A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

49 Secrets Your Boss Won’t Tell You—But You Need to Know

You don't get a raise because you're having a child or buying a house; you get a raise for doing good work, not having a good sob story. And also, they're just as annoyed by your coworker who sings with their headphones in as you are. Here's everything else they won't tell you.

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What’s your boss really thinking?

If you have a manager or boss at work, even one that you really like, you’ve probably spent at least some time pondering what they think of you. How close are you to getting that promotion? How did they really feel about your last project? What habits do you have that secretly bug them? For Boss’s Day on October 16—and all year round—step inside your boss’s shoes with these tips, and help them help you. Plus, learn these signs your boss is a micromanager.

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Don’t be such a downer

Your natural temperament may be cynical, sarcastic, or ultra low-key, but if you have a job working with customers or clients, you need to figure out a way to do your best Pollyanna imitation—especially if the client seems bored. “When dealing with a potential client that is showing signs of “lack of interest,” employees need to be able to make responsive judgment calls and steer the conversation to a more uplifting and interesting manner,” says Cody Schuldt, president and CEO of Spartan Digital. Find out some things you should absolutely never say to your boss.

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Stick to the point

It’s understandable that you feel your work is the most important thing, but don’t expect everyone else to feel the same. The best way to start things off right with a new client or partner is to be respectful of their time. This means planning ahead and paring your speech down to the bare necessities. “Potential clients are very busy and they don’t have all day to discuss one project so I expect my employees to be concise about their statements and to the point,” Schuldt says. You can always answer questions afterward.

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Put. Your. Phone. Away.

We’re all dependent on our phones, it’s a necessary evil of doing business today. But when you’re doing business your phone needs to be gone. Seriously. Put it in your pocket, lock it in your bag, or even ask someone else to hold it for you—whatever it takes to keep you from checking it every time you get a notification. You may think that people won’t notice a quick glance down at your phone or smart watch but they do and it leaves them feeling like they’re not getting your full attention which is just rude, Schuldt says. It’s fine to bring out your phone to check your notes or calendar, or add a contact, but if you don’t need it for what you’re doing, put it away. Also, don’t forget to set your phone to silent (not just vibrate, but silent) during meetings. Watch out for these things you should never say at work.

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Don’t be a slouch

Sit up straight. It turns out your mother was right all along and good posture is important. Not only will you look naturally more confident and alert but slumping makes you look tired and checked out, Schuldt says.

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Remember who your meal ticket is

Your first allegiance should always be to your company. They are, after all, the ones paying your salary, says Paula Conway, president of Astonish Media Group. “The fact is that you work because of how hard we work to keep business coming in,” she says. “The decisions, including criticisms and directives, we make daily are often regarded as tough on staff, but they’re for the best interest of the company.” Make sure you know these 10 seemingly harmless things that you could end up getting fired for.

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If you want to be a boss, act like a boss

If getting promoted is your end goal the time to start thinking like a boss is now, Conway says. This means taking pride in your work and the company and thinking ahead for how you can be proactive. “My tip for employees is this: act each day as if you run the company; get in front of issues, be proactive, and do your work like a boss,” she says. “If our value is a pay check, your value is not your work, it’s the quality of your work.” Find out the secrets to being a good boss.

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Remember, bosses are people too

Bosses aren’t robots, they’re human beings with frailties, quirks, and sensitivities, just like you. Yet often bosses aren’t given any slack from employees who expect them to always be on top of everything, says Greg Dewald, CEO of Bright!Tax US Expat Tax Services. “For example, I’m a perfectionist, but not everyone is, so it’s frustrating sometimes if an employee doesn’t ‘get’ me sometimes,” he adds.

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It is your fault, even if it isn’t

“The two things I can’t stand are if an employee makes excuses, or if they blame a client for a problem,” Dewald says. “The client is always right, so it’s the employee’s job to react and adapt to their individual requirements, not expect them to fit into a ‘one size fits all’ mold for the benefit of our convenience.” Sound unfair? Then you don’t understand business. Try these easy ways to build trust with your boss.

