The Passive in Business

Any good manager is familiar with the phrase criticise the behaviour, not the person. However, they often have difficulty using language that focuses on behaviour.

To focus on behaviour, I guess we all know that there’s no better form than the passive

For example, why say:

You have missed your performance targets

when you could say:

Your performance targets weren’t achieved

Lesson Idea – Giving Discipline

A common business scenario when the passive is needed is a disciplinary meeting.

Begin the lesson with a simple vocabulary exercise:

Vocabulary – Disciplinary procedure

Give learners the standard disiplinary stages below on cards:

  1. informal conversation
  2. verbal warning
  3. written warning
  4. final written warning
  5. dismissal

Ask learners to put the stages in order and discuss if they have similar disciplinary procedures.

You can develop this section by brainstorming formal and informal synonyms of dismissal or by introducing the phrase dismissed without notice and eliciting meaning.


Introduce a simple scenario where a disciplinary meeting is necessary.

For example:

  • an employee is always late
  • an employee spend lots of office time on facebook/personal calls
  • an employee has missed targets over the last three months
  1. Ask learners to discuss the situation and what level of discipline is necessary
  2. Learners role play the scenario in pairs


Introduce some example sentences for the scenario.

For example:

  • You have missed your targets
  • Your targets were missed
  • You are often late
  • Your punctuality has not been good recently
  1. Get learners to discuss the likely affect of each sentence on the attitude of the employee
  2. Elicit use of passive to focus on behaviour and avoid criticising employees directly
  3. Demonstrate the form of the passive and to to express passive sentences in different tenses
  4. Ask learners to write some more critical sentences in the passive using the previous scenario


Choose another scenario and ask learners to repeat the role play.

Comment on language usage and level of criticism.

You could combine this lesson with the present perfect to show that behaviour is ongoing.

If you’d like more business English ideas and business English lesson plans, subscribe to the blog by email. Just click the follow button on the right of the post. 

  1. September 22, 2012 at 9:44 am

    I like it. I also enjoy getting them to act out making excuses or avoiding blame for accidents or poor work like “I’m sorry but the printer has been damaged” or “where is the report?” “It hasn’t been finished yet”. It’s fascinating how business people can avoid saying who they are accusing and removing themselves from blame..

    • September 22, 2012 at 10:34 am

      Thanks Phil. That’s another great idea. We could maybe write up a lesson idea for the present perfect using that. What do you think?

      • September 22, 2012 at 10:40 am

        Ha ha. Let me have a think. I did it last month in a company with a manager and got her to roleplay with me being her lazy assistant. It actually turned out her assistant was very lazy so when she came back my student used the same language in English on her. It was quite interesting. We then discussed how strict she had to be with her staff and the right balance between friendly and tough. Great lessons.

      • September 22, 2012 at 10:55 am

        I think getting that difference between friendly and tough / formal and informal is so important and lots of managers need help with that. I’m going to nick that one if it’s alright with you Phil.

      • September 22, 2012 at 11:00 am

        Fine. Grammar books and even functional stuff in books is fine for the beginning but everything depends on where staff are in the chain of command and who they’re speaking to. A lot of my customer service clients use YOU and YOU HAVE TO and even WHAT DO YOU WANT. They also don’t use listening phrases and speak the same to their bosses as to customers. Why? Because they’ve been taught standard courses with no adaptation. Not for me thanks.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: