same thing. The only change I’d make would be to add even more non-scary possibilities to the list, often logistical things related to work projects.

People have a tendency to freak out when someone above them wants to meet and they don’t know the topic … but the vast, vast majority of the time it’s for something very mundane.

{ 240 comments… read them below }

  1. I edit everything*

    There’s nothing more anxiety-inducing than a “come see me” email from the boss with no context. Bosses, don’t do this!

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      Came here to say this. When I became a boss, I always gave a reason even if it was a reprimand. There’s a way to write it that doesn’t set people off in the interim. Or I’ll schedule it day of as close as I can to the meeting time.

      And for the love of bananas, don’t send the message a day or several days in advance with no context, especially right before a weekend!

      Be empathetic!

      1. Amber T*

        I was the kid that always dreaded being sent to the principal’s office – I was typically a pretty good kid. The ONE time it happened I ended up being sent home sick.

        My old CFO used to ping me asking me to swing by randomly, and that would give me the same sick feeling.

        Bosses – don’t do this!

        1. Richard Hershberger*

          I was sent to the counselor once in junior high, after I took a swing at a guy who totally had it coming. He looked at me and said, or words to this effect, “I have never seen you before, so you clearly aren’t a troublemaker. Get out of my office and don’t let me see you again.” My kids today have far more interactions with their counselors, who actually counsel. I’m not sure if this is a sign of the times or a better school system.

          1. Tai*

            Counselor isn’t supposed to be discipline, we’re supposed to be helpful! When I pull students I often begin by introducing myself and informing them that they are not in trouble! I am sorry this happened to you.

            1. Richard Hershberger*

              This was in the 1970s. My sense was that whatever the theory, in junior high school they were pretty much scheduling classes and discipline. In high school they were involved in college applications. With my kids they are much more about counseling.

              1. Rex Libris*

                Yep, I was there too… I think “counseling” at the time meant telling you to knock off whatever behavior they decided was socially unacceptable, and pushing you into either the vocational or college prep track, and that was pretty much it.

                1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

                  My mom’s counselor, also in the 80’s, took it upon himself to introduce her to the nice Christian young men a few years older than her that she had missed meeting because she’d just moved to the area. And when I say “introduce” I mean calling her into his office when said young men happened to stop by, and telling them, “Oh, MomHorde heard so much about you and wanted to meet you!” My mother just about died of mortification. (Grandma also needed to tell him Very Firmly that my mother WOULD be going to college.)

                  I am happy to report that none of the adults involved in my education considered it their duty to introduce me to morally upstanding young men.

              2. Kit Kendrick*

                Mine was “counseling” in the 1980’s but my counselor was one of those adults under the bizarre misapprehension that if you just told the bullies that what they were doing really hurt your feelings they would feel bad and everything would be peaches and roses. Those meetings were almost as fun as the times a teacher sent me out of the room and told everyone to be nice to me because I was having a hard time. (Their hearts were in the right place, but — just no.) If only either the counselor or teachers decided to address the kids tormenting me, now *that* might have helped.

            2. Rage*

              There is a difference between “guidance counselor” and “school counselor”. When I was in high school, we had a “guidance counselor” but no school counselors. Our guidance counselor did meet with some kids who were in trouble, but mostly just spent his time trying to make sure his students didn’t get into college. *eye roll*

            3. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

              > Counselor isn’t supposed to be discipline… When I pull students

              When I was at high school getting pulled out of class was half the punishment. No-one got pulled out of class for positive reasons. When we had a “you’re the top students we expect great things” meeting that was during lunch. And everyone knew exactly why “you, and you, and you… are required to attend a scholarship meeting at lunchtime in the principal’s office”.

              So going back to class after getting pulled out you had to explain to everyone (in small groups) why you’d been pulled out, what happened, and that the gossip was wrong.

            1. Cedrus Libani*

              That’s how it was for me too, in the early 00s. I went to an affluent public high school where literally everyone went to college. There were a few counselors, but they mostly did schedules and handled the logistics of all those applications. They might have tried harder if someone actually asked for help, but most of us learned what we needed to know from older classmates and the Internet. They did meet with all the seniors to make sure we knew that safety schools exist, but the guy who did my talk had transferred from a nearby elementary school and was on his literal first day working with high school students…and it was early in the day at that.

              (I did not know this. I walked in, then some guy I’d never seen before actually laughed at my list of schools. Harvard and MIT are too competitive, you should be more realistic, why not apply to Nearby College instead? Mind you, at that high school, Nearby College was basically a swear word! I was furious, and whipped out my resume at the guy, making it clear that I’d earned the right to apply to top-tier schools and there would be hell to pay if he tried to stop me. Not the reaction he expected. Fortunately, my AP Biology teacher came to the office shortly afterwards and found him looking rattled. He told the story; she explained what he’d done wrong, but apologized on my behalf, telling him that even the nicest of seniors have zero chill this time of year.)

          2. Nynaeve*

            Probably a little of both. I was in HS in the 90s and there were 3 counselors for a population of ~2500 students. There was no way any actually counselling ever happened. They did schedules, and maybe some post-HS planning assistance. I saw mine exactly twice in 4 years, once when I needed to drop a class, and once when I lettered in Academics and didn’t have time to go to the ceremony where the physical thing was awarded.

          3. bamcheeks*

            I had exactly the same experience! The other girl (who was far more frequently in trouble, and also two years older than me) had left by the time the headteacher got around to seeing us. I claimed I had no idea what her name was, who she was friends with, or why we’d had a fight. The headteacher peered at me and then said, “I’m not going to see you again, am I?” and I said fervently, “I very much hope not” and got told to run along.

        2. Leonora*

          Being called to the principal’s office was the first thing to pop into my mind, too! It’s always worse if it’s your first encounter with that person, because you have no prior experience to give you an idea of how things will go.

          1. Kit*

            Umpteenth-ing that sentiment – my ex-manager used to do this, just an email or a phone call that was “come see me” and panic.

            Curiously, the actual CEO of the company didn’t trigger that reaction because I’d gotten to know him when I was handling the front desk and screening his calls (and because it’s hard to be too worried when your introduction is “No, Mr. Surname is my dad, please call me Nickname.”). My manager, though? Augh!

        3. Warrior Princess Xena*

          I got called to the principal’s office once and only once in my entire time in high school. I was nearly in tears when I got there. I’d won 2nd place in a contest and she was giving me the check…

        1. freshly cut couch*

          Right? Sometimes it is bad and they can’t really say “come see me. it’s bad”

        2. Dovasary Balitang*

          I’ve noticed a lot of 45+ crowd have a very interesting relationship with ellipses. I don’t get it. I never wanted to be someone who is made anxious by punctuation but, well, here we are.

          1. Anatical Tree Hugger*

            Somewhat off topic:

            Your comment reminds me of the scene in “Mamma Mia” (the movie) when the daughter is reading from her mom’s teen diary. “I met this guy. We took a tour of the island, then he offered to show me how to sail, and then…”

          2. Kanga*

            My father in law…. every text is punctuated… like this… as Alison would say, I’ve learned it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry…

        3. Kevin Sours*

          If it’s so bad you can’t say what it is, it’s bad enough to say “drop everything and come see me now”. Some things there is no good way to announce so the only way out is to get through it as quick as possible.

          1. bay 327*

            or just, um, drop by?

            don’t misunderstand, loving family, but it kind of started to urk me with mom insisting I come to her, when I’ll track her down if I want to talk.

    2. Let me librarian that for you*

      It’s along the lines of “I will confront you on Wednesday.”

      Incidentally I was told by my supervisor yesterday that in 2 weeks during our major annual event there is a confrontation (literally “airing of grievances”) scheduled with the head of another department. The dread of anticipating this nightmare is unbearable.

      1. Knope Knope Knope*

        Oh my please send in an update about this airing of grievances! Also, this is worst boss of the year territory if you have a question related to it!

      2. Kelly*

        We had a “beatings will continue until morale improves” meeting at my last job. It was supposed to be an evaluation as to why everyone was so miserable (hint: the owner had narcissistic and micromanaging tendencies), but turned into a meeting telling us where the door was if we weren’t happy. I hope yours is better than that.

      3. Resident Catholicville, U.S.A.*

        My boss once warned me that the head of a department, who was on a rampage about various things, wanted to me with my boss and I to discuss a problem (not specified). We got to the meeting, the head of department ranted about a problem with my clients I had no idea was happening, and when I cheerfully said, “Oh! I didn’t know that was an issue- here’s how I can fix that!” the anger deflated out of him like a sad balloon.

