The Top Five One-Sentence Career Killers (and How to Recover When You Commit One)


By Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield

Marianne thought she was in a “safe” meeting where open discussion was encouraged—so she spoke up. After the meeting, she found herself in and out of the discipline process, and shortly thereafter demoted.

New research shows nearly everyone has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment like Marianne. Specifically, 83 per cent of workers have witnessed their colleagues say something that had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations, and businesses. Another 69 per cent admit to personally making a catastrophic comment.

No one is immune. Recently, while rallying women voters in the 2016 presidential election, Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, rebuked women for not supporting the female candidate saying, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Albright endured backlash from voters and the media, and her comments shed a negative light on the female candidate’s campaign.

Top Five Career-Killing Comments
Clearly, putting your foot in your mouth is easy, but can just any slip of the tongue be fatal to your career, or are some comments far more damaging than others? We asked 780 respondents to tell their stories and uncovered the top five career-killing comments:

  1. Suicide by feedback (23 per cent): You thought others could handle the truth—but they didn’t.
    “Our supervisor did not share important details about the reorganization of the company. My team was broadsided with issues that impacted our work. We voiced concerns about the impending reorganization and were shut down. Two of us were passed over for promotion.”
  1. Gossip karma (21 per cent): You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.
    “A friend and school teacher thought she was ‘talking in private’ on Facebook and made an insensitive, (presumed funny), comment about kids being germ bags, meaning they bring their germs to school. Unfortunately, her social media privacy filters were turned off. Parents saw the comment and were outraged. They went to administration and she was asked to resign.”
  1. Taboo topics (20 per cent): You said something about race, sex, politics, or religion that others distorted, misunderstood, took wrong, used against you, etc.
    “During an exchange with a younger, less experienced nurse, an older nurse became exasperated after repeating the same instruction multiple times. She finally said, ‘Am I not speaking English?’ The younger nurse was of Laotian heritage and used this statement to claim racial profiling. As a result, the older nurse was treated like a social pariah, even though she apologized.”
  1. Word rage (20 per cent): You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point. “My manager resigned verbally in a rage of anger, then proceeded to announce his resignation to his staff and our client only to try and retract it a day later. No luck, we accepted his resignation.”
  1. “Reply all” blunders (10 per cent): You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (e-mail, text, virtual meeting tools, etc). “Two employees discussed the sexuality of our director in a disparaging way in e-mail and one accidentally hit ‘reply all.’ They were terminated that day.”

These stories illustrate why we call these verbal blunders catastrophic. You can literally ruin your career with just a few words. Yet many of the comments we read were uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who just had a bad day. According to the data, all of us are bound to slip up or misjudge a situation, so how can we ensure our verbal blunders aren’t catastrophic, but recoverable?

The Three Paths to Apology
The consummate skill in recovering from a blunder is to apologize. Below are three ways to demonstrate your sincere regret.

  • The blunder: You said something that was just wrong, rude or completely inappropriate.
    The apology: Clear and unrestrained. The bandage needs to be as large as the wound. If you aired your colourful disgust for your boss, a simple “I’m sorry” won’t cut it. Others need to hear an apology as intense as their disgust for you at the moment.
  • The blunder: You said something that was right, but it came across wrong.
    The apology: This apology must also match the fervour of the upset. You have three tasks: 1) Acknowledge your message sounded as offensive as others took it to be. And don’t move to step two until they’re satisfied. 2) Say what you really think on the topic in the way you should have said it. 3) Repeat step one.
  • The blunder: You said something you believe, but that you shouldn’t have said in your position.
    The apology: If you stated an opinion that is not the opinion of your company, then you must apologize as though you don’t believe what you said. This could sound disingenuous, but it’s not. It isn’t “you” that’s apologizing, it’s your position. You are righting the real wrong—your irresponsible lapse of judgment in realizing you don’t represent your company in any way you see fit.

When you learn to apologize with honesty and respect, you can take control of a catastrophic situation and right the wrong.

Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield are bestselling authors, speakers, and leading social scientists for business performance. They are also the cofounders of VitalSmarts. Their work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune

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