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Don’t ever say, “That’s too hard”

You may think you’re just being honest, but by verbally expressing your doubt you’re showing that you don’t have faith in your boss’s ability to assign you tasks or your ability to complete them. If your boss gave you a job, it’s usually because they think you can do it and be successful. “A big pet peeve of mine is when an employee says ‘This looks hard’,” says Nneka Brown-Massey, founder and CEO of Innovative Supplies Worldwide, Inc. “Words are powerful and they can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy for you or instill doubt in others.” Positive thinking is a skill that will help you throughout your life.

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Startups aren’t glamorous money machines

The movies may make start-ups look like a grand adventure bankrolled by “angel investors” that make everyone into billionaires but the reality is far different, says Brown-Massey. Starting your own business can be agonizing work with long hours and no pay for a long time. “I wish my employees understood better how running a small business works. As a small business owner I wear 17 different hats, which means I don’t have, say, a payroll team. It’s just me, writing your checks.” You should also know these things HR people won’t tell you about salaries and raises.

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Covering up your mistake is the worst mistake you can make

We all make mistakes. In fact, your boss expects you to make mistakes from time to time. What they don’t expect is for you to lie about it. “I wish my employees understood that it’s OK to make an honest mistake,” says David Laplante, owner of Advanced HVAC. “But I want them to take ownership of their work and their actions instead of deflecting or making me chase for the truth. I’ll respect you a lot more if I hear it directly from you instead of a co-worker or a client.” Here are some of the worst mistakes you can make on the job.

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Fifteen minutes early is “on time”

Showing up on time is so important to doing a good job. After all, you can’t do your job at all if you’re not there. But “on time” doesn’t mean simply clocking in by 9:00:59 on the dot. To be on-time you actually need to show up a few minutes early, says Laplante. “Everyone should aim to be at the office 15 minutes before they plan to start. This gives you some wiggle room to deal with traffic delays and so on. If you do get in by 8:45, you can take a few minutes to grab a coffee or read the news or just take a deep breath to be ready for the start of your day,” he says. Plus, learn these 20 time management tips that actually work.


Promotions aren’t simply about checking off a list of boxes

Promotions—getting one, being denied one, or working towards one—are one of the trickiest things for employees to navigate. But while you may think you’re a shoe-in for that managerial role, you aren’t the best judge of your own work. “Employees need to understand that growth takes time,” says Kimmie Marek, MS, chief creative officer and co-owner at 7 Charming Sisters. “Employees, particularly younger employees, want to move up the ranks quickly and the reality is, experience matters. You may be great at your current role and get glowing reviews but that doesn’t mean you’re ready for that promotion. Get that experience, learn and grow and then talk to me about moving up.” And make sure you know these you don’t make these mistakes when asking for a raise.

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You get what you give

Jobs aren’t always fair but it’s fair to assume that if you are only giving 50 percent of your best effort then you won’t be rewarded fully. “Passion and grit are high commodities these days and fewer and fewer employees have it,” Marek says. “Look at this job as more than a paycheck and I’ll look at you as more than just another employee.” Watch out for these signs your boss hates you—and what to do about it.


Learn to take criticism

Bosses aren’t giving you criticism because they hate you and they enjoy pointing out people’s faults, they’re doing it because it’s their job. Part of being the boss is helping your employees learn and grow and they can’t do that if you think you’re already perfect. “Don’t debate everything on your performance review,” Marek says. “Yes, I want your feedback on your review but please don’t provide a rebuttal for every piece of constructive feedback I give you. It comes across as combative… and honestly it’s annoying.” Find out the signs you actually have a terrible boss.


We notice when you sneak in the back

“Don’t be late to meetings,” Marek says. “My time is just as valuable as yours. Being late tells me this isn’t a priority for you.” And if your boss thinks that you don’t prioritize your time with her then she won’t be as eager to give you her time in the first place.

