40 Things No One Should Ever Say at Work
Want to get promoted? Never say these things out loud.
Thanks to ping-pong tables, smoothie stations, nap rooms, and casual dress codes, work these days can often look and feel like playtime. But no matter how casual your office may feel, the fact remains: You’re at work—and that means acting and talking like a true professional.
If you ever wanted to know exactly what not to say in your office—whether it’s for the sake of your own reputation or to protect the feelings of colleagues—the list that follows has you entirely covered. So read on, and we hope you rise the ranks so fast you get a nosebleed! And for more ways to get ahead, be sure to read these 25 Daily Habits Rich People Swear By.
“Did you hear about…?”
Office gossip has been a workplace mainstay since offices were invented. But while it can be tempting to badmouth a coworker or commiserate about a boss behind their back, over the long run, it’s only going to hurt your own reputation and opportunities.
“Isn’t it kind of silly to think that tearing someone else down builds you up?” asks Patrick Colvin, a strategic human resources business partner for USA Today. “Gossip, malicious rumors, and comments about someone to someone else only makes you look bad. This type of chatter damages your own credibility and trust.” And speaking of gossip: Don’t miss the 20 Craziest Hollywood Rumors of All Time.
“You look great in that dress”
Dude. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last year, you’re aware that the conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace has gotten much louder and is likely only going to get more so. That’s great news for just about everyone (except workplace predators), but it also means that tolerance of any comments that can be seen as abusive or forward will be met with little tolerance. And for more great advice on rising the ranks, know that This Is the Fastest Way to Get Promoted.
“Is that dress new?”
That may seem like an innocent remark, but you shouldn’t comment on someone else’s appearance at all. Period. And for more office dos and don’ts, check out the 40 Things No Man Should Ever Wear To Work.
“Who’d you have to sleep with to get that raise?”
This is the type of “I’m just kidding” line that can get you hauled into the HR office. Though it might be obvious to you that it’s said in jest, and might be obvious to the person you said it to, it could be overheard or taken the wrong way by plenty others in the office, with not-so-good results.
“It should never be suggested that someone bartered sexual acts for work favors,” says Colvin. “You, my friend, have just backed yourself into a corner that won’t be easy to get out of. It’s never a good idea to assume or insinuate.” And while you’re acting like a smarter professional this year, don’t miss the 40 Ways to Save 40 Percent of Your Paycheck.
“That’s what she said”
Sure, it was funny on The Office until it wasn’t, and then was again. But that doesn’t mean this, or similarly kind-of-off-color lines are a good idea in the workplace. Sexual innuendoes are still sexual—and therefore a minefield when it comes to the office.
“To lighten the mood, people often tell jokes to inject some fun,” reasons Colvin. “Some employees take jokes too far and say things that very well could offend others. Most people think because they directly didn’t say anything inappropriate or use racial slurs that a line wasn’t crossed but anything that insinuates something of a sexual nature, has no place in a work environment.” And for more great ways to be a model worker, know the One Out-of-Office Message Everyone Should Use.
“We’ve always done it this way”
That may be true—but it’s almost never a convincing argument. If the way things have been done make sense and the changes you are being asked to do would create unnecessary problems, then frame your argument in those terms. If you fall back on saying, “this is how we’ve always done it,” your boss might start looking for someone who can do it a different way. And remember: Thinking outside the box is one of the 20 Managerial Tactics to Make Your Team Thick as Thieves.
Everyone’s been in a situation where they just couldn’t get something done—whether for lack of time, resources, or experience. But that does not mean you should say the words, “I can’t do it.”
If you’re totally overwhelmed, we suggest asking for what you need in order to do something (“If you could take this other thing off my plate, I’d be able to get this done”), or suggesting an alternate way it could be done (“If I could get it to you next week, that would work well, or maybe ask Jared to take it on.”) Remember: No boss ever wants to hear anything that would suggest you’re not putting your company first. And for more ways to get ahead, check out 20 Daily Confidence Boosters for Getting Ahead at Work.
