5 Phrases to Avoid Saying to Your Employees

by Rachel Hartman on August 30, 2012
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What you say — and don’t say — to employees can have a significant impact on your relationship with them. This is important for small-business owners to keep in mind, because keeping employees happy can boost their productivity.

Laura Lee Rose, a time-management and efficiency coach, says that fostering a positive, healthy relationship with your workers is similar to maintaining other personal or business relationships. “It takes compassion without compromising your individual or business goals, mission, or vision,” she notes.

Here are five phrases to avoid using, with a few recommendations for what to say (or do) instead.

  1. “We’ve always done it this way.” Statements such as this can curb creativity and innovation, Rose explains. Yes, it’s generally important to follow company policies, but it’s also wise to keep an open mind. If one of your employees comes up with an idea to complete a task in less time than usual (without sacrificing quality), ask questions about the new process. If the idea doesn’t pan out, you can always go back to the previous method.
  2. “I know how you feel.” You never know exactly how another person feels, says Carlann Fergusson, founder of Propel Forward, a company that specializes in shifting organizational cultures. Listen to what the employee has to say and, when you respond, reflect the feelings you hear in the employee’s tone of voice. (For example: “I can only imagine how you feel. It must be very frustrating.”) Then you’ll be able to give advice. Let’s say an employee is upset about getting distracted while trying to finish an important project. After listening to the complaint and offering empathy, you may be able to find ways to reduce surrounding noise or interruptions. Perhaps the worker can go to an isolated area for a few hours to concentrate on the task at hand.
  3. “You need to be more of a team player.” This broad statement doesn’t point to a specific behavior that can be changed. “If you can’t explain exactly what you need fixed, how can employees supply it to you?” Rose asks. Be clear and explicit about what needs to be improved. If an employee starts skipping team meetings, you may want to have a sit-down chat with the person. Review the need for all team members to be present at meetings and then state your expectation that the worker will attend the next one.
  4. “Why are you always so late?” Any time you phrase a question in an accusatory tone, you put employees on the defensive, Rose says. If you have a staffer who consistently shows up 30 minutes late to work, it may be time to have a conversation. Start by reminding the employee of the start time that the two of you agreed upon. Then ask whether there is a reason for the late arrivals. Perhaps your worker is in the midst of trying to rearrange child-care schedules? If that’s the case, the two of you could find a temporary solution, such as having the employee stay an extra half hour at the end of the workday, until the situation is resolved.
  5. “You did a good job.” The phrase seems nice enough, yet it’s too vague to have any real meaning, Fergusson says. When offering praise, cite specific examples of what you liked. For instance, after watching an employee give a presentation, you might say, “The statistics you included in the introduction were helpful.” Letting employees know exactly what they’ve done well will help them repeat it in the future.

Rachel Hartman is a writer who frequently covers topics related to small businesses. Her work has appeared in The Costco Connection, Wells Fargo Conversations, Pizza Today, Bankrate.com, InsuranceQuotes.com, CreditCardGuide.com, and many other outlets.

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