Useful Work-related Idioms List (Business English)

Useful Work-Related Idioms for Business English Class (Teacher's Resource)

I have extracted the work-related idioms from a master list of 190 useful idioms I had previously compiled (view the idiom list here.) The below list is 2 printed pages and contains 36 work-related idioms.

I have provided idiom definitions in the list below. However, definitions are not available in the downloadable file for two reasons: Firstly, students are more interested when they can try to figure out the idiomatic expression and guess its meaning by themselves. I tried to provide enough context for this in my examples. Secondly, you, the teacher, will be there to define the expression if need be. You need to prove your use somehow :)

English idioms for work

Are you learning the ropes at your job?


  • Always review the idioms you studied in the previous class. Here is a good warm-up activity (requiring pictures) to review them.
  • After you have taught 10 or so idioms, do this role-play activity to give your students a chance to use the expressions in conversation.

The Idiom List

Download: EC-Work-Idioms-Intermediate-Advanced (Word)
(note: "sth" = something, "sb" = somebody)

The ball is in your court
The ball is in their court now. Let's wait for their decision.

= used to say that YOU now have control of the situation

be in hot water
Ken was in hot water about forgetting his wedding anniversary.

= to be in trouble

a long haul
Peter told his boss that he wouldn't quit. He's in it for the long haul.

= the long road; the option that takes the most time

know/learn the ropes
It took me a month to learn the ropes at my new job.

= the process of learning about sth so you are comfortable with it

set the record straight
In a TV interview, the politician set the record straight about his experiences in the military.

= to clarify what is true/factual about a story or thing

line of work
The fireman said that injuries were common in his line of work.

= job field; type of work

burn your bridges
Jack tried to be kind to his boss when he quit in job because he didn't want to burn his bridges.

= ruin a relationship, resulting in you being unable to return somewhere

get/be given the sack / sack (verb)
Alan got the sack for repeatedly coming into work late.

= to be fired

on the back burner
The project was put on the back burner while the company focused on a more immediate problem.

= set as a lower priority

talk shop
Everyone agreed not to talk shop at the staff party.

= to talk about work-related things

start/get the ball rolling
It's time we start the ball rolling on the new project.

= to take the first step to begin a process

get your foot in the door
Janice took a position as an administrative assistant to get her foot in the door at the famous fashion company.

= to complete the first step towards achieving an opportunity

small talk
After some small talk, the interview began.

= discussion about light topics such as the weather

put sth on hold
Greg had to put his weekend plans on hold and go into the office on Saturday for a few hours.

= to postpone sth

have your work cut out
If we want to finish this by Friday, then we've really got our work cut out for us.

= expression that means you have a lot of work to do in little time

see eye to eye
Mike and his father don't see eye to eye on the issue of abortion.

= to agree on sth; to have the same views on sth

Roger is an up-and-coming hockey player from Toronto.

= young and rising to the top; new and becoming successful

call it a day
It's already 6 pm. Let's call it a day.

= expression said near the end of a day which means "That's enough for today. Let's end and go home."

twist sb's arm
I really had to twist my sister's arm to get her to pick me up from the airport.

= to make a great effort to convince sb to do sth for you

be in the dark / keep sb in the dark
Most of the employees were kept in the dark about the merger until the last minute.

= to be uninformed; to not be told know what's happening

the bottom line
A: Doctor, what's the bottom line?
B: If you don't quit smoking, you'll die within a year.

= the final result

call the shots
The boss told Janet to call the shots while he was away.

= to make the decisions

the fine/small print
My father reads the fine print on every contract he signs.

= the information typed in a smaller font, usually on a contract

pick sb's brains
Mike is a marketing genius. People often invite him to lunch or dinner so they can pick his brains.

= to ask someone many questions so you can learn from him/her

be in the red
The company has been in the red since September.

= at a deficit; running at a loss; losing money

a rule of thumb
As a rule of thumb, I don't eat food that smells bad.

= a personal principle

be on the same wavelength
The group members were all on the same wavelength, so they were able to finish their project quickly.

= to think in a similar way to others

up to speed
After her holiday, it took Kate a few hours to get back up to speed on the recent developments in her company.

= to be updated; to not be behind; to have all the current information

to be swamped
Wendy was swamped. She had so many papers on her desk, she didn't know where to begin.

= to have too much work to do

Todd was headhunted by his company's main competitor.

= recruited for a position

breathe down sb's neck
Jim found it hard to focus on his work with his boss breathing down his neck.

= to make someone feel uncomfortable by watching them very closely

climb the career/corporate ladder
John was happy with his promotion to senior salesperson. He was slowly climbing the corporate ladder.

= to ascend in a company by being promoted from lower positions to higher ones

red tape
Mark's visa application was held up for six months because of red tape.

= bureaucracy; formal rules that usually make something hard to do

give sb free rein
When his father died, Mark was given free rein to do whatever he liked with the family business.

