Workplace horror stories we wish were not real
When we were kids, we used to share scary stories with our friends. And, more often than not, we would exaggerate a little bit (or a lot) to make the story juicier. But, now, as grownups, we still have some scary tales to tell; only this time, they come from the workplace, and they’re 100% real.
We asked a few people to share their most terrifying work experiences and their answers got us mixed feelings: from giggles and tears of joy to goosebumps and facepalms. Without further ado, here are the scary stories that we heard, and a few tips that’ll help you avoid being on this list next year.
Here are 15 of the best – or worst? – workplace horror stories:
1. When you must never, ever chicken out
A few years ago, I took a marketing position in a UK-based company. After a brief training, I realized that I had to carry a wooden sign in a supermarket every day, and stand there and promote various products. There was no specific time schedule; I could stay there as long as I wanted so long as I reached my sales goals.
At the end of the day, we would all gather at the company’s offices. Our manager would step in while the speakers played the song “Pretty Green Eyes” at maximum volume, and then the show would begin. We would ring a bell and have a cheery round of applause for everyone who reached their goals. But, what about those who had almost reached them? We would form a circle and that person would stand in the middle and act like a chicken – because apparently they chickened out instead of hitting their targets. Oh, and if anyone’s phone rang in the middle of this “show”, they’d immediately have to do 10 pushups.
Takeaway: While totally unconventional, this was a company’s misguided effort to evaluate and motivate employees. Even if it’s well-intentioned, there are better ways. When you want to assess employee performance, start with the goals that you’ve set. Make sure they’re challenging, but also realistic. And to motivate your staff, emphasize the positives and work together on areas of improvement. Causing fear – or even embarrassment or humiliation – will have the opposite effect.
2. When your colleagues are toxic – or think that you are
When I was working at an embassy, I had a colleague who was convinced I was a Russian spy. We sat across from each other, so I would often catch her looking at me from behind her laptop screen. She also wouldn’t let me touch the mail or go into specific areas of the embassy. She wouldn’t even accept food from me. In fact, when my mother sent me cupcakes for my name day, she demanded that they be X-rayed to see if there was anything inside.
Another time, a colleague asked me to make a copy of a visa applicant’s ID. When she saw me in the copy room, she yelled “I knew it!” and kept asking me where I found that ID and what I was doing with it. She was lucky that I saw the humor in all this – I even greeted her in Russian every morning.
Takeaway: You don’t necessarily want or need to create a “buddy” culture in the workplace, but you certainly don’t want to have a hostile environment. Employees should feel safe and happy at work. In fact, having friends at work boosts employee engagement, whereas toxic employees hurt morale and productivity. Keep an eye out for unprofessional behaviors and set up strict policies to prevent serious cases, e.g. harassment or violence, from occurring.
3. When the cool company culture turns out to be lukewarm
Years ago I worked for a tech company that loved to brag about how laid back and hip it was. We had the standard industry perks like snacks and drinks, and a pool table in the kitchen. The CEO, convinced that employees were wasting time enjoying these benefits, installed a hidden camera in the kitchen and began sending out company-wide emails calling out individual employees for “consuming more than their fair share” of snacks or drinks, or spending too much time at the pool table.
Takeaway: The company culture is not what you say you are; it’s what you actually are. You might promote yourself as the “best place to work” when in reality your workplace is toxic. Or, you might have installed a beverage machine and a ping pong table in the office because all the cool companies have them, but in reality your employees hardly use them as they’re always working overtime. If you want to truly build a positive employer brand, focus on what matters: meaningful employee benefits and fair reward systems.
4. When you just want to work legally
In my very first day job, I was hired as a PA to the CEO of a medical company. I had just completed my graduate degree in Communications and was thrilled to find a job in what I thought looked like a really decent company. I was also told that I would take on marketing tasks. I couldn’t wait to dive in! I started off working six hours per day for the minimum wage but that was OK, because I was going to be full time in a couple of months and get a raise. Or so I thought.
I never got a raise and I hardly did any marketing tasks. However, I did end up with a proper working bench, illegally boxing and shipping drugs to patients with long-term diseases. I found out later on that that company was actually laundering money for a big pharmaceutical.
Takeaway: While this particular company seemed to know exactly what they were doing, make sure that you’re not getting into legal trouble out of ignorance. Consult a lawyer or hire an HR professional with expertise in labor legislation to ensure that your employment contracts and your company policies comply with local laws.
5. When irrelevant tasks take up most of your time
I was working as an intern at a non-profit company where the operations and purpose were a bit shady. The owner, a former politician, usually sat in his office which had only a small glass window looking into the area where we were working.
At some point, he asked me to create a list of investor companies in the United Arab Emirates, find a few economic problems that Serbia was facing, and then call the Serbian embassy to arrange a meeting with their financial director. I did everything he asked, wondering what that was all about. When the financial director agreed to come and meet him, he told me his plan: I was supposed to listen in on his meeting, and each time he mentioned Serbia, I would hold cards with the economic issues I had found in front of his office window so he could appear knowledgeable to the director.
