“I Hate You” and Other Things You Should Never Say at Work

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I’m a writer for a reason. And that reason is sometimes when I speak, stupid silly faux-pas things come out of my mouth. I would love to have a delete button or a remote control for my life (not just my work life, my personal life, too) that allows me to pause a little longer to consider the consequences of what I am going to say next or rewind for a do over when I get it wrong (which can be frequently).

I once phoned a colleague and began the conversation with a Freudian slip that had my cubicle neighbours convulsing with laughter long after the call was ended. I’ve heard others in the workplace using what can only be described as colourful language. I’ve even caused a fellow worker to faint by talking about the very specific processes of blood donation.

But there are a handful of things you should never say at work (most of which I’m glad to say have never come out of my mouth) and knowing what they are in advance might just help you avoid an awkward, embarrassing, termination-inducing or unwanted reputation-making situation.

‘I hate you.’

Well, really, we’re not in kindergarten anymore (unless you are because you work in a kindergarten and then it’s even more inappropriate to tell a colleague you hate them because impressionable young ears will probably be listening in). And even though you might want to say it, is it really true? Perhaps you’re just repulsed or frustrated or angry or offended. And none of these emotions will get you very far in a workplace.

Genuine hatred should be reserved for murderers, rapists, bullies who subject you to physical and emotional abuse, and people who park in disabled parking spaces when they don’t have a disability. Personality differences are on another level entirely. While you might not get on with someone, you should have enough class to keep that information to yourself and get on with your job. Because saying it won’t make the working environment better, it won’t achieve anything (except maybe a talking to from your boss or HR or – if you’re really lucky – both), and you’ll end up regretting it almost the moment the words come out of your mouth.

‘I hate [insert minority group here].’

A cursory inspection of any equal opportunity employment policy will generally reveal that discrimination (including any stated hatred) based on race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, health, marital and/or family status and a variety of other defining characteristics is a one-way ticket to unemployment. Justifiably.

Nobody can claim to be perfect. I look down on people who freely admit a fondness for Justin Bieber’s or One Direction’s so-called music. But even bigots like me (and possibly you) need to put food on the table. So if you can’t or won’t work at becoming just a little bit more enlightened, keep it to yourself.

‘You’re not very good at your job.’

Ouch. Harsh words. They might even be true. But it’s not up to you to make this determination and then say it to the person’s face. It’s their boss’s job. And if you are the boss, there are about a thousand better ways of saying it.

It’s easy to be negative but it’s so much more effective to find the positive in a situation. Instead of telling someone they’re not good at their job, why not try to help them get better? Suggesting to their supervisor that they might benefit from some additional training could help them to become good at their job. Wouldn’t you rather be part of the reason someone improves at something rather than part of the reason they are crying in the office toilets at lunch time?

‘You’re just plain stupid.’

This one is more of a blanket statement and we all know blanket statements are never good. They lack nuance, they lack specificity, they lack defensibility. However, I am now going to make a blanket statement. Everyone is good at something. But a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to either know what that something is yet or to have found a job where they get to demonstrate it on a daily basis. In the meantime, they still need to earn a living. And being told they are stupid isn’t exactly going to be perceived as an incentive. In fact, being told they are stupid is almost guaranteed to be taken as an invitation to aim lower. After all, it’s now expected.

It was the wisdom of Forrest Gump and his mamma that gave us, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.’ So which is worse? Being stupid? Or telling someone to their face, who for all you know could have a very good reason for failing to live up to your standards, that they are stupid?

‘I only work here for the money.’

Perhaps I’m a utopian but my checklist of reasons for working at a particular place of employment has to be longer than one. I know it’s impossible to tick every box but a combination of some of the following tends to be why I take on or continue in any job:

  • I like the company.
  • I share their vision.
  • The corporate culture promotes a work/life balance.
  • I enjoy the work.
  • There’s a chance for advancement.
  • My co-workers are more like friends.
  • My boss is someone I can learn from.
  • I love the industry.
  • The commute is reasonable.
  • The salary is generous.
  • The perks are things that actually get used.

If the only reason you stay in a job is the money, then it’s likely that money is the only thing you’ll ever get out of it. And telling people about your one and only mercenary motivation for staying won’t endear you to anyone.

‘You’re not Greg. Greg’s the guy with the little hand.’

Okay, yes, I admit, I once said this. To Greg. And as he held up his little hand (that had been behind his back) to prove me wrong, I would have given anything for a hole to open up in the ground and suck me down. In my defence, I was fifteen, it wasn’t at work (it was a BBQ at my dad’s house) and the filter mechanism in my brain that now stops me (mostly) from saying these types of things hadn’t yet fully developed.

Many people these days have physical disabilities or scars but it isn’t okay to use them to as a mark of identity. I have an ugly set of scars up my left arm, the consequences of a motorbike I was riding colliding with a barbed wire fence (ah, the follies of youth) but I would be horrified to hear someone referring to me as, ‘You know, that woman with the scars on her arm.’

The guiding principle of identifying the people you work with is this: what is their name, which department do they work in and what is their job? Fred from accounting. Gillian from marketing. Tom from customer service. Sally from operations. If you can’t identify people in this way, then ask yourself: should you be talking about them in the first place?

‘I wish someone would blow this place up/burn this place to the ground.’

It’s one thing to hope for a black out, a gas leak or a nearby grass fire that means everyone has to be evacuated and sent home for the day. But in our age of middle class radicalism, a comment like this overheard without its all-important context – such as a computer that hasn’t worked for four hours or yet another avoidable delay in something you have prioritised, things that can justifiably make us crazy at work – can have you sitting in the HR manager’s office clutching a termination notice faster than you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

And, let’s be honest, you’re free to leave any time you’d like. Wishing destruction on a workplace that other people have worked hard to build, that other people have contributed considerable effort to keep up and running, that other people depend on for their livelihoods is not really a joking matter.

There are plenty more industry-specific things you should never say at work. ‘I’ve finished the operation. It was the left leg, yes?’ (Surgeons.) ‘Did you know your car has a top speed of 224 kilometres per hour?’ (Mechanics.) ‘I don’t really care if you go to jail or not.’ (Lawyers.) But if there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s the following mantra: think before you speak. Your career, and your reputation, could depend on it.

*First published on LinkedIn 31 August 2014

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