things you should not say to your boss

Some things you shouldn’t say to your boss unless you want to damage your standing and maybe your career:

“Can you write that down for me?”

“My bad.”

“I don’t know what you’d do without me.”

“I have another offer. Can you match it?”

… and more. Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about 10 things you shouldn’t say to your boss and why. You can read it here.

{ 121 comments… read them below }

  1. Julie

    #1 – I’d just note that there’s a difference between “Can you write that down for me?” and “Can I get that in writing?”

    The first, as you say, is probably note-taking that needs to be done by the employee or subordinate. The latter is probably part of a negotiation, and might be written out by either party, depending on what it is.

  2. Frugal City Girl

    Something I’m not sure how to handle is requests for things that aren’t my job…like working unpaid overtime and through lunches. (When it’s not necessary, that is.) I’m not talking about everyone pitching in to make a big deadline, but working over hours for no real reason, or to make mini deadlines each week.

    I’m keen to contribute, but at the same time I don’t want to create a pattern of staying late and missing lunch breaks for fear that it will become regular. I think the best way to go above and beyond is to outperform during office hours, so I can get all my work done during that time and then go home on time. But once or twice in the past month my manager has asked me to stay late to help with other people on my team’s work – not because we had a major project or deadline, but because they hadn’t got their work done that day and my manager wanted everything to be wrapped up before the next day.

    I don’t foresee it being a regular problem, but I wasn’t sure how to handle it without seeming like “not a team player”. (I ended up staying late to do my teammate’s work and kvetching about it to my long-suffering husband, which I don’t think is the best way to have handled things!)

    1. Anonymous

      I think the best way to handle that situation is to work hard and get as much experience as you possibly can, then take all that knowledge and find a better job.

    2. Jamie

      When it comes to lunches, the best way to not fall into the pattern of working through lunch is to develop your own pattern of taking your lunch break.

      A lot of people routinely work through lunch, so if it appears that you do also they will assume you’re okay with that. Just take your lunch, with the exception of hectic times where everyone is pitching in.

      It’s tough to “take a lunch” if you eat at your desk, because people assume you’re working…but there are ways to make it clear with a book or just nicely telling people that you’re on lunch and will get back to them when you’re done.

      I’m a work through luncher – but I’ve never assumed other people should be, nor would I think any less of people who are reasonable and understand that taking a mid-day break is their right and it’s healthy…and leads to greater productivity over all.

      The staying late is a little trickier and depends on the culture of your company and your position. Some jobs just don’t lend themselves to getting out the door at the same time each night – so if that’s a deal breaker for you I’d pay attention to how the company treats the people who are out on time like a shot everyday.

      You said you don’t forsee it being a regular problem, so I would personally take a wait and see attitude until you knew how big the impact will be.

      1. Frugal City Girl

        Yes, I think I’m going to have to wait it out and see whether it develops into something more regular.

        Part of it is that the department that supports my department has been chronically understaffed for the past five months after two long-serving full-timers left within three weeks of each other – and I found out in a meeting today that there are no plans to replace them, and everyone else will just be expected to pick up the slack. Right then!

        1. Long Time Admin

          Deja vu! I went through this same kind of nonsense in the 70’s, and I was a wreck because of it. I suspect you have a very strong work ethic, and you like to help people. These are NOT bad traits, but you unless you set some boundaries you will be taken advantage of.

          Listen to me – no job is worth wrecking your health. Take a lunch break away from your desk every day. Don’t stay late unless it’s truly necessary (“I have an appointment” is a good thing to say, even if the appointment is dinner with your husband.) Do what you can reasonably get done during your normal work hours. Now that your group is down by 2 people, your employer will try to get you with the “loyalty” or “teamwork” ploy, so be firm (but nice) with your boundaries.

          I agree with the poster above who suggested that you learn everything you can, and then take that knowledge and training with you to a better job.

          And try not to work so fast. The one thing I hated most about this time of my career was being forced to help co-workers who spent their days on the phone, visiting around the office, or just screwing around. Then they couldn’t get their work done on time, and I was usually instructed to help them out.

    3. Vicki

      Depending on the nature of your job (e.g. exempt vs nonexempt) and State laws, “working unpaid overtime and through lunches.” could be illegal. You may want to followup with HR.

  3. Foi

    Oh, dear. I started a new job a few months ago, and, since computer systems were down during the first few days, I spent some time going around with the people I managed and seeing what they do/how they do it. The highlights from 1 employee:

    – “Oh, I just send that fax so the manager knows I’m doing it, otherwise I don’t care.” (My response: “… you are aware that that manager is me, right??”)

    – Upon being informed that he needed to do a specific part of his job that had been a requirement for years and which he had received 3 separate trainings for: “*smirk* Thanks for keeping me updated.” upon which he turned his back to me.

    The breaking point was the comments about how he needed to verify my instructions with “the man in charge” (aka: my boss). Yeeeeeah. I’m willing to work with a lot of attitude issues, but that one was basically just him writing his own ticket right out the door.

    1. Another Brit.

      wow. He would have been out the door after number 2! Receiving three trainings is far too much of a warning to ignore as an employee and you should know you are walking on ice!

      1. Foi

        In my defense, he had received the trainings before I started as his manager! I wouldn’t have had patience for that, either!

    2. Charles

      Three separate trainings!?

      As a trainer I would not stand for that attitude – I am willing, and do, work my fingers to the bone to help anyone struggling with training; but, not slackers!

      1. Foi

        As I mentioned to someone else, he got those (multiple) trainings before I started, so I kind of inherited that problem.

        In his case, it wasn’t a lack of understanding, it was basic unwillingness to do the work. Which is it’s own problem, really.

  4. The Other Dawn

    1. “Can you write that down for me?”

    I’ve never had someone say this to me during a meeting, but I’ve definitely had people come to a meeting unprepared. Typically, it’s a meeting to start some type of system or file clean-up project or implement a new bank product. I’ve given you a heads-up as to what the meeting is about. You don’t expect you’ll need to write something down?? I’m glad you have such a great memory and know all the ins and outs.

    10.”That’s not my job.”

