Originally Published on LinkedIn, February 6, 2017Sometimes in life, you’ve just got to bite your tongue and leave some things unsaid. That’s particularly true of some questions rational people conceive of working in an irrational world. I’m a firm believer that happiness comes through understanding.


At every level of business, folks who are trying to ‘buy-in’ will see things around them that give them pause. These could be decisions that seem nonsensical, decisions that run contrary to reason, or staffing choices that appear rooted in anything but honest assessment of ability.


While its sometimes tough to focus when you feel as though your hair is on fire, you’re better off bringing this baggage to a set of ears outside the office. Asking certain kinds of questions, particularly if clumsily phrased is likely to cause more harm than good to your career.


Here are three types of questions you may want to commit to paper before burning them in an ashtray.


1 “How have you lasted so long?”

If your goal is to learn a mentor’s secrets to success, make sure that’s clear. You don’t want your question to come off like “Gee, as incompetent as you seem to me, I’m surprised you’re still employed.”


2 “Why did (insert a favorite rival’s name here) get the promotion over me?”

You can substitute a lot of things for promotion, such as better office, plumb assignment, or even approval for a time off request. If they’re operating with the company’s best interests in mind, you boss has the enterprise’s best interests and needs in mind. Some managers appreciate being challenged in areas where a second-opinion can make a difference Second-guessing every move your manager makes in the routine spaces is a sure fire way to ensure they second guess why you were ever brought in – in the first place.


3 Can I get the results of the air-quality tests for the office?

No matter how stale the air in your office or workspace may be, asking for air quality test results – even in jest, suggests a call to OSHA may be next. Unless it is (a call – and if so, you should already be dialing) just don’t ask.


Alternative lines of inquiry, if the satisfaction of smoking scraps of paper was insufficient…


1. Most folks, if given the chance, love to talk about themselves. If you’re truly curious about how your boss reached the level she did, depending on the office culture and your access and opportunity, you might simply ask. BUT consider how you phrase the question. Alternately, a simple GOOGLE search might produce your answers. You can also check their professional profile on LinkedIn, which will likely include positions held prior to the one you know about. Increasingly companies large and small will offer professional bios for key player on their websites, so take a look there too.

*CAVEAT: If you’re truly shocked your boss or a coworker has advanced – let alone survived, due to real or perceived incompetence; your question is probably rhetorical and need not be asked or investigated.

Chances are there are BIG problems where you find yourself. Unless you love what you do and are actually paid what you’re worth, it’s probably time to begin searching for your next opportunity.

2. If you’ve been passed over for a promotion or overlooked for a juicy opportunity, chances are there’s a good reason. A little self-examination may be in order. Are you truly right for the role you didn’t land? Were you even under consideration? Did you make your interest known and apply, or do you think you’re such a rock star that they would come to you. No matter how you ask a question relating to a hiring decision, that of sour grapes will be the only taste you leave behind.

It’s difficult for large companies to break from process. Headhunters and search committees go looking for high-level talent to fill vacancies. Where internal promotions are concerned, rely on the application process. If it was a project you were passed over for, ask yourself if your skills truly align with those needed for the project. If they don’t, get up to speed to show you’re ready the next time such an opportunity comes up.

Try talking to decision makers and where possible, discover what factors favored another candidate over yourself. Congratulate those who landed the promotion or plumb assignment — and be sincere. Look for ways to help them to succeed and perhaps corporate karma will help your star to rise as well.

3. If a legitimate safety concern exists, whether its air quality, water or something else, due to an oversight, due to malfunction or human error look for ways to get it corrected internally. If you believe it’s due to policy or an institutional disregard for employee wellbeing or government regulations, it’s your duty not to ignore it. You owe it to yourself, your team and the planet to do the right thing.



I operate the Ment Media Group, and write about a range of issues affecting business, the working life and the pursuit of an ethical human experience. You can also subscribe to the Jonathan Ment Photography blog and follow on Twitter.

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