10 scary things an employee can say to their boss and what to do

Ieva Sipola 30.10.2023
10 scary things an employee can say to their boss

As a manager, you might assume that you hold the power to instill fear in your employees, not vice versa. 

Don’t be so sure.

This article explores ten unsettling phrases your team members might drop casually and turn an ordinary workday into a psychological horror movie.

But fear not, for each of these scary scenarios presents an opportunity to turn chilling moments into valuable lessons for you and your team.

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1. “My work email has been hacked”

Imagine an employee casually telling you, “Hey boss, my email’s been showing me vacation ads and suggesting I invest in faraway countries. You don’t think it could be hacked, do you?”

Unfortunately, this scenario is not that unlikely. Cybercrime is on the rise, and no business is protected from it. Nearly 1 billion emails were exposed in 2022, affecting 1 in 5 internet users, phishing scams being among the most common ways hackers gain access to sensitive or confidential information. 

What to do:

  • Organize training for your team on how to recognize and avoid the most widespread types of cybercrime, like phishing and ransomware
  • Use strong passwords and update them regularly;
  • Increase the security of your systems and servers, e.g., use reputable anti-malware and antivirus software.
work email hacked

2. “My supervisor and I are dating now”

“Surprise, boss! My supervisor and I are now partners in a super-productive relationship. We’re doing synergy dinners and team-building movie nights!” Hearing something like this from your employee can be twice as terrifying since two of your employees are on the line now.

While you’d love to share their bliss, you probably realize that an office romance may cause more than one issue for your team. Conflict of interest, reduced work performance, personal privacy concerns – you name it! 

And once you get to the point where office romance sours, breakup fallout can lead to awkward and hostile working conditions and even negative career implications for employees.

What to do

  • If your company has a policy against romantic relationships between employees, you must warn the lovebirds that its violation can lead to disciplinary action or termination. 
  • If there’s no such policy, request that the relationship be kept strictly outside office doors and work processes. Make them aware that you’ll keep a close eye on them to prevent any favoritism and conflict of interest.

3. “I made a big mistake”

There’s a phrase that’s sure to send a chill down your entrepreneurial spine before you even know what it’s about. Some scary potential scenarios include “I sent our competitors an email containing a business secret,” “I accidentally added one zero when paying everyone’s bonuses,” or “I hit “reply all” when sending you that sensitive data.”

Human error takes its toll on businesses – to the tune of trillions of dollars each year. One report found that 22 percent of American survey respondents had lost or deleted important work files, and 11 percent had mistakenly copied the wrong person in an email.

What to do: 

  • Consider automating some tasks or workflows, e.g., accounting, customer support, operations and inventory management, etc.;
  • Ensure that at least two employees double-check company-critical processes or significant money transfers.
I made a big mistake

4. “That’s not my responsibility”

It may not be straight-up terrifying, but rather disappointing if an employee tells you, “I have too much work,” or answers your request by saying, “That’s not my job.” 

There may be different reasons for such reluctance to perform tasks. Maybe this employee is overburdened, and you need to distribute some of their functions among other teammates – or hire additional employees. 

It’s also possible that this employee lacks motivation or has lost interest in their job. It may be a temporary issue you could fix by supporting or motivating them. Or, you may be dealing with a toxic employee – someone with a persistent negative attitude tending to shift blame and responsibilities onto others. 

What to do

  • First, determine the reason behind an employee’s unwillingness to take up more tasks. Invite them for a one-on-one and try to understand the situation. Then, take action depending on the causes of the employee’s disengagement;
  • To avoid such comments in the future, incorporate an engagement policy in your HR processes.

5. “I quit work for [competitor]”

No manager ever wants to learn that their employee is leaving (or threatening to leave) work for a competing company. Unfortunately, such situations are common as many companies choose to head-hunt employees from their competitors due to their knowledge and experience in the field.

What to do

  • If you value this employee highly, consider entering the battle with your competitor. Find out their offer and try to raise it;
  • Consider supplementing your work contacts with a non-compete clause. Such a clause can protect your business interests by restricting employees from joining or starting competing businesses for a set duration.