    This is quite possibly the worst thing someone could say to me. It conveys an attitude that the employee can’t be bothered to learn or be a team player, and wants to live in their little box where no one bothers them. I’ve been with the bank since it’s inception and was part of building it’s infrastructure from the ground up. If I had said “that’s not my job,” I would’ve been fired. Or maybe they would have kept me, but I wouldn’t have learned even a quarter of what I know today, nor would I be the vice president.

    1. Jamie

      “I’ve given you a heads-up as to what the meeting is about. You don’t expect you’ll need to write something down?? I’m glad you have such a great memory and know all the ins and outs.”

      A thousand times this! Showing up to a meeting where specifics of a project will be discussed with no pen/paper is one of the biggest, albeit unspoken, F-yous in the workplace.

      For whatever reason, I’ve found this is typically middle management. Upper management and non-management types will be prepared. Weird.

      I’ve actually had people say that if they were going to have to take notes it should have been included in the meeting invite.

      Why? I didn’t instruct people to wear pants in the meeting invite, but I sure as heck consider it a requirement to attend the meeting.

      1. The Other Dawn

        “I’ve actually had people say that if they were going to have to take notes it should have been included in the meeting invite.”

        WTF?? The only time I would let someone slide on this is if it were someone who is never invited to meetings and it’s their first one.

      2. khilde

        “I didn’t instruct people to wear pants in the meeting invite, but I sure as heck consider it a requirement to attend the meeting.”

        Ha ha – that’s priceless! You should say that to them and see how they respond. Followed up with what AAM said below: I’ll wait.

        1. Jamie

          I like telling them that I’ll wait. In the past I’ve just given them some from my legal pad and one of my pens.

          Yes, I bring different colored pens to every meeting. Black is for noting information, blue is for follow up and tasks, red is for immediate tasks assigned to me.

          No, I’m not regimented, why do you ask?

          1. Long Time Admin

            Good system! I work with a younger woman who does that, and her work is super organized. She keeps her notes, too, and can go back and tell you everything you ever wanted to know her role with a specific project.

      3. Anonymous

        I didn’t instruct people to wear pants in the meeting invite, but I sure as heck consider it a requirement to attend the meeting.

        There is a rumour that Sun was obliged to institute a dress code for its kernel engineers – although the dress code simply stated “you shall be dressed.”

      4. BCW

        In fairness, everyone isn’t really a note taker, so until you catch them forgetting or omitting certain things, you may not want to look at it like an F U. I went through my MBA program and honestly except in a few classes, didn’t really take many notes. Also graduated with honors.

        Just because you need certain things doesn’t mean everyone else does. Not trying to attack you, just saying people work in different ways, and you shouldn’t expect everyone to work the way you do.

        1. Jamie

          Of course not everyone works the same way. However, when we’re talking about either training sessions which are between 4-8 hours or meetings in which specs of a project are being finalized…lets just say if someone doesn’t think they need to write anything down that is quite remarkable. And there should be evidence of this remarkable gift of memory.

          If someone can remember every spec, formula, and ISO standard to which we need to comply then they are certainly exempt from my statement. I haven’t worked with that person yet.

          1. BCW

            Of course it depends on what the meeting is about. If there are formulas etc, then that is one thing. But some people tend to think its rude to not bring them ever, and its just not necessary for everyone.

    2. KK

      We’re a small company so the many pointless emails doesn’t really apply (thank god) but she was new and was getting copied on a lot of things that she might not understand yet.

      I probably could have been nicer about it. I said “Yes, you have to, it’s your job.” She basically said that she gets a lot of emails (she hasn’t seen anything yet by the way!!) and she also needs time to get her work done. I basically just said that hopefully in the future she’ll get through everything faster and it won’t be as much of a problem but I did try to explain that she needs to be copied on this stuff because otherwise I wouldn’t be doing MY job keeping her informed on things she’s responsible for. She wasn’t happy but it was sort of left at that. I feel that I was quite clear during the interviews that in a small company it’s not a 9-5 situation and sometimes extra time will be required so my conscience is mostly clean. If she doesn’t like the situation then clearly she’s not a good fit for the job anyway.

      1. Natalie

        She may simply not know how to manage them, especially if she’s relatively new to the workforce. I found the techniques for an empty inbox on Lifehacker really helpful, and I wish I had found them or been directed to them years ago.

      2. Edward

        ” I feel that I was quite clear during the interviews that in a small company it’s not a 9-5 situation and sometimes extra time will be required so my conscience is mostly clean.”

        If employers were require to pay triple time for hours over 40, expectations would change, yes?

        Work to live, don’t live to work.

        1. Vicki

          One of the things that amuses me somewhat is the clear diference between when I’m on an hourly “contract” and when I’m salaried. When it’s hourly (nonexempt) the managers can’t seem to insist fast enough that I only work 40 hours a week. They all love overtime… as long as it’s unpaid overtime.

    3. Charles

      “Can you write that down for me?”

      Trainers and trainings are often blamed when an employee doesn’t do her job – “I wasn’t trained properly!” is a common excuse.

      So, I, the trainer, have to be prepared with handouts, “take-ways” etc. And, if the budget allows, I always supply pens and notepads in my training classes. It is amazing how many folks show up without anything to write with or write on. Seriously, how on earth did they ever get through school?

      P.S. While I get the fact that I have to remind folks to turn off (or set to vibrate) cell phones, etc. in class, the day I have to tell someone to wear pants to my training class is the day I will tell my boss – “I simply cannot work with that person!”

    4. Vicki

      So… what about the case when “it’s not my job” means “it _is_ someone’s else’s job and that person isn’t doing it and expects me to do it for them.”

  5. KK

    Here’s one I got recently: “Do I have to read all the emails I get?” (I am trying to look at this as her way of telling me she’s overwhelmed but I wasn’t that impressed after stressing in her interview that I need someone really organized with strong time management skills.)

