TIME Careers & Workplace

Doing This on Social Networks Could Cost You a Job

A portrait of the Facebook logo in Ventura
A portrait of the Facebook logo in Ventura, Calif., on Dec. 21, 2013 Eric Thayer—Reuters

With his Blurred Lines parody, Weird Al is onto something: America’s grammar stinks. And there’s strong evidence that it’s so bad, it’s costing us jobs. A new survey from CareerBuilder finds that about a third of HR managers say they’ve taken an applicant out of consideration because of “poor communication skills” on social media.

Yes, people know by now that posting pictures of them funneling beer or making racist jokes on Facebook will probably take them out of the running, but even the types of grammar errors Weird Al is skewering can be enough to cost somebody a job.

CareerBuilder says a third of the roughly 70% of HR managers who use social media to check out candidates have dropped them from consideration because of “poor communication skills.”

More than nine out of 10 HR professionals say they see poor communication displayed on candidates’ pages, says Susan Vitale, chief marketing officer at iCIMS, a talent acquisition company. “Job seekers should pay special attention to their social media profiles, ensuring all publicly accessible information is professional,” she says. “It’s difficult for a recruiter to ‘unsee’ these references.”

In other words, sometimes it’s not what you say online: It’s how you say it that can be a dealbreaker. We asked HR pros what would give them pause if they ran across it on an applicant’s social media page.

Bad or nonexistent punctuation: “If they can’t punctuate, if they can’t make a coherent sentence, then they are not, in my opinion, what we’re looking for,” says Thomas Anderson, a panelist with the Society for Human Resource Management and director of HR at the Houston Community College System. “If they don’t punctuate properly, you get a sense that the way they probably write all the time.”

Misspelled words: According to Vitale, 47% percent of recruiters say spelling errors are their biggest turn-off when reviewing a social media profile. Spell-check is there for a reason, people.

Incoherent rambling: “The employer is more apt to question your professionalism if you show a pattern of misspelled words… or your commentary seems rash, uninformed or non-cohesive,” says Jennifer Grasz, spokeswoman at CareerBuilder.

A stuck caps-lock key: “If they’ve got it all in capitals, that’s a big red flag… that indicates in social media or email that you’re shouting,” Anderson says. This is a widely known bit of online etiquette, so an applicant that isn’t savvy enough to pick up on this might have serious knowledge or social skills gaps elsewhere.

Using words the wrong way: Using words incorrectly can also trip you up in an employer’s eyes, Grasz says. If you’re not sure what a word means, look it up.

Texting shortcuts: It might be natural for people — especially young adults — to abbreviate words with letters or numbers when texting, but Grasz says it can be a turn-off for hiring managers if your conversations on social networks are riddled with this kind of shorthand.


TIME Careers & Workplace

5 Scientifically Backed Ways to Seem More Powerful

Compassionate Eye Foundation/Jamie Grill—Getty Images

Mail clerk? Administrative assistant? Make the honchos look at you in a whole new light. Here’s how social scientists say you can make people think you’re more powerful.

Take up lots of space. MIT researcher Andy Yap says the way we stand and sit can give both those around us as well as ourselves the sense that we’re powerful. Specifically, what Yap calls “expansive poses,” where people adopt a wide stance when standing, put their hands on their hips instead of at their sides and stretch out their arms and legs when seated. “High-power posers experienced elevations in testosterone, decreases in cortisol, and increased feelings of power,” Yap writes. “That a person can, by assuming two simple 1-min poses, embody power and instantly become more powerful has real-world, actionable implications.”

Scientists who study the effects of these hormonal changes say they’re associated with status, leadership and dominance — and all you have to do is take up more space.

Tap into the “red sneaker effect.” This is why Mark Zuckerberg can get away with wearing a hoodie. Researchers from Harvard Business School studied how sometimes looking out of place can have a positive effect. “Under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviors can be more beneficial than efforts to conform and can signal higher status and competence to others,” they write. (They give the example of someone wearing a pair of red sneakers in a professional setting as an example.) Since most of us try to conform to social norms, we tend to think that people who deliberately don’t do so because they have enough social status that they don’t have to care what the rest of us think.

Use big-picture language. Yes, it pays to be detail-oriented, but when you communicate, think in terms of broader ideas, because it makes people think you’re more powerful. Researchers discovered that when people use abstract languages in phrases, sentences and short paragraphs, experiment subjects were more likely to perceive of them as powerful than when they used more concrete verbiage.

