12 Most Awkward Workplace Comments and How They Can Damage Culture

12 Most Awkward Workplace Comments and How They Can Damage Culture

The most innocuous of comments can be most deadly when it comes to disrupting calm among colleagues. In an era dominated by political correctness many formerly innocuous comments have become taboo; others have always been in questionable taste or pushed the boundaries of the appropriate. Let’s take a look at a few examples and consider how a simple comment can affect workplace culture aka your career.

1. “You’re looking good today”

On surface, this benign comment should cause no ire, but think for a moment. Did that person say you were looking good, or did they really say how surprised it is that you look good, given how you usually look like a hot mess? And who is he/she to comment on how you look, anyway? The rest is downhill.

2. “Oh, how adorable, you’re pregnant! How far along are you?”

So much is wrong here it’s tough to start, but to be clear: saying this is a hanging offense. If a woman does not tell you herself, in person, that she’s pregnant, you must assume she’s not. To do otherwise assumes far too much. She may have gained weight; she may recently have had a baby and be struggling with excess weight; she may have miscarried. Either way it’s none of your business.

3. “Are you giving me a dirty look?”

Warn others, things are about to get messy. The next sentence may be ‘I’m going to call HR and turn you in.’ A co-worker who feels you’ve looked askance at them is unlikely to be mollified by your protests of innocence. Back it down quickly by saying you weren’t looking at them at all but were thinking of a tough task that day, or plan to spend quality time explaining yourself to the VP of HR.

4. ‘How have you been feeling?”

Go easy when raising health issues in public. Your co-worker may have shared health concerns with you; keep your counsel and make sure subsequent discussions take place in private.

5. “What’s (insert your boss’s name here) like to work with?”

The workplace version of the childhood game ‘hot potato’, this question calls for the most neutral of answers if you’re to protect yourself and maintain cordial office relationships. Even if the person is a rat-bastard, keep mum. As my mother would have said – (and yours too,) “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.’

6. “Oh, I’ve seen that document and it’s in good shape”

On a status call or in a meeting, never claim knowledge of, or credit for, another person’s work – especially if that person is present. At best it looks like you’re trying to claim credit; at worst it looks like you’re clueless. Either way, it’s none of your business, is it?

7. “Why don’t you take this project? Think of it as career development”

This comment comes with a warning: it means you won’t be given extra time to complete the task, and no work will be taken off your plate. A possible rejoinder: ‘Let’s look at schedules and see what can be back-burnered to get this done right.” Fail to set proper expectations early and resentment will set in and take its toll on workplace culture. Boss rage.

8. “Whatever happened to that newsletter you were working on?”

A pointed request such as this demands a quick and convincing answer. If you were given several higher-priority projects, mention those as you explain why the newsletter has slipped. If you weren’t, prepare to get the newsletter out, pronto.

9. “I could have done that project if I’d wanted to”

You’re working on a project and suddenly someone says that magic phrase. It’s sour grapes from a sour employee, in addition to being a potential landmine. Two potential come-backs: invite the person to give you his or her ideas, or commiserate with a comment along the lines of “But didn’t you have that huge (name here) project? You can’t do everything!”

10. “How can you walk in those shoes?”

Many women wear three-inch heels with aplomb. This comment, which sounds innocuous, could be construed as a criticism, along the lines of ‘those shoes are inappropriate in the office’ or ‘only a certain type of woman wears shoes like that.’ Stay away and marvel in silence.

11. “Why did you cut your hair?”

Yet another inappropriate personal comment. If a co-worker cuts her (or his) hair, wait for them to lead with a remark before weighing in with a comment – and make sure your comment is neutral. Don’t question the wisdom of their choice – at most tell them it’s flattering.

12. “How can you get any work done in this place?”

Perhaps your workplace is noisy, or cold, or hot, or otherwise uncomfortable. Keep it to yourself and do what you can to make your workspace tolerable. Suffer in silence. Talk about a winning workplace culture solution. Comments that lead others to fret over the workplace environment cause stress and dissatisfaction, and will be traced back to you. And you don’t want to be the Bad Seed, do you? Remember what the Queen said: Keep Calm and Carry On.

What other wacky, inappropriate workplace antics can we think of?


Featured image courtesy of duncan licensed via creative commons.

Meghan M. Biro


Meghan M. Biro is a globally recognized leader in talent strategy and a pioneer in building the business case for brand humanization. Founder of TalentCulture and a serial entrepreneur, Meghan creates successful ventures by navigating the complexities of career and workplace branding. In her practice as a social recruiter and strategist, Meghan has placed hundreds of individuals with clients ranging from Fortune 500s to the most innovative software start-up companies in the world, including Google, Microsoft and emerging companies in the social technology and media marketplace. Meghan is an accomplished consultant who has helped hundreds of individuals in all levels in the organization (V,C level executives, mid-career, mid-level managers, software architects and recent college graduates) and across generations (Gen Y to baby boomers), develop effective career strategies that propel them to achieve personal and professional success. Meghan is a speaker, practitioner, author, blogger and mentor who is passionate about the subjects of leadership, recruiting, workplace culture, social community, branding, and social media in HR. She is Founder and co-host of two Twitter Chats: "#TChat, The World of Work", a long-standing weekly chat and radio show and #HRTechChat, both communities dedicated to addressing the business needs of the rapidly evolving people-technology landscape. Meghan is an avid social community builder who is inspired by connecting the people and talent dots. Meghan is a regular columnist at Forbes and Glassdoor and her ideas are often quoted, featured on top publications such as CBS Moneywatch, Monster, Dice and various other HR, Social Media and Leadership hubs of your choice.

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