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101 Business Idioms For Everyday Use At Work

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Here is a list of 101 business idioms that are commonly used in the corporate world. Each idiom is clearly explained with a definition and an example of practical usage.

Once you have read through the list, you can also take a quiz to test and reinforce the material. A PDF copy of these frequently used work idioms could be downloaded as well.




Back to square one

To get back to from where it started

We went back to square one after wasting two full days.

Back to the drawing board

To start from the beginning, all over again

We went back to the​​ drawing board after our plan was rejected.

Back-room  ​​​​ boys

People who do important work but aren’t visible to general public

He resented being a backroom boy when Dave took all the credit.

Ball park figure

A rough estimate

Can you give me a​​ ballpark figure as to what this project will cost?

Bang for the buck

Something that gives you more value than the money you spent

Online ads provide more bang for the buck than TV commercials.


Someone who does manual labor work

Joe is​​ a blue-collar worker at the company warehouse.

Bottom line

The final total of the account or the ultimate deciding factor

I don’t need any details. All I care about is the bottom line.

Brain drain

Loss of an educated workforce to other​​ geographic locations

France suffered a brain drain during the economic crisis.

Break even​​

To have no profit or loss at the end of a business activity

It took us two years just to break even.

Busman’s holiday

Spending your time doing the same​​ thing you do at work

The painter spent busman’s holiday

painting his own house.

By the book

Strictly according to the rules

Rules are not to be broken – Barb does everything by the book.

Call it a day

To stop working and go home

Let’s call it a​​ day and go home.

Call the shots​​

To make the important decisions

Who calls the shots when the boss is out of town?

Cash cow

A consistently profitable business or product

That line of leather shoes is a real cash cow.

Cave in

To agree to​​ something, you didn’t want to accept previously

The management caved in to the demands of the union.

Climb the corporate ladder

Work your way up to higher positions in a company

He quickly climbed the corporate ladder to become CEO.

Cold call

A​​ call made without an appointment to sell something

Sales people were handed a list of numbers to cold-call.

Cook the books

Alter facts or figures dishonestly or illegally

The mafia boss forced the accountants to cook the books.

Corner a​​ market

To dominate a market or business

She cornered the market and put two competitors out of business.

Crack the whip

Threatening people to make them work harder

Joe’s father had to crack the whip to make him study harder.

Cream of the crop

The best person in a group

Google hires the cream of the crop graduates.

Crunch the numbers​​

Do a lot of math calculations to make a decision

They crunched the numbers before buying that new property.

Cut a deal

To reach an agreement

Her agent cut a deal giving her 30% of the profits.

Cut corners

Skip certain steps in order to do

something as easily or cheaply

Don’t hurry. You cannot cut corners if you want to do a perfect job.

Cut to the chase

Get to the point quickly

Joan was very busy, so I cut to the chase and told her the fact.


Very fierce and intense

There is a cut-throat competition to gain the market share.

Dead end job

A job where there is no chance of promotion

I am in a dead-end job and​​ looking for a new opportunity.

Dead wood

Someone or something that is no longer useful

She cleared out the dead wood as

soon as she took over.

Elephant in the room

A huge problem that no one wants to talk about

Debt crises is the elephant in​​ the room that no one is talking about.

Eleventh hour

The last minute

Eric always waits until the eleventh hour before starting a project.

Fine print

Important details usually printed in​​

tiny letters in a contract

Read the fine​​ print before you sign the contract.

Foot in the door

The first step toward a goal by gaining entry into an organization

She got her foot in the door working as a researcher on a TV show.

From the ground up

Starting from the very beginning

Let’s start working on the project from the ground up.

Game plan

Plan of action or a strategy

We need a new game plan for the upcoming season.

Get down to business

Start doing things that need to be done

Let’s get down to business first; we can​​ eat lunch later.

Get The ball rolling

To begin an activity or a process

She tried to get the ball rolling by asking a few questions.

Glass ceiling

An unofficial or social barrier to advancement in a profession

She crushed the glass ceiling to​​ be the first woman president.

Go Through the Roof

To increase much more than expected

He is rich now because his commissions have gone through the roof.

Golden handcuffs

Special benefits offered to keep an employee from leaving

They hired her​​ with a pair of golden handcuffs.

Golden handshake

A large amount paid as an incentive for early retirement

The new owners offered all employees a golden handshake.

Golden parachute

An employment contract that guarantees great benefits if fired

She is not afraid of getting fired because of the golden parachute.

Gray area


A situation in which it is difficult to distinguish between right & wrong

At the moment, the law on compensation is very much a grey area.

Have your work cut out

Accomplish a difficult task in a short time

He will have his work cut out to get into the team.


To recruit the best people for top-level positions

A rival company headhunted her.

Heads up

To inform or warn about something​​ beforehand

Please give me a heads up if there is any change.

Hit the nail on the head

To give a perfectly correct answer

Tom hit the nail on the head when analyzing the problem.

Hot water

In deep trouble

The company is in hot water because of​​ the declining sales

In a nutshell

A brief summary or in a few words

Tell me in a nutshell what happened in the meeting.