    1. Julie

      The only way I can see this as being a valid question is if the employee gets a lot of general emails not specifically meant for her. At a previous job, I got 500+ emails a day that went out to everyone in our department, and you only needed to be aware of the ones for the specific project you were working on. (Maybe 10-20 of the total.) As the specific project we worked on changed daily, we were instructed to keep all the emails for two to three weeks and keyword-search for our project of the day; it was not necessary to read everything that came in.

      This doesn’t sound like your employee’s situation, mind you. I just thought I’d point out that *occasionally* a question like “Do I have to read all the emails I get?” is actually valid.

      1. JT

        That place is not using email the right way — they should be using a blog or wiki or ticket tracking system to keep people informed about work.

        1. Julie

          Probably true, and they may be doing that now. I haven’t worked there for two years or so, and they may have implemented another system by now. Regardless, that’s how it was at the time. Most people just developed really good email filters.

    2. Jamie

      What did you say? I’m at a total loss – I would have had no idea how to respond if that were said to me.

    3. The Other Dawn

      I agree with Julie. Sometimes this is a valid question, especially with a new employee. Many employees copy everyone, regardless of whether that person needs to know or not. It can be confusing to a new employee to try and decipher what’s important, what is relevant, but can wait, and what she doesn’t need to look at. However, if she’s been there for awhile and doesn’t yet know what she should be looking at and what can be disregarded, then maybe it’s an indication that she really isn’t on top of everything the way you think she is or expects you to prioritize for her.

      1. KK

        But her question wasn’t whether she can ignore emails, she wanted to not read some. How do you know if it’s important if you don’t read it? It’s not like I can tell her to ignore all emails from Joe, or on the subject of the Chocolate Teapot project, you have to be read the email before you can decide whether or not to ignore it. I didn’t really know what her plan was on that actually. Now I’m a bit curious.

        1. Julie

          That’s not necessarily true. Often, you can tell just from a subject line or the first sentence whether an email will be relevant to you or not.

          1. KK

            Maybe, but this isn’t an entry level job, she should be able to sort that out for herself I think. That’s kind of basic for having a job.

            1. The Other Dawn

              I have to disagree there. Every company does things differently. What someone did or did not do in their previous company is likely to be very different in the new company.

              I have a new employee in my department. She started a few months ago. She has many years of bank operations experience. I wouldn’t say she’s entry level at all. At other (bigger) banks she knew how to do XYZ, but wasn’t the one responsible for it. In our (very small) bank, she’s the whole enchilada. In her previous life she didn’t have to read emails from the core processor, the EFT processor, the correspondent bank, the items processor, AND the branch. She could pass on the ones that didn’t apply to her area. Now she needs to read them all. Until she was clear on that, she wasn’t sure if she needed to read them all or disregard certain ones. It wasn’t that was lazy or wasn’t organized, she just didn’t know.

  6. Mike C.

    On the issue of, “That’s Not My Job”, there is a very important exception.

    If you work in an industry that utilizes a quality management system (say, has ISO 9001/17025 or AS 9100 accreditation) things are a little different. Such businesses split up the non-administrative work between “making the widget” and “quality control of the widget”. If you do one type of work YOU DO NOT DO THE OTHER. You don’t get to check your own work and you certainly don’t abandon the quality process just because a few widget makers called in sick today.

    In such companies this should never even come up, but I’ve seen a few unscrupulous managers try to skirt the rules. Lets just say they quickly became the subject of an internal audit…

    1. JT

      Yeah, but a better way you say it is not “That’s not my job” but rather “I’m not allowed to do that – it’ll compromise our QA/security/compliance/regulations/whatever.”

      1. Mike C.

        I’m not really concerned about the feelings of a manager who is trying to get the company’s accreditation revoked. They should know better to begin with.

        1. Jamie

          I think it’s less about the feelings of the manager and more about phrasing it in a way that makes it clear that you’re declining because you’re following the rules and not because you’re trying to get out of it.

          If that were to happen here, I would fully expect an employee to come to me (I’m our ISO Management Rep and Lead Auditor) and believe me I’d back them up.

          It’s just cleaner to be very clear about what you’re refusing.

      2. KayDay

        Yes, the same thing is often an issue on the finance side (at least in non-profits) where there MUST be some degree of differentiation in task that involve financial transactions. I had an awkward situation once where my direct supervisor didn’t think she needed to approve my small transactions (e.g. I project related purchase I made) and asked me (the admin at the time) to do it. I then was *scolded* by my boss’s boss because I should not have been approving my own purchases, no matter how small.

        1. Jamie

          It isn’t just non-profits. Companies with external financial auditors need to comply as well.

          GAAP is for everyone :).

          It’s just the protocol of respecting the rules for checks and balances as no auditor in the world wants to hear about exceptions.

    2. fposte

      As JT notes, though, you still don’t say “That’s not my job.”

      As AAM well knows, there are plenty of reasons not to perform tasks that are inappropriately assigned to you, whether it be your example or the illegal overtime example above. But the employee needs to deal with it via a different phrase, one that doesn’t sound like the problem is that you don’t wanna and they can’t make you.

      1. Piper

        Agreed. There are ways to say “that’s not my job” without actually saying “that’s not my job.” I’ve had problems at my current job (which I’ve mentioned before) where they completely changed my job after they hired me. Because I was hired for high level specialist work, I was very concerned that they had me doing entry-level admin work. I had a conversation with my boss about it and expressed my concern for my change in responsibilities and framed it as how it would be more beneficial to the company to have me doing what I was hired for.

        The whole gist of it was “none of this is my job, I’m willing to help out, but I do hope I’ll be doing what I was hired to do” all without saying it in those terms. Unfortunately for me, no one cared and I’ve been stuck doing entry level crap for about 8 months now. But hey, I tried, and at least I didn’t look like a uncooperative jackass doing it.

      2. Another Brit.

        Absolutely – I had one last week!

        I had to write an email regarding a number of issues with a client. The upshot was that a number of them hadn’t been dealt with properly.

        I wrote an email to my boss explaining that this batch of issues had been raised, what the effect on us was regarding the client relationship and incurred costs, and what had been done by the relevant department regarding the issues.

        The reason I wrote it? Because someone needed to sit down with the department and point out the problems they had caused by not following procedures properly.

