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

http://www.meghanmbiro.com/

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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86 comments
dabarlow
dabarlow

LOL haven't heard all these at work. #2 has been a topic of conversation at the lunch table with some of my team mates! Now way will any of us ask "When are you due"! Thanks Meghan for this clever post!

tombolt
tombolt

Am I paranoid or does anybody else see a list of "10 Worst" or "Biggest Problems" or "12 Most Awkward" and immediately scan to see if you have committed any of any of the offenses mentioned? Most people who have worked in and around HR are probably not guilty of any of these awkward workplace comments, but we are all human and will screw up from time to time. A huge management problem is maintaining a culture which allows the proper level of correctness without having everyone walking around on eggshells. Any place where people interact with each other will create challenges. Enhancing the culture by creating awareness is preferable to policing problems. Thanks for the article. I will definitely share.

chaoticIT
chaoticIT

@meghanmbiro I would never subject myself to a workplace that was so robotic... what is this the manual for foxcon?

joelyoh
joelyoh

(The following scene was reported to me by the female project manager.)

THE SCENE: A networking event for potential new clients

The CAST:Owner/Boss (female), Female Project Manager who was pregnant, Male Project Manager who had a large build

BOSS (to Female PM): So how many months along are you now?

FPM: I'm coming up on seven months!

BOSS: Wow!

(Boss then turns to Male PM who is standing next to them)

BOSS (to MPM glancing at his belly)): And how many months along are YOU?

Say it with me folks: SERIOUSLY???!!!

ChristinaGace
ChristinaGace

@seanmcginnis On a lighter note, overheard a coworker talk about being so hungover he puked on himself and slept under his desk. #awkward

ChristinaGace
ChristinaGace

@seanmcginnis Director discussing the homeless, and how people shouldn't feed the homeless, just like we shouldn't feed stray dogs. #awkward

HRFishbowl
HRFishbowl

One of my favorites (use it all the time): "Hmmmm, that's really interesting." What does 'interesting' mean? It could mean that you are in fact fascinated, but it's more often used euphemistically to suggest, "i have no f'ing idea what you just said" or "that has got to be the stupidest thing i've ever heard."

judymartin8
judymartin8

Meghan,

I was laughing out loud reading these. Timing is also critical when these blasts are delivered. It can screw up your day. ie. In a newsroom one of the worst ones is - oh you did something different with your hair? And that comes right as you're walking onto the set with no time to change it. Makes you feel less than as any remark does. There are ways of communicating information in a kind way that can benefit the receiver. Question is - what's the motivation behind the remark?

ValueIntoWords
ValueIntoWords

Hello Meghan,

An avid fan of words--both the value they can add and the havoc they can wreak, I enjoyed your multiple examples -- many describing (often impulsive) comments/thoughts 'not' to share. I am still amazed at the indignity that folks can impose on others simply by being insensitive (and sometimes simply being careless) with their unkempt words.

Great post!

Jacqui

gowerk
gowerk

I love this post for 2 reasons. First, Meghan wrote it - we're BFFs you know. And second, it really emphasizes the importance of clean and uncluttered communication in the office. Communication and relationships are the cornerstone to many work sites - and your light hearted and fun to read list would be ideal for the office etiquette section of on-boarding and employee manual literature - which are typically dry and ... yawn... boring.

TobeyDeys
TobeyDeys

I love #1 ... the ubiquitous seemingly innocuous back-handed compliment. "Why thank you, getting off heroin has really helped" was one of my responses ...

Love this 12Most, Meghan! I think all of us have been victim to these at some point :-) Great stuff!

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@tombolt Thank you for sharing Tom! I hear this. To err is human.

Us people have a tendency to create behaviors wherever we go. No question about it. Instead of working to reduce human error in the workplace...let's start with injecting personality and life into workplace culture. This includes humor btw. Very high in my priority list.

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@shimizu.rosenrot Oh Interesting! Smiles.

Thanks for sharing with me. Often overreaction is appropriate to silly workplace behaviors. Trust me - it's ok. Set that bar reserved for the clueless as high as you can. Please let me know how it works.

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@joelyoh Hi there. Serious? I suspect yes!

Thanks for confirming our worst fears. We are in this dysfunctional office conglomeration as one - for better and often for worse. Reality just came crashing in *again*

EvonaWiktoria
EvonaWiktoria

@mikerheaume Perhaps I will consider my overall musical choosings this week for my #workbarwins this Friday!

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@HRFishbowl What a treat. Hello there Charlie! I know you feel my pain and I can only offer you a simple thank you for venting.

I vote we decide to play the role of "what-I cannot hear you" for the sake of sanity. Perhaps it's easier this way. PS: otherwise my hourly fee for playing armchair workplace psychologist is .... Wink ;-)

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@judymartin8 Delighted to add laughter to your world equation ;-) Thanks for taking the time out from your quest for worklife serenity to say hello to me here. Really appreciate it.

The motivation behind the remark = we must tune into past behaviors. My crystall ball indicates the answer is here perhaps!

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@ValueIntoWords Thank you Jacqui! Appreciate you dropping in for my very first post here. Means a lot to me that people are still listening in our busy blogosphere.

Words are so powerful indeed. Use them wisely and your career will sail. Wink.

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@gowerk Why thank you my BFF. I'm honored to see your avatar here. I'm prone to RTs on Twitter when I see your wit liven up my stream.

It's key to in inject humor into the workplace - makes recruiting and onboarding new employees so much more fun for everyone involved. Let's create a no yawn zone - now!

MeghanMBiro
MeghanMBiro

@TobeyDeys Hi Tobey! Nice to see you here. Thanks for the comment.

#1 - yes it's oh so vague and open for all sorts of antics. Agreed. Why? People happen. And we/they will continue ;-)

judymartin8
judymartin8

@MeghanMBiro Ah grasshopper - you hit a note here. Our past shapes us - but awareness in the moment can overcome even the dumbest moves and remarks of the past. Love this thread!

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