“That’s not my job”
This could be the single worst thing you could ever tell your boss. Don’t take it from us, take it from the billionaire businessman behind the Grand Theft Auto video-game series. “Say yes—always,” say Strauss Zelnick, of Take-Two Interactive. “Volunteer for more. There is no job that is beneath you. I’ve been at this job stuff for a while now and I’ve done reasonably well, and it’s my pleasure to get a colleague coffee or pick up trash that’s on the floor. (Oh, and pick up trash that’s on the floor, by the way.)”
Saying this means you’re thinking only about you and not the company. So eight-six it from your vocab immediately.
“Yes” (when you actually mean “no”)
If you’re a people pleaser, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of overcommitting to whatever your boss or colleagues ask of you. Think carefully before agreeing to something about whether you can in fact do what is being asked of you. If you can’t, suggest an alternative or simply that someone else take that task on. And for more things not to say: Here are 40 Sayings Men Over 40 Should Stop Saying Immediately.
“Are you pregnant?”
“Rarely does this question end as intended,” adds Colvin. “If she’s not, you totally embarrassed and offered her. If she is and hasn’t told anyone, possibly she wasn’t prepared to divulge that information yet.”
He offers this rule of thumb: Wait for your colleague to tell you she is pregnant, and in the meantime, keep your observations and thoughts to yourself. And for more things not to utter: Here are the 40 Sayings Women Over 40 Should Stop Using Immediately.
“No” (to a client)
“Never say ‘No’ to a customer,” says Jason Bergeron, vice president of sales and marketing at GourmetGiftBaskets.com. “Instead tell them what you ‘can do’ for them. ‘No’ is a highly negative word and should never be used in the sales funnel.”
“I didn’t have time”
We’ve all had a crazy day or week when an unexpected task has moved another project to the backburner. You realize that it’s just not possible to get something done by the deadline. But true as it might be, you should not say “I didn’t have time.”
“This shows a lack of being in control of the situation,” says Bergeron. “There are times where you are simply going to miss a deadline, but communicate from a position of strength, control and responsibility instead of weakness and chaos.”
He suggests instead that you find more effective ways to convey disappointing news, such as, “I didn’t have the resources available to get that done” or “I haven’t gotten to that yet but I am on it.” And if any of this sounds like you, it might be time to read the 15 Ways to Double Your Productivity in Half the Time.
“I wouldn’t have done it that way”
Managing others inevitably means that those below you will not live up to your exact expectations. But that does not mean it’s effective to put your disappointment in terms of what you would have done.
“We all think and work differently which is what makes our organizations vibrant and unique,” says Bergeron. “Saying ‘I wouldn’t have done it that way’ gives the illusion that you expect everyone to think and work like you.”
“That will never work”
“Pessimism in the workplace can stunt an individual’s work drive,” says Bergeron. “Would employees bring up an idea if they didn’t believe it could work? Everyone has ideas and creating a culture of freedom to express those ideas is vital to success.”
He says that by saying, “That will never work,” employees will start questioning themselves when they have an idea and that may lead them to never share it. Or, perhaps more concerning to a manager who confidently dismisses one of his subordinate’s ideas: It might be a great idea.
This one slips into the vocabulary of even the most experienced public speakers—but that doesn’t mean it’s something you should be saying. Cut this silence-filler from your conversations, whether over the phone, one-on-one, or in front of a room of people. It will make you sound sharper and more confident to be okay with small silences.
“I was just doing what I was told”
A classic way to skirt blame for something, only it’ll make you look worse in the process. If an error was made due to a direction you were given, it’s still on you to fall on your sword. Focus your attention instead on how things should have been done differently, and next time when someone tells you to do something that will end up being a bad idea, you can push back.
“I did this and I did that”
Though it’s helpful to tout your own accomplishments in your performance review and on your résumé, you’re better off letting others sing your praises. This is especially true if you’re working in a team.
“Celebrating the things you have done should never be the goal of a conversation,” says Bergeson. “In a true team environment there usually isn’t a singular person that deserves all the credit as others likely played a role—we as a team or we as an organization should be proud of everything we accomplish together.”
“I’m on it right this second!”
It’s great to complete tasks quickly, but you don’t want to get into a habit of over-promising.