        What I didn’t write was “Someone needs to shout at department X but its not my job” or go and yell at the department in question. I noted the actions taken and the costs incurred and let management sort out the rest.

    3. Elizabeth

      Similarly, there may be things that people are not cleared to do. For example, if my boss asked me to operate heavy machinery, or give someone a flu shot, I would let her know I couldn’t. I still wouldn’t say “That’s not my job,” though – I would say, “I’m sorry, but I’m not trained in that.”

      (Of course, if she then scheduled my backhoe-driving training, I’d have to decide whether I preferred having this job, or not driving backhoes – because it’s valid for the company to decide that backhoe-driving should now be my responsibility, as long as they train me in it.)

  7. JT

    Wonder about people’s opinion on a milder form of #3: “It’s all good.”

    That phrase really grates on me, but I wonder if I’m overreacting.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      If it’s said in the same context that someone might say “my bad,” it’s even worse. “My bad” at least implies that something went wrong; “it’s all good” implies that whatever the person is upset about doesn’t warrant it.

    2. Jamie

      Definitely not overreacting.

      And for those out there who think “it’s all good” is an acceptable response to “Where are you at with Project Monkeypatch?” which has a looming deadline…well…you are wrong.

      This phrase makes my teeth ache.

    3. Esra

      The only time I don’t mind “It’s all good.” is when someone ELSE screws up, and instead of saying “I accept your apology.” or “It’s okay.” they get an “It’s all good.”

      1. Vixen

        I like to say “I’ve got you covered” when they’re interrupting my flow for status updates. I’m a writer – if anybody else is they’ll know what I mean – sometimes you’re blocked, sometimes you can’t type fast enough to keep up with your brain. If I can write a chapter in 1.5 hrs rather than a week, shut up and go away. I THINK it conveys that the deadline will be met and the work is as it should be. Maybe I’m wrong. I try to follow up later with more details. I’m pretty sure I’ve said “Got it” and “I got you” at some point in the past, but I hardly ever remember because I was busy and was only sort of listening…how bad is that?

  8. Henning Makholm

    When you tell people never to say “my bad” to their boss, the meaning that gets through is: “never admit to your boss that it was you who made a mistake. Either claim that it’s not your bad, or pretend it was not a bad at all”.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      No, just the opposite! The phrase “my bad” is cavalier — it has connotations of “no big deal.” That’s why I wrote this in the article: “There’s nothing more frustrating than an employee who has made a mistake and doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, figure out how you’re going to fix it, and make it clear that you understand its seriousness. Responses like ‘my bad’ sound cavalier and signal that you don’t take work seriously. Don’t use it for anything other than the most minor mistake (like spilling something in the kitchen, which you then promptly clean up).”

      1. Mike C.

        Is this a generational thing? When people I know say, “My Bad”, they literally mean, “I’m sorry, my actions were responsible for that mistake”. It might not be the sort of diction you want to throw around the office, but the intent is to take responsibility not pass it off as if it were nothing.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I don’t think it’s generational. It’s something used for relatively minor situations. You wouldn’t say “my bad” if you were, say, caught cheating, right? It’s for minor stuff, and so using it for anything that isn’t quite minor sounds like you’re minimizing it.

            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              Definitely not! I wrote that it’s essential to take responsibility for mistakes. I know that you’re in Denmark; I think the expression isn’t translating correctly.

            2. Elizabeth

              “My bad” is a phrase used in the US to mean “Oops, haha, silly me, but it’s not a big deal, right?” So it’d be acceptable to use “my bad” if you misplaced the pushpins for the break room bulletin board, but not if you accidentally sent an email about one client to another client. The latter case should call for a more sincere apology that recognizes that the situation is serious (or could have been).

          1. Jamie

            I agree with you, and this is a particular pet peeve of mine.

            “My bad” is the equivalent of “oops” in my book. Fine if you spill something (and clean it yourself), or almost bump into someone in the hall, whatever.

            But you wouldn’t say “oops” if you made a mistake that caused a problem at work. You’d say you were sorry and (if you were smart) follow it up with how you plan to avoid the mistake in the future.

            It’s dismissive for anything more significant than the example you gave.

          2. Another Brit.

            Its not generational.

            My response to a non-minor thing is usually “My apologies” and deal with it. (And possibly my solution to put it right if it is appropriate).

            For minor things a “sorry” and fixing/cleaning it does perfectly.

      2. Henning Makholm

        “Take responsibility for it” — what better way to express that than to couple the possessive “my” with a word “bad” that unambiguously signals that what happened was undesirable? What communicative purpose other than explicitly claiming responsibility can the word “my” possibly have in this context?

        If you want to admonish people not to claim their major mistakes were minor , go right away and do that — but don’t do it in a way so it sounds like you’re on a crusade against two particular words (especially when those two particular words don’t seem to be logically able to express the sentiments you ascribe to them).

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Henning, I think this is a cultural thing — in the U.S., it’s an expression that really doesn’t come across the way you’re writing about it here.

          1. Student

            I think this may be more cultural, or perhaps class-based, than you realize. I’m from the US, and when I lived in a very poor area, “My bad,” was a genuine form of contrition and acknowledgement of an error. It was considered perfectly reasonable for relatively large mistakes that also require financial restitution, like damaging a car or injuring a person. There’s a tone difference in how it’s said, compared to the annoyed-teenager use that you have in mind.

            That said, it’s a colloquialism that I’d never use in a corporate environment. It’s something I’d classify as inappropriate for anyone at secretary-rank or higher. I’d be shocked to hear it from a bank teller or a manager. I’d consider it perfectly acceptable from anyone in a job that doesn’t require a college education, though.

        2. Julie

          Henning, “my bad” is a very informal colloquialism. AAM isn’t on a crusade against two particular words, but against a level of speech so informal that it could be taken as a brush-off, the sort of thing you might expect your teenage son to say, never looking up from his cell phone, when you confront him on not taking out the garbage.

          In this case “my bad” does actually have other meanings. English is full of colloquialisms that do not mean what they literally say. (“Oh, you’re such a wise guy!” does not mean, “I think you are very wise.”) In this context, “my bad” means, “I don’t care enough to make a real apology and offer alternatives so that it won’t happen again.”

