Episode 5: August 22, 2008
by Lisa B. Marshall
More than 10 years ago Joe worked for me. He was a good employee, hard-working, thorough, and very likable. I fired him! You heard me right, I fired him! Why? Because he naively forwarded a joke and it offended someone. Joe had violated corporate policy and I was forced to let him go.
5 Things You Should Never Say At Work
Although these articles are usually dedicated to helping you learn what to say or how to say things better, today’s article is about what NOT to say. Specifically we'll cover five things you should never say at work.
Especially today with technology for recording and forwarding at our fingertips, you must assume that anything you say, at any moment, will be recorded and repeated at high volume to everyone you know and everyone you don't know.
Unfortunately, once you say it, it's out there. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to change that first impression. Yeah, you can try to apologize, but by then the damage has already been done.
So here are the top five things never to say at work:
1. Jokes Can Get You Fired--No Joke
The first tip is the lesson that Joe learned the hard way. Off-color jokes, at work, are no laughing matter. You can easily offend people in ways that never even occurred to you. That’s what happened to Joe, he passed along a joke that he thought was funny and someone else thought was offensive.
This is where the old adage, "Better safe than sorry," seems to have merit. Please, just wait until you get home to share that great joke with your friends and family. Or, if you want to be funny at work, consider telling self-deprecating jokes instead.
Don't get me wrong, I love a laugh. I always look forward to reading the joke e-mails that I get from my friend, Fred. In fact, I highly recommend big belly laughs every day, because it lowers blood pressure and activates endorphins that make you feel good! What I don’t recommend is telling jokes at work that are indecent or impolite.
2. Never Make Assumptions About Someone's Personal Situation
Speaking of being impolite, questions like "Are you pregnant?" "When are you due?" “You must be his mother, right?” or “Is that your daughter?” are all questions you should avoid, because if you are wrong, you might find yourself in hot water. Let me explain.
A junior researcher recently told me he attended an event with a very prestigious senior scientist. A young toddler was standing next to the scientist. The researcher had met the senior scientist’s college-age son in the past, so in an effort to strike up some friendly conversation he naturally said, "Is that your grandson?" When the senior scientist explained that the pre-schooler was his other SON, it was very clear to the young researcher that he had just offended the scientist—obviously, his words had the exact opposite effect he was shooting for.
Don’t ever make assumptions about someone’s personal situation or sexual orientation. You never know, that young “hottie” standing next to grandpa just might be his wife! Or worse, the old bag that you mistook for his mother is really his wife! It’s best just to wait until the person directly tells you; because if you guess and you get it wrong, you’re likely to offend.
3. Never Say “Nice Legs!” or “Are They Real?”
Speaking of offensive comments, of course, you should never say anything that can get you into legal hot water. However, sometimes we speak without thinking.
Author Carol White shared one of the worst moments of her 35-year career. She said, to a male subordinate who was wearing shorts, “Nice legs!” She told me, “It fell out of my mouth before I knew what I’d said!” Unfortunately, I don’t think the “Oops, it just slipped out” defense would hold up in court.
Vice president at U.S. News & World Report, Mike W. White, suggests not to say "I'll have my girl call your girl." I don’t know if that can get you in legal trouble, but, I do think many women find that offensive and it’s probably a good idea to follow Mike’s advice (unless you want a mob of women waiting to tar and feather you in the corporate parking lot).
4. Never Tell Anyone, "My Boss/Client is a Jerk"
Anytime you speak at work, you should assume that your words will be shared with everyone.
Keeping with our theme of not being offensive, you should never tell anyone that you think your boss is a jerk. Be especially careful not to share that opinion at work--especially with your boss’s assistant! Karen DeSemple of Eternal Maternal told me this story. Karen was Joe's assistant and she was traveling with a new employee, Sharon. "Sharon and I were on a business trip and sharing a room. She went on a tirade for about 30 minutes telling me all the things that she didn't agree with and that she wasn't going to do what Joe had told her needed to be done. Little did she know that Joe was the first person I told!" Turns out Sharon was only with the company another month--what a surprise.
Again, anytime you speak at work, you should assume that your words will be shared with everyone, including the person you think is a jerk. Today you even need to think about comments and messages that you post online.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter told me a story about her friend who vented her frustration about a client by posting to an online support forum. Unfortunately, she used an unflattering name to describe her client and someone else who saw the post (maybe her competition?) forwarded the message to the client. Ruth told me that the client called her friend in a fury, yelling and cursing, and threatened to sue her for libel.
Lessons learned? Although venting your true feelings might feel good at the time, clearly it’s not worth losing a job or a client.
5. Don't Discuss Private Business in Public Places
Speaking of losing clients, don’t discuss private business in public areas. If you have traveled on any major rail line, I am sure you’ve heard, as I have, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and other busy professionals discussing private client matters. While I understand the need to get work done during long commutes, is it really worth the risk of violating privacy?
My friend, Larissa, is a partner in a law firm and she has heard many stories of lawyers talking about their clients in the elevator or train only to find the client or even worse, their opponent, right there too! Long ago, she took me to a famous Philadelphia restaurant with a domed roof and showed me how in certain spots, a quiet whisper at one table could be heard clear across the room. Who knew?
Lessons learned? Please, no private business in public!
Recap: What You Should Never Say at Work
So what’s the big lesson we learn from all of these?
Loose lips sink ships!
OK, for those of you saying, huh? What the heck does that mean? Let me explain. During WWII the US government developed the “Loose lips may sink ships” slogan to remind people both overseas and at home to not share information that would help the enemy. The idea was that silence was security.
So, I'd like to end this episode with a friendly reminder that loose lips may sink ships … don’t let the ship be your career.
Passionate about communication; your success is my business!