Check Your Vocabulary for These Toxic Words in the Workplace


Words have power

All words carry weight. And we must carefully choose the words that we use to represent us, particularly in the workplace.

Though it’s standard for professional work environments not to condone certain words – curse words (you know, the ones for which your grandmother would threaten to rinse out your mouth with soap), insulting or demeaning words and language, among others – there are other, seemingly innocent words to watch for in your vocabulary.

Crystal Barnett, senior human resource specialist with human resources consulting company Insperity, offers these seven words (and phrases) to watch out for at work:

  • “Honestly.” The word “honestly” is by no means an offensive word. However, the thoughts that come afterwards should be carefully considered before being spoken. Telling a trusted boss how one truly feels is expected and encouraged at many companies. However, in some organizations, giving an unvarnished assessment can be dangerous if done without careful consideration beforehand. For example, attempts to be honest while criticizing another team member’s work in a public setting can not only damage relationships, but it can also create the impression that a worker is willing to promote his or her own efforts by attacking others.   
  • “That’s not fair.” The concept of fairness is taught to most children. However, in the workplace, as in life, things are not always fair. While raising issues of fairness are acceptable in many work settings, the time, place and audience should be carefully considered beforehand.
  • “I.” While giving credit where credit is due, employees should reinforce teamwork and try not to highlight personal efforts over the work of others.
  • “This is the way we’ve always done it here.” Newer employees proposing alternative approaches for solving workplace problems have likely heard this phrase before. While all new ideas are not good ideas, failing to consider alternative approaches may mean the company is missing out on new opportunities for improvement.
  • “Yeah, but…” This phrase often follows an instruction or request from a supervisor or manager. Asking clarifying questions or proactively identifying issues is not a bad thing. However, doing so in a negative sounding way suggests an unwillingness to follow instruction or worse yet, a challenge to a leader’s authority. Often, simply avoiding “Yeah but…” is a better way to go.
  • “Just.” “Just” can be a loaded word in some contexts. For example, if a manager says to an employee “I just want you to finish those reports before the end of the week,” the comment often sounds highly negative on the receiving end. It can also convey the impression that the listener is being difficult or combative. A better approach might be to say “Be sure to get me those reports by the end of the week.”
  •  “Yes.” In many scenarios, saying yes is a good thing. But not always. Some top performing workers have problems saying no and therefore always say yes when asked to perform additional work.  This may result in a lower quality product, simply because the employee in question is stretched too thin. In addition, the dangers of burnout should be considered. In companies where the hardest working employees are “rewarded” with the greatest amount of work, saying “yes” at all times can have negative impacts and end up hiring the employee in the end.

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