        Sometimes, these things work out.

        1. Pierrot*

          My mom had a meeting like this a couple of months ago. She was in a comittee, and a Director at her employer who she had never spoken to got upset about a comment that she made and a stance that her department was taking (she is not a supervisor or manager). She had about a week to prepare for this meeting.

          She said that for the first 10 minutes, she just let him rant and rave, but by the end of the conversation, she said that he was singing praises about her department. She did not back down on her opinion, but she acknowledged the Director’s concerns in a way that made him feel like they ultimately wanted the same things. I don’t know how she does it, but it’s pretty impressive.

          1. Firefighter (Metaphorical)*

            Your mum is (a) a superhero and (b) my, personal, hero, from this day forth.

          2. londonedit*

            That’s how I try to handle my more challenging authors. Every now and then I’ll get an email from one of them blowing up about a MAJOR PROBLEM that is a total disaster and incredibly enraging to them, and I must call them IMMEDIATELY. So I call them and they rant and rave about how it’s all so totally unacceptable, and then eventually once their rant has run out of steam I discover the usually very minor and easily fixable issue they’ve discovered, so I say OK that’s fine, we can fix that…and then they’re happy because they’ve got their rant out of their system and by the end of the call they’re thanking me for understanding and being so amazing to work with. Sometimes people just want to have a whinge and a rant.

            1. JustaTech*

              I wish the people who do that about something I did (or they think I did) would just call me directly to yell rather than what they choose to do, which is call my director and yell at him, and then he feels the need to pass along the “I am very disappointed” without 1) clearing up the issue with the other person and 2) clarifying from me what actually happened.

              It’s very frustrating.

        2. Madame Arcati*

          Similarly to Resident (although mercifully minus most of the fear or anger) there was a “we have a Problem” group meeting amongst managers about four levels above me, but for various reasons nobody senior could go and it went down the chain and ended up with me. I looked at the Problem and the agenda item from my team. Let’s say each team had a number of missing pieces of otter grooming equipment and the bosses were to come up with a strategy to fix things.
          I went along, rather intimidated I must say, then when it was my turn I said, “oh well I just went in the brush cupboard and found all our missing equipment and ticked it off the list, so our team total is now at zero. It was pretty easy as I’m in and out of that cupboard all the time”.
          The “mic drop” wasn’t really a thing in those days but looking back, that was very much the feeling!

      4. Crocdilasaurus*

        Omg, I would be mentally popping popcorn and pouring a bevvie! Can you reframe this to yourself as something wildly hysterical in its sheer WTFery?

      5. Petty Betty*

        Any way you can surreptitiously record the confrontation, for research purposes, of course?

    3. Daniel*

      There have been cases where I’ve had to whip out a quick email to one of my temp staff just to say “come over” because it had to be a face-to-face conversation and I had six different things on my plate, so I couldn’t explain any further.

      But, recently I’ve changed this slightly to “come on over (nothing bad).” The reduction in anxiety that I am seeing from them is palpable.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I will sometimes say “need to consult”–that focuses on processes, and puts them in the role of “the person with information.” So they don’t feel so on the spot.

      2. Crocdilasaurus*

        There is a strong philosophy on this blog that management means never having to append two words to say “nothing bad.” I commend you for having realized the technical debt incurred by that the hit to morale and the time needed to reassure someone more than outweighs the extra keystrokes.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          No, there’s really not. I’ve written many times that managers should try to include the topic if at all possible. But as an employee you can’t make them do that, and it’s to your benefit to work on not freaking out if you don’t know the topic.

          1. Crocodilasaurus*

            You have said many times that managers’ time is worth more than individual contributors’ time, and therefore adding context to a meeting or request doesn’t make sense due to the time it takes. That sentiment comes up in the comments section as well, probably bc it is modeled in letter responses.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              No, I haven’t. Of course managers’ time is worth more to the company in dollars (in most cases) but the rest doesn’t follow. What I’ve said is that managers should try to give a topic when they can, while acknowledging that there are times when you can’t because doing it would reveal the thing that you really need to discuss in person (for example, staffing changes or a death). And that on the employee side, employees need to realize that they can’t control how their managers handle this and so should work on getting comfortable with not always knowing. For example, this Slate piece:

              If there’s something specific you can point to that says otherwise, I’d be very interested to see that!

              1. Lisa*

                Referring to what Crocodilasaurus has said – just saw my comment was threaded under Alison’s response even though I was replying to what Crocodilasaurus said.

            2. Amber T*

              I really don’t think it takes that much time to write “Can you come by? Question on the ABC report” vs “Can you come by?”

            3. Anatical Tree Hugger*

              No…? I don’t think that’s something I’ve read in AAM’s advice. Genuinely curious, do any examples come to mind?

        2. Ginger Cat Lady*

          I disagree! I feel like you’re stringing unrelated things together to make the worst possible interpretation, and that interpretation is not correct!

        3. DataSci*

          I can’t say I’ve ever seen that. There’s a strong pro-management sentiment but it comes out more as “all managers know more / are more senior than all ICs”, and even that’s more from a subset of commenters than from Alison herself.

    4. Lacey*

      Seriously. It’s almost never been anything bad, but bosses do it all the time.

      And once it was to tell me that I needed to do better, but she couldn’t give me any specific feedback on what would be an improvement. So, you know.

      1. Kacihall*

        the assistant ops director came over to my desk and told me that we were going to get coffee, come on. when I said I was good and went back to working, she basically said, nope, you’re walking with us.

        one person had been fired the day before (though we weren’t told any it at work, I learned about it through text from another coworker who was worried she would also be fired – and since I shared her opinions on the drama, I was also potentially on the chopping block.)

        I was a mess until I realized that the coworker who earned me was the only person from our half of the office not on our walk. then I was upset because they lied to us to get her alone in the office and couldn’t have just brought her into a conference room.

        (Pretty sure the only reason I wasn’t also fired is because I have a strict policy of only talking work things on work chats. texting on personal phones doesn’t leave a record for the bosses to read and interpret in the worst ways possible. but I’m still l looking for a new job because two people were basically fired for making valid complaints about a supervisor and then complaining back and forth in chat with each other when the initial complaints were dismissed.)

        1. EssEss*

          Frequently they want the other workers out of the area so that the fired employee can go back to their desk and pack up their things without drama. Simply calling the fired worker into a conference room wouldn’t give them the opportunity to clean out their desk quietly.

    5. Era*

      “Can we chat? (re: holiday request)” or “do you have time for a talk (routine chat)” is so easy and reduces so much stress. I’ve been fortunate enough to have managers that either took it into account already or responded well to requests for details.

      I’m not sure how to format requests to talk when it is something bad, though! But giving an overall topic probably still eases worries. “I’ve got feedback about the last event” is better even if that feedback is negative.

      All of this is of course a great reason to have regular 1:1s to put unpleasant topics into, though!

    6. MuniTaxLawyer*

      Yup. I remember getting a “Please come see me at your earliest convenience” email from my grandboss when I was still very junior. I went right away to wait outside his office, where (through the closed door) it sounded like someone was getting something of a talking-to. When it was my turn, it turned out that I had had a good performance review and earned a small merit raise. That was nice, and a relief, but why put me through like 20 minutes of worry?

      1. Person from the Resume*

        He probably didn’t think he was putting you through 20 minutes of worry. You were a good performer and he’s giving you good news, why should you be anxious about seeing him; he’s a nice guy.

    7. Ruby*

      My old boss used to schedule things he labeled as “HR Meetings.” It was always someone was moving in or out of the group, but it was very stressful, especially for new people.
      He was a great boss otherwise!

    8. Sharkie*

      I had that from HR first thing Monday morning. I asked my boss what was going on they had no clue. I showed up white as a ghost and shaking only to have HR laugh and say ” oh no youre no in trouble!” .
      They wanted to talk to me to fill out a random happiness survey. I burst into tears. Not my best moment but come on.

      1. Mrs. Pommeroy*

        Die they consider the happiness survey filled out after you burst into tears? I mean, it’s quite the statement ;)

      2. Sally Rhubarb*

        That sounds like something Denholm Reynholm would pull, after yelling at you about keeping your stress low

        1. Let’s just put this fire with the rest of the fire*

          +1 for this reference, though Jen probably should have been fired.

    9. Guacamole Bob*

      Or “Got a sec?” out of the blue over IM. We went through a tumultuous period at my agency where getting one of those would immediately have me assuming the sender was quitting or that there was another reorg.

      “Got a sec to talk about that llama hoof thing?” or “Got a sec? Might have a new assignment for you” or whatever takes slightly more effort but is so worth it.