“No matter how well-intentioned this statement is, it sets expectations with your coworkers that you can perform said change anytime that they desire, very quickly,” says Shaunna Keller, head of digital and social at national advertising agency Brand Content. “It really makes it nearly impossible to say that you need more time the next time a similar request comes along.”
“Personally, my favorite is…”
If you are reviewing several proposals, candidates, or options, you should be evaluating in terms of the goals the selection should accomplish, not your own personal opinions.
“The comment is dead in the water right then and there,” says Keller. “It could be the most informed opinion out there, but it’s interpreted as what YOU personally want and almost nobody cares about your personal feelings—they care about what the people they are creating the work for care about, want, need, desire.”
Instead, she urges that you frame any decision or selection in terms of the audience it is meant to reach.
“It’s a trained skill, it takes a lot of diligence and preparedness to speak through the lens of someone other than yourself, so I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s necessary if you want your point of view to carry any weight,” she says.
“I might be wrong, but…”
This classic hedge is what you say when you want to avoid negative feedback or blame should something you suggest fail. It’s a well-intentioned statement, but is more likely to blow up in your face than actually save you from negative blowback.
“Nobody hears you when you say this,” says Keller. “The people’s ears you need so desperately to hear you have tuned out and turned off at the sound of these syllables. There are much more successful ways to take a humble, direct approach when giving feedback.”
“I had some amazing sex last night”
Getting a little personal around the office is good and helps build long-term connections, but that doesn’t mean you should be sharing your most intimate details of your life. “If it’s a story you would normally only tell your closest girlfriends over wine and popcorn, it doesn’t belong in the office,” says Melissa Norden, executive director of Bottomless Closet, a nonprofit organization that helps disadvantaged New York City–based women to reenter the workforce.
“Did you sleep with him?”
Just as you shouldn’t be sharing your own sexual exploits with colleagues, you should avoid digging into the personal lives of those you work with, too. Even if they volunteer information about themselves or their dating life, keep things light and professional.
“I got so drunk this weekend”
“Much like discussing intimate details about your dating life, it can permanently change your coworkers’ opinions of you, and not in a good way,” says Norden. “Whether it’s a story from 10 years ago or 10 days ago, it could easily affect your credibility and even your chances of advancing if enough people hear about it.”
“Anyone who voted for Trump is an idiot”
“You never know who someone may have voted for,” says Norden. “The best way to ensure that we don’t accidentally deeply offend someone’s beliefs is to not constantly broadcast our own.”
“Why do you believe that?”
Like politics, religion is a delicate subject that can easily lead to a misstep. For some, it’s best avoided altogether, for others, it can be casually discussed, but you’ll want to avoid getting too specific or delving into territory where you can easily offend the other person or those within earshot.
We get it—you like it to be quiet at your workspace, and there are a few people who just will not keep it down. But “shushing coworkers because you’re always on your phone is prima donna’ish and rude,” according to Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, business etiquette and communications expert. “Unless they entered your office while you were already on a call, get up, walk away and find a spot where you won’t bother anyone.”
Accepting blame for something gone sideways is a delicate art, particularly in the workplace, where a promotion or future responsibilities can hinge on how you respond to a mistake. Done right, an effective apology can not only make up for a mistake, but raise your stock in the eyes of superiors and coworkers. Done wrong, you’ll compound your error further. Saying “My bad” is definitely in the latter category.
“Kudos for owning up to a mistake, however, this phrase is a lazy way of taking responsibility,” says Randall. “It says nothing about how you intend to fix it, nor does it include an apology.”
“Can I borrow five dollars?”
“Depending on how often and for what purposes you need to borrow money, it can give your coworkers the impression that you are irresponsible,” says Randall. “If you are ever in a real bind, a more professional approach would be to discreetly and privately ask a familiar coworker.”
She adds that you should always be sure to then thank them and quickly pay them back. But best to avoid asking in the first place.
“The word ʻneedʼ is a conditional statement, an expectation that implies someone’s worth is dependent on you getting what you want without asking for it,” explains Nate Regier, psychologist, communications expert, CEO of global advisory firm Next Element and author of Conflict Without Casualties.
