Business idioms are used throughout the workplace. In meetings, telephone conversations and even whilst making small talk at the coffee machine – you’ll be sure to hear them wherever you go.

Knowing business vocabulary will help you understand native speakers better. You’ll be able to communicate yourself more effectively at work, and get ahead in your professional life.

We’re about to share with you ten of the most essential business idioms for the workplace. Ready? Let’s get down to business.


1. Climb the career ladder

Climb the career ladder | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

If you climb the career ladder, you advance your career to higher levels of salary, responsibility or authority. Your career is another name for your professional occupation and a ladder is a type of stairs.

Example: He wanted to be an artist, and had no interest in climbing the career ladder.


2. A ballpark figure

A ballpark figure | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

A ballpark figure is an educated guess, or approximate estimation within limits. It is commonly used by salespeople and accountants to predict future numbers or ‘figures’.

The expression comes from baseball in the late 1960s. In a game of baseball, the field (or ballpark) is an enclosed space. During the game, if the ball was in the ballpark it was within reasonable distance. If it was out it wasn’t.

Example: We need a ballpark figure for the new building before we can accept your proposal.


3. Back to the drawing board

Back to the drawing board | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

When an idea or plan goes wrong in business, you might say “We need to go back to the drawing board.” This is when you start something again because it failed the first time.

A drawing board is as exactly as it sounds – a flat board of paper for artists to work on. The phrase originally comes from an American cartoonist who drew a WWII plane crash for the New Yorker magazine in 1941. In the image, a man dressed in a suit, is walking away from the crash scene saying “Well, back to the drawing board.”

Example: Helen’s presentation was rejected by her boss, so it’s back to the drawing board for her.


4. Go the extra mile


To go the extra mile is to make an additional effort to achieve something. It’s about doing more than is expected or required, and is commonly used in the workplace.

A mile is a measurement of distance in countries such as the UK. One mile is about 1.6 kilometers and is roughly equivalent to the old Roman mile. The expression ‘go the extra mile’ is even believed to date back to a commandment of Jesus in the bible.

Example: She’s always willing to go the extra mile to help a colleague.


5. In a nutshell

In a nutshell | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

Think about how small the shell of a nut is. If you say something in a nutshell, you say it in as few words as possible. You might state this at the end of a presentation to summarise your main points, or at the end of a business meeting when you want to clarify things.

People often think this expression was invented by Shakespeare. However, it was first seen much earlier in 77A.D. in the work work Natural History by Pliny the Elder.

Example: The CEO told us, in a nutshell, his plans for expansion of the business.


6. Learn the ropes

Learn the ropes | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

Have you started a new job recently? You probably had to learn the ropes.

This means to learn how a particular job or task is done. Once you’ve learned the basics of the job, you can then say you “know the ropes”.

Unsurprisingly, this idiom comes from sailing. In the past, almost all ships had sails. And sailors had to learn how to tie complicated knots to navigate and rig the boats.

Example: When I first started my job in finance, it took me a while to learn the ropes.


7. Down the drain

Down the drain | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

If something goes down the drain it is completely lost or wasted.

A drain is connected to the plug hole in your bath or kitchen sink. Therefore the expression comes from the act of water flowing away and disappearing down the plug hole.

Often it’s used in a work context. Imagine spending a lot of time, effort or money on a business deal, only for it to collapse at the last minute. This would be a business deal “down the drain”.

>Example: If the new office closes, that’s ten million euros worth of investment down the drain.


8. Get the ball rolling

Get the ball rolling | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

Another ball related idiom common to business English is to “get the ball rolling”. It means to make something begin or happen.

This term is believed to have come from the sport croquet, which first came into existence in the mid 1800’s. In croquet, the person who starts and hits the ball first actually has the advantage of winning the game, before the other player even has their turn.

We often hear the expression in business in reference to new projects. If you take action you ‘get the ball rolling’ and encourage other people to do the same.

Example: Let’s get the ball rolling with a three-day workshop at head office.


9. The big picture

The big picture | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

Look at the big picture and you will see everything that is involved in a situation – not just the small details.

Think about a painting of a landscape. If you focus on the one small storm cloud in the sky, and ignore the bigger picture, you might not notice the beautiful rainbow in the distance.

In business this expression encourages employers and employees to think about the future, or consider other parallel factors that may be important when making a decision.

Example: Brand strategy and business strategy are all about seeing the big picture.


10. Cut corners

Cut corners | 10 Business idioms for the workplace | Oxford House Barcelona

To cut corners is to do something in the easiest, cheapest or fastest way. However it can mean that things aren’t done carefully as they should be.

The expression actually comes from horse riding – when riders used to go straight over the road instead of taking the corner properly. It would often result in over-turning and cause accidents, hence the term “cut corners”.

Businesses sometimes have to cut corners if they’re running out of money or they need to save time. Although it can undermine the success of the company in the long run.

Example: Many manufacturers cut corners and use cheaper materials from this supplier.


If you’d like to improve your business English, why not sign up to one of our Business English courses? We have a range of expert Business English teachers ready to help you achieve your professional goals.

Glossary for Language Learners


Find the following words in the article and then write down any new ones you didn’t know.

Break the ice (exp): to start a conversation and make people feel more comfortable.

Get ahead (pv): to be successful in the work that you do.

Get down to business (exp): start talking about the topic to be discussed.

Guess (n): an attempt to give the right answer even if you’re not sure.

Cartoonist (n): a person who draws cartoons for a job.

Commandment (n): one of the ten rules from the bible’s Old Testament.

Rig (v): to adjust the position of a boat’s sails using rope.

Flow away (pv): to move away or disappear gradually.

Croquet (n): a game played on grass with wooden balls, square hoops and mallets.

Undermine (v) : to weaken or destroy the success of something.


pv = phrasal verb

exp = expression

n = noun

v = verb

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