      1. Sharkie*

        Or “got a second? I need to tell you how getting guac at chipotle is costing the company too much?” ;)

    10. executive assistant sports*

      As an executive assistant I send so many meeting requests like this and it’s SO important for both reducing anxiety and having a productive meeting that everyone knows what to expect. For meet and greets/casual check-ins with longer-tenured staff, I usually do an initial reach-out via IM or other casual channel and acknowledge the “please report to the principal’s office” vibes, then give a general topic if there is one. Something like “absolutely nothing is wrong, [big boss] just wants to check in with you individually to get your thoughts about how things are going for you and [organization/department/etc.] more generally.” Then I make sure the boss is prepared to make it a really positive experience for the employee so that it’s culturally understood that these meetings aren’t for doom reasons.

      At my org, actual feedback/doom meetings don’t really happen with anyone skip-level (or not without the direct manager there).

    11. Sangamo Girl*

      We had a boss that would leave “See me” stickies on desks. A colleague and I marched into his office after he did it one too many times and told him he had to stop because we thought that we were fired every time he did it. (It was a place that was back stabby and political.)

      For the rest of his tenure he still left stickies that said, “See me.” But they were followed by a row of hand drawn check boxes that said things like
      * You are not fired
      * The head honcho’s office has not called
      * I need to talk about the TPS Reports

    12. Educator*

      I agree 100% that bosses should always give the meeting topic whenever they can. It’s horrible to make employees anxious unnecessarily–and most people like to be prepared!

      But also, as the boss, there are some times when I genuinely need to have a conversation in person, and I either strategically don’t want–or am not allowed–to say more ahead of time. For example, a potential lateral move could be perceived as something either good or bad to a particular employee, and I can’t put information about it in an invite without kicking off the rumor mill. So I need to be vague until we have a conversation. Or maybe I know a new policy is going to impact a particular employee, so I want to talk to them about it before a big announcement. I’m not ready for anyone but this employee to know about it (and only then in the context of a full, personal conversation), so I really can’t say more in an invite or message.

      I think that, when we work in environments where these things have to be scheduled electronically in advance, we need to assume a certain amount of goodwill and effort to balance needs. If you work for a company with a healthy culture, your boss should not be a disciplinary figure whose whims you must fear. They should be an ally in your work and your growth. I know my boss would never randomly fire me–either I would need to do something truly outrageous, we would have had many conversations about an issue with my performance, or my role would no longer be needed. I’ve explicitly told my employees the same.

      1. Good Enough For Government Work*

        The thing is, anxiety is not always rational.

        I spent two years working for a boss who would send ‘can we have a word?’ or, worse, ‘need to speak to you asap!’ messages at 10am and not actually meet with me until 5:30, when it was then a roughly 70-30 chance of being a bollocking over something unbearably petty versus being something totally mundane.

        That was 5+ years ago, and I’ve never had a boss do that to me since. Nevertheless, while the utter terror of an out-of-the-blue “can we have a word?” has faded, it’s never ever going away.

        1. GythaOgden*

          Yeah, but as many people with an anxiety disorder will general tell you, you can manage it in a way that it doesn’t spill out over other people and make them fearful of ever triggering you. Rather, you can learn to work with your triggers and not let them rule you. There will always be times when they get the better of you — I’m just coming down off a surprisingly stubborn attack triggered by a fear I thought I’d wrangied into submission — but you are the only one who can manage your feelings, and others get to have needs and processes that are orthogonal to yours, so you need to work out what suits you best mentally, emotionally and neurologically in order to mitigate the impact of the attacks.

          I used to be like this with one of my line managers early in my job and it always discomfited her — which in turn then made her a bit defensive when talking to me. I realised fairly quickly that I had to get at least outward signs of anxiety under control if I not only wanted to tread water but actively grow and succeed.

          While it’s a normal reaction, excessive and obvious anxiety can put the other person on edge and make them feel as if they’re doing something wrong even when they’re not and they need to be discreet in written correspondence outside the private meeting. The worst of it came when my boss had to tell me that she was leaving, but she spent a large chunk of the meeting soothing my anxiety — that I was the one on the chopping block for some imaginary lapse in concentration despite huge layers of red tape standing between me and being sacked — herself.

          I think she found it annoying and it gave me a clue that while, in small doses, anxiety can almost be rather cute and people will feel sorry for you, in larger amounts it can have an impact on other people and their needs, impose a burden on them of managing your feelings, and that, in order to survive in the working world when I’d not lasted a year at any previous paid work and then spent just short of a decade on incapacity benefits, I needed to get a grip on my own self.

          We can’t control managers’ behaviour — we can only control our own. To that end, anxiety needs to be managed, and it can only be done by ourselves. Being anxious to the point where other people are constantly having to manage your feelings even in situations where it’s their news they’re sharing with you is unfair on them. I’d already come to the conclusion I needed help with it — and it wasn’t easy for the first few years I was back at work, because of the genuine neurological challenges that had made it hard for me to hold down a job — but once I realized it was my own job to manage my own anxieties and not up to other people to appease them, it got a lot more under control. (I hate hate hate having to appease my mother’s catastrophising anxiety about me which is only getting worse as she gets older. So, at the same time as needing genuine therapy for my own demons, which are legion, I can see myself in her and understand from the opposite point of view how someone else’s excessive anxiety directed at me that I constantly have to either appease or hold at arm’s length when I should really be spending as much time as I can with my parents while they’re still here impacts my own well-being and thus act to try and not be the one that everyone else has to serve emotionally. I love my mum but since she’s always been the one in charge she finds it difficult to admit her own weaknesses, and NGL it’s giving me a lot of insight into how challenging it probably was for her coping with me being in the same headspace about 15 years ago.)

          The turning point came when I had to get actual medical help when my husband got very ill and I was going to have to step up to the plate in a big way and shed all the residual, trivial fears that were consuming my mind and would make it difficult being there to help him through what was a terrifying time. Since I started taking the meds I’m on now, I still do get panic attacks and other symptoms of anxiety, but it’s under control enough I don’t need external validation from my colleagues and can wait for my therapist’s appointment to unpack all that crap in the right place. And I far, far prefer not living in constant fear of the unknown or whatever — I’m sure my colleagues also appreciate it. The time it hit home was when I was in the throes of an attack and had a very public reaction and saw my colleague roll her eyes and text our supervisor with ‘GO is having an episode again’. It hurt but I kind of realized that an open demonstration of panic over literally just a water spill wasn’t something I wanted to be known for.

          The lesson to take away is as Alison said — essentially, you’re the centre of your own world but not the centre of others. You owe it to yourself to learn to handle anxiety in the moment. I’m terrible with suspense — often the outcome is much less earthshattering than you think and actually, the more you go through these events the greater an understanding you have of them and a greater handle you have on the anxiety. As autistic, it’s something I’ve had to learn to handle because it’s harder for me to compartmentalise and rationalise anxiety, but since I like having a job and working as a team, respect my colleagues enough not to put them through the results of an autistic panic attack and being able to exist outside my anxiety and see the wood for the trees is awesome (it was like stepping out of a prison in which I’d been born), it helped me to put the work in to manage it myself.

          And your therapist or a clinical psychologist is the one that should help manage it, not your boss.

      2. allathian*

        You have a point. That said, regular 1:1s with managers help a lot in mitigating that anxiety of being called to the principal’s office (not that I ever was at school but never mind).

        I’m so very grateful that I’m in an environment where it literally doesn’t count unless it’s in writing. When things were tense with a former manager, I once got up in the middle of our 1:1 and said something like “I’m sorry, I can’t take this in, could we please take this over email?” and leaving to bawl my eyes out in the washroom. I could do that because our meetings required confirmation in writing about things that we’d discussed and agreed after the fact anyway. It didn’t help that this particular manager was very feelings-oriented and I just wasn’t able to manage both my own reactions to and her emotions about some corrective feedback she had to give. I could deal with the feedback itself and I acknowledge that it was both appropriate and necessary at the time, but not with her getting upset at my reaction.

        I vastly prefer getting all news, even bad news, over email so that I can react to it in private, with an opportunity to ask for clarification and to get confirmation that I’ve understood the message in person or on camera afterwards. It helps that I’m comms-adjacent and that everyone I work with is a competent writer.

        I hope that when you spring potentially unpleasant news on people without being able (or willing) to give them a heads-up ahead of time, you’re also understanding of and sympathetic to any less than professional reactions to that news and don’t punish your reports for simply being human.

