Human workers are fired for lots of reasons—they’re chronically ineffective, they smell funny, they pen interoffice memos that leak out and become weeklong viral PR catastrophes (hypothetically). But although there’s no telling what will definitively cause you to be fired, 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. Here are just a few of those things, and how you can maybe 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: “We’re running out of options, but let me try a few longshot ideas.”
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: 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 longshot chance on a 41-year-old who isn’t very good at baseball), I’m basically stuck dealing with the reality in front of my face.
What to say instead: “It would be nice if X would happen, but here’s what we’re looking at.” (Also, “Go Cubs.”)
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: When appropriate, bring any good ideas/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. (Chipotle guy: “Sure, I’ll make your burrito, when I christen it truly worthy of my care and attention.”)
What to say instead: This is easy—just leave out the second part of that sentence. Achieves the same effect, without a needless psychological gut punch.
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: “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, and I’ll pause while the entire teaching profession raises its collective hand—great, thanks. Also, nobody likes whining.
What to say instead: “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 useful.
What to say instead: Honestly, pretty much anything.
9. “I’ll try.”
Come on, you never saw The Empire Strikes Back?
What to say instead: “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: “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: “OK, this kinda sucks, but maybe it’ll pay off down the line.”
Fantastic, and while we all promise we’re all giving you much-needed attention, you can actually look for a new job in private, often 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: 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 for only that which deserves it.
What to say instead: Unless you have accidentally released a cage of bullfrogs into a group meeting, leave out the I’m sorry. You will probably not be fired for this, but you will seem significantly less ambitious.
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 to use actual English.
What to say instead: “How’s everything going, Jim?”
Related: 11 Things Smart People Don’t Say