        3. fposte

          It’s a really, really common locution in the U.S. One of its first movie uses is a joke in the movie Clueless, where the superficiality of the protagonist is demonstrated by her hitting a car during her driving test and saying “My bad!” to the driving instructor but not stopping.

          Think of it in terms of colloquial pejoratives. Most languages have the semi-loving pejorative thing that a mother might say to a beloved kid who left his toothbrush at his friend’s house; now think of that as “I’m such a …” from the mouth of somebody who’s just caused a fire that resulted in multiple fatalities. It is in fact a form of deflection of appropriate level of fault in the guise of acceptance of trivial error.

    2. Henning Makholm

      Okay, let me outdent this and explain more in depth:

      I’m a software developer. That’s a trade where we invariably make mistakes in the code we write — trying not to make them is a noble ambition but ultimately futile. The relevant endeavor is not to completely avoid making mistakes, but to catch them before the reach a customer and begin costing money.

      We have various ways of catching mistakes in place, of differing degrees of formality. One of the first and least formal is that developers do unsystematic test runs using the bleeding-edge development source tree. This sometimes unearths mistakes made by another developer; this is routine and expected because it would be suffocatingly counterproductive to do a full-scale systematic test before each code check-in.

      Thus sometimes one of my coworkers finds a bug that I’ve introduced recently (and sometimes it is the other way around). Sometimes the coworker who discovers my bug is actually my boss.

      What I do, then, is to say “Oops!” or “My bad!”, or “Wow, that’s embarassing!” followed by “Just a moment while I fix it”. And then I fix it, and then we all move on with our work.

      You seem to be claiming that there’s never any work-related mistake that merits such a short to-the-point acceptance of responsibility. It’s unclear to me what you think ought to take its place — a multi-minute tirade about how mortified I am about having made one of those mistakes that every programmer is expected to make several of per day, and how I’m going to take on the impossible task of never making another one? That would be a waste of my time, and a waste of my coworker’s time, who just wants to me to turn to my computer and use 20 seconds to insert the missing comma so he can get back to his work.

      And, perhaps more importantly, it would be missing the point, because the point is not really to apportion any blame, but to make everyone clear on what happens next: Since the bug has been identified and turned out to be in my code, it’s natural that I’m the one to fix it, and when I openly say “my bad” we all know that me fixing it is what will happen next, so everyone else can stop trying to figure it out and get back to what they were doing.

      Of course there are conceivable mistakes that would warrant a stronger and more concerned apology than this. But the fact that big mistakes exist doesn’t mean that there are no small mistakes, for which a small, quick, to-the-point acknowledgment of responsibility is the appropriate response.

      These small mistakes are qualitatively different from your example about spilling something in the kitchen. When you spill something in the kitchen, there is never any doubt about who made the mistake, and so hardly any use for explicitly owning that mistake rather than just fixing it right away. However, here I’m talking about situations where it is clear that someone made a mistake, but unknown (even to the perpetrator himself) who made it or what it was, until after some investigation. Then a simple “my bad”, without any need for guilt-ridden theatrics, is sufficient for letting everyone involved know that (a) the mistake has been found and (b) someone will now act to get it fixed, and thus (c) everyone else can stop searching for it.

      1. Jamie

        I totally get what you’re saying here. There are certainly “whoops” mistakes that we all make which most people are glad to have pointed out. And it’s inherent in your position, no question.

        I would argue that you aren’t making mistakes as much as just shaking out the bugs which are inherent in the process, but I get your meaning.

        If I develop a report for someone and inadvertently code a field to show as a percentile instead of a dollar amount, that’s an “oops – sorry about that” and I fix it in seconds. No big deal.

        I think that is a good rule of thumb. If the response to the apology is (or should be) “no big deal – don’t worry about it” then a more casual my bad, oops, etc applies.

        However, here are a couple of instances at work in which “my bad” has been used to apologize to me:

        1. An accounting mistake which cost myself and another co-worker (not the one who erred) 7+ hours of work to find and correct. It caused a huge issue with a customer, our external accounting auditors, and a lot of embarrassment for my company. It was caused by a blatant disregard for written procedure, on which the person had been training because he through this would be faster.

        2. Chronic lateness which had been addressed with meetings and a write up. The day after the write up strolling in 20 minutes late, no call, and cheerily explaining “my bad – I overslept again!”

        3. An intern who had emailed me about a question about deleting some data, but because I was busy with a vendor took it upon himself to delete 3 years worth data from a table – apparently he couldn’t wait for an answer.

        In none of those instances, and there are thousands more everyday in offices anywhere, is my bad even remotely appropriate.

        To your point though I find it only slightly less irritating when people over apologize to the point of wanting to wear a hairshirt over little nothing errors, like typos, which are forgotten as fast as they are corrected.

        1. Henning Makholm

          Why, I certainly agree that there are situations where a “whoops” or “my bad” is insufficiently contrite, or, as AAM puts it, cavalier.

          What I take issue with is the claim that every situation where a mistake needs acknowledging is one of those, to the point that the “whoops”-type utterances are something you should “never say to your boss”.

      2. Charles

        “What I do, then, is to say “Oops!” or “My bad!”, or “Wow, that’s embarassing!” followed by “Just a moment while I fix it”. And then I fix it, and then we all move on with our work.”

        I think, Henning, that you and AAM are on the same page – in your example you ARE taking responsiblity for it.

        Also, in your example, mistakes (kind of like typoes) are expected, and are not really a big deal. They are expected to happen, they are expected to be found, and expected to be fixed. Yea, in your example, a “witch hunt” to find who did them would be over the top unless one of your team members was making way too many mistakes all the time.

        However, I took AAM to be referring to situations in which mistakes should not be happening, or in the very least should be minimal. In these more serious situations, then “my bad” comes across as not caring.

        As, others have stated, “my bad” in American English has connotations of being rather “flippant.” Partly, this might be because it is “incorrect” English; “proper” English would be “my mistake” or “my fault” (not my bad).