        My current manager’s never had to give me any corrective feedback of the kind that would elicit an emotional reaction from me in the two years she’s been my manager, but if she ever did, I trust her to give me the space I need to react to it, regardless of the format of the feedback. She certainly won’t require me to manage her emotions (if any) about it.

    13. Melicious*

      Yes yes please! Small company (<10 people), we all knew we weren’t doing well financially. We were told about a whole company meeting happening on Monday. They TOLD US ON FRIDAY. It ended up being a buy-out, and we all kept our jobs, but DO NOT DO THIS.

    14. TrainerGirl*

      100% THIS.

      It’s always been my experience that no one makes you wait for good news. This kind of cryptic meeting, if just for information or conversation, is completely unnecessary. I guess it doesn’t occur to some that the invitee would be stressing because they’ve received no information, but this really is the worst.

      I once had a director who called an all-hands meeting in our department, and even made one person come into the office while she was on maternity leave (she was working PT). In the end, we had several openings and she wanted to ask people to stop gossiping about who would get the positions. Folks were enraged, but the director was completely nonplussed about why we were all worried.

    15. Tarah*

      “ but the vast, vast majority of the time it’s for something very mundane.”

      Lol someone didn’t work for Ty Thompson as a principal and it shows

    16. je ne sais pas*


      Years ago a direct colleague of mine was called in for a meeting with our manager and HR. He was told he was layed off.
      A day or two later I was called in for a meeting with our manager and HR. I went to that meeting feeling very nervous and fearing the worst, though thankfully in my case they had good news.

    17. Blarg*

      Last year I got an email from my federal project officer (the person in charge of my org’s grant) that said “can I call you?” I spun into a panic about whatever mistake I must have made that was going to put our funding at risk, my job, my reputation. We’d applied for $500k that year and gotten $400k, which was workable but surely I’d screwed it up.

      “So we are able to give you the full $500k after all. We forgot to tell you. It’s already reflected in [various federal systems].”

      1. Blarg*

        (And to be clear, she didn’t want to put it in her email that she forgot to tell us, thus the “can I call you?” rather than “yay, you get more money!” since I guess the notification was technically late. However, you can always give me more grant funds!)

    18. Natebrarian*

      I’m in academic librarianship, in a role that’s very relationship based (i.e., working with academic departments). I had a boss who used to schedule 8:30 am meetings, but she’d do it after 5 the night before. This was before everyone had phones, so it’s not like I went home and logged in to check my work calendar in the evening.

      More than once, I’d be in the building at that time, but I’d be chatting with a faculty or staff member from one of our departments, not realizing I was supposed to be in a meeting upstairs.

      Now as a manager, I can tell you that I would NEVER do this to someone. Nothing is that much of an emergency.

    19. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

      I know! I try not to do this even to my direct reports who I talk to all the time!

    20. Goldenrod*

      “Bosses, don’t do this!”

      Totally! As an EA who used to arrange these kinds of meetings, I would always add, “it’s nothing to worry about!” or “don’t worry, it’s nothing bad!”

      The person I supported was a monster, so people would be scared – but I think I would do this anyway.

      And in my example, they had won an award, and boss wanted to be the one to deliver the good news. So Alison was spot on in suggesting that.

  2. ursula*

    A friend recently went though this exact scenario, and the meeting turned out to be so the president could ask friend to join the university’s task force on queer inclusion (or a similar diversity initiative). It turned out to be the kind of frustrating, public, and toothless work that none of the tenured faculty want to do, so I guess they figured that a visibly queer but very junior (and vulnerable) tenure-track person wouldn’t feel comfortable declining. It also didn’t count towards his tenureship application, nor his teaching time, nor his official service contributions to his department, so it really was an imposition.

    I started out intending this to be comforting, and I can’t tell where it ended. Anyway it was at least theoretically about a university-wide “opportunity.””

    1. Juicebox Hero*

      Your friend wasn’t reprimanded or fired, at least, just saddled with annoying “optional” work. That’s comforting, right? Sorta? Kinda?

      1. ursula*

        It wasn’t disciplinary, or to be fired, or any of those things that most of us would worry about! That was my point lol

    2. Siege*

      This was my thought, but more positive: the president has an opportunity in mind (that they will plan to compensate you for) or has read/seen/heard something that piqued his interest in your field of expertise and has questions about it/about future projections for it. It’s surprising how often some rando shows up and has questions about your expertise, in my limited experience.

    3. Richard Hershberger*

      Given that there is no upside to doing this, I wonder if there is any downside to half-assing it. Many years ago, when I worked for WalMart, my direct manager, whom I adored, talked me into joining the safety committee. It was a similar situation in that it was time away from my actual job, with no accommodation made for this time. I decided to take it seriously at first, but when I pointed out to the store manager that the fire extinguishers were overdue for servicing, and this was a legal mandate, she blew me off as this wasn’t in the budget. From that point on I treated the committee meetings as a coffee break, because they clearly were just for show.

      1. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

        They generally try to pick a victim who will feel obliged not to half-arse it.

        We get it a lot with first nations people, where being a visible minority means that clueless racists often expect “the aboriginal” to both represent all first nations *and* cheerfully do as much extra work as that representative as required. They’ll be honoured to do so. (and, obviously, the racists will be horrified when called out and say things like “I didn’t mean that” and “you’re taking this the wrong way” and so on. But the simple, brutal answer is: you’re imposing unpaid work on someone because of their race).

        This is so pervasive that there are lots of articles about “cultural load” and how unfair and downright impossible it can be.

    4. bananaphobia*

      I’m also in academia, and think this is the likeliest scenario. The president is putting together a new “task force” and wants OP to participate. I hope that OP can negotiate this as part of service toward tenure and/or course release if the request is participation in a major project.

            1. KateM*

              IMO, if you insist on sunbathing on the office roof in a Speedo of without a Speedo, your boss should consider you not wearing a company badge during that as a positive thing.

      1. That's 'Senior Engineer Mate' to you.*

        In the before times several of my caffeine-dependent coworkers used to go in on a large quantity of coffee beans a couple of times a year. There were many jokes about “your dealer sent a package” and “how did that get past the sniffer dogs at the airport”.

        And it did not take the boss long to ask whether perhaps the office could get some of the special coffee too. He didn’t send an email asking for a meeting with the organiser, though, he just fronted up at the person’s desk and said “can I join the deal so the office gets some of the good stuff?”

  3. Llama Llama*

    The times I have met with people multiple levels above me, it was to talk about myself. I knew this ahead of time and prepped by having a speil about myself and questions for them.

    1. Khatul Madame*

      This is a great suggestion.
      A scenario where the VIP wants to talk about the LW’s department or supervisor (whether it’s just a general inquiry or he is investigating some kind of issue) also needs some mental preparation – so the LW doesn’t say anything they would regret later*.

      *This doesn’t mean they need to lie that everything is fine when their department is full of bees; but think through the consequences of telling unadorned truth vs plausible lies, and decide on the course of action.

    2. Mints*

      Same, I would suggest OP preps almost like an interview, but with a very warm/friendly audience. Just a little about your background, current projects, what you’re hoping to do in the next year or so. Uber-boss might want to know “How do you think the university is doing?” “Where do you hope the university improves?” – I like to have an answer to this, but a very watered down version of a true complaint, or something that they’re already working on (e.g. “I think we’ve struggled with silos in the past, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the new brown bag lunches about teams work out. I’ve really enjoyed hearing about what other departments are working on.”)

  4. Paulina*

    Yes. Sudden meetings with presidents in academia are unlikely to be bad news when you’re an instructor (rather than an administrator) — there are other channels for bad news, and lower-level administrators who would be responsible for any reprimand or firing. My guess is that it’s a more general “let’s meet our people” initiative; college presidents often do things like that. It’s also possible, depending on the non-administrative background of the president, that they want to talk about common interests.

    1. Paulina*

      Alternatively, the president is starting a task force that they think you might be suitable for.

      1. Professor Anon*

        Another possibility could be that they’ve identified the LW as a suitable candidate for a leadership role of some sort and want to gauge whether they’re interested.

        1. Dana Lynne*

          This is exactly what happened to a friend of mine who is a professor. She was called to the president’s office and asked to be on a prestigious university-system-wide committee to represent their campus.

          I am a retired college instructor and in my experience if it’s bad news for a prof/instructor, it will come from one’s dean or chair, or from HR. The president would not call you in to discipline or fire you from 2-3 levels up in the org.

    2. Lulu*

      I strongly agree. Presidents sometimes get it in their heads that they need to meet every person in the college. Some do that by insisting on meeting with new hires. Others set aside a weekly “random person” meeting time and work their way through the faculty over time.

