31 Big Lies That Bosses Tell Employees

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Boss Lies Cover
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When the Boss Lies

Bad bosses are disruptive to a workplace even when they're being completely honest. When they lie, it's even worse. A recent Gallup poll shows that only 24% of workers strongly agree that their employer cares about their well-being — a stunning decline from before the pandemic, when 49% believed their employers were looking out for their best interest. Lies are a big part of this distrust, even if workers have their own set of lies to tell, and the following are some of the most common spread by bosses in a workplace. 

Related:  How Your Employer Could Be Cheating You  

We Can't Pay You More

1. We Can't Pay You More

It isn't that your bosses can't pay you more: It's that they won't. According to Geoffrey James, author of "Business Without the Bullsh*t," a company with any cash flow whatsoever will direct it toward whatever it views as a priority. That usually isn't your salary. "Since your compensation always reflects the minimum your boss believes you'll accept, when you hear this lie, it's a signal that you need to renegotiate the compensation agreement you have with your boss," James told Business Insider. In fact, recent trends of big companies boosting their minimum wages suggest that companies can pay more if enough pressure is applied. 

Your Job is Safe
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2. Your Job Is Safe

Carol Kinsey Gorman, author of "The Truth About Lies in the Workplace," shares a story from a worker who considers this one of the most egregious lies a bad boss can tell: "My boss assured me that my position was secure — then he accidentally copied me on an email about interviewing my replacement." If you feel your job's on shaky ground, or if you've heard a layoff is coming, expect to hear a lie from your boss, who is likely fighting for his or her own career, is being asked to do top management's dirty work, and may end up being the last person fired. "If you hear this one, you should immediately activate your escape plan," James says. 

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My Hands are Tied
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3. My Hands Are Tied

A boss who makes promises he or she can't keep is difficult to trust. "You might have been promised a series of promotions, increased responsibility, or a raise, but all you get is silence," Lynn Taylor, of Lynn Taylor Consulting, noted to Business Insider. "It's often helpful to get to the truth through emails, if one-on-one discussions are getting you nowhere. If the responses aren't coming via email, or at all, be wary." Shifting blame can be easier than doing the work to make things happen, but a boss saying "my hands are tied," needn't end the discussion. "Rather than giving up when you hear this lie, push harder for what you want," James says.  

You'll Get an Annual Bonus

4. You'll Get an Annual Bonus

You'll hear it described as "gainsharing" or "profit sharing," but it should never be described as annual. Unless you get goals and criteria for your bonus in writing before you are hired, expect economic fluctuations to dictate if and when a bonus is coming. Jacob Shriar, a marketing manager, told Monster.com this isn't always an intentional lie: It's just a promise that turns into a lie when a company's earnings fall short.  

That's Fair Pay

5. That's Fair Pay

Workplace "pay secrecy" policies are supposed to be illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. But half of workers say they're forbidden from talking about pay at work, up from a third a decade earlier. As James points out, companies that employ nonunion labor don't like workers sharing salary or raise information because inevitably somebody feel slighted. "Bosses therefore tell this lie because they're afraid that if you knew what your coworkers were being paid, you would quit in disgust," James says. 

Related: Horror Stories From Notoriously Toxic Workplaces

I'm Not Wrong

6. I'm Not Wrong

If your boss refuses to admit he or she is wrong after a mistake, they're not only lying but bringing the morale of their entire workplace down with them. A Lynn Taylor Consulting study found that 91% of employees said owning up to mistakes as a manager was important to employee job satisfaction. "Admitting to mistakes sends a message to your employees that it's a safe environment to take smart risks — and without that, you're sapping innovation," Taylor says.

This Is a 9-5 Job

7. This Is a 9-to-5 Job

Though the pandemic and work-from-home trends shook work trends up a bit, we don't know if the impact will last — the average hours in a workweek in 2021 was 38.7 hours, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Before the pandemic the average U.S. workweek was 43 hours, and we may go back to that in a rush to forget Covid. If so, keep in mind that Gallup results said hours were actually closer to 47 hours, with many people saying they worked 50; in tech and finance, 60 might be a good week. For salaried employees, there is constant pressure to work more than 40, so be skeptical when you hear this lie — and expect do be pressured into unpaid overtime. "You can get out of working unpaid overtime," James says. "If you manage your time correctly, you'll get more done than the people who are coerced into working ridiculously long hours."