Call the shots on eye contact. Social scientists observe that people with lower status tend to make eye contact more than those with higher status — probably because the higher-status person doesn’t need to seek approval or isn’t as concerned with the other person’s response. More powerful people also aren’t afraid to break eye contact, according to Audrey Nelson, writing in Psychology Today.

“Investigators found that people who are more dominant break a greater number of mutual gazes than those who are more submissive or in the power-down position,” she says. Just as Andy Yap finds with our bodies, the amount of space a person’s gaze takes up also telegraphs how high they are on the social or corporate food chain.

Stand at the back of the elevator. In an Australian study, researcher Rebekah Rousi, a PhD candidate at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, observed people’s interactions in an office complex elevator. “As a result of 30 elevator journeys (15 in each building) a clear social order could be seen regarding where people positioned themselves inside the elevators.” She found that senior male staffers, who she suggests have a greater relative amount of power, tended to cluster along the back wall of the elevator.

TIME Saving & Spending

Credit Card Companies Really Hope You Don’t Notice This

Steven Puetzer—Getty Images

If you have decent credit and you actually read your junk mail, you’ll notice that credit card companies will do almost anything to turn you into a customer. The points or miles value of initial sign-up bonuses has climbed steadily and is at its highest ever with an average of 13,265, according to new data from CardHub.com. And on the cash back side, we’ve seen issuers roll out sign-up bonuses as high as $400 this year.

Sounds great, but the catch — you knew there’d be a catch, right? — is that once they’ve “wined and dined” you and you fill out that application, the honeymoon’s over. CardHub finds that the average earning rate for cash back rewards has fallen to an all-time low since it began tracking this data four years ago.

On the points and miles side, things look rosier. The base earning rate is still on an upward trajectory, although it’s lost a bit of steam over the past couple of quarters. There’s another variable here, though, which makes the idea that you’re getting more rewards for your spending a little misleading: Several of the major frequent-flier programs these cards are affiliated with have cut how much their points are worth by requiring a bigger cache of points to earn a free ticket.

It’s a change that has business travelers fuming, but the impact could be hitting your wallet, too. Even though it might look like you’re able to earn those points or miles faster, “It most likely might be making them less valuable overall,” says Odysseas Papadimitriou, CardHub’s founder and CEO. The trend towards less-valuable rewards that’s on display with cash back cards gives you a glimpse of card companies’ true intentions, Papadimitriou says. “Those offers have been deteriorating in value rather than appreciating,” he says.

On one hand, issuers are wooing people with fat sign-up rewards, while they cut the value of the regular rewards with the other. “It’s really so hard for them to get someone with excellent credit to change their credit card, so the initial bonuses are geared towards that,” Papadimitriou says.

The card companies count on the fact that we’re basically lazy and probably won’t go through the hassle of switching any automatic payments, finding a new card and canceling the one we have once we realize the regular rewards aren’t so hot. For cardholders who revolve a balance, this is a double-whammy, since reward cards almost always have higher APRs than cards that don’t offer rewards.

Once America finally wakes up and catches on to what’s happening, they’re not going to be happy, Papadimitriou predicts. Thanks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, people today have a new venue to take their gripes about credit cards. CardHub’s research indicates that many are already doing so, finding that the volume of complaints about rewards skyrocketed by 45% in the second quarter of the year.

“Credit card companies really need to be careful with the devaluation game they’re playing. This strategy is going to backfire,” he says. “The last time they played that game, they got the CARD Act.”

TIME Spending

You Spend Over $1,300 a Year Bribing Your Kids

Want to make an easy $1,360 a year? No problem — all you have to do is be an American kid under the age of 10. A new survey shows that the average kid rakes in a cool $113 a month in “allowances, bribes, rewards and gifts,” years before they’re old enough to get a real job.

Coupon site Vouchercloud.net polled more than 2,000 American parents and found that more than 70% give their kids money on a regular basis. Of those, most of them straight-up bribe their kids. Although more than three-quarters give their kids an allowance, 61% say they give their kids rewards for good behavior and 55% give them money so they’ll behave.

The kids who get an allowance, for the most part, aren’t even “earning” it in the traditional sense. Fewer than half the parents who say they give their kids money say it’s in exchange for the kids doing chores or helping out around the house.

Do today’s kids have their parents over a barrel? That very well could be the case: About two-thirds of parents surveyed say they want to give their kids less money.