    3. Sloanicota*

      It’s actually kinda interesting to me that, with no information (so it’s a 50/50 chance of being good vs bad) most people are defaulting to concern that it’s bad! I never realized what an optimist I am. My bet is generally that s/he’s trying to “do a Napoleon” and meet with the little people.

  5. rural academic*

    Are you new to your institution, or have you been working there for a while?

    Especially if you’re brand new, chances are that he just wants to meet and chat, and maybe get input on something. If you’ve been there for a little while, there’s a higher chance that he wants your input on something, or potentially to recruit you for some sort of higher-level committee service. Since you say all your other interactions with supervisor/vp types have been positive, it seems likely that you have a good reputation, and that can lead upper administrators to think of your name when they’re planning initiatives.

    You might mention the invite to your department chair or another colleague you trust, just to see if they have some additional context that might help fill in the details for you, but I agree there’s little to worry about. College presidents generally don’t deliver bad news personally in one-on-one meetings. They make other people do that.

    1. Baron*

      My first thought was that maybe the *president* is brand-new and is trying to meet people. But, absolutely, the onus is on the boss to tell people what the meeting is for so as not to scare them.

    2. Turquoisecow*

      Yeah I’d mention it to direct boss, they may have some insight as to what the meeting is about and maybe can reassure OP, like “oh yeah he’s a nice guy, whatever it is I’m sure he’ll be nice about it.”

  6. Ugh*

    While I think Alison is probably right, it depends on what you know about your president. Our president is a preposterous micromanager and would totally do this to reprimand or fire a faculty member. Consider your contract and if you are in a “right to work” state. Good luck & please update!

    1. Frodo*

      I once had to meet with the owner of the company. I thought he was going to say something positive, because I couldn’t imagine I had done something to warrant a negative conversation. It turned out he wanted to reprimand me for giving praise to the teens and telling them they were valuable to the organization. I could be sending them the wrong message. Total d*ck.

    2. PedanticHR*

      “Consider your contract and if you are in a “right to work” state.”

      “Right to work” has to do with whether you can be required to join a union as a condition of your employment
      At-will employment is the concept of employers being able terminate your employment for any reason (or no reason) as long as the reason isn’t illegal

      Right to work vs. at-will employment

    3. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      “Right to work” just means you don’t have to join the union, in a unionized workplace. You might be thinking of “at-will employment” (many people mix them up) which means you can be fired for any reason or no reason (and there are just a few very specific exceptions to that).

      (I always wondered about that “or no reason”, but in the last few years I’ve learned here that in Europe, many ordinary jobs have actual employment contracts that spell out how you could get fired and how much notice you get.)

      1. Ugh*

        What I meant by “right to work state” was that faculty are almost always contracted but some of them have unions and some don’t, depending on the state. The latter is more unusual in my experience.

        1. Echo*

          That’s only true at public universities. Faculty at private universities cannot legally unionize.

  7. nm*

    Since you’re in academia, could be that a donor/funding source/outreach program wants to work with your university and you’re in the right subject area.

    1. StaringatComputers*

      This is something I was going to say, as someone who worked in Academia the “– your family is extremely rich and he wants you to hit them up for money” option made me laugh as I heard of a coworker who the president found out was wealthy got that talk.

  8. Jane Bingley*

    As an executive assistant, I’ve learned to be super clear when I make meetings with my boss and people he doesn’t regularly work with. The panic is so real! My boss has never scheduled a “you’re fired” meeting that would have been a surprise, but so many people are terrified when I send an invite on his behalf. It makes a world of difference to be as open and clear as I can be. Sometimes a situation calls for vagueness but I avoid it as much as possible.

  9. Be Gneiss*

    OP, this is solid advice …but this kind of thing is right at the top of my list of things that make me worry.

    “Hey, do you have a few minutes to meet tomorrow?”

    Yeah, sure. In the meantime I’ll be imagining every terrible thing we could be meeting about and I definitely won’t sleep tonight because I’ll be wondering if you heard about the time I accidentally typed ‘Brain’ instead of ‘Brian’ in an email to a big boss and it’s finally caught up to me.

  10. Professional Lurker*

    This sounds extremely nerve-wracking but Allison has a good point – the top boss isn’t going to be wasting their time firing you.

  11. Kat Maps*

    During the pandemic, our college’s president decided they wanted to meet with every newly hired employee, just to get to know them and chatg. With this in mind, as Alison mentioned, there’s hopefully a mundane reason for it and no need to panic. Good luck!

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      The VP of our division announced in December that in the first quarter she wanted to do 1:1s with all the managers in her org chart. Mine was rescheduled twelve times and I finally had it in late April. One of my fellow managers just got her 29th reschedule and it was pushed to two weeks from today. My boss never even got an original meeting request to be rescheduled repeatedly.

    2. londonedit*

      I’ve worked for a company before where the CEO would hold meetings every six months to meet everyone who’d joined the company in that time. It was a group thing and just a chance for him to introduce himself and to find out a little about the new starters, but I’m glad my manager warned me in advance that I’d get the invitation!

  12. Relentlessly Socratic*

    Former TT faculty here!
    Listen to Alison for she is wise. Even when I was full-time tenure track faculty, the president had no idea who I was. When I was at a different university, doing research that was picked up by media outlets, that president had no idea who I was. When I was tapped to be on different committees as part of university service, the president had no idea who I was (and it would have been beyond weird to meet with any of them about serving on any campus committee)

    Academia is weird and wholly unlike other arenas–so it is most likely a meeting to talk with random folks on campus.

    1. Sara without an H*

      True. My first thought was that this was one of those Our-People-Are-Our-Greatest-Asset-and-I-Want-to-Show-I-Care performances that sometimes afflict higher ed administrators in the fall. Dress a little better than you normally would and have a few bright remarks prepped about your enthusiasm for the university/your teaching/your research.

      Beyond that, don’t worry about it.

    2. Tangerina Warbleworth*

      All of this. I’ve worked in academia all my life. In my experience, university presidents don’t work at all with day-to-day teaching and faculty matters. Rather, they work primarily with the Board in the constant task of fundraising.

    3. Prof_Murph*

      Long-time academic here – trust me, there’s < .01% the university president would be the person to deliver bad news to an instructor. That's going to come from your Dean or chair. There's honestly nothing to worry about it – but I understand how it might freak someone out.

  13. Lacey*

    Once my boss’ boss asked me to come to her office after lunch.

    It was so I could help her with a project for her child’s school.

    1. BubbleTea*

      Ha, I’ve had this kind of thing happen – the CEO called me in with a very concerned tone. Turns out she’d made an error on a spreadsheet and couldn’t find the source, so she wanted me to take a whack at it (I did find it).

  14. Kyrielle*

    “his DNA test revealed you have the same dad (probably not)”

    Alison, I adore your writing. I laughed so hard.

  15. Jayem Griffin*

    My money is on a meet-and-greet type scenario. I’m a random IT staffer at a major research university, and I’ve had similar 20- to 30-minute calls with high-level admins a few times. Mostly fluff, but I figure it’s good to get a little face time with the VIPs. If things go well, it can be a good opportunity to (tactfully) pick their brain or raise a concern or two.

  16. TJ*

    “your family is extremely rich and he wants you to hit them up for money”

    Please never change. This blog is always such a great source of unexpected humour.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      Actually, it didn’t even occur to me that that was a joke! I work in university fundraising (back office, not a front-line fundraiser), and I thought the idea that OP is connected to someone who the President wants to cultivate for a gift to the college sounded perfectly reasonable.

      1. not nice, don't care*

        The way university admin talk about potential donors is absolutely disgusting, but not as bad as the begging emails we lowly classified staff get. We are constantly hit up for money as well as names of anyone we know who would then be constantly hit up for money too.
        It’s esp demoralizing during hiring freezes, budget cuts, layoffs etc.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        On the other hand, were the LW’s family extremely rich, there would be considerably less stress about meeting the president. I’m not saying that the extremely rich has not stressors, but losing the income from a university instructorship is pretty low down the list.

        1. Irish Teacher*

          Depends. She could have rich relative but not be rich herself. My mum’s aunt and uncle were pretty well-off (think millions) but well, let’s put it this way, they owned the house my grandmother (the aunt’s sister) lived in and when they died, they left the house to their son and my grandmother continued paying rent to her nephew. But I could still see somebody who knew my grandmother thinking it might get them an “in.”

          1. GythaOgden*

            Bequeathing up a generation can have it’s own problems. It seems callous, but especially if someone is elderly it can be a hassle for their estate as well as that of the younger generation.

