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What does "Open a Can of Worms" mean?

What is the meaning when someone says to "Open a Can of Worms"?

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It’s hard to find a subtle way of telling that someone was in deep trouble, even in the world of metaphor. You know the feeling when your boss approaches you, telling you that you have just caused a big problem? To respond to that, you find ways to remedy it and then you started to work on your plan. The next thing you know, you are unwittingly bringing the business down.

You have just opened a can of worms! Oftentimes, we hear this phrase to mean that more problems were created in the pursuit of resolving one. Why can of worms? It’s hard to trace its factual origin but it was believed to have been used in the 1950s. It was the time when fishermen used to buy a can of worms that were used as live fishing baits. You can imagine it’s easy to open the can and get some worms out but if you’re going to close it back, it may take you forever as worms always tend to escape in every chance they get.

The can of worms is similar to the story of Pandora’s box. Based on the original story, one mortal was advised not to open Pandora’s box without her knowing what’s inside of it. She ignored the warning brought about by her great curiosity and opened the box which unknowingly released all the evils to the world, except for one creature called Hope. The same holds true when opening a can of worms, it gives problems which are most of the time irreversible.

There are exceptional instances, however, that opening a can of worms is necessary and beneficial. We can have as an example those who do financial auditing. They sometimes come to a dilemma whether or not they will expose a person’s dishonesty. These people can choose to remain silent and peacefully go on with work, or they can place themselves at risk to bring the truth to light, and that is equivalent to opening a can of worms. Revenge and some other forms of harassment are something they can expect from the person they placed on the hot seat. However, such act is absolutely valuable for the company and for themselves in the name of honest and tactful service.

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