Remove these 10 toxic phrases from your vocabulary, say career experts: They’re ‘cold and belittling’
Ideally, in every workplace interaction — meetings, phone calls, emails, small talk — our conversations would be positive and constructive.
But that's not always the case. Discussions can be cold and belittling, turning into vehicles for toxic culture — particularly when people make comments about race, gender, age, ability and orientation that undermine personal identities.
Want to stop gnawing at people's sense of safety and value? Remove these 10 toxic phrases from your vocabulary:
1. "We've always done it this way."
This says that you have a fixed mindset and are resistant to change or suggestions. Because you're hinting that nothing is wrong with the current standard, you risk stifling motivation and innovation.
What to say instead: "We've always done it this way, but let's see if it's time to change practices."
2. "Back in my day, we had it worse."
This says that suffering should be expected, as if the pain of the past justifies the pain of today. When used, it silences the person who voices a problem.
What to say instead: "Back in my day, we had it much worse, and I'm so glad it's better for you. What can we change to make it even better?"
3. "It's best to keep our salary information private."
This says that you protect special deals and do not value transparency. As a result, particular groups (e.g. women and racial minorities) are left vulnerable to pay disparities.
Keeping salaries a secret decreases employee performance, studies show. It can also lead to suspicion that there is a lack of accountability with salary gaps.
What to say instead: "It's important to have open conversations about salary."
4. "We went with [X person] because they have more experience."
This messaging ignores the fact that experience can be dependent on privilege and access, and that different people begin races at different starting lines. When experience is prioritized over potential and motivation, diversity is undermined.
What to say instead: "[X person] has more experience and will have other opportunities. We went with [Y person] based upon their strong potential."
5. "We don't have term limits."
This says that you are maintaining the status quo, and that current leaders deserve their positions indefinitely.
Change in culture sometimes requires a change at the top. And establishing a rotating leadership system with term limits actually promotes workplace diversity.
What to say instead: "We value giving everyone a turn. Individuals and organizations grow with rotating leadership."
6. "Can you document that incident in an email?"
This says that disclosure of an incident may not be confidential or anonymous. While certain things do need to be reported, when the system requires you to document details, one worries about retaliation.
That fear of consequence can decrease the likelihood of reporting altogether.
What to say instead: "Let's come up with wording that keeps you protected and focuses on the issue."
7. "[X person] didn't mean what they said."
This essentially translates to: "I hear your complaint, but I am protecting the other person and discrediting you." Rather than providing support or validating vulnerability, you are gaslighting with the "good guy" defense.
What to say instead: "Thank you for sharing this. Let's figure out a way to support you and address his behavior."
8. "I'm not feeling too well. But I'll try to power through the day."
This says that you neglect your own health. Boasting about working through pain, infection or a mental health crisis is not a badge of honor.
It also disempowers people who take care of themselves. We must care for the self physically, mentally and emotionally.
What to say instead: "I need to take it easy today, so I'm taking a sick day."
9. "Keep this between us, as it's not my news to share."
This says that you are knowingly compromising privacy and trust. Gossip is universal, so it's hard to change this behavior. But it compromises both the person who is sharing and the person about whom the information is being shared.
What to say instead: "It is best for me to keep the information about them private. I recommend reaching out to them directly."
10. "Can you send it to me tonight?"
This says that you don't respect boundaries. Sure, deadlines can be critical and exceptions can be made. However, the persistent demand for our personal time breeds resentment and burnout, especially if this time is uncompensated.
What to say instead: "Since the workday is over, we can pick this up tomorrow."
Adaira Landry is a career expert and emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Her new book, "MicroSkills: The Tiny Steps That Lead to the Biggest Accomplishments" will be out in 2024. Follow her on Twitter @AdairaLandryMD.
Resa E. Lewiss is a professor of emergency medicine and radiology at Thomas Jefferson University and host of the podcast Visible Voices. She is an educator and champion for diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplaces. Her new book, "MicroSkills: The Tiny Steps That Lead to the Biggest Accomplishments" will be out in 2024. Follow her on Twitter @ResaELewiss.