            Source — have had to make a will for a 44-year old a week before he died. Not fun, not pretty, and when he wanted to leave some money to his mother, my mum advised him not to because of the above reason. I’m not sure of why exactly but my mum and dad have their financial heads screwed on a bit tighter than mine and I respect their expertise on that matter.

            Charging the grandma rent was a bit crappy, but there are reasons why money and property flow down the generations, not up. The money hubby wanted to give to his mother was left to my BIL, who was responsible for his mother’s care and is very low maintenance himself, so we knew that in giving it to him he’d use it wisely and partly on her care rather than tying it up in her estate if she happened to pass away soon after my husband did. (My MIL — she was a lovely lady but slipped into non-verbal dementia not too long after hubby died — outlived him by almost four years, but it takes a long time for some wills to go through probate, especially if they’re going to be hotly contested, and so theoretically if money were left to her she could have passed on before it all got processed. In the event I wrote the cheque to my BIL the spring after hubby died and all was well, but you do have to be a bit careful with these things for very complicated financial reasons.)

  17. Lily Potter*

    My cranky old lady would come out if I received this email. I’d call the President’s assistant, and say in as kindly a voice as I could muster “I’m not comfortable taking a meeting with the President without having an idea of why – could you check on that and let me know?”

    My 20/30-something self wouldn’t have had the guts to push back, but with age comes wisdom.

    1. nnn*

      That’s going to make you look weird. Part of having a job is sometimes you’ll have meetings that you don’t have all the info for ahead of time.

      1. Crocdilasaurus*

        Asking for some details so you can prepare = reasonable
        Expressing discomfort meeting with someone who you have no reason to be uncomfortable around = yeah, that’s going to happen sometimes, so learn to get comfortable

      2. Melissa*

        I definitely agree with this being a weird reaction. It’s like if I ask my pre-teen son “Hey, come here a second” and he’s like “Why? I didn’t do anything! What? What do you want? Why?” it’s like, chill dude, I just want to ask you a question.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          Demanding to know why an executive-level leader asked to meet with you doesn’t reflect wisdom, and your comfort isn’t his priority. You really can’t ask for that without looking naive or disrespectful.

    2. connie*

      Yeah that’s a good strategy for ending up jobless if you’re an instructor, which generally means you do not have secure employment. Also, don’t put the assistant in the middle of this.

    3. GythaOgden*

      I doubt that this is serious advice, but you’re lucky if you’ve never had to manage a drop of uncertainty in your life without getting this kind of caustic at it.

      Even thinking something like that could leak. I know it sucks, but fight fire with water — anxiety can burn you out if you feed it or let it rule you, so part of it is not only not showing it but also putting it in its place. It’s really hard — I spent the last few days worrying that I’d said the wrong thing to someone even if I have reminded myself several times now as to what exactly I put in the email — but it probably needs to be tamped down. If you’re always suppressing this kind of anger and indignation at things that are perfectly normal in the day to day business of your job, the only person you hurt is yourself.

      You don’t need to be a pushover or Pollyanna, but you need to recalibrate your mental landscape in order to make sure this kind of frustration doesn’t manifest itself at the worst possible moment. It’s hard, and I have nothing but sympathy if this is how you experience your working life, but it really does only hurt you in the long run.

  18. A Simple Narwhal*

    Woof I can totally understand the instinct to assume something terrible is about to happen! I remember a few years ago when my boss moved our one-on-one from his office to a specific meeting room. I immediately panicked and assumed the change was because he needed a bigger space to fit an HR person and I was about to get reprimanded/fired. I spent the whole day freaking out about what I must have done and then when the time came….he thanked me for changing locations because he had been stuck in meetings in his office all day and wanted a change of scenery and a room with a window. So I wasted a whole lot of mental energy over nothing!

    In my defense I had just come from a job that would blindside you with bad feedback/news, so I was still a little jumpy.

    1. A Simple Narwhal*

      On the other side of things one time I asked my manager if we could talk for a minute, and when I asked about setting up a wfh schedule she looked visibly relieved and said “oh thank god, I thought you were about to quit”.

      So I guess being worried about non-descript meetings goes up the chain too!

  19. EJR*

    I recently got (very unexpectedly) laid off via my boss saying, “Hey, do you have a minute to check in with me and [CEO] on Teams”? Such requests were usually routine. This one was traumatic. Please, please give people some context if you are a manager/higher up!

    1. Irish Teacher*

      Woah, there had to be a better way to let you know about that.

      I’m really sorry that happened. Hope you’ve got another (ideally better) job now or that you get one soon.

  20. Irish Teacher*

    I’m literally laughing out loud at “his DNA test revealed you had the same dad (probably not).” This is why I love this blog. (Well, it’s not the only reason, but it’s up there!)

    And my friend had a panic like this once when her principal asked to see her after work the following day. She messaged me saying, “maybe he’s going to fire me for telling students that given their grades in the Junior Cert., they will have to work very hard to get honours in the Leaving Cert.” I pointed out that that was just a fact and she wasn’t going to be fired for telling them to do their work, whereupon she started wondering if she was going to be fired for not having much experience with one of her subjects.

    It turned out that another teacher was going on leave, possibly maternity leave, and my friend didn’t have full hours, so the principal wanted to ask her if she’d take on some of the other teacher’s classes and increase her hours to full-time.

    My point is that we worry so much about these things and often, it turns out to be something fairly minor.

    If all your interactions with those above you have been positive so far, I would say it is pretty unlikely you are going to be terminated.

    1. Aaaargh*

      Alas, the shared DNA was a real letter to AAM, and not at all funny, unfortunately. Follow the link Alison had on it.

  21. Lauren*

    This was me a few weeks ago. Right before I went on vacation the VP of the company wanted to meet on my day off. I reminded him that I was on PTO and couldn’t meet. He said “no worries we’ll just wait until you’re back”. I responded asking if there was anything I could do to prepare for the meeting but he didn’t respond. I spent my whole PTO worrying about the meeting. And then the day comes and it’s a tiny little thing. I wish he would’ve told me.

  22. Prof Ma'am*

    Ask your department chair! As a prof in higher education this situation is very strange and I would absolutely go right to my department chair to find out what they know about this. And if my department chair had no idea I would bet money that he would start making calls to figure it out.

    1. rural academic*

      It really does depend on the institution, though! My college is small and it would not be unheard-of for the president to decide he wanted to have a totally innocuous one-on-one meeting with someone.

    2. Regatta*

      Yeah, agreed. Also a prof and this strikes me as strange too. It’s probably not disciplinary, as that’s not how it usually goes in higher ed, but it’s almost certainly not something routine either.

      Some other possibilities that come to mind:
      – you have some specialized expertise that is relevant to the president’s current institutional goals, and wants to ask you to do something like start a committee or be a featured guest somewhere
      – there is a serious problem with a community member, like the kind that may bring bad publicity to the institution, and you may have been witness to it or have knowledge of them

  23. MountainGirl19*

    Likely benign but I’d like to reiterate to bosses – don’t do this! Always add context! I had a horrible senior manager who would send an invite the Friday before for an unexpected meeting scheduled for the next week causing significant anxiety over the weekend. I’d ask her for context so I could be prepared and her responses were basically, ‘that’s for me to know and you to find out.’ She was an awful human being (that’s a whole different letter lol). I’ve been away from horrible boss for over 10 years and anytime I had an unexpected meeting with any new boss, it always was totally benign. But it still causes anxiety to this day because of that experience, so I get it. So, again, to all you bosses on AMA, don’t do this!!

    1. Forrest Rhodes*

      I accept that it’s not, but part of me wants to think this was a joke.

      “That’s for me to know and you to find out”??

      It would be tough not to respond to that with, “What are you—twelve?” (Or even maybe eight.)

      Leaping lizards. What in the brown-eyed world is wrong with some people?

      1. MountainGirl19*

        Sadly, not a joke. She relished in it. I literately could have been involved in writing the ‘Horrible Bosses’ movie based on her. It was psychotic. Thankfully I had a full career behind me and a heck of a lot to offer ahead of me so I hightailed it outa there big time and had no issues getting a great job without that nonsense. Sadly some of my peers didn’t have that luxury and suffered a lot under her :(

  24. Heidi*

    I think one possibility is that the subject the OP teaches has suddenly become the topic of public discussion and they want you to handle some sort of press or outreach. Like how when COVID hit, every academic medical center rallied all their infectious disease experts to go on the news about it.

  25. Justin*

    When I actually got in trouble in 2020, it came through regular meetings with my actual boss and a meeting with HR.

