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'I hope you don't mind my saying this, but ...'

A little advice about advice

'I hope you don't mind my saying this, but ...'

Ann Humphries

(CNN) -- When ETICON's Ann Humphries let us know that her topic was going to be advice giving, and getting, at work, we were only too happy to let her put her ... mouth where her mouth is.

Gracious soul that she is, Humphries was quick to enjoy the irony, herself. "Of course, here I am giving advice for a living."

But what she's talking about is, people who don't do it for a living. Sometimes it seems they do it just to drive you crazy. They're your co-workers and there's nothing some of them like to do more than share their wisdom with you -- particularly if you haven't asked for it.

graphic If unsolicited advice is being handed around, are you likelier the one giving it or getting it?

Giving it.
Getting it.
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"It's not professional advice," Humphries says. "It's people outside your sphere making a comment on something in your sphere."

CNN: That being understood, we thought a good place to start would be by asking Humphries to tell us when unsolicited advice can be a good thing.

Ann Humphries: Well, the times I've wanted to volunteer advice to someone have been when I've seen them doing something that was sort of hurting them. Running late a lot. Dressing inappropriately. Being really loud. Talking too much in meetings. Using a sharp tone of voice that puts people off.

I've wanted to give advice when I was responsible for what was going on -- but I've also wanted to be respectful of other people's independence. I don't give advice if I think it's going to compound a problem or if I can tell it would be perceived as something overbearing to speak up.

I tell you, the way to hear somebody coming at you with the wrong kind of advice is to listen out for, "I hope you don't mind my saying this, but ..." -- when you hear that , you know you're going to resent what comes next.

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  • This is a two-way street. There've been times when I needed to take advice. I was resistant to it but needed it. Sometimes it's a shock to any of us when the advice is negative. But on reflection, you sometimes realize how hard it is for someone to have given you that advice. That makes it easier to take.

    Sometimes I see employers giving their employees advice. By the same token, employees should be able to give their employers advice. Maybe what an employee needs to say to the boss is, "Look, when you scream and yell in the big division meeting, nobody wants to talk. That's why nobody speaks up in the meeting." That's a message the boss needs to hear.

    As for taking advice, you hear people worry aloud sometimes that what they're going to get may not be good advice. But you only know for sure in retrospect, when you've tried applying it and found out the hard way it wasn't good.

    If you're looking for advice in your career, start by looking for people who have some longevity in the field, some standing, some credibility. Somebody you can look at and tell style from substance.

    Occasionally you can get into a fairly disturbing situation in which someone doesn't want to take your advice but you can tell they need it. What I do in those cases is try three times. If they don't take the advice after three times, I don't give it anymore. Sometimes the best you can do is try to guide someone, then just stand back.

    I have to admit that there've been times when I hadn't listened to someone's advice, thinking that this person was pretty universally considered intrusive and unhelpful. Then when I've mentioned this to someone I did trust, they've said, "Oh, really?" -- I've found out that they were paying attention to this person's advice all along.

    We can't say "Who asked you?" -- because we just did. Many of our Corporate Class column topics are suggested by readers. So tell us what's on your mind. Just click here for a quick, simple submission form.

    When someone's advice is honestly wrong -- and you respect this person and want them to know that their advice in a given instance hasn't been as good as they believed it was -- consider being proactive and saying, "I know you've suggested we do this a certain way, but the consensus is we go this other way." Try to let them know up front.

    Pay special attention to the "I told you so" people. They're the types who seem to be keeping score on when their advice has been well-received and when it's been rejected. They may be taking all this very personally. And when you don't follow their suggestions and things go badly, they're almost happy. It makes them feel vindicated.

    Finally, when you're on the giving end of the advice equation, remember that people don't have to take your advice any more than you have to take theirs.

    Nobody knows that like an etiquette expert.

    Next week: Registering a complaint at work

    South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges has named Ann Humphries, founder and president of ETICON Inc., one of seven South Carolina Women of Achievement. Humphries, who's based in Columbia, is a Certified Professional Consultant to Management. Her clients have included several Fortune 500 companies. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune and Money, and on CNN, CBS and Lifetime TV. You can contact her at


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