HR Insights 6 min

HR Horror Stories

October 16, 2017
Updated October 14, 2020

Sometimes, HR feels like a dream job. Other times, we have to deal with HR nightmares. As these submissions from HR professionals and employees show, HR horror stories come in many forms. In fact, we’ve found HR horror stories that fit with all of our favorite types of horror films. Read on—if you dare.

Peter’s Nightmare – Invasion of the Layoff Snatchers

Some of the most powerful HR horror stories involve questioning identity itself, especially in this story from Peter, the co-founder of ResumeGo:

“At one of my first jobs out of college, one of the senior executives at the company called me into his office very early in the morning. He informed me that I was to lay off a particular employee that day. I remember being quite surprised since this employee had been part of the firm for several years and was generally regarded as a very hard worker. In any case, having just started on the job a few weeks ago, I didn’t question the decision and had a brief chat with the employee in question, who then proceeded to pack up her things and leave the office.

“Later that afternoon, the senior executive approached me and asked why the person I was supposed to fire was still on the premises. I looked at who he was pointing to and was puzzled. I told him that he had asked me to fire someone else. There were actually three people at the office who had the same first name, and it turned out that, in his haste and morning stupor, he asked me to lay off the wrong person! It was a pretty awkward situation, but we managed to rectify the situation pretty easily with no real harm done.”

Kimberly’s Nightmare – A Dirty Secret (with a Clean Ending)

While we’re not going to post any gore on an HR blog (mainly because we didn’t get any OSHA submissions), there are still some gross-outs involved in HR nightmare stories. Take this one from Kimberly, a business owner with a master’s degree in human resource development:

“As all HR pros know, having difficult conversations is part of the job. Having difficult conversations about personal grooming and hygiene are my LEAST favorite difficult conversation to have. One time I had that convo with an employee and I learned she had recently lost her house and was homeless. It goes to show you that despite how uncomfortable the conversation is for us, it’s always worse for the employee. Address each situation directly but ensure it comes from a good place. Sometimes it’s easy to lose the humanity in what we do, but in this situation, it was the key to addressing this issue with the employee and then assisting her in getting the help she needed.”

Mollie’s Nightmare—Atmospheric PTO Horror

Sometimes, the greatest fear doesn’t come from a single scare but from the general ambiance of a situation with no escape. That was certainly the case for Mollie, an HR representative for a thirty-person digital marketing agency, when she started tackling PTO requests manually to post on a public vacation calendar.

“Because tracking the full year’s PTO requests by hours in a spreadsheet would be insane, employees could only be marked under one PTO tracking bucket per day. The PTO categories were: Vacation/Personal, Sick, WFH, Partial WFH, Leave Early/Come In Late, and Volunteering. Seems easy enough? Wrong.

“For example, Sally came into work on Monday for a few hours, but by lunch, wasn’t feeling well. She decided to go home because she was sick but planned on working a few hours to not miss a team meeting. How would you mark her for the day?

You can see how quickly a person’s day could span across multiple categories, which is a challenge when the spreadsheet can only mark full days. You also don’t realize how often people make changes to PTO requests until you are a part of all of them. Requests and changes would come through emails, pings, third parties, and just while passing by. As you can imagine, this led to data accuracy issues and the public calendar not always matching up.”

Eileen’s Nightmare – Creature Horror

Hr horror stories pets at work

Coming soon to a workplace near you: experience the terror of BRING YOUR PET TO WORK DAY!

Eileen from The HR Team writes:

“A colleague once shared a story about an employee bringing an alligator to work in a shopping cart.  Yes, an alligator! The co-workers did not seem to mind, and they participated in the photo-ops, petting, holding it, etc. Shockingly, that was the last ‘bring your pet to work day’ because, following the incident, HR implemented a ‘no pets in the workplace’ policy.”

Horror stories about bad bosses can also give HR nightmares. Here are a few of our favorites.