    Any random meetings with higher ups have been positive or neutral.

  26. Dr. Rebecca*

    Agree with Alison, BUT–if you go in, and it *is* a disciplinary meeting, and you have a union, you have the right to union representation present. You have the right to leave the meeting without retaliation, and to insist on rescheduling at a time when your union rep can be present. You have the right to refuse to talk, and to refuse to sign anything acknowledging discipline until your union rep is present.

    That said, Alison’s first suggestion is most likely the reason.

  27. Alex*

    A college president isn’t going to waste his time disciplining an instructor. Colleges have entire HR departments whose job that is, not to mention your department chair, etc. I’d put money on a “I’m trying to reach out to people I don’t know well so that I stay in touch with the faculty” meeting.

    It would be nice if that was communicated ahead of time, though!

  28. Corrigan*

    I am constantly paranoid about these kind of things because I have issues from being fired in this exact way.

    Grandboss: I’d like to meet with you at 4pm today.

    Me: ::joking:: ooh am I in trouble?

    Grandboss: Well, we’ll talk about that


    That place was a shitty exception though. Every other time I’ve had an unexplained meeting with a higher up, it was nothing. The only time since then I did have a “you have done something bad and we are going to talk about it” meeting, I knew exactly what I did and exactly what the meeting was about. No surprise.

    1. Crocdilasaurus*

      I had something like that. I wasn’t fired, though, I was Spoken To about having been a bit of snot to someone. In my defense, he totally deserved it for being a mansplaining snot himself, but yeah, never move from NTA to ESH. I was spoken to, he was not.

  29. Brain the Brian*

    I got a request to meet with a company VP while I was an intern once. Turns out she was hiring for an entry-level position with promotion potential, had heard good things about me, and was offering me a full-time job. These meetings can be good things, too!

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      I vaguely remember a meeting with my boss’ grandboss 2 weeks into my first job.

      “Kid, you’ve shown up every day, worked hard, and been enthusiastic about learning. You’re getting a raise, backdated to your hire date; good job.”

      … and I’ve also had meetings that went just barely better than Corrigan’s–instead of being fired, just escalated from “Employee of the Month” to “last-chance probationary PIP” due to policy changes and walking out the door permanently without notice.

      1. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

        Ha. You remind me of my first job in the corporate world. I had arranged a deal whereby I would be absent Monday and Wednesday afternoons my first few weeks, to finish the class I was teaching at the university. I would earn my full salary during that period, but I wouldn’t accrue vacation time until classes ended and I was fully in the office.

        3 weeks into this 4-week arrangement, one of the head honchos at the startup messages me in chat.

        “Remember our deal? Well, we’re reneging on it.”

        Cue my heart racing.

        “You’ve been so great that your vacation time will accrue starting from your first day. Keep up the good work!”


  30. AdAgencyChick*

    Oh my god, managers, this is why you ALWAYS include something in the meeting invite about what the meeting is about!

  31. Crocdilasaurus*

    OP didn’t include how long they have been with the college. At most of the jobs I’ve held, at some point reasonably soon, like, within the first 6 months, after I was hired, a higher up level person or their admin has contacted me to get to set up a get-to-know you meeting. I have come to expect this. I kind of appreciate the sentiment behind it, although since I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, I know that getting to know me means nothing when they do the calculations for who gets laid off.

    1. Dr. Rebecca*

      Can go the other way, too–at most colleges/universities I’ve worked for, I doubt someone two steps up from me was even aware of my existence apart from me being “random adjunct #543.”

  32. Beebs*

    It is 100% not anything disciplinary–that’s not how higher ed works. (Well, I can’t speak for Florida these days, I guess.) But the president’s exec assistant ought to know how anxiety inducing a topic-less meeting is–bad form!

    1. MountainGirl19*

      Agree likely nothing but you made me think it might possibly be the exec admin who’s the Ahole here – we had one of those. I would get unexplained meetings set up with our CMO (chief medical officer) and I would ask ‘Cersei’ what it was about and she was vague and mean about it as in, ‘I’d like to remind you the CMO doesn’t need to explain anything and btw he goes by ‘Dr. X,’ not Paul.’ Insert eye roll here as ‘Paul’ and I were on a 1st name basis (he asked me to call him by his 1st name and not Doctor X personally). So I would just email
      or call him and ask what’s up and he would say, ‘oh, I just want to go over the plan regarding the ortho project we were working on and get a detailed update – didn’t Cersei tell you?’ Eventually he told me to just bypass her and go directly to him. He retired and a new CEO and CMO took over and they fired her after witnessing her treatment of stafff.

  33. Melissa*

    I’m an exec admin in the c-suite. Summons to this office is often terrifying for staff (I swear we are nice!) I ALWAYS find out the topic of a meeting and let the staff member know generally what the meeting is about to alleviate this kind of anxiety. This is just best practice.

  34. JanetM*

    Not an email, but about a year ago my manager *came and found me at lunch* and asked me to stop by his office.

    Turned out my position had been reclassified upward by a step and I was getting a raise, but the level of panic was high.

    (I work in academia, but not in an academic unit.)

  35. Loremipsum*

    I am always wary of the agenda-less meeting, but that is usually because someone hasn’t thought it through and it ends up wasting time as no one is prepared in advance. It’s poor management at the least, but I too have become completely terrified of this when a calendar appointment has arrived from the grandboss to my supervisor and myself, on a Thursday or Friday for a Monday morning. That leaves you to twist in the wind all weekend. It’s rarely been anything major, fortunately. But yes, managers – please do better!

  36. learnedthehardway*

    I had one of these “Can we chat?” meetings just this morning. Spent last night worrying about it, because the last few projects with this client have been VERY challenging. It turned out to be a new process they want me to follow, as well as giving me the heads up that business is a bit slow for them. I am taking it as they want to continue to work together, but time will tell.

  37. Student*

    Putting a plug in here for my favorite meeting best-practice: transparent meeting agendas.

    It can be a bullet point or a couple of words. It doesn’t have to be long, formal, or detailed to be helpful.

    It lets other people have some idea of what you want so they can prepare. It prevents unnecessary meeting anxiety like in this letter. It lets you and your co-workers figure out if they should even attend the meeting, set and manage their work priorities better, and forward meeting requests to others who might have more useful input or perspectives.

    If I were Empress of Offices, all meetings would require an agenda of some sort.

    1. Angela Cavin*

      I didn’t know there was an Empress of Offices! However, I would be glad if you could take the position. (I have ideas) LOL

  38. Michelle Smith*

    I’m sorry OP. I have anxiety and this would be bothering me until the meeting and probably for a little while after. I think you did everything you could. You asked for an explanation from a person who would be likely to know, and they gave you a nonanswer. I don’t think there’s much else you can do, unless you have reason to believe your direct supervisor might have some insight that hasn’t been shared with you. I agree with Alison that it’s unlikely to be something negative, but I completely understand if your impulse is to worry. Hopefully it will be over soon.

  39. Informal Educator*

    Every time I was called to the office in high school, I was sure that it was to inform me of some calamity, like my house burning down. It never was…

    1. JobHopper*

      Actually, in my case it was middle school, I thought I’d be busted for smoking (never did). Principal just said I would not be going home on the bus and drove me home at the end of the school day.

      We didn’t go to my house…. there was a fire, and we were at a neighbor’s house 1 mile away. (half the family was home, but all got out OK).

  40. IzzyTheCat*

    I am in academia and I 100% think that the President is going to tap you for a task force (that no one really wants to do – and you won’t be able to say no to because, you know, the President is right there telling you how perfect you’d be at this)…

  41. profesora anonima*

    I think the answer as to whether you should be concerned is going to depend a lot on certain other issues. Are you TT faculty or an adjunct? Are you unionized? Do you teach at a public university or a private one? If private, is it religiously affilitated? Do you teach anything that someone might get their panties in a twist about (gender studies, for example, or African American history)? What’s the political climate on your campus or in your state like? Are you teaching in Florida? It’s very probably nothing to be worried about, but realistically, if these or any similar questions are at play, then I would approach with caution. Source: I am a tenured professor at an R1 public university in the US.

  42. Eden*

    This has happened to me a couple of times! The Chancellor’s office asked for my cell phone number once, and it was him calling to tell me I’d won an award. Same thing with an urgent meeting called by the Dean.

    (I’m TT faculty at a public R1)

  43. Dumpster Fire*

    My vice president (a couple levels above) gave me the “we need to talk later” line one day. I tried to remain calm but that didn’t last long. Finally I knocked on her door, “Do you have a minute? What do we need to talk about?” She told me that she had finally caved in to her daughter’s pleas for a puppy and since I knew much more about dogs than her, she needed my help!

