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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

Pink Slips of the Tongue: VitalSmarts Study Reveals the Top Five One-Sentence Career Killers

A new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations, shows nearly everyone has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment. Specifically, 83 percent have witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations and businesses. And 69 percent admit to personally committing a catastrophic comment.

The truth is, putting your foot in your mouth is easy to do. 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? Grenny and Maxfield also uncovered the top five most catastrophic comments people made:

1) SUICIDE BY FEEDBACK: You thought others could handle the truth—but they didn’t.
How common? Experienced by 23% of respondents.
What it looks like:

“A co-worker made suggestions to a technical process in a 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 co-worker and put him in his place in front of everyone. My co-worker spent the next year trying to dig himself out of a hole. Everyone was afraid to associate too closely with him for fear of retribution. He was eventually pillaged by another firm that recognized his skills.”

“Our supervisor did not share with us important details about the reorganization of the company. My team was broadsided with issues that significantly impacted our work. I and others voiced concerns about the reorganization and we were completely shut down. Two of us were passed over for promotion. We felt it was retaliation for raising important issues for our unit. The person who got the promotion did not have the qualifications but he does schmooze the management.”

2) GOSSIP KARMA: You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.
How common? Experienced by 21% of respondents.
What it looks like:

“I had recently found out my husband was cheating. At work, the company was circling the drain financially and morally. My department was one of the few in the green and was under pressure to perform even better. Fed up and frustrated with my current married boss flirting with peers (and triggering my own heartache), I blurted out to one of my staff—who turned out to be a friend of the boss—that the boss was sleeping with one of her married direct reports. My boss blamed me for that rumor. It took two years for her to find something to use to force me out of my job. In those two years, I received death threats, my car tires were slashed, and well-meaning peers even suggested I leave the state.”

“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 had been turned off. Parents saw the comment and were outraged. They went to the school administration and she was asked to resign. Her confidence was shattered. She hasn’t yet found another position in a school system.”

3) TABOO TOPICS: What it looks like: You said something about race, sex, politics or religion that you thought was safe, but others distorted it, misunderstood it, took it wrong, used it against you, etc.
How common? Experienced by 20% of respondents.
What it looks like:

“During an exchange with a much 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 who was of Laotian heritage used this statement to claim racial profiling. As a result, the older nurse was treated like a social pariah, even though she apologized. Although the older nurse had extensive experience, all the other younger nurses no longer listened to her—excluding her from all conversation and social events.”

“A male coworker made an inappropriate sexual comment about an older female coworker. He said it too loud so 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.
How common? Experienced by 20% of respondents.
What it looks like:

“Someone was frustrated by the project partner’s lack of response and decided to verbally confront this person in the heat of his frustration. He raised his voice and others around the interaction heard it. It was a very aggressive and unprofessional way to approach the situation. As this person’s leader, I had to administer disciplinary action which contributed to a year-end performance evaluation that will cost him his incentive.”

“One of my subordinate managers resigned verbally in a rage of anger, then proceeded to announce his resignation to all of his staff and our client only to try and retract it a day later. No luck, we accepted his resignation.”

5) “REPLY ALL” BLUNDERS. You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (email, text, virtual meeting tools, etc).
How common? Experienced by 10% of respondents.
What it looks like:

“About six or seven people were in an in-person meeting and one person was remote. We did a Lync screen share 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 organization. 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.”

“Two employees were discussing the sexuality of our Director in a disparaging way in email and one of them accidentally hit ‘reply all’ and all of the administrators saw the comments. The two employees were terminated the same day.”

The stories illustrate why we call these verbal blunders, catastrophic. You can literally ruin your career with just a few words. In some cases, these comments do reveal people’s incompetence, their unsavory moral compass, or their true colors which may be ill-suited for the 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.

And yet, so many of these comments are uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who maybe just had a bad day. According to the data, 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 are bound to go wrong despite our best intentions. So when, not if, we put our foot in our mouth, what can we do to ensure the results of our verbal blunder aren’t catastrophic, but rather recoverable?

