20 Inappropriate Words and Phrases to Avoid at Work

Woman covering mouth

It normally takes time to settle into a new job and get comfortable being around new people.

Some of us never truly get comfortable around them, and some of us get a little too comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that we fail to filter our thoughts before we put them into words. And what we say – no matter how innocent or harmless it may seem – can be potentially career-ending.

Here are 20 inappropriate words and phrases that should never, ever be said in the workplace.

1. ‘I think’

Using words like ‘think’ show that you lack confidence in what you’re saying. Allow me to demonstrate: which of the two following statements do you think is the most authoritative?

  1. ‘I think our company might be a good partner for you’
  2. ‘I believe/I know/I’m confident our company will be a good partner for you’

The answer is 2, right? And that’s because it uses more assertive and passionate words like ‘believe’, ‘know’, ‘confident’ and ‘will’.

2. ‘That’s not my job’

This little phrase can have huge consequences for your career – so much so that you might as well have said ‘That’s not my promotion’. Not willing to go the extra mile when you’re asked to (that said, you shouldn’t really need to be asked to go the extra mile) makes you stand out as uncooperative, lazy, incompetent and irresponsible. All qualities that employers do not actively look for in employees. If you really don’t want to do something, there are other – and far better – ways to say ‘no’.

3. ‘I can’t work with him/her’

Whether it’s because you don’t like someone or you’re not too keen on their work style, publicly refusing to work with them will only reflect badly on you. Set your differences aside and find a way to work together. This will allow you demonstrate your teamwork skills and your ability to overcome challenges when they arise – both of which are highly sought after qualities in employees.

4. ‘I need a drink!’

Let’s face it: work can get a bit too much sometimes, thanks to overwhelming workloads, looming deadlines and annoying co-workers. And a glass (or bottle) of wine, whisky or [insert choice alcohol here] can seem like the only thing that will help you get through the day. But exclaiming that you’re dying for a drink can give people the impression that you’re an alcoholic or even offend a colleague who knows someone who is (or are themselves) battling an alcohol problem.

5. ‘Cray-cray’

There are many millennial slang words which have become ingrained in pop culture, so much so that they’ve been added to the Oxford Dictionary. ‘Cray-cray’ is one such example. Yet, despite their popularity, they simply don’t belong in the workplace. They make you seem immature and damage your professional image. Remember: you’re not 15 anymore; you’re a responsible adult. Other examples of slang words not to use at work include ‘totes’ and ‘YOLO’.

6. ‘I don’t know’

Nobody expects you to have the answers to everything. If you did, you’d probably be sitting under the sun on your exotic private island – not working for someone else. But having said that, simply shrugging your shoulders when (especially) your boss asks you something is basically career suicide. Instead, offer your best guess or promise to find out whatever it is they want to know by asking someone who does know or, heck, Googling it.

7. ‘It’s not my fault’

Perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it was John’s fault. But dodging the blame and pointing fingers makes people trust you less and damages morale. If you’re innocent, explain why by offering an objective explanation of what happened – without throwing your co-workers under the bus! Stick to the facts and let your boss draw their own conclusions who’s to blame. If you bear the primary responsibility, own up to your mistakes – having said that, don’t keep taking the blame for your team’s f*ck-ups (you might feel responsible for them or don’t want them to get into trouble, for example) as people will start taking advantage of you. Likewise, if you keep accusing others for errors (whether your own or your colleagues’), your boss will eventually start questioning who’s really to blame.

8. ‘Ghetto’

Originally used in Venice to refer to the part of the city where Jews were restricted and segregated, the word has since been applied in various contexts and has racist and classist connotations. More recently, the word ‘ghetto’ is used to describe something that is ‘bad’ or ‘low quality’. The problem, though, is that – as Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard School, so eloquently put it in an article for the BBC – ‘it’s very difficult to disassociate it from its use to characterise low-income African Americans’.

9. ‘I don’t have time for that’

You’ve got a backlog of tasks to complete and projects to deliver, not to mention a dozen deadlines looming over you. You’re obviously a very busy person and there’s just not enough time in a workday to get everything done. But telling a co-worker or, worse, your boss that you don’t have time for them is simply rude and it effectively demonstrates your poor time management skills. If you really don’t have time, say something like: ‘I’d be happy to discuss this with you after my meeting. Can I drop by your office at 2pm?’ Likewise, if your boss asks you to add another task to your already overwhelming workload, ask them which of your existing tasks you should put on the back-burner to accommodate the new task’s priority.

