20 things not to say at work

If you say something’s impossible, you had better be sure it is.

All it takes is a few wrong words to jeopardise a career.

The words you use at work matter. In few other places will so many try to read so much between the lines of what you say and how you say it.

Saying the wrong thing (especially at the wrong time) is rarely without consequence. It could be minor – maybe a little embarrassing – or at worst, career-limiting.

Some things, of course, are so far off the plantation they should be no-brainers. But everyone has their own personality, and it influences the way we communicate.

But we also have a vested interest in coming across as professionally, confidently, clearly and credibly as we can.

And to do that, there are some things you should never say at work.

“That’s not my problem,” “That’s not my job,” or “I don’t get paid enough for this.”

Maybe you don’t make the big bucks, but if you don’t take on what’s being asked it could soon become your problem. Coming across as self-serving rather than a team player is a sure-fire way to tank a career.

But that doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything – just be a little more conciliatory than “You’ve got to be kidding me”.

“This might sound stupid, but…”

There are numerous variants (“I’m just thinking off the top of my head, but…” and “I’m no expert, but….” and so on) – all of them known as undermining qualifiers.

Don’t tell people why what you’re about to say is likely to be wrong. Lead confidently with assertions such as “I recommend” or “I believe”.

“Does that make sense?”

Intended to make sure we’re understood (along with “Know what I mean?”), but instead gives the impression you don’t fully understand the idea yourself, or worse, you’re worried about sounding incoherent. Try instead: “What are your thoughts?” or “Let me know if you have any questions".

“I haven’t got time.”

Even if you are “too busy” for something, saying so in person or on the phone can be plain rude. Nobody wants to feel less important than someone or something else. Suggest a better time or let phone calls go to voicemail.

“I haven’t had time.”

A ticket to becoming known for unreliability, and as excuses go, it’s rarely true anyway. A no-win situation that can only be avoided by committing to a deadline and making sure you meet it.

Related article: 5 signs of a toxic workplace

“It’s not fair.”

Few things in the workplace are, but nothing will annoy colleagues or alienate your boss more than becoming a chronic whiner. If you feel strongly about a supposed injustice, seek change by documenting and presenting the facts.

“You should have…”

Finger-pointing through phrases such as “should” or “could” rarely do more than undermine someone’s confidence. Far better (if you can) to take a non-judgemental tack, such as, “In the future, I recommend…”

“Actually”

“I actually have a question…” Adding an “actually” can make it sound as though you’ve even surprised yourself by coming up with a question. Equally, “Actually, you could do it this way” can create distance between you and the listener by intimating that they’ve somehow got something wrong. It can also be taken as slightly condescending.

We have a vested interest in coming across as professionally, confidently, clearly and credibly as we can. 

“Just”

An innocuous little filler that can leave you sounding tentative, defensive and even a little annoying. “I’m just concerned that…” “I’d like to take just a few minutes…”  Often used as a buffer against coming on too strong.

By all means be efficient and succinct and don’t take up more time than you need, but by default “just” infers an apology where none should apply.

“I kind of think…” or “I almost think…”

Do you or don’t you know what you think or is it just that you’re worried about offending others? Neither qualifier is going to help and, like “just”, will only water down your authority and – from a listener perspective – the strength of your conviction.

“Don’t you think?”

The merits of this or other examples of so-called “hedging”, such as “Okay?” depend on context. As a means of seeking formal approval, they’re fine.

If, however, they’re used while trying to persuade people to see something your way, they’re akin to hedging a bet – and in business you can rarely have it both ways.

“There’s nothing I can do.”

If you say something’s impossible, you had better be sure it is. A can-do attitude has value – negativity does not. While it’s important to be realistic, rephrasing along the lines of, “I’ll definitely check again” or “Under the circumstances, these are the best options” might well be a better way to go.

“I hate…”

The beginning of the end for many careers. Insults and name-calling are off-limits in any workplace, regardless of whether you’re talking about your job, a company rule, or colleague. To quote an old saying: It’s liable and it’s fire-able.

“I’ll try.”

You can’t blame someone for trying, but would it be enough to entrust them with something really important? Given the phrase implies the possibility of failure, probably not.

Replacing “I’ll try” with “I will” carries a lot more weight, especially with senior management. 

“Sorry, but…”

Why apologise for something you have yet to say?

“You guys…”

This phrase is more about taking assumed license than something to eradicate. Remember, however, that it is slang, and strictly speaking excludes women. It’s worth considering more professional terms such as, “your team”, “your organisation”, or simply “you”.

“But we’ve always done it that way.”

So what? If you want to toast any hope of building a reputation for creative thinking and being a progressive go-getter, try this one.

“But I sent an email a week ago.”

Passing the buck to someone who for reasons unbeknown never got back to you is not good form. The onus is on you to follow up communications you initiate, not blame recipients.

“I don't need the money”

Even if you “don't work for the money”, don’t say so at work. You’ll almost certainly sound like you’re talking down to people, and probably like a twit, too. Leave anything to do with money in the bank.

“When I retire I’m going to…”

Few co-workers could care less about your upcoming world cruise, especially these days when the prospects of them doing the same are increasingly distant. This one is a good way to engender resentment.

The above are used fairly commonly in the workplace and trying to eliminate them from everyday conversations isn’t easy.

The first step is to gain awareness of the type of language you use. After that, there are various methods to help manage not only the words you choose, but also overcome pitfalls like “uptalk”, rushing and piling on words and terms, along with other impediments to better communication in the workplace.

Do your skills measure up? Assess yourself with CPA Australia's Career Guidance System.


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