  44. GrooveBat*

    I’m sure it’s just a general meet and greet that he does randomly with different folks across the university. Our old CEO used to just call people up to chat from time to time and it freaked everyone out but there was never anything nefarious involved.

    LW, you realize we are all invested in this now and you’re going to have to update everyone after your meeting!

    1. Forrest Rhodes*

      Agreed, GrooveBat. The president of my large Southwestern university made a practice of doing this, having casual one-on-one meetings with random staff members and students as well as faculty. Once we got used to it, it was pretty nice to know we could just talk with the man—after, of course, that initial, knee-jerk, “Uh=oh” reaction.

  45. Alicia*

    This exact thing has happened to me a handful of times over my career as a university professor, and it has usually been an invitation to join or lead a committee that the president is overseeing or to take on a temporary administrative position. The president might also, as Alison suggests, be looking for input on a particular topic or initiative and your name has been passed along as someone who would have relevant experience or insight (probably along with several others, representing a broad swath of faculty and staff).

  46. Other Duties as Assigned*

    I had a double whammy when I was working as a part time retail salesperson while in college. I worked for a large department store in their auto center, which was a separate building. I was working one evening when a fellow employee just arriving for work said he had a message for me–that the store manager wanted me to meet with him ASAP. I had no clue what he might have wanted, so I was worried as I headed over the the main store. He asked me to sit down and the first words to me were: “We made a mistake when we hired you” which made me sure I was about to be terminated. He must have sensed my panic as he quickly explained what he meant. Turns out my paperwork when I was hired was processed incorrectly and they had been underpaying me. He said I would immediately get the back pay, would get an immediate raise and a promotion. I was relieved to be sure, but there was some fleeting panic on my part.

    As a result, for the rest of my working career. I ALWAYS made sure meeting requests with employees included at least a “nothing bad” message.

  47. Workiversary?*

    our CEO did this for us randomly because she wanted to meet everyone; the company had been growing a ton while we were remote for COVID and it was moving from a tiny company to a small one. the meetings were set up by a new assistant who gave no context–CEO apologized for that.

    coincidentally my meeting with her was on my 1 year workiversary so I had kind of concluded it was because of that, after a momentary panic

  48. Kevin Sours*

    I’ve seen on more than one occasion managers being completely oblivious to power dynamics and their consequences. The most memorable was forcing senior management to go through team leads when making requests. Because they would “casually” ask junior developers to do minor things (think looking up stats in the database for sales reporting) and then be surprised when important stuff didn’t get done because people were dropping everything to do those things (jaded senior devs will take the tactic of “I’ll get to it when I get to it and if it’s important they’ll ask again, fresh faced juniors not so much).

    Similarly, there is no such thing as a routine meeting with managers three steps up the ladder. There just isn’t. And managers really need to understand that better than they do.

  49. Vaguebooking Is A Way of Life*

    So the first thing that came to MY mind was some sort of compliance or research misconduct concern, particularly if it involves a student. We never send context in those requests. We minimize documentation of allegations while we’re in the preliminary investigation stages (i.e., what exactly happened and do we have AN INCIDENT here). Once we’ve confirmed that we do, indeed, have AN INCIDENT is when we start documenting the crap out of everything. Until then, people get vague emails and uninformative meeting requests. In a smaller institution, I could see the president being included among those who might be investigating.

  50. slashgirl*

    Working in public K-12 education, I always feel mild panic when called to the principal’s office with no context. As do most of my coworkers, even the teachers. I know this stems from my own experience as a student because I was almost never called down to the principal’s office for anything. To be fair, most of the time it’s nothing bad.

    Reading the comments, it seems it doesn’t really change much even when you don’t work in education….

  51. Ali*

    As someone in academia, I am quite sure you are NOT in trouble and also I predict that the president is going to try and persuade you to do some sort of unpaid work. Just prepare saying, “That sounds so interesting, but I’ll need some time to think about it!” ad nauseam. Do it a few times in the mirror tomorrow morning!

    1. Ali*

      P.S. It was very deliberate that they didn’t prep you. They want you to be so relieved that it’s nothing bad, and in fact sounds flattering, that you agree right away.

  52. Toolate12*

    As someone who worked in the office of a university president, would agree that the first bullet point is most likely :) don’t be surprised if there are other faculty members there too if it’s a taking-the-temperature type meeting

  53. Been there, on both sides*

    Whenever I schedule a meeting for the people I manage, I often have several small unrelated things to discuss, and I don’t want to write out an agenda when asking for availability. But I always say something along the lines of “I want to ask for your advice/input/help about some things” or something along that line so they know it won’t be a negative disciplinary meeting.

    1. AnonORama*

      My boss likes to use the phrase “pick your brain” which I find faintly icky, but at least I know it’s nothing bad.

  54. Ms. Murchison*

    Lucky all those people in the majority. When my college did a mass layoff in 2009, the meetings were conducted by the dean and the HR person. None of the managers were consulted or notified who they were losing. My manager found out I was no longer going to be there for the night shift when she got the out of office message I insisted on posting from the main library as they escorted me out.

    1. Ms. Murchison*

      She had emailed me to ask how my meeting with the dean went, since two of my coworkers had been cut to 3/4 time (no one working over the summer quarter anymore).

  55. Madame Arcati*

    My first instinct is similar to Alison’s ie that the president has decided to meet a selection of staff across various levels, departments and functions to chat and learn more about what they do, barriers they face etc. Maybe they thought of it themselves or maybe someone pointed out that senior leaders weren’t very visible to a large part of the organisation and it would be good for morale to engage a bit more. Ime this is usually well received (and the opposite ie staff thinking, huh that boss has no idea what we do down here in otter grooming and doesn’t care about our difficulties in sourcing brushes, is not!) and I think it’s a good idea for any senior leader not to be too remote and to have an insight into the people and work they ultimately oversee.

  56. Glad I don't work there*

    All the comments have pointed out various aspects of a higher-up meeting with a lower-level person. There are other situations when some context is needed in everyday life. Never use an email title (or text message, phone message, etc.) with just the name of a person the recipient knows. For example, a plain “Aunt Martha” or “your friend Bob” scares the recipient into thinking that something dreadful has happened. Instead write a few words and say “Aunt’s Martha’s Good Luck” or “I ran into your friend Bob.” If something bad did happen, “Sad News about Aunt Martha” or an appropriate equivalent, will help prepare the recipient. Once someone left a phone message something like “They found your cousin” with no additional information. The situation turned out to be nothing, but of course everyone about had a heart attack.

  57. Melissa Logan*

    I work in k-12 education, not sure about higher ed rules but, do you have Weingarten rights?
    if the meeting is to reprimand me, they have to tell me the nature of the concern ahead if time I can bring my union rep.

  58. Elizabeth West*

    Alison’s list was hilarious :’D

    I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, OP; if you were in trouble, you would likely have known before now that there was something to worry about.

  59. HearTwoFour*

    OP, I’m also an instructor at a college – just had my 10 year anniversary. Trust me, this isn’t a disciplinary meeting. One other possibility to Alison’s is that he has some kind of pet project brewing, and he tapped you as a good committe member.
    Enjoy your weekend, knowing that this will be an interesting, and not at all negative conversation.

  60. Petty_Boop*

    I never once got in trouble at school. My brothers? Many times. But I was the good kid. YET when I got summoned to the Principal’s office I would have a panic attack! But it was always for something good. Notifying several of us we were National Merit Scholars, congratulations on an achievement, etc… It’s natural even when there’s nothing to feel guilty about… to feel like there MUST be something you’ve done wrong!

  61. gimmeausername*

    Ugh,no context meetings.

    My org CEO sent out an all staff virtual meeting at 10am for 12-12:15 the same day yesterday.
    Out of an org of 250 I bet a full person day if not week was lost in those two hours with people speculating what it was about.

    Retirement or layoff was the general guess.

    Turned out the EMT had found out the night before, we’d gone up one level in an external auditor’s rating of us. We’d been working for it, but still.

  62. Echo*

    My previous VP handled one of these really well, where she couldn’t share the info before we met. “Do you have 5 minutes to meet? It’s good news!” (I had gotten into a prestigious leadership program in the company. Although in retrospect there was no reason that had to come from my VP instead of my boss!)

  63. dustycrown*

    He may ask you to serve on a committee. Or there may be a position coming up, and someone has mentioned your name, and he wants to just chat with you to get a feel for whether you’re someone to consider before putting it through all the HR hoops. You never know.

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