Of those, about a quarter say ey “don’t want to disappoint” their kids, and 17% say their kids “likes expensive things and needs enough to buy them.” Parents who overindulge their kids need to shoulder at least some of the blame themselves, though: Almost half of those who say they want to give their kids less say they don’t because they feel like they’re competing with whatever other parents give their kids.

Again, keep in mind that this is for kids who aren’t even 10 yet — it’s not as if the “expensive things” they’re paying for are along the lines of car repairs or college textbooks.

“Children might want expensive things, but they also need to learn that they have to earn them and be patient,” Vouchercloud managing director Matthew Wood says in a statement. He says parents need to examine their motivations for showering kids who probably haven’t even mastered long division with more than $1,000 a year. “A lot of the time, when parents spend substantial sums of money on the children, it suggests they feel guilty or are trying to make up for something,” he says.

Yes, it’s important for kids to learn the value of money, how to save and budget for what they want, but parents aren’t really doing them a service if they’re handing them so much money that kids never have to learn what it’s like to have to plan ahead and wait to buy something they want.

On top of that, if kids are being bribed just to behave, parents aren’t laying the groundwork for a realistic expectation of what it takes to earn money as an adult. After all, you make money at work from doing your job, not just showing up on time.

TIME Spending

Thing You Hate Costs You $750 a Year

A city office employee works into the night as darkness closes in on October 10, 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland.
A city office employee works into the night as darkness closes in on October 10, 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland. Christopher Furlong—Getty Images

The recordings that tells you you’re a valuable customer for the zillionth time or those hours spent waiting for some service technician to ring your doorbell aren’t just infuriating — they’re costing you.

A new survey finds that working Americans waste a total of $108 billion — that’s more than $750 a person, based on how much the average worker earns — waiting to get service issues resolved during hours we could have spent earning money instead. The research, conducted by Harris Poll for ClickSoftware, finds that we spend nearly 31 hours when we could be working waiting in telephone queues or at home waiting for an in-person visit on an annual basis.

The survey says the banking industry is the worst offender, with respondents reporting waiting an average of six hours a year to deal with service issues. Waiting for repairmen or other home services eats up another five hours, while seven other sectors including insurance, communication providers and utilities round out the balance.

Everyone understands this frustration, which perhaps is why an eight-minute audio recording of a guy named Ryan Block trying to get his Comcast service disconnected went viral almost as soon as it hit the Web. The total conversation lasts nearly 20 minutes; Block captures the final eight minutes of the Comcast rep arguing with him over why he shouldn’t drop his Comcast service and refusing to acknowledge Block’s insistence that he’d just like to cancel.

In its survey, ClickSoftware asks respondents how companies could do a better job minimizing wait times. (You’d think “avoiding protracted arguments with customers” would be at the top of the list, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in Block’s situation.) Not surprisingly, more than half of the survey respondents say providing more accurate estimates about wait and arrival times via their choice of communication method would go a long way. More than 40% say updates about their status and the progress being made would help, and about a quarter want better systems for communicating with service reps and making appointments.

That’s all well and good, but if companies don’t provide this, what can people themselves do to keep from being stuck on hold or waiting around for a technician all day? Half of the survey respondents say they’ve demanded to speak to a supervisor, 14% admit to yelling at the technician, and 3% say they cry.

There’s got to be a better way. Here’s how ClickSoftware suggests minimizing that $750 you send down the tubes every year waiting for service.

Dump the company. One tactic is to switch service providers, something about a third of survey respondents say they’ve done, but there’s no way to tell if your new bank or Internet provider will be any better than the old one. Stephen Timms, president of North America for ClickSoftware, suggests checking out how the new company is ranked in terms of service from Consumer Reports magazine or groups like the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

Be specific. This isn’t a guarantee — after all, poor Ryan Block was very specific about what he wanted and he was still subject to nearly 20 minutes of haranguing — but Timms says spelling out expectations can go a long way. Instead of saying you need your TV service hooked up as soon as possible, for instance, tell them you need it ready in 48 hours because you’re having friends over to watch the Super Bowl or Game of Thrones finale or what-have-you.

Go gripe on Twitter. “Many companies offer… dedicated customer service Twitter accounts which are staffed by reps 24 hours. And because Twitter is public, these complaints are often addressed more quickly,” Timms points out.


How to Deal If You Hate Your Boss’s Political Views

The recent Hobby Lobby ruling illustrates how adding politics into the workplace can create volatility. Even though most situations are unlikely to call for Supreme Court involvement, if your political leanings clash with those of your boss, the outcome can be uncomfortable at best. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but handling different views the wrong way can put your career at risk.

