​The Top 5 One-Sentence Career Killers

No one is immune to verbal blunders. Specifically, 83 percent of workers have witnessed their colleagues say something that’s had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations, and businesses. And, 69 percent admit to personally making a catastrophic comment.

The truth is, putting your foot in your mouth — whether consciously or accidentally — is easy to do, and as a result we get to observe the ugly aftermath of catastrophic conversations all around us. But can just any slip of the tongue be fatal to your career, or are there some comments that are far more damaging than others?

The Top Five One-Sentence Career Killers

We asked 780 respondents of our survey to tell the story of the catastrophic comment they either committed or observed. We combed through each story to uncover the top five career-killing comments people made. Here’s what we found:

1) Suicide BY FEEDBACK: You thought others could handle the truth—but they didn’t.

What it looks like:

“A new coworker made suggestions to a technical process in a department meeting. Although he was more than qualified and his comments had merit, the manager took the suggestion as a personal insult. He verbally attacked this coworker and put him in his place in front of everyone — effectively shutting down all other constructive comments from then on. My coworker spent the next year trying to dig himself out of a hole. Everyone was afraid to associate or collaborate too closely with him in case of retribution. He was eventually pillaged by another firm that recognised his technical skills.”

2) GOSSIP Karma: You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.

What it looks like:

“A friend and school teacher thought she was ‘talking’ in private on Facebook and made an insensitive (presumably funny) comment about all kids being ‘germ bags’, meaning they bring their germs to school. As luck had it, her social media privacy filters were turned off without her knowing it. Parents of her students saw the comment and were outraged. They went to the school administration and she was asked to resign her position. Her confidence was shattered. It has been very hard for her to find another position in a school system.”

3) Taboo TOPICS: What it looks like: You said something about race, sex, politics, or religion that others distorted, misunderstood, took wrong, used against you, etc.

What it looks like:

“A male coworker made an inappropriate sexual comment about an older female coworker. He said it too loud and more people heard it than he intended. He was the first to go in layoffs that happened a few months later.”

4) WORD Rage: You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point.

What it looks like:

“I watched a colleague tell his manager that he didn’t know what he was talking about while in a technical meeting with other team members. After he verbally assaulted his manager he got up and stormed out of the room. He was asked to leave that afternoon.”

5) “REPLY ALL” Blunders. You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (e-mail, text, virtual meeting tools, etc).

What it looks like:

“About six or seven people were in an in-person meeting and one person was remote. At one point, we did a screenshare with the remote person so she could show something to the group. After a while, she evidently forgot she was sharing her screen. She started a separate messaging conversation with her boss.

“I (Scott) was the official leader of the meeting, but was still new to the organisation and this was one of my first times leading this meeting. She chatted her boss, ‘Do you think it is possible Scott could be more incompetent than the previous person in this role?’ To which her boss responded, ‘Ha ha! Doubtful, but we’ll see.’ My predecessor in this role was in the meeting too. Finally, someone said, ‘Emily, did you know you are still screen sharing?’ She quickly took it down and tried to offer a quick, subtle apology. Apparently there were other issues with Emily’s boss and this was the straw that put him over the edge. Within two weeks of this incident, he was terminated.”

The Damage

You can literally ruin your career with just a few words. In some cases, these comments reveal people’s incompetence to perform their job, their unsavoury moral compass, or their true colours which may be ill-suited for the team dynamics or corporate culture. And when it comes to discrimination, racism, or violence, there are clearly comments that should never be tolerated in the workplace — or any place.

Yet so many of these comments are uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who maybe just had a bad day. Every one of us is bound to make an unintentional slip of the tongue or misjudge a situation at some point during our career. And when you introduce the X factor of technology into the communication equation, all sorts of things can go wrong despite our best intentions.

So when, not if, we put our foot in our mouth, what can we do to ensure our verbal blunders aren’t catastrophic, but recoverable?

Committing a verbal blunder takes zero skill. Recovering from one does.

We’ve spent the last thirty years researching the nuances of communication and the skills used by the best of the best. We wrote an entire book about this research called Crucial Conversations. What we found is that the most influential leaders, when in the midst of a crucial conversation (high stakes, opposing opinions, and strong emotions), know how to communicate their real intentions both honestly and respectfully. And what could have higher stakes and stronger emotions than finding yourself at the tail-end of an unintentional catastrophic comment?

It’s time more of us learned how to return to dialogue when what you may have said just shut it down completely.

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