There it is.  The most chilling five words in the business and bureaucratic world — Didn’t you read the memo?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the private, public, or non-profit sector.  Those words said to an employee, can send shivers down their spine, as they quickly try to review in their mind what they’ve missed.  It could be a change in the dress code, a different office procedure, an adjustment in the software you use, even how you are supposed to address management, fellow employees, or customers.  You’ve missed something vital, and your supervisor is looking at you with a self-satisfied grin that gleefully says, “Gotcha!”

Some people are more attached to rules and procedures than others.  I’m currently preparing to be in the play. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where Nurse Ratched controls a mental institution with a cold eye and a firm grasp of manipulating regulations to dominate the patients and staff.  Her desire to be in charge supersedes the needs and health of the patients.

Most of us are fortunate enough not to run across someone as dangerous as Nurse Ratched, but we’ve all probably had to deal with someone similar.  I know my conservative friends will rail against government bureaucrats, and my liberal friends will berate those who manipulate in large corporations and the business world.  But the truth is they can exist and thrive anywhere, no matter the structure.

Rules and regulations can be a valuable thing.  I’m glad somebody’s inspecting the meats, for example.  Workplace safety rules can help protect us all.  It’s when middle management uses those rules, both the ones that come down from others and ones they make up themselves, that they become dangerous.

With the advent of email, memos become even harder to track and ferret out.  I get an avalanche of email every day, and sometimes it’s hard to search out what may be significant.  There are days where I don’t even want to go through all that.  I’d rather concentrate on the work in front of me.  And, of course, that will be the day I hear the dreaded words. “Didn’t you read the memo?”

Not all memos are deadly.  Some are just plain weird.  Like one from a manufacturing company I worked for a couple decades ago, with the “You Should be Committed” memo.  It stressed how you should be dedicated and loyal to your job, and come in every day and on time, and that availability to work the varying swing shifts was more important than your commitment to do things with your family.  The fantastic twist was at the end of the memo it indicated that although your complete loyalty was needed, the company still reserved the right to terminate your employment at any time for any reason. Commitment, it seems, was a one-way street.

Another classic was the “As you know, this year Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday” memo.  Yes, it really did say that, explaining that meant that everyone would be expected to come to work on the Friday following Thanksgiving. Yeah.  Uh, maybe you should just let us know when Thanksgiving doesn’t fall on a Thursday.  Good luck with that!

There’s not much we can do, except being alert that any of these crazy memos could come at any time, from anywhere.  And when you hear those dreaded words, try not to take it too personally.  Just shrug your shoulders, say “My bad,” and try to move on with your day.

If you’re not a bureaucratic personality, you’re always going to be behind the eight ball.  Just grin and bear it, and be happy you’re not the one who has to come up with the crazy memos.

• Tom Strait is a local accountant, actor and writer. Email