by Vicky Oliver
A widely quoted adage warns, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions.” This piece is about watching your words so they don’t set off any negative reactions.
In most offices today, the walls have ears. That’s because those walls are likely made of felt, and felt conducts sound even better than putting a glass up to plaster. In the open-air cubicle culture, sound travels far and wide. If you’re on the 12th floor, the mailroom guy three floors below can hear you with perfect clarity, and if for any reason he can’t, then the You Wannabe or The Person Whose Job You’re Making Redundant will be all too happy to fill him in at the earliest opportunity. You may want to pack a muzzle. Either that — or watch what you say.
Remember that words and genies have something in common. Once they’re out there, it’s almost impossible to coax them back inside the proverbial bottle. Here are seven phrases to avoid until you’ve proven yourself on at least one assignment.
1. “Sorry I’m late.”
Let neither broken subways nor careening taxicabs keep you from your appointed hour. There is no grace period. If you live in a metropolis where it’s impossible to ever get anywhere on time, set your internal clock to arrive a half-hour early and stand outside the building until 10 minutes before check-in if need be. Don’t hang out with the fashionably late crowd at work. They soon may be fashionably unemployed. Make it your mission to be on time to all internal powwows, with your mobile device turned off. (Switching it to “vibrate” will only make you sound like a human bug zapper.) It would be especially considerate if you didn’t arrive carrying a smelly tuna-fish sandwich either.
2. “Wow, the receptionist is hot.”
This phrase is a sexual-harassment case waiting to sit up and slap you in the face. It’s best to never utter these words (or think them, for that matter). But on your first day at the job, this sentiment is even more potentially self-sabotaging, as you haven’t had the chance to scope out the relationships that exist in the firm. For all you know, the person you’re speaking to could be an HR person (who will question your boss’s judgment in hiring you), or worse yet, the receptionist’s husband!
3. “Is it okay if I check my Facebook account?”
A Facebook minute mushrooms into an hour, and the addiction can be difficult to break. Rather than asking for permission, peruse the employee handbook in which the social-media policy (among others) may be spelled out. While new evidence suggests that taking the occasional social-media break may enhance employee productivity, your boss may not necessarily view it that way. Are you on LinkedIn? You may need to Link Out during office hours. Meanwhile, Twittering away your days could make you look as underemployed as Twitterledee and Twitterledum.
4. “At my last job…”
These four little words may seem like a potential red flag to your new boss, who may well wonder if you will now question every procedure or second-guess her on each suggestion. As a newbie, it’s best not to question authority. Whenever you are tempted to compare your current job to your last, close your lips and nod your head “yes” instead. Vow to be a good student rather than a teacher. Prove that you’re a quick learner, eager to pick up new information, rather than one who is mired in the quicksand of time.
5. “Is there anyplace where I can make a private call?”
This phrase has the whiff of secrets, lies, and lawyers. Even in the best of times, that’s not a particularly joyous scent. Don’t conduct unfinished business on company time. If the call is urgent, dash outside the building and text the person from a nearby coffee shop. Or wait till after hours and phone the person from home. Legally, employers have the right to snoop through their employees’ emails, so chatting about big secrets via email is about as private as airing your dirty laundry in the conference room.
6. “Knock, knock.”
A closed door needs to be respected above and beyond your desire to convey vital information to your boss. Is a client on the phone with an urgent question? Is your boss’s boss’s boss on a rampage yet again? Is all hell breaking loose on the 19th floor? One aspect of being professional is knowing when not to panic. Jot down a note and wait till your boss’s door opens before assaulting him or her with news that may or may not be life-changing. Cool judgment trumps the needless display of passion every time.
7. “Did you hear the one about…”
Humor is highly subjective. One person’s lighthearted joke makes another person prickle with annoyance. Why risk an infraction? Find some other clever way to break the ice: Hey, how about those Giants?
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Don’t forget to take advantage of all the workplace-related articles, tutorials, and more in this section of Quintessential Careers: Workplace Resources for Dealing With Your Current Job/Employer/Boss.
Vicky Oliver is a Manhattan-based job-interview consultant, and the bestselling author of five career-development books, including 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions, and 301 Smart Answers to Tough Business Etiquette Questions. She’s been featured and interviewed widely in the business media, including Fox News, Wall Street Journal, US News and World Report, Forbes, Fortune, CareerBuilder, and many others.