Robert’s Nightmare—Attack of the Monster Boss

Boss yelling at employee

One classic type of horror story tells the tale of an ordinary person who is suddenly confronted by a nightmare situation that comes out of nowhere. In his bad boss horror story, Robert remembers a day when he felt exactly like that:

“My boss had an explosive temper. One day, he suddenly decided I wasn’t showing enough initiative by making my own independent decisions about how to do my work. He stormed up to my desk, but instead of explaining that he wanted me to show more initiative, he said he didn’t like the results of my work. I had no idea he wanted me to be more independent, so I asked him to tell me what he would like me to do differently. This made him even angrier because in his eyes this was the exact opposite of showing initiative. The more I tried to cooperate and do things his way, the angrier he got. It wasn’t until later that I found out what he was really mad about.”

Dr. Jekyll and Vice President Hyde

jekyll and hyde

Sometimes in horror stories, fictional characters who seem trustworthy turn out to have dark secrets. The same thing can happen in real life, leading to nightmares for HR and the rest of the company. An anonymous employee shared this bad boss horror story:

“I work part time in a lumberyard, which had theft losses. ‘Aha!’ said management, ‘it must be our thieving employees.’ Polygraph tests were ordered for every employee. A week later, during a routine late-night patrol by the police, they caught the thief loading a truck with material from the yard. It was the vice president who had ordered the lie detector tests.”

Wow! Wait till you see what’s on our list of the top 10 bad boss behaviors!

Justine’s Nightmare—Relationship Poltergeists

Look Who's Talking Frustrated Girl Shaking Hairbrush

When the past comes back to haunt the present, the results can be unsettling. That’s certainly the case for the Stir Group’s HR Manager, Justine, who shared her bad boss horror story:

“A newly appointed manager approached me inquiring about our company policy on performance management. I explained our policy and at the end enquired as to which employee she thought was underperforming. I was immediately concerned for two reasons; at this time she had only been in her role for three weeks, and our annual performance review cycle had been completed only one month earlier. And there had not been any recommendation for anyone in that team to undergo performance counseling. I wondered what had happened in the ensuing weeks for the situation to have apparently changed so dramatically. I set up a meeting with the manager, the team member and myself. I had also undertaken an investigation into the team member’s performance which concluded he was performing above average.

“Well, the meeting was very revealing; I ended up mediating a conflict between two ex-lovers! It turns out the manager and the team member had enjoyed an office romance which had soured. And when one of them was made manager over the other one, revenge was on her mind.

“In short, the end of the story involves both employees being offered counseling through our Employee Assistance Program, the manager being placed on a performance plan and coached on best practice manager behaviors, the team member reporting thru to a different manager, and a horror story I have fortunately never experienced again!”

Revenge of the Invisible Man

Invisible Man

Revenge is no laughing matter in horror movies, but in the office, sometimes revenge can be sweet—especially if your boss steals credit for your work, making you and your efforts invisible. Faced with this bad boss horror story, an employee who understandably wishes to remain anonymous found a simple way to get even.

“My boss cannot use any Microsoft Office software successfully to save his life. Numerous times he has taken work that I have done and turned it in as his own, so I purposely started making mistakes.”

We doubt HR would approve of his tactics.

What Are the Best Ways for HR to Cope with the Nightmares They Face?

There’s no silver bullet to end HR horror stories once and for all, but implementing a full-featured HRIS and supplementing it with the right strategies can help stave off many of the issues that strike fear into the hearts of HR professionals. This includes:

  • Automating transactions like PTO
  • Developing effective, data-based performance management
  • Providing clear and complete official communication throughout your organization
  • Developing and maintaining a sound company culture
  • Taking steps to bolster employee satisfaction and reduce turnover, such as improving your onboarding process and rewards and recognition strategy

Before you’re confronted with HR nightmares, identify your organization’s greatest needs and develop an action plan—so you can rest in peace.

Brian Anderson
Copywriter

Brian Anderson is a copywriter with BambooHR, a full-service, cloud-based HR management software. His work explores employee engagement, total rewards, recruitment strategies, and how core HRIS software connects with every aspect of HR.