In the black​​

A person/organization that is making a profit

We’re in the black but we aren’t making much money yet.

In​​ the nick of time

To arrive just in time

I got to the meeting just in the nick of time.

In the red

A person/organization that is losing money

We were in the red for two whole years.

In the works

In development; coming soon​​

Our new​​ product is in the works.

Jack of all trades

Someone who can do many different jobs

We need someone who is the jack of all trades for this position.

Last straw

Final annoyance that causes you to get angry

He got fired because he skipped the​​ meeting; it was the last straw.

Learn the ropes

Learn how to do a job or activity

It takes a while to learn the ropes in a new job.

Learning curve

The amount of time it takes to learn a new skill

It was a steep learning curve for him as he had​​ no prior experience.

Long shot

Very slim chance of succeeding

I know it’s a long shot, but it’s worth trying.


Prolonged time and effort

It’s going to be a long-haul before the company becomes profitable.

Movers and shakers

People with a lot of power and influence in a particular field

All the movers and shakers of the industry have their offices here.

No brainer

An easy decision that doesn’t require much thought

Buying this product at such a discount is a​​ complete no brainer.

No strings attached

No special conditions or restrictions

The investment offers 15% ​​ interest with no strings attached.

Off the top of your head

From memory without much careful consideration

Off the top of my head, the​​ cost was pretty reasonable.

On the back burner

A low priority matter that is put aside for the time being

It’s not an urgent issue, lets put it on the back burner for now.

On the same page

Agree with someone on a specific issue

Regarding the​​ offer both partners are on the same page.

Out of the loop

Unaware of the information or an event

I am always out of the loop of the office gossip.

Pencil someone in

To make a tentative appointment

I’ll pencil you in for Friday afternoon at​​ 2:00 pm.

Pick brain

Ask for ideas and opinions

I was picking her brain about which

computer to buy.

Play hardball

Firm and ruthless in getting what you want

He’s a nice guy, but he can play hardball

when he needs to.

Play second fiddle

To​​ be less important or in a weaker

position than someone else

I’m not prepared to play second fiddle

to Joe anymore.​​

Plum job

An easy job that pays well​​

Joe found a plum job using his family connections.

Pull the plug

To stop or to​​ discontinue

The management pulled the plug on long lunch breaks.

Read between the lines

Look for the meaning that was suggested indirectly

Reading between the lines is necessary for complex negotiations.

Red tape​​

Excessive​​ rules/regulations that make it hard to do business

Those new laws just create a lot of red tapes.

Rock the boat

To disrupt a situation or cause problems

Don’t rock the boat until the

negotiations have ended.

Round the clock

24 hours a day

We​​ were working round the clock during the exhibition.

Rule of thumb

A guiding principle based on experience and common sense.​​

As a rule of thumb, each client should have a separate file.

Safe Bet

Something that is very likely to happen

It is a​​ safe bet that the current owners will not sell.

Same boat

To be in the same difficult situation

None of us has any money, so we’re all in the same boat.

Second nature

A skill so ingrained that you do it without even thinking

Typing​​ becomes second nature after a while.

Selling Like Hotcakes

Sell something very quickly that many people want to buy

I need another load of scanners because they are selling like hotcakes.

Set the record straight

Give the true version of events​​ that have been reported incorrectly

Let me set the record straight about what really happened.

Sever Ties

To end a relationship or an agreement

The company severed ties with their supplier.

Shape up or ship out

A warning to perform well or​​ leave

The management warned the employees to shape up or ship out.

Show the ropes

Show someone how to do a job or activity

Michael will take you around and show you the ropes.

Slack off

Perform unproductively and lazily

Employees tend to​​ slack off on Fridays.

Small talk

Informal conversation about things

that are not important

Guests stood with their drinks, making small talk about the weather.

Talk shop

Discuss work-related issues in off-work social situations

Let’s​​ not talk shop outside office hours.

Test the water

Try something out to see if it works or not

I’d like to test the water first before committing myself.

The ball is in your court

It’s up to you to make the next move.

We answered all their​​ questions, so now the ball is in their court

The big picture

To get an overview of the entire situation​​

Joe never loses sight of the big picture.

Think outside the box

Explore ideas that are different and non-traditional

He is trying​​ to think outside the box to make this event a success.

Throw in the towel

To admit defeat

After struggling for years, the company finally threw in the towel.

Thrown in the deep end

Put into a difficult situation without any preparation

Lynda was​​ thrown in the deep end right from the first day of her job.

Touch base

Make a brief contact to discuss something

Just wanted to touch base to make sure everything is fine.

Under the table

Something was done secretly and illegally

They offered him money under the table to change his mind.

Up in the air

Still not decided

The board meeting is still up in the air.


Someone who does office work

Jane left the factory for a white-collar position in a local​​ bank.

Win-win situation

A favorable outcome for everyone involved

The compromise was a win-win situation for everyone.

Word of mouth

Oral informal communication between people

Word of mouth is one of the best ways of getting business

Writing on the wall

Clear signs that something bad is about to happen

I can see the writing on the wall that this company is doomed.

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