10 Things to Never Say at Work

Today I read this article, posted on the CEB Marketing Leadership website. According to their "About Us", "CEB (Corporate Executive Board) is the leading member-based advisory company. [Their] practices span the core functions found in large corporate, midsized, government, and financial services organizations worldwide."

I know, I know... super-boring corporate stuff, right? But I'm a super-boring corporate drone, so these are the kind of websites I read for work.

You're probably wondering why I would share my boring work stuff here but, honestly, I read this and all I could think was, "Every person who has a job needs to read this article!". The thing they don't say, that I think sums everything up, is that it's important to stay positive and flexible in order to avoid projecting a poor attitude.

So, for all you workers out there, here's my tip of the day (courtesy of CEB). 

10 Things to Never Say at Work

Things can get tough at work. But lots of times, people – myself included, sometimes! – get bogged down to the point of negativity and non-constructiveness. In other words, we complain about challenges instead of doing what we can to meet them. Everyone does it sometimes, but it’s important to avoid consistently giving the impression that you’re not willing to do what it takes to get the job done. In that spirit, here are ten things to avoid saying at work:

1) “That’s not my job.”

The Great Recession, and the reduction in headcount that came with it, has put workers in a tough spot: they’re increasingly asked to do things that were not a part of their original job description and that conflict significantly with their core duties, necessitating longer hours to compensate. We’re “doing more with less!”

The next request you get from your boss very well might not be your job, but a more proactive approach is to treat time and expertise as a constraint, and manage against them. “Well, I have project X and Y due next week, and I’m not sure how to use Database Z, should I push those projects back, and who should I link up with to discuss the database?”

2) “I’m too busy.”

Again, with headcount dropping, it can often feel like we’re completing and managing a dozen tasks at once, all with near-in deadlines. And, inevitably, the time will come when you’re asked to do a task that’s simply a bridge too far – the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

This is a difficult situation to be in, and in difficult times it’s easy to let emotions take over and brusquely respond that you’re simply too busy to take on the task. But the better way is to be proactive, let people know what kind of deadlines you’re looking at, and ask what, if anything, should be sacrificed to take on the new task.

3) “I don’t know.”

As tasks get more complex, there will almost certainly be the occasional gap between what you know and what you need to know.

The key thing to do here is to get specific and figure out a strategy for meeting those gaps. “I’m happy to help, but I’m not sure exactly what the project plan is for this campaign, who should I talk with to learn more?”

4) “This is how we’ve always done it.”

Simply put: for many companies, there is no better time than now to begin re-thinking the “way you’ve always done it.” Many corporate business models are under fundamental attack from startups able to compete at scale through the web, and the gradually-improving economy means there will be lots of chances for growth – and process changes that make growth possible – in the near future.

That said, there needs to be a good reason to overturn an established approach. Next time someone wants to throw out the playbook, ask – “How will these changes help us meet our goals?”

5) “I don’t have anything to do.”

In our modern, complex corporate environment, there is almost zero chance that this is true. If you’ve run out of paper to push, start thinking about ways you can improve your personal or team processes to make your work more efficient. If you’ve optimized those, ask people if they need any help with anything. If no one else needs help, start thinking about new products or services your group could create that would add value to your firm.

You get the idea. If you think of your job where you do a defined task for a pre-determined length of time, then go home, your chances of getting ahead are small. Take advantage of lax times to add even more value to what you’re already doing.

6) “That’s not fair!”

OK, first things first: it probably isn’t.

By the time most of us reach working age, we have a pretty well-developed intuition about right and wrong, fair and unfair, and if something strikes us as unfair, there’s a good chance that we’re right. But the problem is – that doesn’t matter. Life in general isn’t fair, and life at work is particularly unfair.

That being said – if you’re being seriously taken advantage of, speak up; if something legally-actionable is happening to you (if you’re being sexually harassed, for instance), don’t stand for it. But for more everyday unfairness – for colleagues that get paid more for doing the same job as you, for being passed up for the promotion for the fifth time – don’t just complain, make a plan to end it.

7) “I have another offer, but I want to stay here. Can you match?”

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go get other offers. You should! Aggressively seek positions that’ll pay you what you’re worth (whether it’s in money, work/life balance, job satisfaction, or some combination thereof).
But leveraging outside offers for raises with your current employer rarely works out. It isn’t fair, but bringing another offer to your boss almost certainly will be seen as a sign of disloyalty, and it’ll be assumed that you’ll ship out as soon as a better offer comes available. You might find yourself at the top of the layoff list and paradoxically out of a job not too long after.

8) “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”

“I just work here” is the quintessential expression of powerlessness. “I just work here” says “while I am here, I don’t do things, things are done to me.” It’s usually something someone says when they’re not a part of key decisions that affect their jobs.

The key to making this better isn’t to complain about it – as tempting and as cathartic as it might seem. You have to find a way to make yourself part of those key conversations that will impact the way you do your work and how you’re measured.

9) “It’s all my fault”.

This is a tricky one. Obviously, it’s good to take ownership over mistakes you’ve made and figure out how to improve. Trust me, people who own up to their mistakes ultimately make it farther in life than people who pretend that they do no wrong.

But don’t own up to too much – not because you want to avoid responsibility, but because unless you’ve been actively negligent or destructive, chances are it’s not really all your fault. Our work occurs in a complex organization called “the corporation”, and things that happen in one part of the corporation can very easily affect other parts without there being fault involved. So admit fault when necessary, but think systemically – why did the failure really happen? – to ensure you and your team move on and improve.

10) “I deserve a promotion.”

You probably do! But remember, corporations and life in general aren’t fair, and things go to those who a) ask for them and b) have earned them – however “earned” might be defined.

Chances are, if your organization is a big one, there are somewhat-objective standards for promotion to the level that you want to advance to. Find out what they are, and outline exactly how you compare against those standards. Beyond that, what have you personally done for your boss?  What kind of unique, relatively irreplaceable contributions can you point to? How do you make your team work better?


  1. I get the context of the post and can't argue with your logic throughout, but one (rule) that I would add is never talk crap about a coworker within the workplace. Even if fully justified, when done so at the workplace it can lead to trust issues with those around you who hear you do so. I have also seen first hand far too many occurrences where the person being talked about learns second hand of the comments and is often left out of the context of the comments. It is unhealthy and toxic for you and those around you.

    1. Excellent addition to the list! I completely agree. Thanks!