You'll Have Work-Life Balance
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8. You'll Have Work-Life Balance

This is far more clever than the "9-to-5" lie, because it never actually promises to decrease hours or increase vacation time — it just signals there will be time for dinner at home every night, weekends with the family, and maybe summer vacation. And if the economy takes a nosedive? "Most companies know that their employees will be working upward of 60 hours per week [when there's] uncertainty in the economy," Marc DeBoer, a former executive recruiter and president of A Better Interview, told Monster.com. (Here's Where You Can Work 4 Days a Week or Less)

I Won't Call On Your Day Off

9. I Won't Call on Your Day Off

Mobile devices and online communication tethers many employees to the office well after quitting time. If you find this irksome, set boundaries and provide ample warning and backup detail when leaving the office. "Separation anxiety' can kick in if you have a power-hungry boss and you inadvertently chip away at that power," Taylor says. "You're best served to instill a sense of comfort with a terrible boss who's demanding."

We're One Big Family

10. We're One Big Family

No, you're a workplace, and throwing the word "family" around allows bosses to replicate the yelling, spanking, criticism, deception, and cruelty of a miserable childhood. Good families don't keep secrets, and members share equally. "Your best bet is to quietly refuse the entire premise of the lie and remember that it's not personal, it's business," James says.

Your Response is Confidential

11. Your Response Is Confidential

There is a reason employees generally don't trust surveys asking for criticism of the company or management. You waive the right to privacy when signing an employee contract. "There is no such thing as anonymous," Rajeev Peshawaria, author of "Open Source Leadership," told the Society for Human Resource Management. "If management really wants to find out who said what, they easily can." Responses won't be shared publicly, but they're being shared with somebody. "If you're asked 'confidentially' if your boss is doing a good job, don't say something like, 'He's in over his head,' James says. "Say something innocuous like, 'My boss works too hard.'"  

Participation is Voluntary

12. Participation Is Voluntary

There is no such thing as "voluntary" in the corporate world. It's almost always code for "mandatory," so make sure you're the first to sign up for a "voluntary" activity and the last to be heard complaining about it. "Attendance at a 'brown-bag lunch' where top management will be giving a presentation is voluntary only if you plan to voluntarily get fired," James says.

Our Relationship Will Work Out

13. Our Relationship Will Totally Work Out

According to CareerBuilder, 22% of workers have dated their boss (27% women of work daters, compared with just 16% of men), and 30% say they dated someone at a higher level in the company than they were. With only 31% of workplace romances leading to marriage, this just about never ends well: 24% of work daters had an affair with a married colleague; 6% had to leave because a relationship went south. Don't date the boss. And don't think the current pandemic tamped down such relationships. Surprisingly, workplace romance were on the increase despite the rise of the remote work environment, and a survey in early 2022 found that increase was holding steady

Employees are the Greatest Asset

14. Employees Are Our Greatest Asset

No, assets tend to be a company's greatest asset. Employees are a cost, and companies tend to value assets and increased revenue far more than costs. In James' view, this is a particularly telling lie: "This kind of platitude, rather than reassuring employees, simply convinces them that you can't be trusted to tell them the real truth."

I Don't Play Favorites

15. I Don't Play Favorites

A survey by Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business found that 92% of senior execs at large U.S. corporations business saw favoritism play a role in promotions, including at their own companies (84%). About a quarter (23%) admitted to practicing favoritism themselves, with 56% deciding in advance which candidate they'd promote. With 83% saying favoritism leads to poor promotion decisions, it can have a detrimental effect on an entire workplace, study author Jonathan Gardner says. "Favoritism is a morale killer," he told the Society for Human Resource Management. "It also leads to bad promotions."

My Cousing Was Best Qualified

16. My Cousin Was Best Qualified for That Job

Nepotism makes human resources departments' jobs much harder. It makes clear that a company favors certain employees over others, crushes morale, and lowers expectations that hard work will be rewarded. Nepotism isn't actually illegal, but employees know it when they see it and aren't amused when a boss lies about it.

We Have a Five-Year Plan

17. We Have a Five-Year Plan

Really? Ask for a copy of the company's last five-year plan. According to James, you'll discover that few companies actually work on five-year cycles. Priorities and decisions can change year by year, depending on performance — and even that seems like a luxury. "In all likelihood, you're using a three- to 18-month window, like everyone else," James says.

You'll Go Far Here

18. You'll Go Far Here

The potential for advancement is a big draw for a company, especially if your boss suggests you're being groomed for a specific position. If you were promised training and resources that haven't panned out, you may have been lied to. Employees should give their boss a chance to explain first: Restate your goals for advancement and ask about the timetable for moving forward. If a boss hedges or dodges, it might be time to consider a move, Stacy Lindenberg, owner of Talent Seed Consulting, tells Monster.com.

I'm Listening

19. I'm Listening

A boss who claims to keep their mind and ears open but proves especially stubborn can be a huge problem for employees. But there are ways to argue a case without being insubordinate. Find areas to compromise and document every step of the argument along the way. "Avoid the temptation to fight the same battles repeatedly," Taylor says. "Just don't win the battle and lose the war."

My Job is to Make You More Successful

20. My Job Is to Make You More Successful

A boss's hope is that an employee will be more successful; their job is to get the best worker performance they can. That may help a boss rise through the ranks, but it won't make an employee better. "If you're secretly more concerned with your own advancement rather than in being of service to your employees, you'll inevitably create resentment when your actions don't match your fine words," James says.

I Have a Great Idea

21. I Have a Great Idea

A boss stealing a great idea or taking credit for it? It happens way more often than we can express. Don't get confrontational about it, though: Document your hard work, talk to them about it, and, if it keeps happening, talk either to human resources or consider going elsewhere. "It's stressful and a disincentive for you to put forth any extra effort," Taylor tells Forbes. "Recognition for great performance is equally important as is monetary reward for most employees. Just be sure you weigh the severity of the situation and pick your battles."

You Can Tell Me Anything

22. You Can Tell Me Anything

Chris Matyszczyk, who advises on content creation, advertising, and marketing through his company Howard Raucous, notes in Inc. that this statement is only partially true. You can tell your boss anything, but you shouldn't expect it to be confidential. "Everything you tell your boss carries a risk, he says. "Bosses trade on information. The more they believe they have, the more power they think resides in their sacred bosom."

You Know He Drinks, Right

23. You Know He Drinks, Right?

Gossiping may seem like a great way to get in your boss' good graces, but your boss may be spreading false information about a subordinate he or she doesn't like — and it puts your reputation at risk. "You may find yourself inadvertently alienating others if word spreads," Lynn Taylor told Business Insider.

I'm Decisive

24. I'm Decisive

Does your boss say one thing on Monday and demand you do something completely different once you're almost ready to leave on Friday? A fickle boss is a drag on productivity and morale. Vicky Oliver, author of "Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers & Other Office Idiots," says there's an easy way to end that frustrating habit: "Pick the [project] that benefits you most and pursue that direction … Never ask for permission. Instead, simply inform him of your intentions. If he has a problem with any of your decisions, he'll let you know."

I'm in Your Corner

25. I'm in Your Corner

This lie means only that you aren't going to get what you want, Matyszczyk says. Your boss wants you to believe they're fighting for you, but the fact is that they're often no more involved in decisions than you are. "More likely, she went into the CFO and said: 'Snoggins is pestering me for a raise again. What do I tell him?'" he says. "To which the CFO replied: 'That you fought hard.'"

I'm Too Busy Right Now

26. I'm Too Busy Right Now

A good manager makes time. Shrugging off employees or closing the door to get a little peace sends a bad message and paints you poorly as a boss. "Antisocial tendencies are a sign of someone who feels like a poor communicator," says WorkItDaily.com founder and CEO J.T. O'Donnell.

There Are No Stupid Questions

27. There Are No Stupid Questions

This means you just asked a stupid question. According to a survey by Resourceful Manager, 47% of managers have told this to an employee at some point. Their hearts are in the right place: It's a lie told to encourage employees and make them feel better about themselves, or at least less embarrassed. It's kind of like …

Everyone Made the Same Mistake

28. No Problem, Everyone Has Made the Same Mistake

No, no they haven't. For 36% of bosses surveyed by Resourceful Manager, this is about the nicest way they could've phrased "You are an absolute dunce." Whether you created an office fireworks display by putting a foil tray in the kitchenette microwave or mistakenly backed over a courier in the parking lot, "everyone has done it" usually translates to "I never in my life thought anyone would do that."

I'll Get Back to You On That

29. I'll Get Back to You on That

At its worst, it's a way of dodging responsibility for a request or an unfulfilled promise. In the case of 29% of managers surveyed by Resourceful Manager, however, it just means "I have literally no idea what you are talking about and hope that you'll just forget about it after some time has passed."

I Was Just About to Call You

30. I Was Just Getting Ready to Call You

This is the supreme leader of the little white lies that bosses tell. According to Resourceful Manager, nearly one out of every two bosses (49%) has used this. Whether they're 10 minutes late for a conference call because they were really enjoying lunch or are a day late calling back a vendor because they know it's going to be unpleasant, bosses like to give the impression their hand was just over the phone as you called. Saying they were about to call you, in their mind, is far better than you them on their tardiness.

Open plan office
Construction Photography / Getty

31. Take Care Of This Extra Work Until We Can Get The Position Filled, You'll Be Rewarded

While there are cases every now and again where putting in that extra effort can give way to a much more financially fruitful future, many times, the employer will dangle an empty promise in front of you to cut their own costs. If your gut instinct is telling you that things have gone so far south at your job that your employer can't afford to be anything other than understaffed, listen to that instinct. You'll spare yourself a terrible burnout in the process.