Join bestselling author Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, as they discuss the skills for recovering from catastrophic comments in their complimentary webinar on March 22 at 1:00 p.m. EST. To register or watch the archive recording, visit

View the results of our study in the infographic below or download a copy for yourself.

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33 thoughts on “Pink Slips of the Tongue: VitalSmarts Study Reveals the Top Five One-Sentence Career Killers”

  1. New Study: How To Kill Your Career In One Sentence | Small Business News By Richard Turcott

    […] A new study by New York Times bestselling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found five common career killing comments, and the top comment involves giving critical feedback. You might know how this usually works. You’re in a meeting, and you decide to get really honest with the boss or a coworker. You lay it all out. Yet, you don’t think about the fallout. No one asked for the feedback, and you look bad. […]

  2. Pink Slips of the tongue: Study reveals Top 5 one-sentence career killers | St George News

    […] Grenny and Maxfield also uncovered the top five most catastrophic comments people made (to read participant’s real-life stories illustrating these comments, visit the Crucial Skills career killers Web page): […]

  3. New Study: How to Kill Your Career in One Sentence - Press Room

    […] A new study by New York Times bestselling authors Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found five common career killing comments, and the top comment involves giving critical feedback. […]

  4. Carolyn Miller

    It’s really easy for someone to have a knee jerk comment affect their reputation and have it impact how people see them in the future.

  5. Roger

    Keep your head up.

  6. Jimena Mendia

    Apologies go a long way, people react better than we think they will and things can improve a lot from there.

  7. lisa roy

    This program is awesome. I wish it could be implemented in all organization and companies.

  8. Ronald Knight

    Great information

  9. Nando

    Very interesting article.

  10. Desiree Defoe

    Good article!

  11. Nicole

    Great points seen all too often. Helpful remedies.

  12. Marie Torcaso

    This addresses very real issues. Very informative.

  13. Alec

    The headline does not quite match the content here. These are not really 5 single sentences, they are 5 separate themes. That said, useful information to think about.

  14. Helen

    Curious to see how effective apologies are. Other studies show that apologizing comes across as being insincere.

  15. Peg

    Good information. I can see how the apology would come across as being insincere, it would be viewed that what they saw that they should not have are the real feelings also shows a lack of patience for a new employee

  16. David Santiago

    Wow…eye opener because is true at times you might not realize the impact of your words on others. This is very helpful because at times we listen to others talking and we can get driven into the conversation not knowing who’s listening and how this will affect your career.

  17. Lisa Fluker

    This article truly outlined the barriers to clear non-offensive dialogue. Awesome.

  18. Debra Aiken

    Unfortunate that there appears to be significant percentage of individuals who view his/her employer to be one that does not truly accept sincere apologies but instead appears to quietly hold such action against the individual who made the inappropriate comment within their communication efforts

  19. GlenR

    In today’s age of social media incidents as described in the article occur more often than ever before

  20. Quentin Wright

    It’s very easy to have a blunder aka slip of the tongue. The true art is in thinking before speaking and in apologizing.

  21. perry cirigliano

    very eye opening

  22. Christina Kalli

    Great article. It is true that a sincere apology can go a long way

  23. Jackie McCOLLOM

    Interesting article. I do always check who the email is going to before I sent it, not out of concern of comment but to ensure privacy of content

  24. Tammy Langford

    Good article. Very eye opening.

  25. RuthC

    Wow- this article was quite eye opening!

  26. SherryC

    Very informative.

  27. Amalia

    Good examples!

  28. John M.

    All of the situations were real life examples of what could and sometimes does go wrong.

  29. Christophe Goasdoue

    Very illustrative examples!

  30. Christopher Jackson

    I couldn’t download the article or follow the link to the webinar

    1. Ryan Trimble

      Sorry about that, Christopher. I’ve updated the links. Here’s the article.

  31. Linda Duffy

    These blunders illustrate the need for emotional control in the workplace.

  32. Jatan Patel

    Very true.

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