Human workers are fired for lots of reasons—they’re chronically ineffective, they’re always late, they pen interoffice memos that leak out and become weeklong viral PR catastrophes (hypothetically). There’s no telling what will cause you to be fired. But there are some things you can say to speed up the process, or at least make it easier for managers to think of your name during the next round of budget cuts.
What to say at work to get fired
Here are just a few of those things, and how you can get around them:
1. “There’s just nothing else I can do.”
A lame white flag that’s essentially the same as saying, “I walked away and let Jerry and his team handle this for me.” Unless you find yourself stranded and alone on a scorched volcanic rock in the South Pacific, there is probably somebody you can call.
What to say instead to not get fired: “We’re running out of options, but let me try a few long-shot ideas.”
2. “This isn’t fair!”
When I was 5 years old, my cousin visited me and accompanied me to kindergarten. You can’t talk in kindergarten, of course, so when my cousin leaned over to say something to me, I whispered back that she was going to get in trouble. The teacher stopped reading, glared right at me and said I was a nefarious “talker.” That’s more or less when I learned life isn’t fair, work isn’t fair, baseball isn’t fair, fate isn’t fair and business isn’t fair. And sometimes, no matter how unfair circumstances might be, you still end up losing your animal crackers.
What to say instead to not get fired: Several muted curse words issued directly into your sleeve before figuring out a plan B.
3. “I wish X, Y and Z would happen so I could…”
Right? I wish I’d developed the fielding skills necessary to become the starting second baseman for the Chicago Cubs in 1992, but since that has yet to occur (though I’m holding out hope they take a long-shot chance on a 47-year-old who isn’t very good at baseball), I’m basically stuck dealing with the reality in front of me.
What to say instead to not get fired: “It would be nice if X would happen, but here’s what we’re looking at.” (Also, “Go Cubs.”)
4. “At my last job, we did it like this.”
Great! At my last job, the CEO wore banana-yellow suits, held delightful four-hour meetings and told weirdly lengthy anecdotes about Norway. Happily, I don’t work there anymore, so none of that matters.
What to say instead to not get fired: When appropriate, bring any good ideas or policies to the table at your current job. Those are great. Making it sound like you’re pining for your banana-yellow past is less so.
5. “I’ll get to it, but it’s not a priority right now.”
There’s nothing people like more than hearing they’re not important to the person they’re talking to. Imagine if the employee at Chipotle said, “Sure, I’ll make your burrito, when I christen it truly worthy of my care and attention.”
What to say instead to not get fired: This is easy—just leave out the second part of that sentence to achieve the same effect without a needless psychological gut punch.
6. “This pay is so lousy here!”
Ugh, I know, right? If only you’d, I don’t know, settled on a salary/rate when you took the job. That would have made the pathetically limited pay scale much less of a surprise.
What to say instead to not get fired: “I should negotiate a higher starting salary at my next job.”
7. “I don’t get paid enough for this!”
Probably not! Sadly, Earth is practically coated with people who perform all manner of difficult, demanding jobs for nowhere near what they should be paid for them (although for some people, that’s a matter of opinion). I’ll pause while the entire teaching profession raises its collective hand—great, thanks. Also, nobody likes whining.
What to say instead to not get fired: “One day, I will get paid enough for this.”
8. “I’m bored.”
Interesting! There’s a wide selection of chapter books and Highlights magazines in the corner, and we hope you’ll find them a useful way to pass the time while other people figure out ways to be helpful.
What to say instead to not get fired: Honestly, pretty much anything.
9. “I’ll try.”
Come on, you never saw The Empire Strikes Back?
What to say instead to not get fired: “I’ll do.”
10. “I’m not very busy; can I leave early today?”
Look, I’m writing this in a home office in Indiana and I want to fire you. Admitting you’re not very busy is like telling your manager it’s OK to bench you because your batting average is garbage anyway.
What to say instead to not get fired: “My schedule’s pretty light today—mind if I leave early, and plan to make up the hours when things get busy tomorrow/next week/whenever?”
11. “This isn’t in my job description.”
Great! Your job description was written three years ago in a flurry of initial, rote new-hire HR activity. Also, developing a diverse skill set in the right circumstance is generally accepted as a very high positive.
What to say instead to not get fired: “OK, this kinda sucks, but maybe it’ll pay off down the line.”
12. “Ugh, I hate it here. I’m totally looking for a new job.”
Fantastic, and while we promise we’re all giving you much-needed attention, you can actually look for a new job in private by reaching out to contacts and/or shopping your resume in the welcome confines of your own home. In the meantime, it might be nice to keep quiet about it to prevent what HR organizations call “them firing you first.”
What to say instead to not get fired: Not much.
13. “I’m sorry, I have a question…”
Things to be sorry for at work: Handing a backpack full of internal memos to competitors, knocking the water cooler all over Jerry, accidentally lighting the break room on fire, tweeting from the company account instead of your personal one. Things not to be sorry for: asking a work-related question at a meeting. This is a tough one, and I fight it daily, but apologies are only for that which deserves them.
What to say instead to not get fired: You probably won’t be fired for this, but unless you have accidentally released a cage of bullfrogs into a group meeting, leave out the “I’m sorry.”
14. “I want to touch base on how we’ll do a deep dive into the metrics of our core competencies.”
OK, full disclosure, you probably will not get fired for resorting to a hopeless waterfall of word garbage, but it’s still a lot of sound signifying nothing and we’d be better served by using actual English.
What to say instead to not get fired: “How’s everything going, Jim?”
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock
Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as GQ, Men's Health, Time, Billboard and the official Bruce Springsteen site, because though he's had many bosses, there is only one boss. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife and two sons—the older just stole bacon off your plate and the younger was personally approved by Springsteen (long story). He can be reached at the cleverly named JeffVrabel.com.