When you are young, calling someone a bad name in the school yard can get you detention. When you grow up, calling someone a bad name on your book tour can get you fired.
That was the elementary lesson Harvard professor, and now former senior foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama, Samantha Power learned last week. The Pulitzer Prize winner was promoting her book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (PSO) in the U.K. last week when she made an indiscrete comment to the Scottish press about presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “She is a monster, too - that is off the record - she is stooping to anything,” Power said. That little name calling episode cost Obama's unpaid adviser big time. Power promptly resigned from the Obama camp, and acknowledged the inappropriateness of her behavior. “I made inexcusable remarks that are at marked variance from my oft-stated admiration for Senator Clinton and from the spirit, tenor, and purpose of the Obama campaign,” Power said in a statement.
It is rare for a Harvard big brain to make such a simple mistake, but her example is an important one for all working adults. “Yes, you can get fired for calling your boss a monster,” says Bill Lampton, Ph.D. and author of The Complete Communicator: Change your Communication Change Your Life. “You’re always representing the company, whether or not you’re on the clock.”
But calling a someone a name like “monster” isn’t the only way to get in hot water at work. These days many phrases can cause offense. “Words are weapons, and you have to consider what belittles and demeans people,” says Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations in New York. “Don’t call someone an idiot. You can’t say things like ‘trailer trash’, even if you don’t think it’s not demeaning.” Many offenders make insulting remarks unbeknownst to them, like referring to a female co-worked as “girl” or making a seemingly innocuous remark like, “I’m really a basket case today,” in the presence of someone who has a quadriplegic in his or her family. “There are a good number of common expressions that we need to be careful about,” adds Lampton. From saying something is “serious as a heart attack,” to “you must be hard of hearing,” you never know when the phrase you consider as fairly harmless could mean significantly more to someone else. (And not all offensive communications are verbal. According to Laermer, rolling your eyes is one of the most egregious errors. “It’s the worst thing you can do. Ever, ever, ever, ever,” he says. “It’s just condescending.”)