6. “I read this DeskTime blog post, and it says you need to give us more breaks”

They may add: “So I’m officially volunteering as the ‘office break enforcer.’ Now, who’s up for a power nap?” This puts you in a tight situation as you don’t want to be the old-fashioned boss who prevents your team from taking enough breaks.

Your employee would be right about the importance of taking regular quality breaks. It’s impossible to be productive all eight work hours – our brains and bodies need frequent breaks to function optimally. 

As you may have heard, DeskTime’s groundbreaking study found that the world’s most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes. But this ratio isn’t set in stone – you can see what works best for your team or individually for each employee. 

What to do

  • Encourage your team to work breaks into their schedule and track the time they spend working and taking breaks;
  • Suggest using a break reminder for those who tend to get carried away with work;
  • Recommend quality breaks that include walking around, exercising, going outside, or reading a book (instead of swiping their phones). 

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7. “Where is the gender-neutral bathroom?”

While this question may sound scary – if you don’t have a gender-neutral bathroom, that is, this issue may not be that hard to solve.

If you’re like many employers, you’re actively looking for ways to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace. A gender-neutral bathroom is one way to help your team feel safe and comfortable. 

In addition, all-gender bathrooms could be an unexpected asset when expanding your team. Forty-two percent of workers in a 2022 Gallup survey said that when they’re considering a new job, they look for companies that are “diverse and inclusive of all types of people.” Meanwhile, only 21% of companies take a proactive approach to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) in the workplace.

What to do: You can start small – with a single-occupancy gender-neutral bathroom that provides extra privacy for users. This option benefits everyone in the company, including people with health or mobility challenges, parents with visiting children, pregnant women, or anyone who needs extra space.

8. “I can’t work with [coworker’s name]”

There’s another phrase that would give most managers the shivers. Nobody likes to hear that there’s a workplace conflict looming. 

There can be different reasons for employee conflicts, from work-related opinion differences to personality clashes, the latter being especially unproductive and detrimental, as they have nothing to do with the actual work. 

Conflicts can result in employees becoming stressed and frustrated, losing focus, motivation, and confidence, and even missing deadlines. If you don’t take conflict resolution actions, the emotional impact of conflict can snowball and create bigger issues. 

What to do:

  • First, identify what kind of conflict you’re dealing with. Some creative tensions can actually lead to positive changes in teams and organizations; 
  • Talk to all employees involved to get their view on the situation; consider all sides involved regardless of your own opinion;
  • Look for points of agreement between the two sides, which can help to find compromise;
  • If finding common ground is truly impossible, keep both conflicting employees on different teams and tasks.

9. “ChatGPT says we should be doing [this] instead”

If the rise of AI scares you more than dark alleyways at night, this phrase will get you trembling. Is it really time for people to step down and give way to AI robots?

Take a deep breath. We’re not there yet.

While using AI for your business’s benefit is definitely a sound decision, nobody should take AI suggestions as a rule. If we rely on AI to solve all our problems, we may lose our ability to think critically and develop creative solutions to problems. 

What to do: Convey openness to innovation and a willingness to consider new ideas. At the same time, emphasize that any changes must align with the company’s goals, policies, and practical considerations.

10. “The tax office called, they need to speak to you urgently”

Hmm, this does sound like an office prank… If it isn’t, you may indeed have reason to be scared. But try to stay calm before you know all the facts.

The idea of being on the wrong side of the IRS (or a similar tax institution in another country) can send many people into a heated panic. While tax institutions usually have an ominous reputation, they are mostly understanding if someone made an honest mistake and give guidance on how to correct it before issuing serious consequences. 

What to do

  • Before calling back, ask your accountant what the issue could be. Double-check the your tax returns from last year. 
  • Take a deep breath and call them back – you probably have nothing to worry about if you’re running an honest business.

Navigating workplace terrors with composure

In the unpredictable world of business, there are moments that can send a shiver down any manager’s spine. From the ominous threat of email hacks to unexpected office romances, these chilling scenarios can put even the most seasoned leaders on edge.

The key is to respond strategically and maintain a balance between addressing these concerns and fostering a positive workplace culture.

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