Coded Language at Work: What Your Boss, Colleagues, and Hiring Managers Really Mean

Here’s a fact that should come as no surprise if you’ve been on this planet very long:

Most people are bad at communicating. 

There are many reasons for this—some of which are perfectly natural and human. Everyone has their own preferred communication styles and skills, which can lead to misunderstandings and issues.

On the other end of the spectrum are intentionally bad communicators—folks who withhold information to confuse or manipulate others.  

No matter the cause, other people’s failures to communicate can seriously affect your working life.

As someone who worked in agencies for a long time, I’ve come across lots of bad communicators in my day. And I’ve picked up on a bunch of words and phrases you’ll hear in the workplace that often have hidden meanings

In this article, I’ll show you some examples of coded language in the workplace and teach you how to crack the code.


Skills and resources for workplace codebreakers

Before we dive into the phrases to watch out for, I want to provide you with some resources to help you spot coded language at work.

If you really want to rise to the top, then you’d be wise to use these resources to brush up on some vital skills: 


Improve your active listening skills

Want to start picking up on the hidden meanings of language? Then you need to make sure your ears are fully open by becoming an active listener

Learn how to tune out your own thoughts, develop empathy for the people you work with, and improve your relationships to get closer to your colleagues’ true intentions and desires. 


Develop your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is another essential skill for success in the workplace, particularly if you’re looking to climb up the ladder and enter a management role yourself. 

Emotional intelligence allows you to read the emotions and feelings of others and respond in a way that is sensitive and empathetic. This is particularly important when dealing with colleagues or superiors who use coded language to hide their true feelings or intentions.


Hone your conversation skills 

Learning to be an active listener is important, but equally so is your ability to hold a conversation with your colleagues, managers, and job interviewers. 

The more you can hold captivating and positive conversations with those you encounter in the workplace, the more you’ll be able to develop meaningful connections. And that’s the best way to truly understand what someone is trying to communicate. 



Understand the art form of managing up 

Much of the coded language in this article will come from management. The best way to deal with it when it comes from above is through the art of managing up

When you manage up, you use your emotional intelligence and observational skills to make your relationship with your manager better and more productive. As a result, you improve your standing in your manager’s eyes and reap the benefits of all that comes with it. 


Coded language in the job-hunting process

As you start searching for a job, you’ll encounter various job descriptions that can be vague or misleading. 

Some hiring managers use coded language to convey their expectations without being too explicit. Others use coded language to hide or conceal the true nature of the job you’re applying for. 

Here are some examples of coded language and what they might really mean:

Coded Language - What they say: You can thrive in a fast-paced environment.

What they mean: Get ready for chaos. Things are disorganized, we give too much work, and you’re gonna be stressed all the time.

Coded language - What they say: We are like family

What they mean: We expect you to work long hours and put your personal life on hold. We want you to be loyal to the company, but there’s a good chance we’ll drop you like a stone at some point.

Coded language - What they say: You're good in high-pressure situations

What they mean: You’ll be dealing with tight deadlines and high-stakes projects. You’d better make sure you’re getting paid the right salary to deal with all that stress.

Coded language - What they say: We are looking for a total self-starter

What they mean: We won’t provide much guidance or support, and probably no onboarding or training. We’ll still find a way to micromanage you, though.

Coded language - What they say: We don't discuss compensation

What they mean: We’ll pay you as little as we can get away with. You’ll have to beg and plead for a raise or bonuses as long as you work here.

Keeping an eye out for these phrases while job hunting can save you a lot of heartache. Here are even more resources for folks who want to find their next role: 


Examples of coded language around the office

Coded language doesn’t end once you’ve landed the job. If you’re working in an office setting (even a remote one), you can still learn a lot about your colleagues by reading between the lines of their communication. 

Here are some examples of coded language you might encounter around the office:


Company-culture buzzwords

Companies can develop their own lingo, which can include buzzwords and phrases that might not make sense to outsiders. 

Your colleagues may use these buzzwords to identify with a particular team or show  they’re “in the know.” Much like inside jokes, understanding and recognizing company culture buzzwords can help you develop relationships with people who aren’t on your team.

This, in turn, can help you get ahead and become more integrated into the company culture.


Beware of office politics language

Office politics, like real politics, can be juicy and alluring. However, getting involved usually puts you in a bad spot. Be wary of people who say things like “I heard something” or “Have you heard anything about…”

These conversations can be a trap, and you may inadvertently become part of office drama. 

Risky office-politics conversations often happen online, especially as more people work from home. As a rule, never put anything in email or online chat that you wouldn’t want your boss to read. Once you’ve hit “send,” you can’t take it back.


Pay attention to those who are silent

People who are silent are often communicating without speaking. Someone who’s frequently talkative but suddenly silent may be upset, stressed, or anxious, so pay attention to people who have gone mum or whose behavior changes suddenly and unexpectedly. 

If you’ve read the article about active listening, you know your quieter colleagues are also likely to be more observant. Listen closely when they speak up; they may only do this when they have something truly useful or important to say.

In short, don’t discount someone just because they’re not the loudest voice in the room.


Understanding coded language at work takes time

If you want to master this skill, be an observant listener and reflect on the conversations and interactions you have with your colleagues. 

Over time, you’ll learn how to speak this “second language” within your office, and you can use that fluency to take your career to new heights.