10 American English Idioms Commonly Used at Work

This is a non-exhaustive list of phrases and idioms used at work in the US.
These idioms are taken from an episode of Undercover Boss, an American reality tv show.

Go Into Battle

Some may also say ‘This office is a battle zone.’ People use this when they are confronted with a new job, a series of familiar tasks that are overwhelming, or parts of a task that are challenging in some way or the other. Generally, Americans use this phrase to build up excitement over difficult or undesirable jobs as well. The spirit is ‘Yes, the job is hard, but we will not only meet the expectations but, we will exceed them. We will win.”

Make you sweat
Again, this is not meant to be taken literally. Though we may actually sweat when we are under pressure or ‘in the battle zone’, this idiom implies that there is a stress factor involved in the tasks that lay ahead of us. They will make us think or challenge us. But, again we shouldn’t shy away from them just because they are hard.

Keep an eye on it
This implies that we have to watch something carefully. In this episode, the undercover boss had to carefully watch machinery and products to make sure they were not being wasted.

Leave it to the professionals
At one point, CEO Manuel was overwhelmed and wasting the food because he was not managing the process efficiently. The boss there (Magic was his name) told him “Let’s leave it to the professionals.” This idiom implies two things. The first meaning is to allow those who are better trained with more experience do the job. The other meaning has a sarcastic and condescending tone. The implied meaning is “You are not doing this job up to the mark. We don’t have patience with you. We will allow those better than you to take over.” If an employee hears this, as an American, he or she may feel sad, offended, or inept.

Write up
A ‘write up’ is something an employee avoids. When an employee does bad work, is not performing up to expectations, breaks the rules, has problems with other employees, or has a bad attitude, the manager can ‘write him up’. This is a permanent written complaint put in the employee’s file that explains why he or she was misbehaving on the job. Employees want to avoid being written up. In some companies, there is a rule that a particular number of write ups can lead to suspension or loss of job (fired) depending on the situations for which one is written up.

Take your break
No, no one is breaking anything! A break is a short time away from the normal duties of work when an employee can chat with others, have something to eat or drink, and relax a few minutes. Breaks are a predetermined amount of time and may vary depending on rules or convenience (may be 10 minutes). Taking prolonged and frequent breaks may be a cause for a write up.

Cooped Up
Magic tells CEO Manuel people like to “take their break” outside because they feel all “cooped up” inside the factory. Feeling “cooped up” implies being confined to a small space doing the same job over and over again. I think this idiom is derived from ‘chicken coops’ or small cages in which chicken are kept. Employees feel caged like a ‘chicken in a chicken coop’ hence, are ‘cooped up.’

Letting people go
This is a euphemism for firing someone.

Watch your attitude
This idiom will be told to a person with a bad attitude. “Watching your attitude” is nothing more than “controlling your behavior” and not showing frustration or negativity.

Built for an office job
Because CEO Manuel couldn’t do factory work, Magic said he was ‘built for an office job.” Being “built for” something means “suited for” something. Or, in another way, we can say based on that person’s skill and personality, he will perform better in another role.


As a post script, I watched this episode of
Undercover Boss on BBC World in India. There were subtitles in English at the bottom. Two of these idioms must have been misunderstood by the writers of the captions as they were misspelled on the screen. ‘Take a break’ was spelled as ‘take a brake’ (which due to the misspelling makes no sense here) and ‘write up’ was spelled as ‘right up’ (again, this makes no sense in the written form).

There were a few more lessons from this segment of
Undercover Boss that I’d like to share. I will post those in next week’s installment.


Author, Jennifer Kumar provides English language and culture training to expats and foreigners working with Americans in the US and offshore. Contact her today for training options via phone, Internet and face-to-face. 

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing. She can be contacted here.  

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