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It’s not enough to know what you’re doing, you have to be able to share it with others

Being an expert in your field is great but if you can’t communicate your data, results, or plans well to others then all your hard work will be stuck behind a screen, says Lyn Hastings, VP of Marketing & Operations, The Powerline Group. Communication skills are every bit as important as “hard” skills. “Strategy and execution are important, but if you’re putting together a spreadsheet of company data, you need to be able to speak about the data, not just put the numbers together,” she explains. Find out the essentials you need to know if you’re traveling for work.


Despite what your parents told you, you are not a special snowflake

“Special snowflake” is a criticism often leveled at millennials, but everyone would do well to remember that when you work for a company, you are one part of a larger machine. Expecting to always have your work lauded or to get special favors isn’t realistic and is setting you up for some uncomfortable confrontations down the line. “You can’t always be the star,” Hastings says. “How an employee rebounds from a tough situation says more about their work ethic and character than the easy win.” Check out these secrets you can use to succeed at your job.

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Stop whining

It’s one thing to vent a little about a difficult project to a coworker, it’s entirely different if you’re known as the complainer of the group, constantly finding fault and using it as a way to not do your job. No one wants to be surrounded by your negativity, Hastings says, so if your complaint isn’t productive—meaning it leads to an actionable fix—then keep it to yourself. “A particular pet peeve of mine is when employees waste time complaining about minor things instead of fixing them,” she says.


Give bad updates as well as good ones

Employees are usually excited to give good progress reports and managers are usually excited to get them. However, most projects are not simply a series of one success after another and it’s just as important to report the failings as it is the successes, Hastings says. “Even if something isn’t completed, let a boss know that you’re working on it and give an estimate of when it will be finished,” she adds.

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Don’t bring up a problem until you’ve brainstormed solutions

Bosses may say they want to know every detail and they do—but there’s a catch. When it comes to problems, simply notifying them the problem exists doesn’t do a lot of good. (Although it’s better than pretending there are no problems and saying nothing.) Rather, come up with a list of possible solutions to present to your manager, along with the problem details. Even if they don’t use any of them, they’ll still appreciate your thought process. “Bosses prefer asset-based problem solvers, not deficit-based problem bringers, so the next time a problem arises and you need to bring it to your boss’ attention, make sure you don’t just hand over the problem,” says Heide Abelli, SVP of content management at Skillsoft. “Instead, come prepared with the information and recommendation your boss needs in order to help address the problem.”

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Don’t say you can’t work with someone

People are people and as such they can be annoying, obnoxious, silly, and downright difficult to work with. But if they are your coworkers then working with them is actually part of your job and unless it’s an extreme case like harassment or abuse, telling your boss that you “can’t” work with someone is likely to make them look unfavorably… on you. “It’s unacceptable to tell your boss that you cannot work with someone in the organization without having worked very hard at trying to resolve the conflict first,” Abelli says. “Your boss wants to know that you are mature and rational in your interactions with others and that you can figure out how to resolve any interpersonal conflict that arises without needing to involve them.” These are the best ways to deal with toxic co-workers.


Procrastination kills careers

When setting timelines for projects, it’s better to err on the side of being conservative. While it might be tempting to tell your boss your most optimistic estimate—what would happen if you worked 80 hour weeks and encountered no problems—that will only lead to disappointment when you can’t live up to it. “It’s so important to meet all your deadlines,” says Timothy G. Wiedman, DBA, associate professor of Management at Human Resources at Doane University. “Always get an early start on projects so that the unexpected won’t trip you up: procrastination ruins careers.” Better to under-promise and over-deliver than to over-promise and under-deliver.

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We can tell when you’re making stuff up

Your boss doesn’t expect you to know everything related to your job and part of their job is to answer your questions and make sure you have all the information you need. “If you don’t know or don’t understand something related to your job, ask questions! Not doing so when necessary can often have serious consequences,” says Wiedman.


Sometimes we wait for you to tell us something we already know

Everyone makes mistakes and bosses are pretty good at seeing when that happens—that’s why they are the boss. And sometimes your boss may notice a mistake even before you do but they’ll wait to see what you do with it first. The best course of action? “Fess up immediately,” Weidman says. “When you’ve made a mistake, admit it. Immediately. Don’t wait to see if the boss has noticed or not. Then volunteer to do what’s necessary to make things right.” Watch out for these clear signs you can’t trust your boss.

