What Not to Say at Work


A registered nurse at a county-run clinic in Long Island, N.Y., still carries a grudge against management. Last year, she was unable to get June 30 -- her wedding anniversary -- off to celebrate with her husband of 35 years. This year, she put in the request six months early, pointing out to her boss the 36th anniversary milestone. Overloaded with requests for the July 4 weekend, her supervisor did not agree to the time off, and instead asked: "Can't you celebrate your anniversary another day?"

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A colleague's thoughtless response or overtly unprofessional banter can wreak havoc in the workplace. Many workers -- employees and managers alike -- do not realize that what they say and how they say it contributes to the office atmosphere and their own reputation. And when they say the wrong thing, it sticks.

"Today, we spend more time at work than we spend anywhere else," says Karen Friedman, author of "Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners." "We end up becoming more comfortable with people at work, and let our guards down."

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There are a few topics that one should avoid around both the dinner table and the water cooler, says Charles Purdy, senior editor of job site Monster.com and author of "Urban Etiquette." "Sex is dangerous because it's so easy for a harmless conversation to devolve or for someone to feel harassed," says Purdy. Politics and religion, while not completely off-limits, are also difficult to discuss without getting people riled up, he adds.

In fact, only a third of senior executives, managers and employees said they were comfortable discussing their political views with colleagues, according to a survey by the American Management Association. Coming off a heated midterm election, that may be news to some employees who enjoy political debate. The problem, of course, is when judgmental comments creep in or one person is made to feel isolated by their views.

Alison Risso, now a Washington D.C.-based communications director, remembers her own political slip-up at the office. "My favorite was when my boss, a staunch Republican, came in and announced to everyone that he'd proudly cast his vote for 'The Colonel,'" she recalls, referencing former conservative Senate candidate Oliver North. "Without thinking I said, 'I pray to God you mean the one who sells chicken.' I didn't last long there."

Off-color humor is another great way to alienate coworkers, says David Kimmelman, vice president of career management site GetTheJob.com. "Humor becomes offensive when it's directed at a group, like a religion or race," Kimmelman says. This type of humor has happened all too frequently in his 20-year career. One that he heard recently, in light of the mosque controversy in New York City, was: "How many Muslims does it take to build a mosque?"

"It's not acceptable," warns Kimmelman. An employee may brush it off as "just a joke," but in reality, such joking creates a hostile environment and should be avoided.

Meanwhile, a few lighter topics are equally bad form. Kimmelman advises not going into details about your weekend escapades. "The wrong thing to say is: 'Oh my god, I got so wasted last night,' or 'I'm still hazy from all the blunts I smoked over the weekend.'" It's unprofessional and an easy way to damage your image, he says, so keep the weekend talk PG.

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Similarly, what Purdy calls "medical gross-outs" have no place at work. By this he means any details about the function or dysfunction of your body. "People feel too comfortable now and talk about their surgeries or illnesses," he says. "No one wants to know what happened when you ate bad seafood."

Most of us -- though probably not enough of us -- understand the common-sense meter that guides acceptable office conversation. However, there are a few verbal faux pas that do more to hurt your own standing than affect those around you.

"That's not my job," is one that Friedman frequently encounters. Variations on the theme are "I don't know" or "it's another department." This signals to a manager that you are unwilling to spend an extra five minutes to look into something, she says. If you don't make the effort to help a colleague, supervisors might fear that you will be unable to offer solutions to a client and may not give you the important assignments.

Bosses, too, can fall into verbal patterns that undermine their leadership. Last year, Friedman received a call from a human resources manager who needed help with the company's new CEO. Although, he was described as "terrific," the employees weren't following his directions. Friedman asked the CEO what he believed the problem was, and he said: "Listen, I don't care what they think. I just want them to do what I tell them."

A manager who offers only orders and expresses a disinterest in the opinions of subordinates will invite a mutiny, says Friedman. She advises steering clear of phrases like "you don't know what you're talking about" or "just do it."

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Intoning apathy or disillusionment won't take you far either, says Purdy. He's worked in a few situations in which the team leader presented a task as unworthy because it came from the higher ups. Saying, "I think it's stupid, but corporate is making us do it," will de-motivate the team and place your leadership ability in question.

"My general advice? Keeping things positive is safest," Purdy concludes. "Avoid speaking negatively about anything or anyone." The point was hammered home for him in a recent meeting. Likely hoping to warm up the group by joking on a "neutral" topic, one of the executives made an off-hand remark about a female pop star. As luck would have it, the pop star's brother was in the room.

While an extreme example, Purdy says that most employees are guilty of workplace complaining. People tend to complain about their jobs, their bosses, their previous coworkers -- and it will come back to bite you, he says. A coworker who is your equal one day, may be promoted over you the next. "You just never know," says Purdy.

So if you don't have anything nice to say ... keep it to the weather.

What Not to Say at Work

"It's not my problem. That's Becca's job."

Offering this phrase to a supervisor will communicate two things: that you are not a team player and blame others rather than create solutions. If asked about something outside of your job's scope, a better response is: "I don't usually handle that, but I'd be happy to look into it."

"Are you pregnant? Can I feel?"

Never ask a woman if she's pregnant. The awkwardness and self-esteem shattering that occurs when she says she's not is best avoided. At the same time, asking to feel a coworker's third-trimester belly is never appropriate. Do so only if she invites it.

"How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb ...?"

Humor often comes from the denigration of a group -- be it ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference. Off-color jokes are never acceptable in the workplace, as they may create a threatening environment for a coworker.

"I'd like to blow this place up."

In today's environment, this type of hyperbole could be taken seriously by a coworker. At the very least, someone might become fearful or distrustful of you. At most, you may be reported and investigated.

"You voted for him? Are you stupid?"

Political talk is not banned from the workplace, but it must be handled delicately. People very easily get riled up, so take care not to voice feelings of anger or judgment when talking about a candidate or race.

Click here to see the full list of Worst Things to Say at Work


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