When he mentioned something I didn’t already have, I’d Google it on the spot, write it on a new card and hold it up like the others. He’d also tell the financial director that his company collaborated with all the Emirate investors in the list, in order to earn her trust. I left his “company” shortly after.
Takeaway: It’s fair to ask employees to create ad-hoc reports, prepare presentations and so on. But make sure they understand the purpose, particularly if these projects don’t seem immediately relevant to their regular tasks. It’s also important to follow up with them and let them know how their project was used, how it contributed to larger plans and what the next steps are – if any. Otherwise, employees might feel that their time gets wasted or, worse, that someone else gets credit for their work.
6. When the employer is playing hard to get
I got a call back from a company a couple of weeks after my application, saying that they really liked my resume and wanted to schedule an interview with me. I responded that I’d be glad to do so and asked when the best time would be for them to interview me, as I was unemployed at the time and was flexible. The lady replied with: “Oh wait, I don’t have the calendar in front of me so to see my availability, let me call you back in a sec”. I’m still waiting.
Takeaway: You’ve heard it before: candidate experience matters. The way you treat candidates gives them a hint about how you’ll treat them as employees. Changes in the middle of the hiring process can happen and, while they’re not ideal, don’t keep candidates in the dark about them. For example, if you decided that it’s not the right time to open this position, be honest and don’t put candidate on hold for no reason. Poor candidate experience leaves a bad taste in the mouth and that has a long-term effect on your employer brand.
7. When work looks like Big Brother and Survivor at the same time
I worked at a company where they had cameras, mics and speakers installed all over the place, even in the kitchen. If you spent two extra minutes at lunch, the wife of the business owner was screaming at you through the speakers. She would also get her manicures and pedicures in the office and, afterwards, ask employees to empty the bucket she used to soak her feet in.
Takeaway: Lack of appreciation and lack of trust toward your employees will only hurt your reputation and cost you great professionals. And while this example might sound extreme, there are several, more common, signs that employers mistrust their staff. Think of time-tracking tools, micromanagement and meetings behind closed doors. Even if your company is a career stepping stone for most employees (e.g. because you only offer entry-level roles), make sure that their time with you is not wasted and that they acquire useful skills without making them feel under the microscope when doing so.
8. When your boss is getting inappropriate
I was working as a call center agent. One day, my boss called me into his office to discuss my performance. He had noticed that some of my performance metrics were not up to expectations. But, instead of advising on how I could improve, he started making some comments like, “That’s a shame. You’re such a sweet girl.”
I thanked him for the feedback, saying I’d try to get better, and quickly left his office out of fear that things might get worse. I wasn’t sure whether I could share this incident with anyone, but luckily he was soon transferred to another department. Although his comments might have been well-intentioned, he definitely made me feel uncomfortable and didn’t give me any real feedback, so I was relieved that I didn’t have to work with him again.
Takeaway: Sexual harassment and all types of inappropriate behaviors are completely unacceptable. At work, it’s the HR department’s responsibility to ensure that employees feel and are safe. No matter how healthy your work environment looks, you need to implement anti-harassment policies and define how employees can speak up if they face or suspect harassment.
9. When the job title is slightly inaccurate
I took a job in student accommodation as a Service and Sales Advisor. On my first day, I was looking forward to seeing the office where we would welcome students, and getting comfortable at a desk. Instead, as soon as I arrived on campus, the manager pointed out a mattress to me. Unfortunately it was not for a power nap after lunch. I actually had to carry this mattress on my back, plus a few dozen more over the next few weeks, and deliver them to students’ rooms. I have to admit; this was not the kind of assistance that I’d thought I’d provide!
Takeaway: The first weeks at a new job – sometimes even the first few days – are critical. It doesn’t make sense to oversell a job just to “hook” good candidates. Sooner or later, they’ll find out what the exact role is and not only might they leave, but they’ll likely share this negative experience with others as well. If the position you’re offering is not the most attractive one, be honest about that and try to make up for the less exciting tasks with perks. You can also engage candidates by describing how their role can evolve in the future – taking care not to promise things you can’t deliver on.
10. When everyone’s making fun of the newbie
I was offered an administrative job at a real estate agency on a trial basis. During my two weeks there, I got zero training because the person doing the same job was reluctant to cooperate; the fact that the company decided to hire a second employee for that job meant that she would go from full-time to part-time employment, and for some reason she wanted to punish me for that.
Also, on a regular basis, one of the co-founders kept asking me to make him coffee and then the other co-founder would notice that I wasn’t at my desk, so she’d call my internal phone demanding I return to my workstation. As a result, I kept running from the kitchen to my desk and vice versa, something that I guess made me look like Charlie Chaplin. On top of that, my other colleagues would make prank phone calls on me multiple times per day. Oh, did I also mention that this probation period was unpaid?
Takeaway: The onboarding process can make or break your employer brand; you can help your new hires feel immediately at ease, or make them want to run away as fast as they can. Don’t be the latter. Get their workstation ready before they arrive at the office, help them out with the necessary HR paperwork and build a detailed training plan for their first week, month and beyond. Also, check in with them regularly to see if they need any further help. And if it wasn’t clear already, don’t turn them into your own personal entertainment.
