30 Inappropriate Words and Phrases to Avoid at Work

If you want to keep a professional face at work and advance in your career, then you better avoid using these words and phrases!

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Inappropriate Words for Work

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.

So, to help you be more professional at work, here are 30 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, 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”. Being unwilling 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) could color you as uncooperative, lazy 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 them”

Whether it’s because you don’t like them or you’re not too keen on their work style, publicly refusing to work with others will only reflect badly on you. Set your differences aside and find a way to work as a team. This will allow you to 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!”

By referring to alcohol as a way to deal with a tough day, you’re encouraging the idea that alcohol is a good way to deal with difficult situations. Matt Weidle, Business Development Manager of Buyer’s Guide, notes that ‘a glass (or bottle) of wine, scotch, or [insert preferred alcoholic beverage here] may seem like the only way to get through the day.’ However, announcing to your colleagues that you are starving for a drink could give the wrong impression, he continues.

You never know what’s happening behind closed doors; there could be someone in your office that is struggling with an alcohol issue—or knows someone who is. It may also lower others’ opinions of you, too, as they may believe you’re unable to deal with workplace pressures. All in all, it’s wise to avoid mentioning alcohol in the workplace (unless you’re a sommelier or work in a bar, of course).

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 just one example.

However, despite their popularity, they simply don’t belong in the workplace as they could make you seem immature and damage your professional image. Remember: you’re not 15 anymore; you’re a responsible adult.

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 coworkers under the bus! Stick to the facts and let your boss draw their own conclusions about 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 others (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 of 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”.  Mario Small, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, in an article for the BBC noted that the problem here is that “it’s very difficult to disassociate it from its use to characterize low-income African Americans” and can be perceived as offensive due to its connotations and implications.

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 coworker or, worse, your boss that you don’t have time for them 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 backburner to accommodate the priority of the new task.

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, 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’d be glad to help” will be a better response than saying that something is above your pay grade. 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 recognizing your team’s successes — but the problem lies in the word “guys”, especially when your team comprises 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 work environment. Next time, prefer to say something like “Good job, team!” or “Well done, 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 apologizing till the end of time)”

I’m not suggesting that you don’t apologize for your (hopefully few and far in between) mistakes at work but rather that you avoid playing the Extended Disco Version of “I’m so, so sorry (please forgive me)”. Own up to your mistakes, apologize sincerely for them and move on — you don’t need to 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, too? 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 of complaining, build a case and present an intelligent argument to the appropriate person.

17. “That’s what she said”

Working 9am to 5pm, 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 accusations.

18. “I’ll kill you”

It’s only natural that we don’t get along with every single person we work with. But it’s one thing to mentally go over the many different ways you could get back at them (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 coworker or junior employee for a job well done — and there’s no harm in that, is there? Well, while there’s nothing wrong with recognizing someone’s work (in fact, it’s encouraged), saying things like “Good girl!” or “Atta boy!” is quite condescending. Remember: you’re congratulating a coworker for doing a good job, not your dog for obeying your command to sit.

20. "Any type of curse word"

While swearing is a natural part of human communication and 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 colorful 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!

21. "Maybe it’s a stupid idea, but…"

This doesn’t really shout confidence does it? If you aren’t confident in your idea, your colleagues and superiors aren’t going to either. Maciek Kubiak, Head of People at PhotoAiD, explains that when you disregard you ideas, “you are directing the other person’s thinking toward a negative judgement, and you undermine yourself”. He recommends stating your idea with confidence, with terms like “I recommend ABC” or “My idea is XYZ”.

22. “That’s not my problem”

Using this phrase shows your colleagues that you’re not a team player. While a task might not fall directly under the umbrella of your job role, helping others find a solution to a problem will count in your favor.

It’s always worth contributing your ideas and suggestions to help others. By responding this way when someone asks for help, it shows that you care about the success of others, as well as your own.

23. “YOLO”

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it stands for ‘you only live once’. While this might be something commonly used in your friend group chats, it’s better to avoid using the phrase at work.

Steve Anevski, CEO and co-founder of leading staffing platform, Upshift, notes that this ‘slang word is not appropriate in any situation at work. Remember you are not at a party with friends, instead of with your colleagues working for a company that pays your salary.’ So, it’s best to keep it professional and steer clear of any slang words that may be deemed as inappropriate in an office setting.

24. “That’s insane”

We’ve all said this before. But have you ever considered the insinuation behind the phrase? You could be unwittingly marginalizing and discriminating against people who suffer from mental health conditions.

Jared Karol, Equity and Inclusion HR Consultant, says it’s best to avoid disparaging language such as this in the workplace. While your intention wasn’t to insult anyone, you need to take into consideration the feelings of others and avoid using terms that could ridicule or criticize those around you.

25. “I don’t think this is a good idea”

Before you dismiss someone’s input, take some time to consider what they are saying. There’s potential in everything, so keeping an optimistic attitude and offering constructive feedback is much better than simply shutting down someone’s idea.

Edward Mellett, Founder of Wikijob, advises to be diplomatic and ‘praise the person for his/her creative idea before calmly pointing out the potential disadvantages’.

26. “You look tired”

It’s never okay to comment on someone’s appearance in the workplace, and that includes saying that they look tired. You could be speaking to an exhausted new parent, or to someone who suffers from infuriating sleep insomnia.

There is a multitude of reasons why someone could be looking a little worse for wear, but it’s wise not to comment on it to avoid them taking offense. Of course, you can always ask them how they are doing, and be supportive in other ways, like making coffee for them for instance!

27. “I hate my job”

This is definitely (and understandably) one sentence to avoid uttering in the workplace. While your feelings are valid, it isn’t the time or place to voice them. It’s better to speak to a close (non-work-related) friend or family member. And if you’re truly unhappy in your job, it’s worth considering finding a job that you love instead.

28. “But we’ve always done it this way”

Just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that’s how it will always be. Innovation is essential for every company. Being stuck in the past only restricts growth, so try to keep an open mind and consider new ways of doing things.

Saying ‘we’ve always done it this way’ makes you seem like you are behind with the times, so make sure you try to adapt along with everyone else.

29. “Right?”

Adding “right?” to the end of every sentence makes it seem like you don’t trust your own judgement. Indeed, it could sound like you’re questioning yourself and are asking for confirmation from your colleagues. Be more confident in your responses and your colleagues will respect you more for it.

30. “To be honest…”

This is another phrase that we all use regularly, but when you actually sit and think about it, what does it convey? For those that take things literally, it implies you’re not always honest. It’s best to avoid this phrase if possible, and, as a result, you’ll become a more trusted employee.

Final thoughts

It’s important to know which phrases you should avoid using in a professional environment. Whether you’re one of the people that ends every sentence with “right?” after every statement, or you’re regularly overheard saying “I’ll try”, then allow yourself to adapt and start utilizing language that demonstrates your abilities and knowledge to your colleagues and superiors.

Can you think of any other inappropriate words or phrases to aviud in the workplace? How about annoying corporate jargon? Let us know in the comments section below!

This is an updated version of an article originally published on 21 September 2017 and contains contributions by staff writer Hayley Ramsey.