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9 Phrases That Make Your Boss Think You’re Unreliable

Every work environment is different. But you'd be wise to avoid these common phrases.

Whether you love them, hate them, or feel generally meh about them, your boss is your boss and you want them to view you as hardworking, dependable, and reliable. While you try your best to ensure your actions and words paint that portrait at work, it’s easy to say something that proves the opposite. No, we’re not talking about casually tossing off a “Man, I’m so hungover today” in the middle of a meeting. What we mean is that there are some subtler phrases that, when spoken or sent in slack or an email, can make you appear unprofessional, uncaring, or not a team player.

So what phrases, exactly? Below you’ll find a handy list of them, as recommended by a few experts. Yes, these are examples and, yes, every job culture is different. And no, if you say one of these once you’re not going to get canned. But all of these phrases hint at some larger truths: Be as specific as you can, don’t throw your colleagues under the bus, and bring solutions, not just problems.

1. “I am really struggling right now.”

No matter the job, there’s going to be a point where work overwhelms you. While it’s important to be honest about your situation, it’s important to remember that bosses want solutions, not problems. It’s okay to let your boss know that you need more time or assistance, as long as you show that you’re being proactive and not simply complaining. A person who is constantly asking to be saved can be draining to work with,” says Liz Hogan, a job search expert, certified resume writer, and community manager at Find My Profession.

What to say Instead: “Could you help prioritize for me?” Or “I’m a bit overwhelmed with X. I could prioritize Y and Z because they seem the most pressing. What do you think?” 

2. “I already tried that.”

This comes down to how and when it’s said, of course. But in general this phrase gives the impression that you’ve already given up. Having a more positive, proactive attitude is always going to go farther with management than simply stating what didn’t work before. “This carries a passive accusation that someone can not remember previous events,” says Hogan. “It immediately puts someone on the defensive.” 

What to say instead: Hogan suggests saying a version of the following: “Do you remember in the past when we attempted this? We had done the following steps with no positive results.”  Another good one?  “Something went wrong when I tried that last. Can you walk me through it?”

3. “I’ll get to that later.”

No, this isn’t the worst thing to say. But it’s important to not be vague when it comes to letting a manager know when something is going to get done. “I’ll get to this later” makes it sound like you’re procrastinating. Be clear about when something will be done and be flexible in case it has to be turned in sooner. “Leaders usually operate on schedules,” notes Hogan. “They do not have the time for vague dates like, ‘Later,’ or ‘Sometime next week.’” 

What to say instead: “What priority is this? Do you have a deadline?” or “I plan on tackling this early next week. Does that work?”

4. “We should do it this way instead.” 

While it’s okay, and even encouraged, to have alternate ideas and solutions, you have to be careful about how you choose to present them. Saying this makes it sounds like your way is best and you are not open to alternatives. Not something the boss wants to hear. “You are essentially telling your boss, ‘I do not care what you think. This is how I want to do it.’” 

What to say instead: “I will give it a shot.”

5. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

Maybe you don’t, but your boss clearly does. When you tell him or her that you don’t see the problem, you can come across as combative and make it sound like you don’t have to carry any of the blame. “If you ‘do not see what the problem is,’ it is because you lack experience or have not done the research,” says Hogan. “Or maybe you do see and simply disagree. Regardless, there is no amicable solution without first hearing both sides.” 

What to say instead: “I hear you. Could you clarify …”

6. “It’s not my fault.”

This falls under the heading of bosses wanting solutions instead of problems. Whether it’s your fault or you’re trying to pass the buck, we can guarantee that your boss doesn’t want to hear about it, and he or she certainly doesn’t want you implicating your coworkers. “If you are constantly seen as someone pointing the finger,” says Daniela Sawyer, Founder and Business Development Strategist of FindPeopleFast, “ultimately, your boss will question who is truly to accuse.”

What to say instead: “I’ll fix it.”

7. “You let [Co-worker] do that.”

Like it or not, the boss decides who is best suited for what tasks and they have the right to designate tasks in whatever manner they see fit. Questioning their leadership is not going to endear you to them. “What your leader or manager allowed someone else to do is frankly none of your business or concern,” says Scott Miller, a career and leadership expert, and author of Master Mentors: 30 Transformative Insights from Our Greatest Minds. ?’”

What to say instead: Suggests Miller, “What results, outcomes, or behaviors would you need to see from me to earn your trust and support so that I could do X?”

8. “If only [Co-worker] would give me the data, then I could submit my report to you on time.”

If your boss is asking you for the report, then it’s up to you to provide an explanation as to why it’s not ready. He or she likely isn’t interested in blame or finger-pointing. They selected you to get a job done and therefore expect you to delegate responsibility effectively. If a co-worker is slowing the process down, then handle it before taking it to your boss. “Your leader hired you to deliver results. Period,” says Miller. “Conflict resolution and relationship building skills are a requirement for getting and keeping your current role and are paramount for any promotion.” 

What to say instead: “I’m sorry the report is late. I’ll do better next time.”

9. “Nothing.”

That is, actually saying nothing. Managers don’t want silence and a lack of contribution. They want people who are going to bring ideas to the table and speak up when called on. If you say nothing and remain passive, then your boss will simply move on to someone who is more vocal and involved. “You’re paid to think, problem solve and brainstorm,” Miller says. “Your leader wants and needs your creativity. Be thoughtful about how you phrase ideas and suggestions and your influence will grow.” 

What to say instead: Anything at all.