I really shouldn’t write this column.
I really shouldn’t write anything. Or say anything. And neither should you.
Expressing yourself can land you in the express lane to unemployment. Or, as Steve Tobak so eloquently puts it in “9 Sentences That Could Ruin Your Career,” a recent article on Inc.com, “More people shoot themselves in the foot, get fired, or destroy promising careers by opening their big fat mouths than in any other way. And that goes for communication of any kind: face-to-face, phone, email, text, you name it.”
Fortunately, Tobak’s field guide to career-killing sentences provides an advanced warning system that could save you from a foot-in-the-mouth moment that ends up as a foot-out-the-door moment.
For example, consider this popular conversation starter — “I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but …” While you may consider this a valid introduction to an innocent incident report, the “this” that follows may indeed lead you into uncharted, and unemployed, territories. As Tobak says, and I hope it didn’t get him fired, “almost anything you say will offend someone by crossing some amorphous boundary of political correctness.”
Does this mean you have to stop gossiping? Heaven forbid. Considering the salary you earn, the only reason to go into work is for the gossip. But be sure to preface your nasty nuggets of scandal in a way that absolves you from blame. Like, “I was really shocked when you sent me that email about the affair between the boss and that floozy in IT.”
When your colleague insists she never sent the email, you reply with a heartfelt assurance that you “won’t tell a living soul.” Your workmate will be so flummoxed at the thought of the blame that could come crashing down on her, she’ll never remember that she really didn’t send that email. And she’ll be so appreciative of your willingness to hide her identity, she certainly won’t go pointing fingers at y-o-u.
“I think the boss is a jerk” is another sentence to avoid — especially if the boss is a jerk. Instead, get your message across with reverse psychology. Say, “I think the boss is a genius.” When your colleagues look at you as if you were crazy, you immediately challenge them, “So you think the boss is a stupid jerk who couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag filled with extruded meat by-product?”
While they’re voicing their heartfelt disavowals, you stroll off in the direction of the HR department. Not only will your fellow worker bees be afraid of crossing you in the future, they probably will start avoiding you altogether. This means you’ll get less work and take more naps.
“Did you lose weight?” is a compliment to some, but, as author Tobak puts it, the remark could also be considered, “an unintentional slam.” Of course, that is exactly why you made the comment in the first place. Making a cherished co-worker feel guilty and off-balance is a great way to get them to do your bidding — and your work. Still, if you want to avoid the killer sentence, you surely can feel safe with a minor change to “Did you gain weight? Because you sure are looking fat.”
That’s the kind of sentence that will prove you are an aggressive, uncaring, rude lout, exactly the qualities the big shots on Mahogany Row look for in a top manager.
“Who did you vote for?” and “What’s your religion?” are two sentences that will assuredly lead you into territory that is off-limits. But there are times that you just need to know stuff, you know? Especially when a co-worker has a “Scooby-Do for President” poster in his office or is conducting Santeria rituals in the break room.
The best technique for getting information on such touchy subjects is to preface your interrogation with questions that even more sensitive. Like “What’s your least favorite sexual position?” or “Have you noticed that the marketing staff is made up of flesh-eating zombies?”
With questions like these on the table, your colleague will definitely come clean about his politics and his religion.
“Boy, we really screwed that customer, didn’t we,” is a sentence you definitely don’t want to use. Especially when your company’s entire mission statement is built around screwing the customer. If you do ask the question, and your colleague says, “absolutely not,” you have another great opportunity to show your management abilities.
“Well, don’t tell anybody,” you say. “We’ll just work harder to screw them the next time.”
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.