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The only person who has your best interests at heart is you

When it comes to making important career decisions, you are the only one who can decide what’s best for you. A good boss will want you to succeed and will help you do that but at the end of the day they work for the company first, not you. “My biggest pet peeve is employees waiting for me to make career decisions for them,” says Nikki Winston, a Fortune 500 accounting and finance executive and founder and CEO of Premier EliteLifestyle Management. “It is my duty to provide feedback and guidance, but I cannot determine the trajectory of someone else’s career, nor should I.”


You were hired for your human skills

Machines can perform a task but human beings can perform a task while also interpreting the results, communicating the process to others, make adjustments on the fly, and learn from the process. If a machine could do your job, your boss would have hired one. So part of their decision to employ you is due to your human strengths as well as your technical ones, Winston says. “There is a distinction between ‘mechanics’ and ‘concept.’ You can update an Excel spreadsheet and upload a journal entry? Great, you can follow directions. Can you interpret what just happened? That’s the important part,” she adds. Steal these work habits of highly successful people.

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We don’t care if “we’ve always done it this way”

Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best or most efficient way for it to be done, there is always room for improvement. Instead of digging in your heels when change comes, it’s better to try and understand the process and the thought behind the changes, Winston says.

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LinkedIn is critical to your career

LinkedIn isn’t just another social media site, like Facebook or Instagram, where you can be entertained and occasionally informed. In this day and age it is your resume and your professional calling card and not keeping it up-to-date is likely keeping you out of the loop. Plus it makes you look clueless and unprofessional. “In a world where social media is such a powerful and important business tool, it’s such a wasted opportunity to not connect with your clients and coworkers on LinkedIn,” says Kelli Lampkin, sales manager at NetSuite Oracle. Find out more LinkedIn mistakes that could cost you the job.

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Your emergency isn’t necessarily my emergency

Poor time management skills can lead you to a crisis point, with undone projects and a pileup of unread e-mails. Your natural inclination may be to turn to your boss for help, but while they’re usually happy to pitch in in an emergency, if everything is an emergency because of your poor time management skills that goodwill will dry up quickly. “What it comes down to is blocking out time to shut out distractions—turn off phone, close office door, shut off your e-mail or WiFi— and knock out the critical thinking-related work then resurfacing for the urgent things,” says Mike McRitchie, career and small business strategist and telecommunications program manager. “Do this and you’ll get more done and keep everyone off your back.”


Your e-mails make you sound like a psycho

“The cold, hard truth is that too often employees write sucky e-mails,” McRitchie says. “Their tone is horrible and it often invites conflict. And then if you’re on the receiving end, you combat bad tone with a counterattack instead of dealing with the facts and leaving the drama out.” What can you do instead? First, take a deep breath before you hit send and always focus on giving facts, not emotion. If you need to vent, do so verbally so at least it’s not in writing. Make sure you avoid these annoying e-mail habits.

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Do less to do more

When you’re under the wire, sometimes doing more just means spinning your wheels and not actually accomplishing anything. A good boss will understand and give you the space to clear your head and make a game plan. “Jumping into a mess and not having a plan is like jumping into quicksand. The more you struggle to get out the more you’re pulled in,” McRitchie says. “Take an hour. Take a lunch break or a walk outside the office to clear your head and figure out your next step outside the pressure cooker. You’ll get more done and stay sane.” These are the best things you can do for a productive start to your workday.


Don’t skip team-building activities outside of work

Whether your team does an informal trivia night once a month or hosts a softball league, it’s important to your current job and your career to make the effort to attend at least some of these “fun” activities—even if you’re not into trivia or softball. No one is asking you to become besties with your workmates but team activities done right promote cohesion, communication and networking. And your boss definitely notices if you don’t go. “I wish employees understood the value of company culture,” says Rob Sloan, digital marketing strategist at The Contemporary Agency. “While not a deal-breaker, participation in a few activities we do is helpful and they do benefit everyone.”


