English Job Idioms

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  • Post last modified:04/11/2021
  • Post category:English Idioms
  • Reading time:13 mins read

Learn 12 English job idioms and phrases for daily conversations. These idiomatic expressions will boost your English vocabulary and help you improve your English skills.

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list of job idioms and phrases

Job idioms and phrases

Hi there, this is teacher Harry and welcome back to my English lessons where I try to help you to get a better understanding of the English language. So that you can communicate with your friends, your colleagues.

Perhaps even get through those first few stages of job interviews. Any way in which you can improve your English, I’m here to help you.

If there’s anything you need, anytime you know where to contact me. 

So what do we want to talk to you about today? What’s the lesson about? 

Well, this is all about job idioms. Or you can also refer to it as idioms connected with work because the words job and work they’re synonymous. They mean exactly the same.

So we’re talking about job idioms. Okay. As always, I’m going to run down through these individual idioms one by one, and I’m going to give you some examples.

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Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

INSANITY: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Let’s go down to them one by one.

So the first one is

learn/know the ropes

Meaning: learn/know how to do something

This comes from a sailing or nautical type of reference because ropes are something we use when people are sailing.  When people sail on yachts and boats, they have to tie up the boat in a certain way. They have to pull certain ropes to get the sails to move. So to learn the ropes is when you’re trying to learn how to sail.

We use this now in a reference to job and work. So somebody would have a conversation,

He’ll be fine. Just give him a few weeks to learn the ropes and then he’ll be as good as anybody else. He’s got a bright future here.

To learn the ropes to understand what you have to do, to understand the business and then when you’re off on your own, you can get out there and show them what you can do.

Next is

carry the can

Meaning: take the blame or responsibility for something that goes wrong

When somebody has to carry the can, it means that somebody has to take the blame for something that goes wrong. Normally, it’s the boss, but it might not always be. 

So if something happens in the office, something goes wrong with an order, we lose a client or a customer, whatever that might be, somebody will say,

Well, somebody is going to have to carry the can for this mistake. So who’s going to take responsibility?

And somebody might complain,

Oh, I always have to carry the can. Why can’t somebody else make these key decisions? Why can’t somebody else step in instead of me?

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Next is

burn the candle at both ends

Meaning: do too many things in a short period of time; work hard and play hard

A guy gets up at six o’clock, has his breakfast, goes to work gets there for eight o’clock, works hard until six o’clock comes home, has a bite to eat, goes out on the town with his friends, parties as a real party animal for several days of the week. By the end of the week, he’s completely exhausted. 

His mother or father says,

Well, what do you expect? You’re burning the candle at both ends.

Meaning you’re working hard, but you’re also playing hard so something will give, something will happen. Either your work will start to deteriorate, or you’ll get totally exhausted. You shouldn’t burn the candle at both ends

The next expression is a real British English expression

a cushy number

Meaning: a relatively easy job

Somebody has a cushy number who doesn’t have to start work until 10 am, and he leaves at 5 pm.

Perhaps he gets a review every three months and is increases in his salary on a regular basis, but doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of work. 

His friends say,

Ha, Harry is a real cushy number, that guy. Have you seen what he does or in fact, what he doesn’t do? And he still gets paid!

job idioms and phrases

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The next idiom is

hanging by a thread

Meaning: you (or something) are in a dangerous situation; for example, you’ve had a warning from your boss

So if your job is hanging by a thread, it might mean you’re on a little bit of thin ice, you’ve probably had a warning from your boss,

Your future in this company is hanging by a thread. If you don’t improve your work, we’re going to have to let you go.

It could also be related to an account you’re trying to get, a big account, and the decision is hanging by a thread. You’re not sure whether you’ve done enough to attract the customer.

It’s all hanging by a thread, it could go either way. I’m done sure if I’ve done enough to attract the customer.

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The next two idioms I’m going to take together 

get the sack

get the boot

Meaning: to lose your job, to get fired

So these are both references to losing your job and again they’re very informal ways to refer to it.

The more formal ways are:

  • to lose your job
  • to be made redundant
  • to be dismissed (from)

If the company has to downsize because things are not going so well then somebody is going to get the sack.

If your performance hasn’t been up to scratch, you haven’t done as well as they thought you would, you could get the boot. 

Somebody can even

give somebody the elbow

When you give somebody the elbow, you push them out the way or you push them out of the company. 

I got the elbow last week, I’m gonna have to look for another job. I didn’t like it anyway, but it’s never nice when it happened. 

job idioms and phrases

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The next job idiom I have is

off the hook

Meaning: no longer in trouble; you’re free

So when you’re off the hook, it means that you’re no longer attached to it. 

Good news, you’re off the hook for this weekend. I’ve got somebody else to do it. So I don’t need you on Saturday.

Just think of it as if you go fishing. When you put your fishing rod into the water, and if the fish takes the bait, it’s on the hook, you’ve got it. You bring it in and you catch the fish.

If the fish gets the food and escapes, he’s off the hook. He’s gone so you can’t catch him. 

Next idiom is

go with the flow

This is a very popular expression in English.

Meaning: accept things the way they are; to stop fighting, stop arguing

Just go with the flow, go with what the boss wants, it will make life a lot easier.

job idioms and phrases

Our next idiom is

a tall order

Meaning: something that is very difficult to achieve

That’s a real tall order. How am I supposed to do it in that time?

That’s a real tall order. There are so many pallets, so many boxes. Do we even have that in stock?

Climbing Mount Everest is a real tall order. How many people actually achieve that?

And next, we have the expression

up to the mark

Meaning: as good as what was required or expected

What is the performance of that individual? Is it really up to the mark? 

So often, the reason why people have to go through a probationary period, so they have a period of three months or six months. Within that period of probation, the boss can decide, that they’re not up to the mark. 

So to be up to the mark is to make sure that you go either up to eight or beyond to show the bosses that you can achieve what they want, you can get to that level you do you have the skill levels to do the work. 

I’m really up to the mark. They asked me lots of questions. I was able to answer them.

And finally, in this particular list of job idioms, we’re talking about the

rat race

I think many and most people that will be watching and listening will have heard of the rat race.

Meaning: an unhealthy and exhausting modern lifestyle in which people compete for more money or power

You’re forever in this rat race. I have to do better, I have to get promoted, I have to get a salary increase.

Okay, here are my English job idioms:

  • learn the ropes
  • carry the can
  • burn the candle at both ends 
  • cushy number
  • hanging by a thread
  • get the sack 
  • get the boot 
  • off the hook 
  • go with the flow 
  • a tall order 
  • up to the mark
  • rat race

I hope you’ve enjoyed them. I hope my examples explain exactly what we’re talking about.

If you want to contact me whether you can do so on www.englishlessonviaskype.com. Really, really happy to hear from you. Okay, this is teacher Harry, join me again soon.

More information

For more information on English grammar rules, English collocations and English idioms, check out the links below:

English collocations with SELF

Phrasal verbs with DOWN

You can always study English advanced level at Learning English with the BBC.

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