As risky as it can be, a lot of us still engage in political talk at the office: A CareerBuilder survey found that 36% of workers say they discuss politics at work. Nearly a quarter of those have had a “heated discussion or fight” with a colleague or higher-up over politics. Older workers and men are more likely to talk politics, but these discussions span across demographics. Here’s how to keep a political firestorm from torching your career.

Keep away from contentious topics when possible. “If your political views clash with your boss’, then it is best to avoid the topic all together,” says Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s vice president of human resources. “If you know the topic will turn quickly from a discussion into an argument, avoid it,” she says. Of course, if your supervisor insists on bringing it up, you might have no choice, in which case it’s in your best interest to find a point — any point — of common ground.

Remember that being too opinionated could backfire. Your constitutional freedom of speech won’t let you get away with saying whatever you want, Todd Fredrickson, a Denver-based partner at labor law firm Fisher & Phillips LLP, tells the Wall St. Journal, especially if you work in the private sector. Most companies don’t explicitly regulate political discussion, but there could be more informal fallout for taking a higher-up to task over their views.

Know your boss — and yourself. “If you both are capable of having a discussion without it turning into something bigger, than go for it,” Haefner says. Keep in mind, though, that your friendly debate might be the kind of conversation that makes other co-workers uncomfortable. “Remember that the two of you are not the only people in the office,” Haefner cautions.

Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. “The worst case scenario is not to be aware of how your communications are being received,” a Salary.com article advises. This advice is aimed towards avoiding conflicts in office politics, but it holds true for on-the-job political discussions more generally, too. “Remaining emotionally detached and business-like minimizes your exposure… emotional outbursts not only undermine your position but, if habitual, your employment too.”

Stick to the facts and know when to get out. “Conversations become contentious when we interject opinion,” Haefner says. “Also, watch for signs that the conversation is escalating and have an exit strategy,” she advises. Excuse yourself to make a phone call, check mail or email, or even to use the bathroom — as long as it gets you out of there.

TIME Saving & Spending

Do Not Leave Home Without These Credit Cards

Although credit card perks vary widely, the overwhelming majority of rewards credit cards give the user travel insurance coverage. Among rewards cards from major issuers, nearly all offer travel accident insurance and almost 80% offer luggage insurance, according to the website CardHub.com, and all of the major networks — Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover — provide coverage for rental cars, with Visa, AmEx and Discover offering at least some form of coverage on all their cards.

Insurance is a good perk, but coverage isn’t equal from issuer to issuer or card to card. There also are other caveats, like high APRs or annual fees, that can detract from the benefits.

And watch the fine print, says Credit.com credit card expert Jason Steele. “For example, American Express cards offer good coverage as a standard benefit, but exclude many luxury vehicles and pickup trucks,” he points out.

You should also consider how you’re going to use the card and your travel habits. “If you never fly anywhere, you probably don’t need to worry about having baggage insurance,” says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

Here are some cards CardHub.com, CreditCards.com and other credit card experts like for travelers this summer.

The Chase Sapphire and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards were the top two, respectively, on CardHub’s list for travel accident and luggage insurance. The Sapphire clocked in a perfect score for the breadth of its coverage.

Other experts like the Sapphire, too. “Even the no-annual-fee version offers great insurance benefits,” Schulz says. “You can get reimbursed up to $5,000 per trip for travel expenses such as airfares and hotels if you have to cancel your trip or cut it short due to sickness, severe weather and various other situations,” he says.

Schulz and CardHub also like the Discover It card, which comes in third on CardHub’s ranking and tops the list for lost and delayed baggage coverage. It also gets high rankings for its eligibility and extra coverage offerings. Discover also came in second (behind American Express) in last year’s JD Powers card satisfaction survey, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at CreditSesame.com.

“The PenFed Premium Travel Rewards American Express card has been listed over the years as being one of the best in the country,” says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com. It offers coverage to help get an unescorted child home or a close relative to visit the injured traveler at an overseas hospital in the event of an accident. It also has no annual fee.

Ulzheimer suggests two no-annual-fee cards, the USAA American Express and USAA World MasterCard, because the issuer is tops in customer service, he says. “USAA ranks first in customer satisfaction for insurance and has for at least three years in a row. They’re always at or near the top.” American Express has also topped the JD Powers satisfaction survey for seven years running, he notes.

Schulz calls the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard “noteworthy” because it includes coverage for accidents, trip cancellations, lost and delayed baggage — plus one huge perk for cardholders who travel to Europe. “[It] is one of the few chip-and-PIN cards widely available to U.S. consumers,” Schulz says.