Manners still matter

You may not need to know which fork is the salad fork, but you still need a solid grasp of good manners to do your job well. Many employees feel like they are above social niceties or that they just waste time but they’re important both internally with your coworkers and externally with customers, Sloan explains. “Proper communication etiquette is a dying art. Whether by e-mail or phone, one of the things I emphasize with my team is how to properly interact with clients as well as each other in a professional, polite way.” Mind your manners!

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Read the whole e-mail chain

Reading an e-mail conversation can be tedious, particularly if it’s a chain that’s been going on for some time. But the senders will assume that people are reading previous e-mails and therefore won’t repeat all the information. Skim or read just the latest and you risk missing critical details, Sloan says. “One of the most aggravating time-wasters to me is having to go back and specifically point out something to an employee in an e-mail chain that’s already been covered,” he says.

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Don’t phone in a project because you don’t love the work or the client

Not doing your best work because you aren’t super excited about it or you dislike the client is childish, immature and speaks poorly of your work ethic. You’re there to do the job you’re paid to do, not pass judgment on your boss or the client, Sloan says. “Barely covering the minimal expectations, when I know the employee can and has done better, bugs me to no end,” he adds.

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Clients are not your therapists

When working closely with another person, it’s easy to forget that they are the client and are paying you for your services, especially in personal professions like healthcare services. But just because you’ve developed a friendly relationship with a client doesn’t mean you can unload on them as if they are your friends. “Given that this is a very personal type of business, a caregiver may feel comfortable talking about non-work related topics. Most of the time it’s fine but occasionally we will hear about an employee discussing their personal matters or ‘nontraditional’ interests, hobbies, or affiliations,” says Jonathan Marsh, owner of Home Helpers of Bradenton.”Employees must always remember that clients are not therapists.”


People have long memories

File this under sad but true: Do your job well and people will be grateful but do it terribly and people will remember you forever—and the worse you do, the longer they’ll remember it. This isn’t to give you a panic attack but rather to emphasize that you need to be consistently kind and hard-working, even with clients or bosses you think are temporary. “I wish my employees understood the longer term, life implications of how they interact on this job, who they build relationships with and who they choose to alienate,” says Dana Barrett, talk radio host and business commentator. “I’ve had people circle back into my career 20 years later and they really do remember how you treated them.” These everyday habits could be derailing your career.


We don’t want to have to tell you what to do all the time

Giving people instructions is part of the territory for a boss but that doesn’t mean they want to have to instruct you in every little thing. You have to find the balance between asking enough questions that you understand your tasks and asking so many that you turn your job into theirs. “Stop waiting for instructions for every task and take some initiative,” Barrett says.


Take the dress code seriously

In most fields, dress codes have relaxed significantly over the past few decades, giving workers a lot more latitude to be comfortable and express their personality in their jobs. But that doesn’t mean anything goes—and contrary to what most employees believe it’s just as much for your benefit as it is for the customer or the company. “Your image matters. You may not be breaking the dress code, but if you look like a slob it will be much harder for you to get ahead and be taken seriously,” Barrett says. Winston agrees: “Perception is everything, regardless of industry. Your appearance, attitude and work ethic speak louder than any work product.” Plus, when you dress well, you often perform better, taking more care and pride in your work. Not sure what your dress code means exactly? Find out the things your boss wishes you’d stop wearing to work.


Be honest about what you can do

Taking on more work than you can realistically handle doesn’t make you superhuman, it makes you either a martyr or a disappointment. Your boss doesn’t want you to sacrifice your life or health for the job and so when they assign tasks you need to be honest about how much you can take on. Biting off more than you can chew sets you up for failure and only makes slightly awkward conversation into a much more painful one weeks later. “One of my biggest pet peeves is when an employee tells me they’ll do something and they don’t, missing critical deadlines,” says Kristin Marquet, owner of CreativeDevelopmentAgency.com.