        In more serious situations, then it would sound better to say something like, “oops, that’s my fault, let me fix it” or “oh gosh, let me straighten that out right away. “My bad” is just way too casual.

  9. Anonymous

    My issue with “That’s not my job” – I’ve recently been forced to use this phrase as I am 6 months into a new job that I am the first person to hold. Since my job is new, a lot of people I work with genuinely don’t know what my job is. I work in a small office, and, unfortunately, my job title includes the words “administrative coordinator” (which, in my job description, is described as being administrative support exclusively to the Executive Director). We also have an office manager whose only job is to provide admin support to the office.

    A few times (ok, more like many times) when the Office Manager has been out of the office my colleagues have asked me to do simple tasks for them like photo copying or mailing items. When I first started I wasn’t very busy and was happy to help. Since my job has picked up I’ve had to explain that I don’t have time to help them out and that they’ll have to wait for the Office Manager to return.

    One colleague was very insistent that I was an admin assistant and therefore should complete these tasks for him (hey, I’m happy to if I have the time, but I don’t!). Finally, I sat him down to discuss exactly what my job is and that if I had time to help him out I’d be happy to, but most of the time my day is filled with tasks for the Executive Director (which I consider priority since 1 – they’re for the ED who heads the organization 2 – that is considered the top priority in all my training documents and job discription).

    Was this the proper way to handle this situation or should I have just sucked it up and kept doing the photocopying/mailing/etc for him? This is my first job out of school so I’m still gaining experience in the work world.

    1. Anonymous

      I think this is a valid reason to decline and an appropriate way to communicate it. I have had to have the same types of conversation. It boils down to I am happy to help but my assigned work that are a part of my duties take priority over pitch in tasks. Unless my manager has directed me to change the priority on my work for them.

    2. fposte

      I think that people are reading Alison’s words as meaning “You always have to do what everybody tells you,” and that’s not what she meant. Her point is that what the boss tells you your job is is what your job is, regardless of what the training documents may say. So check with your boss. The way you describe it suggests that the ED is your boss, but I’m a little uneasy that it’s not clearer and that your office sounds a little fuzzy on lines of organization in general, new job or no.

      If the ED has been clear that this isn’t your stuff to do, then you can say “Sorry, Bob’s the boss and I’m on Bob stuff exclusively now that I’m up to speed.”

    3. Josh S.

      Yup. You pretty much nailed it on all counts. “I’m happy to help if I have the time, but my priorities are A, B, and C. Right now, I do not have the time.”
      When you’re in an assistant position, it’s REALLY hard to tell people “no” or “I can’t get to this until ___, and by then $otherperson will be able to help you.” But you’ll go crazy if you don’t.
      Even if you *are* an “admin assistant”, that does NOT automatically mean that you are the whipping boy/girl for the whole department. If there are two of you in support roles, it’s entirely legitimate to have a division/specialization of labor.

      But your attitude is totally correct. “I’m happy to help, IF I have time. Today I do not because of priorities A, B, and C. Please wait for $OtherPerson to come back and attend to it. If you believe your task to be a higher priority than A, B, or C, please discuss that with the Executive Director, and I’ll be happy to rearrange my priorities.” (That last sentence is rarely necessary, but if the colleague really presses, it’s useful.)

      If the situation continues, you can also discuss it with the Executive Director directly. Say, “Colleague asked me to do $Task. Normally, I’m happy to help if I have time. But in this case, I’m really pressed with A, B, and C, which I think are higher priorities than $Task. Am I correct in making these the priority? If not, which part of A, B, or C should I let fall off til later?”

    4. moe

      I think Alison was talking about things not to say to your boss, not your average co-worker. I agree that it’s incredibly important for admin assistants in particular to set boundaries like this–it can get out of control quickly. And when you are seen as the gopher for everything people don’t want to do, this can really be to the detriment of your career.

      Side note, I would quibble with telling people you can do these non-job-description-y things if you have time to. If it’s something non-value-added for you to do, I’d just put it in the ‘no’ category all the time, for consistency and clarity about your role.

      Also, it can be helpful to let your boss know when people attempt to take advantage of you as an assistant… I’ve seen a few good, firm boss smack-downs about admin assistant abuse…

    5. JT

      The problem isn’t that that stuff isn’t your job. It’s that you’re too busy doing other, more central (to you and your boss) stuff. And you explained it pretty well.

    6. Long Time Admin

      Anonymous, the correct way to tell a person that it’s really not your job to do his photocopying is to ask him to “run it by the Executive Director first.” Since your primary responsibility is to support the E. D., it’s very likely that he wouldn’t be happy if you stop what you’re doing for him to stand at the copy machine. Or, ask your E.D. how he wants you to handle requests for assistance like doing someone’s photocopying when the Office Manager is out of the office.

  10. Risa

    Nothing drives me up the wall faster than “It’s not my job.” Our call center constantly takes on new opportunities and product lines, new media types (think social media) and new responsibilities within the company. In the last six years, we’ve grown from 12 agents to over 50 agents, instituted a work at home program, as well as live chat support and social media interactions.

    If I had told my boss that it wasn’t in my job description, I would not be where I am now within the company. I started in middle management and 6 years later I’m on the executive team. It is in large part due to my “can-do” attitude that I’ve accomplished what I have.

    So, I get frustrated when I see talented individuals shoot themselves in the foot with the “It’s not my job” statement. It’s so incredibly short-sighted and I, frankly, take it as a sign on laziness.

    **Caveat, I certainly don’t expect anyone to do anything that is unreasonable, unsafe or illegal. I’m speaking about requests that are common, completely within reason and within the bounds of expectations. In some cases I’m even talking about additional tasks that will provide them with hours of work that would normally be cut during our off-peak season for hourly employees.

