Aubrey Carter
"3 Keys IELTS Certified Coach"
Lindsay McMahon
"The English Adventurer"

Would you call someone inept if they did not perform a task well?

Unfortunately, the vocabulary you use can offend your colleagues.

Listen in today and get the vocabulary and skills that will help you avoid giving offense at work.

Is some vocabulary too offensive?

Lindsay asks Aubrey if she would call someone inept at work if they didn’t do well on a task.

Aubrey responds that she would never call someone inept.

She would not even say this to poke fun at herself in a self-deprecating way.

This is a very offensive and cruel comment.

This came up in a recent episode AEE 2206: Dork, Doofus and Dweeb: Are These English Names Offensive?

The team talked about the term ‘dork’ which the dictionary defines as contemptible and socially inept.

In real English, this is not how ‘dork’ is used.

Check that episode out and find out the proper use of that word.

Why you shouldn’t call someone inept

From that conversation, Aubrey was inspired to dive deeper into the word ‘inept’.

In work, you may need to describe someone’s performance as not up to par.

This can get ugly if you don’t have the right words to say.

It is always too critical and cruel to call someone ‘inept.’

It’s a character value judgment rather than feedback on a task.

You may end up hurting someone or saying something offensive.

Talking about performance

When you’re in a team at work, you will have projects and tasks that you do together.

Performing well together as a team is key to churning out good work.

You may be in a position to give feedback to your team, like a project manager or any type of leadership role.

It’s important to steer away from words that will hurt the dynamics at work.

You want all interactions to remain professional, which encourages a healthy work environment.

Don’t use words such as inept or incompetent.

These are character judgements implying someone has no skill or isn’t doing a good job on a task.

Here are some better options so you don’t sound harsh or cruel.

Lindsay and Aubrey mention that it can be difficult to give feedback, but with these phrases, it can help to still maintain professionalism and be respectable in delivering the message.

#1: Unprepared

This is the best way to talk about work that is sub-par.

You are honest about the quality of work but not making a value judgment on the individual.

It is a softened way of saying they could’ve done better.


  • Unfortunately, she seemed unprepared for the meeting.
  • It seemed he was a bit unprepared.
  • I have noticed over the past few weeks a pattern of unpreparedness.

#2: Could use refining

This can be used when you want to give feedback on something that a co-worker is presenting.

You can also use this when your co-worker is asking for your take on the work they’ve done or prepared.


  • I think the presentation could use a bit of refining.
  • With a little refinement, their skills will be where we need them to be.

#3: Needs improvement

Similar to ‘could use refining,’ this phrase helps co-workers knows their work can be improved.

The improvements can make their work even better than it was.


I think it needs improvement, but she’s on the right track.
With a bit of improvement, the presentation will be perfect.

#4: Underdeveloped

This is usually used in academia but you can also use it in the corporate world.

It’s a good way to recommend that a colleague add more to their work so it can be further improved.

You just have to add words around it and not use it alone because it can have a negative tone.


This presentation is a bit underdeveloped. You can improve it by adding ____.


Aubrey and Lindsay share a roleplay using the phrases from today’s episode.

In this scenario, Aubrey and Lindsay are coworkers.

Lindsay: How is your team doing with the new demos?
Aubrey: It’s been a bit of a challenge! There are definitely a few things that need improvement.
Lindsay: I was able to sit in on Mary’s presentation Monday and she seemed a bit unprepared.
Aubrey: Yes. She had been out sick the week before so she’s got some catching up to do. Mark’s demo also could use refining, but we’re on the right track!


Words with a very negative connotation like ‘inept’ and ‘incompetent’ should be avoided at work.

Don’t use harsh words to describe a colleague’s performance.

Everyone at work wants to be a valuable member of a team, so supporting each other and sharing your thoughts in a constructive way is very helpful.

If you need to provide feedback about something that is not up to par, use today’s phrases and maintain respect and professionalism in the workplace.

Have you ever needed to give feedback at work? How did it go?

Share us your story in the comments below.

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