NEW YORK (
) -- Although it's best to think before you speak -- especially at work -- everyone slips up now and then. Whether it's the "compliment" that comes across as a slap in the face or the unintentional dismissal of a colleague's accomplishments, throwing verbal daggers in the workplace can be costly. Our experts weigh in on the top seven kinds of comments to avoid to keep your career on the right track.
1. "Have you lost weight?"
"Unfortunately, the assumption here is that you looked absolutely horrid before," says Morag Barrett, CEO of
, an international HR and leadership development firm.
Ask yourself why you feel the need to comment on it, Barrett suggests. While you may enjoy getting compliments on your appearance, others may be more reserved and not want to feel like they're being observed or "inspected," Barrett says.
"For someone who doesn't want that attention, it's insulting," she says. "There will be some people who are very proud of what they've accomplished when they've lost weight, but you just never know. If you're at work, it's best if that kind of thing just isn't brought up."
Best thing to say instead? Nothing -- don't go there.
2. "It's not that we are excluding you, we just aren't including you at this time."
While this phrase may be intended to let someone know they'll be considered for a project "eventually," it leaves them with an element of doubt as to whether they'll ever be included or, worse, whether they're valued at all, Barrett says.
In some cases, this kind of phrase may be said in an attempt to be humorous, but it's not going to translate that way, she explains.
"It's only going to make people feel insulted. They're going to assume the worst. They're going to think that you don't see them as collaborative or helpful enough to be a part of what's going on."
Best thing to say instead? "We needed five people for this project, and we have that. When the time is right, we'll include you."
3. "I can't take my eyes off your shirt. It reminds me of my grandmother's quilt."
"Yes, and is this good news or bad news?" Barrett asks. "This is the perfect example of a comment that's done without thought. If you stop and think about it, is this really the kind of thing you want to say to a colleague, or anyone else for that matter?"
Consider how the person on the receiving end will feel. They didn't know your grandmother or her quilt, and they will be unsure if you're insulting them or complimenting them, she says.
"A person's first instinct is to think that you're putting them down," she says. "We are hard-wired as humans to think the worst."
Best thing to say instead? "I really like your shirt."
4. "You'd be absolutely perfect for my team, but I found someone else."
This kind of comment only makes a person wonder, "If I was perfect, why didn't I get this role? Do I have some awful uncorrectable flaw?" Barrett explains. Overall, it shows that you're not giving constructive criticism -- it's better to be honest with a person about their faults than leave them feeling helpless as to how to improve.
"If you don't have quality feedback to offer then you shouldn't say anything at all," she says. "People will think, 'If I'm perfect for this project, then I must be getting turned away because they don't trust me. Is someone talking behind my back?'"
Best thing to say instead? "You weren't right for this role because of X, Y and Z, but we'll definitely consider you in future."
5. "You have so much untapped potential."
"This is the classic backhanded compliment," Barrett says. "The person will be walking away and suddenly they'll realize: Ooh, that hurt."
Sometimes managers have to express a desire for their employees to improve, but it shouldn't be left so open-ended, she says. A good manager will convey concrete ways a person can advance themselves and their career.
"Part of it is timing, and how it's delivered," she says. "It would be perfectly acceptable to say this in a performance review as long as you follow it up with something actionable."
Best thing to say instead? "Here is a skill I've seen the glimmer of, and here is how I think you can leverage it."
6. "I really love our team, I'm just thankful I can play such a key role in it."
You're not thanking your team at all -- you're just self-promoting, says Russ Hovendick, founder of
, a career resource consultancy.
Even if you are struck by how much of a leadership role you play on your team, keep that to yourself, Hovendick says.
"As soon as you put that 'I' in there, you destroy the camaraderie," he says. "To keep the focus on the good work your team is doing, to keep driving your team forward, never give yourself too much credit."
Best thing to say instead? "I love our team, and I am proud of everyone for their hard work."
7. "It's great that you were able to outsell the entire group this month -- you'll really be an asset when you learn to start using our sales system."
This is the type of thing that gets said in jest, but it can be taken very negatively, Hovendick says. The message? "We want you to conform, we don't want you to use your ideas."
"It's a backhanded way of saying 'We don't care about the results, we just care about the system,' and no successful team can think that way," he explains. "Who cares if someone didn't cross a T or dot an I if they just outsold the rest of the group by $100,000? Saying something critical about a person when they've just had a big success is like slapping them in front of everybody."
If you want to compliment someone for doing something great, don't tell them in the same breath that they need to change, he says.
Best thing to say instead? "Great work. We're so impressed."