= to give someone free control of something

slack off / be a slacker
When the boss was on holiday, everyone at the office slacked off.

= to work unproductively and lazily

glass ceiling
The company has a glass ceiling that prevents women from being promoted to higher positions.

= a metaphor for a barrier that prevents people, typically women or minorities, from ascending to high positions.

to burn the midnight oil
Tomorrow we need to submit our annual budget, so we will be burning the midnight oil tonight.

= to work (or study) late into the night.

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26 comments on “Useful Work-related Idioms List (Business English)

  1. sarah (Posted on 3-27-2013 at 00:00) Reply

    Is rein the American spelling? English spelling would be reign

    1. mb (Posted on 3-27-2013 at 00:53) Reply

      Hi Sarah. To answer your question, no. Rein is the verb you use when you control a horse (with reins). You rein the horses in. Reign is a separate verb.

    2. Anonymous (Posted on 7-17-2019 at 18:53) Reply

      There’s two words. Reign and rein. To rein in is to use your horse reins to control something.

  2. adl1652 (Posted on 4-8-2013 at 05:30) Reply

    Yes, rein should be spelled reign.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 4-8-2013 at 08:30) Reply

      “The idiomatic phrase free rein, which derives from the literal meaning of using reins to control a horse, is sometimes misinterpreted and written as free reign –predictable, perhaps, in a society only vaguely familiar with the reigns of royalty or the reins of farm animals. Also confused is the related phrase rein in, sometimes written incorrectly as reign in.” – Oxford

      1. Deanimator (Posted on 5-13-2013 at 16:40) Reply

        Agree. Rein is used correctly here.

  3. Donna (Posted on 2-21-2014 at 03:26) Reply

    This is the best list of business English idioms that I have found. Thank you! 

    1. SAEED (Posted on 10-12-2014 at 03:19) Reply


  4. murali sankaran (Posted on 9-24-2014 at 11:31) Reply

    Awesome…. More…

  5. SAEED (Posted on 10-12-2014 at 03:16) Reply


  6. SAEED (Posted on 10-12-2014 at 03:17) Reply


  7. Shirley (Posted on 2-9-2015 at 11:31) Reply

    under the idiom: “know/learn the ropes”, the definition may have a spelling error: what is: “sth”??

    1. Don (Posted on 5-5-2015 at 08:54) Reply

      Sth is a common stand-in for “something”

  8. align construction (Posted on 4-5-2015 at 02:34) Reply

    give me idioms for construction company?/

  9. idioms (Posted on 2-18-2016 at 05:25) Reply

    I always love to read idioms, and it’s a nice list of work related idioms.
    Thank you Lilly

  10. Kris (Posted on 10-27-2016 at 23:58) Reply

    Shouldn’t “It’s time we/you etc.” be followed by a past tense? E.g It’s time we went.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 10-28-2016 at 11:13) Reply

      “it’s time we start ” has about 30,000 more hits on google than “it’s time we started”. This suggests otherwise.

    2. Buk (Posted on 3-17-2017 at 14:03) Reply

      A past tense will follow only if the word “high” is inclusive but if otherwise a present tense will follow. For Example:-
      1. It is “high” time we left
      2. It is time we leave.
      Both sentence is correct the only difference between is No.1 means that they should have gone before that time but probably due to procrastination which is why a past tense is coming after because it is what they should have done before that time in question while No.2 means the time has come for them to leave. No.1 can be used minutes after No.2 if the person is not yielding.

  11. Eya (Posted on 12-22-2016 at 04:05) Reply

    what does “cut to the patchwork” mean?

    1. mb (Posted on 12-22-2016 at 12:27) Reply

      Hmm. I’ve never heard that. Sorry.

  12. VBRB (Posted on 12-12-2017 at 08:26) Reply

    Nice ones.

  13. Alex A (Posted on 2-21-2018 at 19:37) Reply

    I have an expression I’ve heard from my colleagues in the USA: “burning the midnight oil” means working very late on something. Here is an example of it’s usage: Tomorrow we need to submit our annual budget, so we will be burning the midnight oil tonight.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 2-25-2018 at 00:54) Reply

      Thanks! I’ve added it to the list. Great example!

  14. Cynthia (Posted on 12-1-2021 at 11:24) Reply

    Hello, would you be able to make your documents available in .pdf?
    I don’t have Word on my computer, just an online version and can’t
    access your helpful work.

    Thank you!

  15. Smruti (Posted on 1-24-2022 at 21:42) Reply

    What is with the example of “climb to the top of the career/corporate ladder”? Isn’t it sending the wrong message? The content is amazing except that one example about women, please look into it and rectify or modify the example.

    1. mb Post author (Posted on 1-26-2022 at 09:59) Reply

      Hello. Yes, I agree. I’ve made a change. Thanks for letting me know!

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