It would be lovely to think we could say anything and everything to our fellow desk slaves. But let’s get real: the modern office is a labyrinth, and even the best intentions go awry. Whatever your candidate is trying to express, be sure it’s not taken the wrong way. Give them this guide so they never say any of the following to a co-worker.
1. “What’s your salary?”
Money is a difficult subject at the best of times. Asking a co-worker what they earn is risky on two fronts: the question may be taken as invasive, and the answer itself could cause trouble. After all, you’re unlikely to see someone the same way if you discover they’re paid double your own salary.
Of course, there are occasions when asking a colleague what they’re paid may be acceptable. If they do the same job as you and you’re concerned about discrimination, knowing the difference between yours and another’s wages may be essential.
In this case, frame your question as such, and make it clear that you will respect their decision should they wish to not share. You have no right to their financial details, just as they have none to yours.
2. “That’s not fair/not in my job description.”
Come on, Negative Neil, pull your socks up. It’s a rare workplace where some people aren’t routinely landed with more work than others. Perhaps you’re a small workforce with a limited number of hands on deck. Or perhaps you’re simply the nearest mug to hand when something goes wrong. But if you do get asked to do something unusual or outside your remit, complaint isn’t the correct response.
Let’s be real: life isn’t fair. Moaning about justice makes you look naïve, not hard-done-by. Besides, job descriptions are not contracts. Outside your core obligations, your employer can give you pretty much any task they want. If they’re asking you to do something illegal or morally dubious, that’s one thing. But loading the printer for the third time that week? Pipe down.
If things get really out of hand, you can approach your manager privately and express any concerns about your workload. But don’t expect ‘it’s not fair’ to get you anywhere in the real world.
3. “I’m so hungover.”
You’re an adult. You go out. You sometimes consume alcohol. Yes, the office gets it. But making a point of these things is more likely to make you look stupid than ‘cool’ or ‘grown-up’.
Fostering a reputation as the office party boy/girl may seem like a good idea until you realise that nobody cares, much less respects you for it. You’re at work to do a job, not to chat about the hottie who helped you to the tube because you were just so trashed yah.
Do what you want with your free time. But leave it at the office door.
4. “How old are you?”
Unless posited by an actual mate – which colleagues rarely are – nobody likes this question. In the workplace it carries especially negative implications, suggesting an attempt to measure yourself or your colleague against some age-based successometer. Avoid.
5. “Calm down.”
What a minefield. First off, this statement is an imperative. It is a genuine order and, unless you are in a position to command the obedience of your interlocutor, you shouldn’t be using it.
Secondly, it’s very patronising. Telling someone to ‘calm down’ heavily implies that they are wound up and you are not, that they are fraught and fragile when you are strong and stable, that they are incapable and you are pulled-together. Plus it’s no coincidence that it’s normally men directing such imperatives at women. Don’t do a Michael Winner.
6. “Your political opinion is wrong and here’s why.”
Do you know what the dictionary definition of a bigot is? A person who is intolerant of those with different opinions to themselves.
Don’t be the office dogmatist. If you want to voice your political opinions, do so quietly and with maximum empathy towards others, no matter where they sit on matters. Politics are always personal, forged by a person’s upbringing, education and natural disposition.
If you can’t deal with someone else’s beliefs, feel free to quietly minimise contact with them. Don’t make a big deal of it. Don’t tell them they’re wrong. Just leave it.
7. “Are you pregnant/planning on having children?”
Never appropriate and even, in an interview context, illegal. If a colleague wants people to know he/she is expecting, they’ll ensure you do. Otherwise, butt out.
8. “You look nice today.” (Or any other comment re:appearance.)
Okay. It goes without saying that salacious observations are a massive no-no in the office. In fact, it’s best to avoid talking in any way about a colleague’s physicality. This includes offering ‘diet tips’ or supplying compliments that overstep the mark (e.g. “I like those tight jeans on you!”).
But what about the common-or-garden ‘you look nice today’? Yes, I know. It’s just a compliment! Don’t people like compliments?
The answer is, yes and no. While ‘you look nice today’ may sound (and be intended as) innocent, it still has the potential to make a colleague feel uncomfortable.
Firstly, this statement is much more likely to be directed at a female colleague than a male. Workplace sexism rule no. 1: If you wouldn’t say it to a man then you shouldn’t say it to a woman – and vice versa. Ergo, problems.
Secondly, if the person in question has made a particular effort that day with their appearance, you run the risk of implying that their normal look – sans additional mirror time – is unworthy of comment. When surveys show that the average woman already feels obliged to spend almost an hour a day on makeup, the double standard becomes clear.
Finally, we all know that by ‘nice’ you actually mean ‘attractive’. Would you tell a work colleague they looked attractive first thing in the morning? Should you really use a person’s level of sex appeal as an icebreaker? Probably not.
The solution? Generally speaking, you’re better off complimenting objects over people. If someone is wearing an interesting skirt, say: “That’s a nice skirt!” If somebody has their hair arranged in a new way, say: “Your hair looks great!” Et cetera.
Oh, and never tell somebody they look tired. Just… don’t.
9. “My boyfriend and I argued yesterday and…”
Stress is contagious. Apart from the fact that your personal life is personal for a reason, everybody has sources of strain in their life. Those people you’re moaning about your landlord to? They’ve got their own problems. Don’t lump them with yours too.
10. “She’s such a… He’s so…” and similar gossip.
Lumping yourself in with the office gossips – even when everyone else is doing it – is never wise. Not only might your words come back to haunt you when they’re inevitably relayed to the person in question, but mean hearsay will cause others to distrust you. Nobody wants to be friends with a back-stabber. Be courteous, be kind and say nothing about anyone that you wouldn’t say to their face.