10. ‘I’ll try’

No one can do everything – we’re only human, after all. But saying you’ll ‘try’ to do something simply suggests failure. ‘I’ll do it’, on the other hand, inspires confidence and it helps people know they can rely on you. If, for whatever reason, you’re unable to do something, then don’t and simply explain why you can’t. Don’t leave people hanging by telling them you’ll try to do whatever it is they’re asking you to do. To quote the great Jedi Master, Yoda: ‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’

11. ‘I don’t get paid enough for this’

Ask anyone, anywhere in the world, and they’ll most likely tell you they don’t get paid enough for what they do, either, whether they’re a receptionist or a CEO. Even if you’re asked to do something that isn’t normally part of your job description, and regardless how inconvenient the request may be, saying something along the lines of ‘I’ll be glad to help’ will be a better response than complaining about your salary. Meanwhile, if you really think you’re worth more than what you’re already being paid, then why not ask for a raise?

12. ‘Good job, guys!’

It could be a little hard to see what’s so bad about this particular phrase – after all, you’re recognising your team’s successes – but the problem lies in the word ‘guys’, especially when your team is comprised of both men and women. Sure, there are bigger issues than the use of androcentric language in the workplace to worry about (like the gender pay gap, for example), but referring to a group of men and women as ‘guys’ here insinuates that the men did all the work and effectively helps create a sexist working environment. Next time, prefer to say something like ‘Good job, team!’ or ‘Good job, everyone!’

13. ‘OMG, did you hear about…?’

There’s been a wealth of research on the effects of workplace gossiping, with some studies suggesting that it helps create stronger bonds between people. But by that logic, it simply excludes and isolates those who are being gossiped, effectively creating a hostile and stressful working environment.

14. ‘That’s so gay’

In recent years, the word ‘gay’ has been used as a pejorative to express dislike, the same way you would say something is ‘lame’ or ‘uncool’. However, using offensive and derogatory terms like this in the workplace is simply unprofessional and politically incorrect because it can be viewed as discrimination against sexual orientation (which, under the Equality Act 2010, is a protected characteristic).

15. ‘I’m sorry (and I’ll keep apologising till the end of time)’

I’m not suggesting that you don’t apologise for your (hopefully few and far in between) mistakes at work but rather that you avoid playing the Extended Disco Remix of ‘I’m So, So Sorry (Please Forgive Me)’. Own up to your mistakes, apologise sincerely for them and move on – and don’t remind your boss how sorry you are every time you pass them in the hall!

16. ‘It’s not fair’

If you ever do say this, why not roll on the floor and throw a temper tantrum? I mean, you might as well go all out if you decide to start acting like a four-year-old. While it might seem ‘unfair’ that a colleague got a raise and you didn’t, complaining and whining about it will get you nowhere – it’ll only make you look bad. Instead, build a case and present an intelligent argument to the appropriate person. (It’s also important to note that there’s a very good chance your colleague deserved that raise or they simply have better negotiation skills than you.)

17. ‘That’s what she said’

Working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday can become quite monotonous, to say the least. To combat this and make work a much more enjoyable experience, people talk and make jokes. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. But when those jokes are laced with sexual innuendo, it becomes a problem. It can be offensive and disrespectful, and it opens you up to sexual harassment claims.

18. ‘I’ll kill you’

It’s only natural that we don’t get along with every single person we work with. In fact, we might even wish a couple of them dead. But it’s one thing to mentally go over the many different ways you could do them in (and get away with it) and quite another to actually threaten them with their demise at your hands.

19. ‘Good girl/boy!’

You’ll most likely use this phrase to congratulate a co-worker or junior employee for a job well done – and there’s no harm in that, is there? Well, while there’s nothing wrong with recognising someone’s work (in fact, it’s encouraged), saying things like ‘Good girl!’ or ‘Atta boy!’ is quite condescending. Remember: you’re congratulating a co-worker for doing a good job, not your dog for obeying your command to sit.

20. Any Type of Swear Word

While swearing is a natural part of human communication and linguistic self-expression, there’s really no place for it in the workplace. Understand that not everyone you work with will be comfortable with profanity (even if it’s not directed at or relevant to them). Moreover, dropping F-bombs and a variety of other colourful words can also hamper your professional reputation and, effectively, ruin your chances of career advancement. In fact, a 2012 study by CareerBuilder found that 64% of US employers think less of employees who swear and 57% were less likely to promote offenders!

Have you ever used any of these inappropriate words or phrases in the workplace? Have you ever gotten into trouble for swearing or gossiping? Can you think of any other words and phrases you should avoid in the office? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!