11. When your new colleague gives you a headache
We hired a new project manager at the tech company where I used to work. From the very first day, he showed how talkative he is. But not in the friendly, “I want to meet my new colleagues” way that you may imagine. Quite the opposite. He would not stop talking – about things irrelevant to work – even when we were all obviously rolling our eyes with frustration. I remember one day where I could not bear listening to him anymore, so I left my desk and went to another room to focus on work. About an hour later, I returned to my desk and guess what? He was still talking about the same topic…
Takeaway: The debate never ends between those who prefer open spaces to those who’d rather the privacy of cubicles. There’s no wrong or right; both workspace designs have their pros and cons. It’s up to you, though, to make sure that your own work environment boosts productivity and eliminates distractions. Open plan offices can still be quiet as long as employees have separate rooms where they can have their meetings and common areas where they can have a break, grab a coffee or have lunch together.
12. When the employer wants you to go off script
A few years ago, I was going to edit people’s resumes and cover letters as a quick way to make some extra cash. At least that’s what I thought I’d be doing. It turned out that the company wanted me to fully write resumes and cover letters from scratch without ever even speaking to the person. This was very short-lived and felt totally unethical.
Takeaway: The obvious breach of ethics aside, being honest about the job should happen during the hiring process, not after the person is already hired. This is fair for the employee, and also helps you ensure that you choose the right person for the job. Otherwise, you risk hiring someone who doesn’t know how to do or doesn’t want to do this particular job. In some cases, things could change between the moment you offered the role and your new hire’s first day, e.g. due to organizational restructuring. If your new employee’s job duties are not exactly what you had discussed, make sure to explain what happened and provide proper guidance so that they don’t feel everything has changed.
13. When your CEO is way too distant
In a previous job, the CEO that we had was not the typical “leader”. He had zero involvement in almost all of the current projects. Even worse, he didn’t want us to tell him when things didn’t go well, because he said he was getting really stressed out. He preferred that teams would talk to the clients directly and fix the issues on their own.
When the CEO told my manager, who was one of the team leaders, that he didn’t know what’s going on in the team, my manager suggested he [the CEO] should speak more with the employees. The CEO thought that this was a good idea and asked my manager to remind him to talk to the employees once a month.
Takeaway: It’s one thing to value your team members’ skills and, rest assured, that they can handle things on their own, and another thing to be totally and even deliberately ignorant. Employees want to be trusted by their CEO (and their manager or team leader as well) but, at the same time, they expect some guidance and support. A good CEO needs to find a healthy balance between the two extremes of being the sole decision-maker and being an absentee boss.
14. When the breakup is not smooth
I was working at a private school and, right before summer break, I informed the owner that I didn’t want to renew my contract in September when school would be back in session. The owner was quite bitter seeing me leave, but I reassured her that I’d prepare detailed manuals for all my job duties and I’d clear up all school folders before my last day. And I did so. I also told her that she could contact me when the school opened again in case my replacement had any questions. I had no idea I would soon regret that.
In September, as I expected, the owner of the school indeed called me with some questions. I had already organized everything so well that the questions were unnecessary, but I kindly replied to let her know where she could find the files she was looking for. But then the phone calls became more and more frequent. She would call me every day for the tiniest detail and she would email me very long lists of questions she had. All of these were things that she could easily find on her own in just a few seconds just by looking at my notes or doing a simple search on the computer.
One day, I didn’t pick up the phone (because I was at my new job) and she sent me a blunt text message: “Why don’t you answer??” That’s when I realized I should probably stop being so kind.
Takeaway: Often, your biggest ambassadors – for your consumer and employer brand – are your former employees. Regardless of the reason why they left your company, don’t hold grudges. If you end your work relationship on good terms, the departing employee can refer some great candidates in the future, leave a positive review online or simply encourage others to apply for open roles at your company.
15. When meetings get awkward
I was working at a project with fellow developers, senior managers and team leaders. One day, we had a meeting, so we all gathered in a meeting room and logged in a video call because one of the developers is working remotely. To our surprise, the moment the remote developer joined the call, one of the senior managers walked out of the room without even saying a word.
We knew he disliked our remote coworker, but this was so awkward. Especially since we saw that he was pacing around outside of the meeting room, trying to listen in for the end of the video call. When the call was over, he re-entered the meeting as if nothing happened, leaving us all wonder how this project will go on.
Takeaway: Meetings are often dreaded by many, but they shouldn’t be a waste of time. It’s an opportunity for coworkers to sit together to discuss a project, make some decisions, build out plans, share updates or solve issues. Disagreements may arise, and that’s natural, but personal differences should not impact meetings and collaboration in general.
Don’t be in this list
As you’ve noticed, we didn’t disclose any of the companies, but don’t rest assured that these (along with many, many more) workplace horror stories will be buried in anonymity. When people talk to their friends and families and when they post reviews online, they most certainly name names. So, work your best to create a healthy and motivating work environment; not because you’re afraid of being called out, but so that your employees can thrive and be happy working with you.
Not getting enough sleepless nights, and interested in even more terrifying HR content? Read 15 job interview horror stories and a chronicle of the worst interview ever.