Some card issuers in the U.S. are moving towards chip cards in the wake of the Target data breach fiasco, but they’re still not on board with chip-and-PIN cards that are the norm in many countries overseas. Since payment devices like unmanned ticket kiosks in Europe often require the use of a card secured with both a chip and a PIN, “Having a PIN card will likely save you some headaches,” Schulz says.


TIME Careers & Workplace

Yes, You Can Be Too Talented for Your Job

If you always sort of suspected that some of the problems you encountered at work were because you were just too smart for the job — well, you may be onto something. New research looks at how people perform when they’re part of a team, and it turns out there is such a thing as too much talent.

The study’s lead author, INSEAD assistant professor of organizational behavior Roderick Swaab, writes that almost everybody has a linear view of talent: that is, if a little bit is good, a lot must be better. But an analysis of how well sports teams perform based on the overall amount of talent among members finds that it doesn’t usually work like that — and Swaab says this has important implications for organizations and management.

“[They] are similar to organizational teams that require a high level of coordination between team members,” Swaab says. Soccer and basketball teams have parallels to consulting and strategy groups, emergency response units and surgery teams, he says, whereas baseball teams resemble sales departments.

More talent translates to better performance, up to a point, but Swaab finds that after you hit a certain level, adding more talent doesn’t produce as much of a boost to results. And if the coach (or boss, or company) keeps piling on more talent — hiring away superstars from rivals, bringing on new members who are at the top of their game — the effect actually becomes negative.

“Teams with levels of top talent that are too high perform worse than teams with lower levels of top talent because they coordinate less effectively,” Swaab writes.

It’s basically scientific proof of the old saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.”

These top performers are driven to succeed, but looking out for number one is a big part of that strategy, and when you have a lot of people with that mentality on the same team where there can only be one actual number one, you wind up with a situation where people start focusing on their own status within the group and their own performance rather than doing what’s best or most productive for the team as a whole.

“It is likely that top talented individuals who are perceived as having high status are more dominant and competitive because they want to maintain the status quo and keep their high status, especially when they need to work with others who are also perceived as having high status,” Swaab says.

In sports like basketball, where every point relies heavily on everyone pitching in all at once, too much talent can be detrimental because of this clash between individual and team priorities. “When teams need to come together, more talent can tear them apart,” Swaab writes. But in sports like baseball, where the score is earned on more of an individual basis, teams don’t run into a problem with too much talent having a negative effect on performance, although after a certain point, the benefits of adding more talent grow smaller.

So if you suspect your workplace is like this, the research offers one possible solution in this comparison of how talent affects performance across different sports. You might need to shift your focus to work more independently if what Swaab calls “status conflicts” are detracting from your productivity.

“When coordination and collaboration with others is required to perform well, the superior task expertise of top talent is not sufficient,” he says. “Top talented individuals will also need to learn how to cooperate effectively” as a team.

TIME Companies

This Is Why People Are So Upset at Lego

WASHINGTON, DC- February 9: Lego photographed on February 9, 2011. (Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post via Getty Images) The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images

What’s not to like about Legos (unless you’re a parent stepping on one of those errant little blocks in the middle of the night)? The Danish toy is an icon, and adults as well as kids loved the Lego movie.

But a viral video by Greenpeace lambasting Lego for its partnership with Shell has stirred up a social media firestorm, thanks to the environmental group’s nearly two-minute depiction of a pristine Arctic landscape (made entirely of Legos, of course) flooded by a creeping tide of oil as a version of the song “Everything is Awesome” from the Lego movie plays in the background.

The issue at the crux of this unlikely mashup is Royal Dutch Shell’s initiative to drill for oil in the Arctic. The company’s plans to drill off the coast of Alaska are already on ice for the year following a January federal court ruling, but Greenpeace is turning up the heat on the oil giant anyway by targeting a partnership between Lego, Ferrari and oil company Shell to sell Lego cars branded with the oil company’s logo.

Lego has used the Shell logo (among others) on its toys in the past, and it has a long-term partnership with the oil company. On its website, Greenpeace explains the timing of the campaign, saying, “Now Shell is threatening the Arctic, it’s time for LEGO to finally pull the plug on this deal.”

Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University, says that since most people don’t see Legos and think, “arctic oil drilling,” the connection is surprising enough to attract attention. “Greenpeace is wisely targeting Lego to draw attention to the issue,” he says.