  11. A nony cat

    I don’t 100% agree with #9: “I can’t do X because I need to do Y.” I currently work for a very small business-it’s just me and the CEO. I handle pretty much all support related things from basic admin to marketing to finance, some of which I do very independently of my boss. My boss, because he is the CEO, is often more concerned with the visible aspects of our work–marketing, communications, etc and doesn’t deal with the day-to-day finance and admin tasks. Often, my boss will come to me and ask me to do some important but not urgent marketing task, but I have a more urgent task such as working with our accountant on a tax-related issue.That said, the moment I say, well, I can’t updated the website right now because I am working on this finance task, my boss usually is okay with my priorities–and said marketing task becomes my #2 priority. I just try to be transparent and let him know what my other priority is.

  12. Sean

    Alison, question. Obviously asking someone to write down is probably the dumbest thing in the world. But if a manager is beginning to talk to you about your duties as a new employee, do you think it would be a good idea to ask the manager if you can get a note pad to take down notes so that you don’t miss anything and thus can do your job to the best of your ability. I ask as this was one of the questions on a questionnaire application form online and while it wasn’t “bring notepad with you” it actually said “Ask the manager to pause so that you can get a notepad to take notes”. Do you think this is wise? The other options were “Keep silent and try to do the best to remember everything.” “Ask an experienced worker for assistance.” “Ask the manager for a list of duties in writing.” or “Do Nothing”. I’m thinking what I mentioned probably is the best answer, but if in a real life situation you for some reason forgot to bring a notepad with you, do you think it would be okay to ask the manager if they could pause in their instruction?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You absolutely should! Obviously, it’s better if you come prepared, but if you haven’t, apologize and ask to go grab a pen and paper.

      1. Sean

        Thought so :P I figure it’s a wise idea because it shows you’re interested in your job and want to make sure you do the best you can rather than doing it lackadaisically.

  13. JT

    I don’t have any staff reporting to me where I work, but do often have interns, and I make it clear to them that it’s fine (and even expected) that they write down information/tasks that they are given. Work is not test of memory, it’s a test of getting the job done, and if notes help, take them!

    1. Laura L

      Thanks for bringing this up. When I first started working/interning, I sort of had the sense that work was like school and I had to remember everything without writing it down. I felt awkward taking notes in meetings. I didn’t start taking notes until I started having trouble at work because I don’t remember verbal instructions well and I started taking notes in meetings, even one on one meetings.

  14. Anon21

    I’m kind of surprised about “I have another offer. Can you match it?” to be honest. Caveat being that I’ve never been in the working world, or at least not the kind where “offers” involve money. But my impression was (setting aside the exact wording) that this kind of negotiating tactic was pretty common. I’m sure managers hate it (partly because it strips them of some of their bargaining power over salary and conditions), but I’d appreciate some expansion on why this is always and everywhere a bad idea, rather than just a smart way to leverage your marketability into a better situation at your current job.

    1. moe

      I think the big problem is it’s so destructive to the relationship between the manager/company and the employee. You could possibly get some money out of the tactic, but at what cost? Your boss knows your price now, and knows that you can be bought out. Why give you increased responsibility, better projects, promotions if you’re obviously looking to leave at any point? On the employee side, why–if they were willing to pay you more–did it take a blatant threat to get this increase? It breeds resentment on both sides.

      If the manager/company is smart, (s)he’s already aware of the employee’s value on the job market and is already paying you that or working towards it. Should this be impossible to achieve in a reasonable time, it’s probably better for both sides for the employee just to take the better offer elsewhere.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Exactly. There are a bunch of stats showing that people who accept a counteroffer are usually gone within a year — sometimes because the factors that caused them to start looking in the first place are still there (and the money was just a band-aid) and other times because the employer now puts them at the top of a list for cutbacks, if cutbacks are ever needed. If you want a raise, negotiate it on your own merits, not by using another offer.

    2. Not usually anon

      This came up recently, someone resigned for a better position and management is not happy because the employee didn’t come to them first with an offer to see if they would match it.

      But it’s still a bad thing to say because counter offers tend to be bad ideas, anyway. It’s insulting that I was worth X until someone else wanted to pay me Y, now you want to pay be Y – but resent it because you secretly still believe I’m only worth X.

      1. Anonymous

        Or in my case, “I believe you’re worth Y, but I can’t get Finance to approve it. But I don’t want you to leave, so if you had another offer, I’d be willing to really go to bat with finance and get you Y.”

  15. Kelly O

    I am not a manager, but the “that’s not my job” riles me to no end.

    I will caveat that several times a week I wind up sending an email that says something to the effect of “That is actually part of X Department, which Jane handles. I’m copying her in on this reply so she can get back to you on that one. ”

    However, I swear the Other Department next to us spends half their time arguing about who does what, and who ought to do this, and how busy they all are and no one has any extra time for this task that they’ve always done, but this week it’s not important enough. Sometimes I want to go over there and just say “if you guys spent half the time actually working that you do arguing about how something’s done or who does it, you would have gracious plenty time to do all this and not stay ‘behind’ all the time.”

    The other thing I have to add to this list is – for the love of all that is holy, do not say out loud that you are trying to get fired because then you’ll get unemployment and won’t have to come in. This is what we call an at-will state, meaning you can be let go for any reason, and unemployment is not a given. (This would also be the same coworker who crowed loudly about “being bored” and wound up losing our third assistant, which has spiraled us into a huge cluster of suck. Oh, and the same employee who very loudly says “I ain’t doing that because a trained monkey could do it.” And then makes mistakes on the same work, but it’s not her fault because “it’s boring.” I could so write a book about What Not To Say In The Office.)

    1. Jamie

      I work in an at-will state, also, and unfortunately your co-worker could be right.

      Yes, you can be fired for anything outside of a protected class – but here they typically award UI for anything short of “Gross Misconduct.” You basically have to be escorted out of the premises by police, set something on fire, or run naked through the lobby singing Battle Hymn of the Republic in order to not qualify.

      I’m not even sure that last one would be cause for denial of benefits.

      Incompetence, negligence, even no shows don’t rise to the level of gross misconduct.

      The lapse in logic is the cap on UI is so low, it’s definitely not worth getting fired for. Doesn’t stop some people, though.

      1. Charles

        just wait – some day a lawyer will take it to court and then “running naked through the lobby singing Battle Hymn of the Republic” will be a protected class.

