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Hold your tongue: Things not to say at work

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A career, the work environment and professionalism are constantly evolving with more and more professionals choosing to consult, work flexi hours, work from home or start their own ventures.

The way in which we work might be changing, but some rules remain golden when it comes to the manner in which we conduct ourselves: dress appropriately, be on time, meet your commitments, and deliver on your promises. These are just some of the timeless concepts that remain vital to your success. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the things you shouldn’t say or the conversations you shouldn’t be having at work.

In case you’ve been working from a cave (how’s your WiFi?) here’s your guide to keeping your foot firmly out of your mouth.

Your colleagues’ appearance is none of your business


There’s a fine line between having a professional conversation with a subordinate to educate them on professional or business wear and unfortunate, improper comments. Here are things you shouldn’t say:

  • “That skirt/pants makes me love watching you walk away!” – Uhm, two words: Sexual harassment.
  • “Wow, you’ve lost weight”, “Looking great” OR “Jeez, another takeaway brekkie! Better watch the figure” – No, just no.
  • Any jokes about hairstyles, traditional clothes or anything else that a colleague might choose to show off their culture – Either you are ignorant or insensitive. Neither are good qualities for someone hoping to be successful.
  • “You look exhausted!” – This is a thinly disguised insult on which nobody enjoys being on the receiving end.

Come to think of it, most of these comments are better left unsaid in most situations. Commenting, or passing judgement on someone else’s appearance is rude.

Your ultimate work party cheat sheet

Don’t complain to your business associates

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Negative energy has this amazing ability to suck the positive out of even the most committed and happy-go-lucky person. Here are things you should avoid saying, or risk being kicked out of the group at breaks or lunchtime.

  • “This project is the pits” – Maybe the person you’re working with is enjoying the project; either way with everyone under pressure to get the job done your negative comment is not needed.
  • “Can’t believe they’re making us work late again” – Once again you’re not the only person working late so don’t darken the mood further with your moaning.
  • “That’s not my job” – So whose job is it then? Are you expecting the colleague you’re complaining to, to pick up this slack? That’s a one-way ticket to “Dislikeable-Ville”.
  • “I’m getting out of here as soon as I can” – Nothing worse than being the new employee and hearing things like this over lunch in your first week. Don’t be that person.
  • “So-and-so did this-or-that again” – Gossiping about your superiors or colleagues to others is immature and unprofessional. Rather air your grievances openly with the person involved and sort it out like the adult you are.

We’re not saying you are not allowed to vent or complain about work, just don’t do it with business associates. It not only influences the general culture of the company and work environment, but also negatively impacts on how you are perceived.

Don’t rain on anyone’s parade, or take credit where it’s not due

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This one should be really simple and straightforward: If you didn’t do the work or have the idea, it’s not yours to take credit for. And, when you worked with a colleague or expanded on their projects or ideas give the credit.

Something that might be a little bit harder to actually get right is not squashing a co-worker’s ideas, ambition or will to live in general. Constantly reacting negatively or disinterested to any new ideas, or thoughts by someone, especially if this someone is younger and just starting their career, will create a business environment where no one is motivated to come up with innovative and exciting solutions or projects anymore; dangerous not only for your professional image but also the long-term viability of the company.

The other side of this coin is having a superior ask you to manage a new project or implement a new strategy. Your manager wouldn’t be asking you if they didn’t believe that you could do it. Rise to the challenge; learn how to do it.

Definitely avoid saying things like:

  • “That will never work!”
  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • “I don’t have time right now.”
  • “Impossible!”, “We/I can’t.”

Some things should just not be said…ever. One last thing: If you find yourself with your best-heeled foot in your mouth avoid saying “Just joking!”. Own up to your misstep and apologise. The air will be cleared far sooner and you’ll regain some respect.


Mariette Steynberg is a qualified economist with a post-graduate diploma in financial planning. She has enjoyed working on holistic financial plans for clients in various stages of life, as well as a development economist assessing the socioeconomic impacts of new developments. When she is not working, Mariette enjoys parenting her quirky, delightful toddler girl. Cloth diapering, Eskimo kisses and the importance of reading to your child are all causes close to her heart. Mariette is passionate about financial education and hopes to use the experience she has gained to share knowledge with HomeTimes’ readership. Her goal is to provide information that is implementable by everyone.

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