Sometimes, navigating office politics—and speak—can feel a bit like trying to decipher the meaning behind smoke rings.
Case in point: While in the interview seat, you're told that you are a "competitive candidate"—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got the job.
Rather, you could just be one in a sea of overqualified people vying for the position.
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Or maybe earning a “title promotion” may sound like you’ve scored a career coup … or have you?
This type of office speak exists for a reason: There are often protocols that employers must follow when hiring, firing or providing feedback.
But how the messages are conveyed can leave workers scratching their heads, trying to read between the lines.
To decipher it all, you need insight from those who've spoken the language—people like the HR and career experts we've rounded up.
They're helping us decode some of the most common "carefully crafted" phrases you may hear—whether you're on the job hunt or a ten-year company veteran.
Phrase #1: ‘This is a stretch role.’
Translation: “You’ll be expected to do more than what’s outlined in the job description.”
How to Handle It: If you hear a hiring manager describe a potential job this way, “it may mean the role has recently been redefined to include responsibilities from other roles that have been eliminated or consolidated,” says Tiffani Murray, a talent management and HR technology professional and author of “Stuck on Stupid: A Guide for Today’s Professional Stuck in a Rut.”
"So make sure you understand what is expected, and what the ‘stretching’ gets you from a salary and career-development perspective,” she adds.
Part of your due diligence could include asking how your time will be split up percentagewise between the various roles; whether the "stretching" is temporary or permanent; and if you’d report to several managers or just one.
And be sure to inquire about how your compensation structure might change if you’re juggling different hats. For instance, if you were previously a salaried marketer and are now taking on some sales, your pay may be partially commission-based—and that may not be a stretch you're willing to make.
Phrase #2: ‘The organization recently went through a transformation.’
Translation: “Things are in flux—so jobs have changed, and people have left.”
How to Handle It: “I have yet to hear the word ‘transformation’ used in the corporate arena where some jobs weren't lost,” Murray says.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean the losses were due to large-scale layoffs or the company being in jeopardy, she adds. They could simply be the result of shifts in business strategy or senior leadership.
Ask HR what the next most comparable position might be. This can help you assess whether the job will be one step forward—or two steps back.
So while you’re in the interviewing stage, tactfully broach the reasons behind the transformation to decipher where you may (or may not) fit into the new world order, says Murray.
For example, ask the hiring manager if the changes have altered the type of personality or skill set they're looking for. If the company is switching from selling a tangible product to an intangible service, everything from manufacturing to pricing to marketing will be affected.
In addition, try to suss out how the transformation has impacted morale, suggests Karin Hurt, C.E.O. of leadership consultancy Let’s Grow Leaders, in Baltimore, Md. High morale means exciting things could be on the horizon—but low morale could signal that employees fear layoffs.
Phrase #3: ‘Growth opportunities are fluid for this position.’
Translation: “This job doesn’t have a clearly defined career path. It will depend on the circumstances, which we can’t completely predict.”
How to Handle It: Sometimes companies know they need to fill a position, but they aren't always sure how that job will map out on an org chart.
As with stretch roles, this ambiguity can be positive or negative, depending on your work style. If you’re entrepreneurial, you may view this as a sky’s-the-limit opportunity. But if you prefer clear direction and a finite set of responsibilities, you may prefer more structure, says Murray.
But even if a manager can’t give a clear path of succession, “HR should, at a minimum, be able to articulate what training will be available to you to promote your growth,” Murray adds.
She also suggests asking HR what the next most comparable position might be, so you can get a sense of the level of experience they're after. This can help you assess whether the job will be one step forward for your career—or two steps back.
Phrase #4: ‘We love your passion and energy!’
Translation: “People may not be taking you seriously. You need to work on executive presence.”
How to Handle It: You may think your boardroom high-fives help pump up team meetings, but your manager—and their higher-ups—may not think the same.
This is an instance where the attributes you always thought you should cultivate may be inadvertently holding you back, says Hurt.
“After two decades participating in talent reviews, I’ve noticed a pattern," she says. "The talents that candidates count on as central to their brand are often talked about negatively when assessing their readiness for a promotion.”
So if you suspect there’s an unspoken “but…” that follows a manager's feedback, ask some clarifying questions to unearth what your boss may be afraid to really say.
“For example, in response, say ‘Thank you. I’ve noticed that sometimes I get more excited than others around the table. Do you have any suggestions for how I can best express my passion, while maintaining my poise?' " Hurt suggests.
This gives your manager an opportunity to offer a critique without worrying about hurting your feelings—and gives you insight into what behaviors executives may deem worthy of a leader within your company.
Phrase #5: ‘You’re our [fill-in-the-blank] expert! No one knows this better than you.’
Translation: “No one else can do this work. We can’t afford to lose you.”
How to Handle It: While becoming a resident guru may make you indispensable, it can also lead to professional paralysis, getting you stuck in a role simply because nobody else possesses the knowledge.
Hurt says it’s perfectly appropriate to prevent yourself from getting pigeon-holed—as long as you couch it as a win-win for the team.
“Let your boss know you’re looking to grow and expand your expertise so that you can gain additional perspective, and make a more impactful contribution to the company,” she says.
So the next time you discuss your job duties with your manager, mention other business areas you’d like to explore. “Ask if there is a special project you could get involved in," Hurt says. "And reinforce that you’re willing to put in extra effort, and will ensure your day job doesn’t suffer."
There isn’t much you can do if the company isn’t offering raises—but the title change could have a positive impact on your future.
Phrase #6: ‘We aren’t giving raises this year, but we can offer you a title promotion.’
Translation: “We’re cutting overhead, so you’ll have to do more work for the same paycheck.”
How to Handle It: Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do if the company isn’t offering raises—but the title change could have a positive impact on your future.
“You just became a more senior person in your field, at least on paper,” says Taly Russell, CEO and founder of New York–based placement firm SilverChair Partners. “The next time you interview, you'll be closer to the next rung in pay or bonus, which should eventually balance out in a higher overall compensation package.”
So consider taking advantage of this opportunity to add to your résumé. Maybe overseeing a junior associate for the first time will render you better management material. Or perhaps juggling a digital and brick-and-mortar product gives your CV an impressive double-whammy of added expertise.
Phrase #7: ‘We are workforce optimizing.’
Translation: “Per corporate mandates, we are getting rid of those whose performance isn’t up to snuff. Your role and contribution to the bottom line might not justify your salary.”
How to Handle It: During the recession, the euphemisms for layoffs were numerous—“restructuring,” “streamlining,” and “looking for efficiencies.” While hearing this lingo may cause you to panic—don't go down that road, says Hurt.
“The speculating will make you crazy,” she says. “I find that what employees speculate about is almost always worse than what’s actually going to happen.”
But if you do happen to be a victim of the pink slip, “retain your composure, listen to what’s being said, and try not to sign anything or accept an exit interview until you have had a night to sleep on it,” advises Russell.
You may, for instance, need time to think about how you'd like to negotiate your severance package. Plus, “you’ll want to gain an understanding of what’s ‘okay’ to say with regard to your termination at future interviews,” she adds. “You’ll never have a better opportunity to get direction on this then before signing exit paperwork.”
If you end up staying in your role for a period of time after receiving the news, you may want to sit down with your manager to get feedback on how your performance led to the termination decision. “This might help you understand what you can do in the future, if anything, to prevent it from happening again,” says Russell.