      2. Mike C.

        There’s a good reason incompetence awards UI. The employer should be evaluating an employee for competence during the interview process. If they misrepresent the position as one you can perform well instead of one you would suck at, why should you be left high and dry when the position doesn’t work out?

        Furthermore, what happens if your position changes? Say you’re an IT person and they make you a receptionist instead. When you eventually get fired, it’s not really your fault you couldn’t do the job well.

        In fact, if these laws weren’t in place an employer could get out of paying UI entirely by placing employees into positions they had no ability to perform well in and then firing them for incompetence.

        “Congratulations on your promotion to Senior Engineer! Wait, you don’t have an engineering degree from an ABET accredited school? I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you pack up your things.”

  16. Elizabeth

    Alison, sometimes my boss and I run into each other in the hallway or at lunch and she’ll remember something she wanted to ask me to do. Is it reasonable then to ask her to shoot me an email about it if I’m on my way somewhere and don’t have a good place to write it down? I worry that I will forget those requests made in passing.

    1. NicoleW

      I’m glad you asked this question. I have a good memory for some things, but requests while passing by are not among them. If this was a superior, I think I would try to write it down as soon after our encounter as I could. Whether I had to duck into the mail room to grab a piece of paper or type a few keywords into my phone. If this was a peer, I might ask them to send it to me via email. If when you get to your desk, you realize that you are missing some of the details, you could email your boss and ask for clarification (of course, providing you could remember the basic request).

      1. Jamie

        Those drive by requests are murder for a lot of us – I freely admit here and at work that I will remember nothing about things mentioned to me in passing.

        Because I’m usually focused on whatever the task is I’m passing you to do, so pretty much everything will get lost by the time it takes me to shift gears.

        There is nothing wrong with asking a boss if you can go grab a pen and paper real quick, or if they would prefer to shoot you an email so you can have the details to follow up.

        Some of the most impressive new employees with whom I’ve worked had a notebook on them at all times. And some of the least impressive people with whom I’ve worked never wrote anything down.

        Oh, and no one should ever do a drive by request to someone clearly headed to the washroom. That’s just rude.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      If your boss is reasonable, it’s fine to say, “I’m running out to grab lunch and I don’t want to forget this — can you shoot me an email, or I’ll stop by your office when I’m back?” The reason this is reasonable when it’s not reasonable in a meeting is that in your scenario your boss knows she’s catching you off guard.

    3. Charles

      And hopefully, your boss is reasonable.

      I had a boss who did these “drive-by-requests” (Love that term!) all the time. They were always while I was walking down the hall to start one of my training classes with my hands full of training materials, or I was on the way out the door at the end of the day. And, yes, even when I was trying to make a training break run to the restroom! I would always ask him to put it in an email. His response was always, “But, I need to do this brain dump now, before I forget.” I would try to write things down when I got the chance; but would so often have to follow up with him later and he would never remember.

      This was the same boss who would call me on my personal cell phone when I was in the cubicle right next to his. On another day he was emailing everyone that I hadn’t arrived at work yet and wondered if anyone had seen me – the whole time I was sitting in my cubicle right next to his. No wonder that project was a mess.

      So, yea, I hope that your boss is understanding.

      1. Anonymous

        My old boss literally took part in “drive-by-requests”, she tended to call me with “ideas” and put me on speakerphone while she was driving. The reception was usually terrible and I couldn’t understand what she was saying most of the time (or her “ideas” would get mixed in with comments that were directed towards other drivers, pedestrians, etc.)

        The one time I asked her to email me (the reception and traffic noise was so terrible I had caught nothing that she had said) she gave me a sarcastic reply about how she was trying to be efficient and use her time wisely.

        1. Jamie

          Wow – I should put a disclaimer on my post above that my advice only works for bosses who aren’t so self absorbed.

          Very rarely is something so urgent it needs to be communicated through a garbled speakerphone – and can’t wait until it can be typed up in a cogent email.

          Will somebody make it illegal to use the phone when an email will do? It’s time for that.

          1. Another Brit.

            I once had a boss who would email from his blackberry whilst driving. The arguments they used to have (mostly over email) because there were two management members, both driving, both emailing via blackberry were epic!

  17. Charles

    As a trainer I am often asked to “do work” which really isn’t what the company is paying me to do; So, I have to make sure that folks understand that, help them within the confines of my role as a trainer, and point them in the right direction.

    When asked to do work beyond my role as a trainer one thing that I have found to be helpful is to say: “I don’t handle that; but so and so does. Let me get you her number” or whatever. It sort of is the same thing as “it’s not my job,” but, it sounds better and I am offering them someone whose job it might be.

  18. danr

    #10 — a whole dept was fired at my former company when they all said this during layoffs and consolidation. They were all professional level people in a specialty who had been treated with some deference previously and figured that if they stood together the company would have to give in.

  19. Anonymous

    Often times employers take advantage of you by assigning you duties that should actually require a new title or job description. They take advantage of the “other duties as assigned ” and don’t pay you what they would have to if it were part of your original duties. Like forcing a janitor to be a teacher. It is insulting.

  20. Scott M

    I agree that you should not bluntly say “That’s not my job”. You can find nicer ways to say it. But still there are times when you have to put your foot down and try to stay focused on your core responsibilities.

    In my workplace, the culture was that everyone pitches in with everything all the time. In the past that meant this was an extremely pleasant place to work, since everyone was helpful. Tasks always got complete by conscientious employees even if it wasn’t really their job, because employees wanted to help the company succeed and were proud to work here.

    Unfortunately, that has led to some unforeseen consequences. Since things always just happened to get ‘taken care of’, management tends to just rely on the employees, and put less effort into planning, training, and.. well… managing. Areas of responsibility are so vague, that it’s hard to tell who is really responsible for anything. Related tasks are handled by 6 different people, because in the past they just happened to volunteer, and got stuck with it forever. Job responsibilities aren’t so much assigned as just ‘fallen into’.

    That kind of environment tends to breed the “it’s not my job” attitude.

    So if your employees tend to act that way a lot, you might want to clarify everyone’s responsibilities.

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