Other marketing experts agree. “Lego is an easy target for activists because of its wholesome reputation and the fact that its products target kids,” says Mike Johansson, a lecturer in communications dept. at Rochester Institute of Technology.

“As a pure PR play, “Everything Is NOT Awesome” (which has topped 1 million views since Tuesday) is itself pretty awesome,” AdWeek’s Tim Nudd writes.

Eye-catching? Yes. But will “Everything is NOT Awesome” be effective? That remains to be seen. Lego doesn’t seem to be backing down, at least not for now. On July 1, Lego posted a series of tweets to its Twitter feed and a longer version of a statement from president and CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp on its website.

“The Greenpeace campaign focuses on how Shell operates in a specific part of the world. We firmly believe that this matter must be handled between Shell and Greenpeace,” he said. “I would like to clarify that we intend to live up to the long term contract with Shell, which we entered into in 2011.”

Johansson points out that Lego has weathered PR storms before and emerged unscathed. “The reason, I believe, is that the majority of parents, the main buyers of Lego products, have questions about why activist groups target a children’s toy company.”

And Greenpeace isn’t actually asking parents not to buy Legos — just to voice their objections, which it seems they are doing. Forbes says since Greenpeace launched a petition at the beginning of the month asking Lego to break up with Shell, a quarter of a million letters have been sent to the toy company urging them to do just so, according to the environmental group.

The flip side is that Lego has spent a lot of time and money building a reputation for itself as an eco-friendly company, pledging to use all sustainable energy by the end of the decade and it’s looking for a sustainable plastic to use in manufacturing. Two years ago, its parent company even said it would spend more than $500 million towards construction of an offshore wind farm.

Given the time and effort it’s invested towards being green, Lego might eventually want to re-think the Shell partnership, Calkins says. “Shell clearly benefits from its partnership. For Lego, the connection with Shell is a mixed bag.”


The Insane Reason We Waste $162 Billion on Food

Aisle at supermarket with shopper and shopping cart
Aisle at supermarket with shopper and shopping cart Diana Angstadt—FlickrVision

Knowing when to throw out milk that’s gone sour or bread that’s grown mold is a no-brainer, but for many of the foods we eat, it’s not nearly as obvious when we shouldn’t eat them, and manufacturers often don’t make it any easier.

The upshot is that we throw out tons — literally — of perfectly good food. The USDA’s Economic Research Service estimated that in 2010, we threw out 133 billion pounds of food, which is almost a third of the country’s edible food.

That’s embarrassing. It’s also shockingly expensive. The USDA estimates the value of the food we chucked at $161.6 billion — and that’s only for a single year.

“Data show that many consumers do not understand the difference between a ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ date,” the Institute of Food Technologists says. The group

Especially for processed foods, there are a profusion of labeling terms like “sell by,” “best if used before” and others that are equally vague. “Use by” is the most straightforward. Eat or drink the item after the date and you risk a bout of gastrointestinal distress — or worse. The others are a little bit fuzzier: A “sell by” date includes a fair amount of wiggle room, depending on the product.

“‘Sell by’ is typically used by retailers to know when they know they have to take a product off the shelf. But when people buy that and see that date, they think it’s no longer good after the date,” says William Fisher, vice president of science and policy initiatives for IFT and one of the authors of a new scientific paper that looks at how the dates on our food contribute to us throwing it out prematurely.

The paper found that 25% of us have thrown out food past its “sell by” date and 10% think eating food after a “best by” date is a major health risk (it isn’t).

Labels that give a “best by” or “best before” date generally aren’t addressing food safety issues. It’s a marketing thing. “That’s to maximize the quality of their product. It protects their brand,” Fisher says. Food companies don’t want you thinking their products taste stale just because you let the stuff sit on a shelf for years.

The IFT says, in general, one-third of a product’s shelf life remains after a “sell by” date, but it can be hard for the average American to figure out just when that box of granola bars or bottle of salad dressing in their pantry was produced. Storage and handling particulars like whether the food is exposed to light and what temperature it’s kept at also affect how long an item will stay good.

Research in Europe argued earlier this year that “best before” dates should be scrapped entirely, since they’re not indicative of when it becomes risky to eat something. If you’re worried that what you’re eating might be suspect because it’s past one date or another that’s stamped on it, there are guides that lay out what to keep and what to chuck.

Even if you’re not concerned about the sheer volume of usable food Americans feed to their trash cans, keep in mind that a little healthy skepticism about those non-safety-related date labels can also help you lower your grocery bill.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser