Things Your Boss Should Never Say To You (And How To Respond)

Have you ever found yourself mentally replaying an interaction with your boss and feeling increasingly uneasy about a comment? Perhaps your boss crossed a line by asking you a very personal question. Maybe they rubbed you the wrong way by shutting down your opinion or making you feel bad for needing time off. 

There are obvious transgressions, such as sexist, ageist and racist comments or harassment and bullying. But just because a comment from your boss doesn’t fall into those categories doesn’t mean that it’s not harmful and inappropriate. Here are five things your boss should never say to you – and how to respond. 

1. “Because I said so.” 

If your boss shuts down a conversation with a “do as I say because I’m the boss” attitude, it’s a red flag. It’s demeaning to the team they are leading, says Edith López, psychologist and HR Manager at Remote Team Solutions.

Your boss may insist on a certain course of action. But if you’re voicing concerns about performing a task in a certain way, it should lead to a conversation where your boss provides more context about a request. How is it going to benefit the team and organization? Your boss should also be open to your feedback and show a willingness to understand your stance instead of ending all possibilities of a two-way conversation with a “because I said so.”  

2. “That’s a lousy idea.” 

Have you ever taken the initiative to share an idea only to be told by your boss that it’s terrible? If so, you may have felt discouraged from sharing ideas moving forward. “In an organization, employees’ ideas add value, and asking them to stop expressing themselves can undermine their initiative,” says López. 

Sure, your boss didn’t ask you to stop expressing yourself when they called your idea “lousy” – but this sort of comment might as well mean the same thing. Not every idea is a good one. But a good leader will show appreciation for the initiative and take the time to explain why your idea may not be the best course of action to take. 

3. “Are you married?” 

“As a general rule, bosses should be mindful of boundaries when they start working with a new individual or a team. As much as we all want to be friendly and build deeper, personal relationships with our team members – and make an effort to get to know them as a whole person – sometimes bosses skip right to getting too personal about an employee without developing rapport and professional trust first,” says Eric Mochnacz, Director of Operations, at Red Clover. 

“Bosses should never ask about personal or romantic relationships outside the office.  If they work to build relationships with employees, employees will organically volunteer that information if they feel comfortable.” 

Plus, if your boss isn’t inclusive in their worldview, they may make assumptions that turn into microaggressions. For example, they may prompt someone that makes them feel obligated to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

4. “We’re like a family here.” 

“We’re like a family here” is another one of those things that your boss should never say to you. It sounds like a positive thing at first, right? But a workplace culture with family dynamics quickly veers into inappropriate territory. “Work shouldn’t be a family.  When you disagree with a parent or don’t meet their expectations, they can’t fire you. A boss can. By assigning familial traits to a company, the boss is setting a number of unfair and inappropriate expectations on the workplace, and how the employee is expected to behave while at work,” adds Mochnacz. 

5. “Why do you need time off? 

Whether you are taking time off to go on vacation or simply need a mental health day, this kind of question creates a culture where people feel guilty for taking time off or feel the need to justify using their PTO, says López. “Everyone needs time off to rest, be with family or do nothing,” she says. Your boss shouldn’t be pressing you for details about your request for time off. 

How to respond when your boss crosses a line 

Let’s say that your boss has said one of the things above to you. Now what? “Everyone deserves grace the first time,” says Mochnacz. According to him, if you’re working with your boss and they say something in passing that you don’t appreciate or that makes you uncomfortable, and it isn’t part of a pattern, you can just address the matter on the spot:“If they stop and are more mindful of the language they use, and you don’t see an adverse impact in how they treat you (meaning retaliatory behavior) because of the confronting conversation, consider the matter resolved. No one is perfect, and everyone has a verbal misstep on occasion.” 

However, you should still take note of the situation and start documenting the date, context and content of the conversation in private notes in case it does become a toxic pattern, recommends Mochnacz: “If you are concerned this may not be a one-time occurrence, and you see a potential for a repeat offense, you can always involve the boss’s supervisor or HR after the initial conversation. You can let them know you addressed it and don’t expect any further intervention, but that you will be in contact should the behavior continue.” Having a record of conversations can also become useful should HR intervention be required in the long run. 

If you’re concerned about overreacting, know that Mochnacz speaks from personal experience and that it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to inappropriate comments from a boss: “The reason I encourage people to document inappropriate conversations – and involve supervisors and HR early – is because of comments a boss made during the first two weeks of our working relationship, which was the first in a long line of insensitive, inappropriate and offensive comments during his tenure. I gave him grace in the first instance, but in retrospect, I should’ve reported him immediately.”