“It’s important to be cautious with what you say to your boss, as even the slightest slip up could make or break your career,” says Ryan Kahn, a career coach, founder of The Hired Group , and author of ” Hired! The Guide for the Recent Grad .” “There are the obvious things to hold back from saying to your boss, but the key is to dissect the little things in your interactions.”
Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of ” Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant, How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job,” agrees. “There are certain comments and questions based on negative perspectives that can set you back with your boss,” she says. “If they continue unabated, these phrases can sabotage an otherwise great job.”
A good practice is to first pause before blurting out something you might regret and examine what you’re trying to achieve, and the likely reaction you’ll get from your boss.
“If you think you may regret it, you probably will,” she says. “Better to err on the side of waiting until you can crystallize your thoughts into a more palatable and professional dialogue.”
Aside from the obvious — like profanity and insults — here are 28 phrases you should avoid:
A “can-do” attitude is always a valued trait. “I can’t” shows both a lack of confidence and unwillingness to take chances — neither of which will endear you to management, says Taylor.
“That’s not my area.” Or, “That’s not part of my job.”
No job description is ever set in stone. “As cross-functional teams remain the order of the day, you’re expected to be flexible and make your boss’ life easier,” Taylor explains. “As a side note, the more skill-sets you accumulate, the more indispensable you are.”
Saying that you’re not willing to go beyond your role shows that you are also not willing to pitch in for the success of the company, Kahn adds.
“I don’t know.”
You may not have the answers to every question, but your best guess and a promise to find out is much better than a shrug of the shoulders, she says. “Anytime your boss would need to do the work for you, assume that’s not a path you should take.”
Your cooperation is expected, and so is a polite tone. “Telling your boss ‘no’ is a challenge, and is sometimes necessary — but it can be inappropriate if you don’t phrase it well with an explanation,” Taylor says. “For example, if your boss says, ‘Do you have time to work on the Smith project today?’ you shouldn’t just say, ‘No.’ Instead try something like, ‘Today will be a challenge if you still want me to focus on that company presentation. Would you prefer I work on this today instead?’”
Some people think that this is an acceptable response, as we all “try” to get things done to our best ability. But it leaves a manager feeling unsure, and when assignments are given, your boss is counting on you, usually with specific deadlines, says Taylor. “Imagine yourself asking, ‘Will you be signing off on my paycheck on the 15th?’ and your boss responding, ‘I will try.’”
“That’s not what I heard.”
Avoiding gossip and conjecture is a good idea, as it can backfire. If you’re not sure about something, wait, or you risk appearing unprofessional.
“How do I benefit from this?”
Sometimes your work involves helping others and other departments. Bosses have little tolerance for those who aren’t team players, Taylor says.
“I’m sorry, but…”
“The caveat essentially cancels any genuine apologetic sentiment,” Taylor says. “A straight, ‘I’m sorry…I’ll be much more aware of this next time’ is the expected response when you mess up.”
“Well, I did my best.”
This is a cop-out. If you made a mistake, and that was your best, that doesn’t speak highly of your abilities. The better response is that you’ll get it right next time.
Don’t threaten to leave the company, says Kahn. It’s unprofessional and they‘ll consider you a flight risk.
“I just assumed that…”
That phrase causes frustration for many bosses, as they’d rather hear that you made an error in judgment and learned from it, versus excuses. “To err is human, but to defer blame is a career killer,” Taylor says.
“I’ve tried that before.”
Bosses have little tolerance for laziness. “Examine whether you really gave the option a shot before you shoot it down,” she suggests. “Your boss may have something else in mind.” Alternatively, explain that you appreciate the suggestion, and tried XYZ, with such and such a result — but would be glad to try something more effective.
“At my last job we did it this way.”
No manager likes a know-it-all, so you must tread lightly if you think you have a better way. “You’re better off phrasing sensitive or challenging responses by turning them into questions versus being confrontational,” Taylor says.
“It’s really not my fault; it’s John’s fault.”
The blame game is a treacherous path. If you’re innocent, then explain why. Don’t implicate others if you bear the primary responsibility, Taylor says.
“Taking responsibility is key,” adds Kahn. “If your always seen as someone pointing the finger, eventually your boss is going to question who is really to blame.”
“[Your predecessor] did this differently/better.”
“Bosses usually feel that their methods are preferred over their predecessors because they now hold the position,” Taylor explains. “Unless a method is clearly a mistake, don’t challenge your boss with the ‘old ways of doing things’ just because they made things easier for you.”
“You may have a weak moment and share your boredom with the wrong person: your boss,” says Taylor. “You’re being paid to be productive and remain enthusiastic; it’s your responsibility to find ways to make your job interesting.”
“I can’t work with him/her.”
“Not playing well with others” isn’t good in elementary school, nor is it in the workplace. It’s assumed that you are capable of getting beyond personality conflicts in the interest of delivering excellent results.
“He’s a jerk.”
“The golden rule is something your boss expects you to observe, and casting aspersions on others has no redeeming value. It just reflects badly on you,” she says.
“If I don’t hear from you, I’ll just do X.”
This has a threatening tone. Better to wait than be admonished later.
“Why does Jane always…?”
Whining is annoying. “If you have a gripe, better to ask how you can attain a certain privilege, and leave others out of the discussion,” she suggests.
“Can I/we speak with your boss about this?” Or, “I want to speak with HR about this.”
“Going over your boss’ head challenges authority — a usually no-win situation, unless you’re about to quit (or be terminated) and have no other recourse,” says Taylor.
If you’re going to HR, don’t threaten in advance, she adds. “And you should avoid it unless you’ve exhausted all the options with your boss.”
“I don’t have a solution.”
Don’t tell the boss about problems without presenting potential solutions, says Kahn. “Leaders talk about solutions; followers talk about the problems.”
“Why does John have X and I don’t?”
Focus on your own career, not others’ salary or promotions — unless you’re witnessing blatant favoritism. “If that’s the case, you can opt for a more professional discussion once you’ve collected your thoughts about the facts,” Taylor says.
“I’m pretty busy. Can it wait?”
It’s your responsibility to ask your boss if priorities have changed, as your objectives must stay aligned with your manager’s. “Priorities are rarely stagnant, so as in most cases, your better option is to ask if you should reshuffle them,” she recommends.
“Can I leave early today since things are slow?”
It’s fine if you have to leave early. But don’t say it’s because “things are slow” or you have “nothing to do.” “There are always more projects in the pipeline. Bosses want you to show initiative,” she says.
Your manager doesn’t want to hear negativity or a lack of conviction. If you have concerns, state what they are, and ask for input.
One of the best approaches in deciding whether to share your thoughts with your boss or ask sensitive questions is to put yourself in their shoes, Taylor suggests. “Do your comments and questions reflect a positive, can-do, and confident demeanor? Remember loose lips sink ships,so choose your words carefully when you feel challenged at work if you want to thrive in your career.”