He gives the example of someone saying, “I need you to stop sending me emails,” which really means “I will not be satisfied until you stop sending emails.” Instead, it’s better to express what you really mean: that you would prefer they change their behavior.
Nothing reduces the value of positive feedback like having it followed by “but.” “Will you even remember the positives that came before the ‘but’?” asks Regier. “In most cases the word ‘but’ suggests imperfection, adds a competitive element, and implies that the compliment was not genuine or relevant. If your intention is to add a positive to counter the negative, using “but” is a terrible choice.”
As in, “See, I told you so.” If you predicted a certain outcome, and that’s just what came about, you should not have to point it out for the whole office to acknowledge—and certainly not by asking everyone to “se
“When used as self-justification the word ‘see’ says nothing more than, ‘I was right, you were wrong,'” says Regier. “One of the strongest human desires is to feel justified, and we will go to great lengths to feel as though we were right, even if it is not the most effective strategy. Sentences that begin with ‘see’ usually set up a win-lose situation and invite defensiveness.”
“I just assumed”
“If you assume that a deadline for a certain task is the end of next week because that’s how long you had last time, and it turns out your manager needed it by Thursday afternoon, you are in the wrong,” says Steve Pritchard, an HR consultant for mobile phone network giffgaff. “A good manager will give you all the information you need to know, but if you are unsure of any aspect of your job, you should always ask.”
He suggests that you instead email your colleagues or manager to ask for clarification if something is not clear—getting everything in writing should there be a discrepancy, so you don’t end up looking like an assuming ass.
Even if you don’t like the work someone is doing, you should bring your concerns to them, not broadcast it to your boss or coworkers.
“Others may view you with suspicion and wonder if you are saying negative things about them behind their backs,” says Harvey Deutschendorf, an emotional intelligence expert and author of The Other Kind of Smart. “Once trust is lost, it is near to impossible to gain trust back again.”
“I hate that guy”
“If you don’t like one of your colleagues, the best thing you can do is only speak to them when it is about work and be as polite as possible,” suggests Pritchard. “If you have a genuine grievance with somebody or your work, speak to the HR department, that’s what they are there for. Lashing out at your colleagues or the workplace is the perfect solution if you are looking to sink your career as quickly as possible.”
“I hate my job”
“No job is ever perfect all the time, but you should really watch what you say in the heat of the moment,” says Pritchard. “It might feel great at the moment you say it, but you’ll almost certainly regret it further down the line.”
“I need a new job”/”I need a raise”
Both of these statements may be true, but it’s not a good strategy to share your concerns about your job or your plans for finding a new one publicly. Better to seek out a new gig on your own time and ask for a raise behind closed doors. And if you’re really need that bump in pay? This Is Exactly How to Ask for a Raise.
We’ve all had times where we disagree with a colleague’s opinion on something—how they did a certain project or the way they do their workflow. But a blunt “You’re wrong” is not going to get them to change, and it’s only going to make you look bad.
“It can make people feel very agitated or inferior to be told that they are flat-out wrong about something,” says Pritchard. “More so, it makes you sound incredibly obnoxious and stubborn, which is a reputation no professional wants to gain.
“I used to be broke”
“Any financial problems or past criminal activities should be kept strictly to yourself,” advises Deutschendorf. “While you may think that it is okay to sharing the negative aspects of those close to you, as you are not directly involved, your colleagues or boss may view the activities of those in your circle as a reflection of your judgement and or character.”
“You always do this”
If a colleague or one of the people you manage has a habit of disappointing you or doing something in a way that’s different than you’d like it, you must find a way to work with them in order to get them to do it correctly in the future. Instead of getting upset and framing their behavior as an indelible part of their personality, look for how you can get them to change their habit—or find someone else to do their job.
“Sorry for my delay”
This is especially true in email correspondences and it doesn’t usually make a difference to the person hearing it. If your response is of a high enough quality, it won’t matter that it was sent a few days later than it was expected. And for more on maximizing your time in and out of the office, check out 20 Ways to Never Get Sick at Work.
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