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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Is Passive Voice Holding You Back at Work?

A mistake was made on the report. Engagement was increased by 10%. The customer issue was addressed.

What’s wrong with these sentences?

Well, grammatically speaking, nothing. But, each of these statements uses the passive voice—where the subject does not act, but rather is acted upon by an outside force. And in any professional setting, that’s a big mistake.

Here’s why. When you’re applying for a job, seeking a raise or promotion, or otherwise marketing your talents, using the passive voice tells potential employers and managers that you are a passive person—that things just happen. To succeed in your job search—and even on the job—you need to convey that you are the kind of person who makes those things happen.

So, how do you avoid the passive voice and make sure your language is working hard for you? Take a look at the tips below to sound more active on your resume, in the interview, and at the office.

In the Office

Passive voice is, unfortunately, pretty common in the workplace—many of us use it without even really realizing it. Why? It’s easy to use, it often sounds more formal, and it diffuses official responsibility.

Think about these phrases that pop up pretty commonly in meetings or inter-office emails:

  • A proposal will be written to clarify the project to the client.
  • An intern will be hired to handle the excess workload.
  • The event details were finalized at the meeting last week.
  • Again, while none of these are technically wrong, if you’re gunning for a promotion, want to look like a leader to your team, or are hoping to impress your boss, using active voice will likely get you there faster. Assigning your name (or your team’s name) to a task not only removes uncertainty, it shows that you’re an action-oriented person who takes responsibility for your work. For example:

    • I will write a proposal to clarify the project to the client.
    • My department will hire an intern to help with the excess workload.
    • We finalized the event details at the meeting last week.
    • Of course, this rule also applies when you’re talking about your mistakes. Saying “I made an error, and I will fix it,” not “An error was made on the report,” shows your colleagues that you’re just as willing to admit to your mistakes as you are to claim your accomplishments.

      At the Interview

      The same concept applies when you're interviewing.

      Landing a job is all about demonstrating your results and accomplishments to a hiring manager, and the best way to do that is to make sure you're using active voice. For example, instead of demurely telling the interviewees, “In my last role, Facebook engagement was increased by 10%,” claim a piece of this success: “I increased Facebook engagement by 10%.” After all, your blood, sweat, and tears were responsible for the accomplishments that you've listed on your resume, so bring those successes to life and ensure that potential employers know exactly what you’ve done.

      Using the active voice here doesn’t sound like you’re bragging—rather, it sets you up perfectly to explain what you did to get there (and how those lessons and skills could be carried over to the new company).

      On Your Resume

      While this isn't the place to use "official" active voice (you don't typically use "I" on your resume!), you can achieve the same effect by making sure you start each bullet point with an action verb. Take these common passive-voice faux pas that commonly make their way onto resumes:

      • New invoicing process was implemented for the company
      • Customer satisfaction was improved 15%
      • These phrases imply that the bullets in your resume happened, but not that you were even a part of making them happen! Instead, opt for active verbs that clearly connect the work that you were assigned to the work you accomplished:

        • Implemented new invoicing process for the company
        • Improved customer satisfaction 15% 
        • This phrasing makes it clear to the hiring manager that the things you did for your previous companies didn’t happen by accident—they happened because of your hard work. Your department did not experience four consecutive quarters of growth, you led the team toward that growthIt’s a small difference, but it can be just hook that makes someone want to know more about what you can do for his or her company.

          Even though politicians get plenty of mileage out of the passive voice (Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’ “mistakes were made” ring a bell?), the best way for you to demonstrate that you are a decisive, action-oriented person is by avoiding it as though your success depends on it.

          It very well might.

          Photo of people talking courtesy of Shutterstock.