We all have heard words or phrases that make us feel frustrated or unmotivated. You likely don’t want to use these words in a way to hurt others, but sometimes things slip out and what you were trying to say comes out a lot meaner than intended and may end up as a human resources issue. To avoid this, there are several types of words and phrases that are frequently harmful and should be avoided. Here are some of them:


Always, never, can’t, don’t, and won’t are all examples of absolutes. While there are some cases where absolutes can be used it is rare for them to be needed. It can sound very unforgiving to employees to hear themselves or their work be described in negative absolutes. Before using absolutes, carefully consider if they are true and/or helpful to the conversation. 

Comments on Character 

Most of us have been summed up by someone else before. Terms like grumpy, shy, positive, negative, introverted, extroverted, boring, or lazy may be some of the words you’ve been described as or heard others described as. The truth is that humans are so complex that they can’t be summed up in a handful of words. Any comment on someone’s character, whether positive or not, is unhelpful. If you want to compliment or critique someone, keep your feedback focused on their work and not their identity.  

Put Downs 

Though this should be obvious, it can be hard to keep from saying something negative or harmful, especially in high stakes situations. Always keep derogatory words out of your vocabulary. Calling someone idiotic, useless, a failure, a disappointment, irresponsible, or dumb can cause serious damage to your relationship. Avoid put downs at all costs and carefully consider words before you say them, regardless of the situation.  

Some words and phrases will immediately make someone feel defensive, at which point they are no longer listening to what you have to say. Consider how the words and tone you use with employees impacts your relationships.