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You can die but don’t be a no-show

Employees will have to miss some scheduled days of work. Whether it’s a sick child, an injury, an appointment, a honeymoon, or other life event, it’s expected that there are times you’ll be absent. What’s not expected, however, is that you simply won’t show up one day. Not only is that a major inconvenience for your boss but because they care about you, they’ll start to worry you’ve been axe-murdered or hit your head in your shower. “My ultimate pet peeve is when employees just disappear without letting me know. It’s a very simple task, I still don’t know why some people fail to inform their employers properly,” says Joanna Douglas, owner of Clean Affinity Cleaning Service.

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We don’t give out raises because you’re having a baby

From an employer’s point of view, a pay raise is based purely on performance issues—that’s good business—but employees often ask for a raise for variety of reasons, including those that having nothing to do with their actual job. “The main thing I wish people would understand is that I can pay them based on the amount of value they create in the firm,” says Paul Koger, head trader and founder of Foxy Trades. “People tend to ask for a raise for personal reasons or because their close friends had received a raise. To me the main consideration when deciding on a raise is how much has the person contributed to the company’s bottom line.” Find out the things amazing bosses do every day.

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There is no “i” in team

It’s a cliche for a reason—good teamwork is generally more valuable to your employer than one rogue brilliant employee. It isn’t that your ideas aren’t great, it’s simply that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done by yourself. “I wish employees would align their goals with the company’s goals,” Koger says. “By focusing more on teamwork instead of standing out as an individual and speaking openly about issues that should be fixed, our bottom line would improve and everyone would benefit.”


Office gossip is as hurtful now as it was in high school

Growing up doesn’t always mean growing wiser and unfortunately people love to gossip at work just as much as they did in school. But gossip can have a terrible effect on team morale and productivity, Koger says. “I don’t like when employees talk behind each others backs and issues are not discussed openly.” Got a problem with a coworker? Stop avoiding confrontation and be polite but honest about the issue. “Being open about colleagues and issues with them, including issues with the job tasks, would lead to greater results and the problems actually being fixed,” he adds. Find out ways to build trust with your co-workers.


We will do a lot to prevent a good worker from quitting

Many businesses have a policy that they don’t counter-offer as a way to discourage employees from using other job offers as leverage. But that policy goes out the window when you’re a valued employee which is just one reason why it’s important to talk to your boss if you’re considering changing careers. “It’s so frustrating when people tell you that they’ve chosen to change jobs without coming to you first about what they don’t like or would like to have changed,” Koger says. “People are afraid to go and talk to their bosses with the problems they have but I wish employees would understand that the boss is also a human and is more than willing to discuss the issues they might be having to do whatever in their power to keep a good person from leaving.” This fear and the resulting frustration, often leads employees to quiet quitting as well.


We know things we can’t tell you

Does your boss know when layoffs are happening? When mergers are imminent? Who’s next in line for a promotion? Most likely, yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to share that intel with you and the sooner you accept it and stop digging, the better you’ll get along with your boss. “Employees usually are often offended if they’re not included in a firm’s decision-making,” says Ameerzeb Pirzada, DDS, chief and consultant dentist at Z Dental Studio. However, there are at some instances I’m not authorized to give out any information and it’s as simple as that.” Find out the difference between layoffs and furloughs.

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We also have our personal pet peeves

Just like the guy who clips his nails at his desk really grinds your gears, so does your boss get irritated by annoying employees—they just have to be better at hiding it. “My pet peeve is people who are so loud. For instance, people who speak too loudly on phone calls and people who hulk-smash the alphabet on the keyboard,” Pirzada says. “And the worst part is that quite often, they’re the same person; people who are loud talkers usually are also loud typists.”


Office pranks aren’t as funny as you think they are

There’s office humor and then there’s…whatever Jim was doing to Dwight on The Office. Playing silly pranks on your boss or coworkers can be a funny way to lighten up a tough day and inject a little humor into the workplace. But one person’s prank is often another person’s irritation, fear, or embarrassment. Just because you think it’s hilarious doesn’t mean your target will to. “I mean I love pranks but if you’re going to prank me twice in one week, you’ve crossed the line into annoying,” Pirzada says. Save the pranks for your friends. Read on for the things you should never, ever say to your boss.


Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.