How to Say ‘No’ When You’re Called into Work out of Hours

A young woman holding up a tablet that says no’

When you work in a small office, it can be tough to say ‘no’ to your boss, especially if you have a good relationship with them. You don’t want to disappoint the person who is responsible for your next promotion, after all, which can make it all the more hard to avoid saying ‘yes’.

Therefore, when you’re asked to come into the office during your downtime, you might feel a tinge of awkwardness, especially if all hell is breaking loose and your boss is desperate.

You don’t need to feel guilty or, indeed, fearful when saying ‘no’, though. Just because you cannot physically come into the office, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make you any less reliable of an employee. A reasonable and understanding boss will recognise this.

So, if you can’t fulfil the request, here are some top tips to avoid coming into work out of hours.

1. Don’t give stupid excuses

It’s human nature that, when saying ‘no’ to someone, we feel as though we have to justify ourselves. As a result, if you want to say ‘no’ to working, you will probably feel as though you owe your boss a reason; it’s important to remember, though, that you don’t owe anybody an explanation.

It’s advisable to give some context (a flat-out ‘no’ can come across as too blunt, and your perceived coldness won’t work in your favour in the long term) but do avoid going into too much depth. When you start filling in the small, insignificant details, it can seem more like an excuse than a real reason.

For example, if you start waffling on about how you can’t come into work because you have to clean your kitchen, give your dog a bath and then go and look for new curtains, this turns into an excuse-like answer.

Instead, simply say something more general like: ‘I’d love to help you out but, unfortunately, I just have far too many things to catch up on today, and I won’t have time – sorry!’

Always remember that you’re not doing anything wrong by refusing your boss’s request. You were not scheduled to work, so you don’t need to go in – and you don’t need to feel guilty about it, either.

Of course, if you’re available next time, then happily say ‘yes’. But if you aren’t, this doesn’t mean that you should be afraid to say ‘no’.

2. Stick to your guns

Although this is inappropriate – and could be considered bad management – some bosses may continue to pester you to work, even after you’ve already told them you can’t.

By doing so, they are revealing that either they are genuinely desperate or that they believe they can change your mind. If it’s a case of the latter, then it’s important that you don’t change your original answer, as this will only encourage their behaviour and make it increasingly harder for you to say ‘no’.

Instead, stick to your guns and be firm. If they continue to ask, say: ‘I understand that you’re desperate, but as I said, unfortunately, I can’t come in today. That will not change; I’m sorry.’

This is a polite but direct approach that shows your boss that you are unwilling to budge and that further pestering is pointless. Of course, if they continue to ask, then this would be not only inappropriate but also unreasonable on your boss’s part. If this is the case, you may need to reassess your current situation and be a little bit stronger in your message.

3. Be confident in yourself and your answer

In situations where people know they can try to guilt, threaten or emotionally manipulate you, it’s vitally important to let that person know that you’re not going to fold. Therefore, when you communicate, ensure that you exude confidence – whether you feel confident or not.

As soon as you start to waver or hesitate, you are giving the impression that you could be persuaded to change your mind and that, with a bit of coaxing, you’ll eventually agree to come into work. Don’t let this happen.

Instead, be assertive in your answer; if your decision is no, then stick to it. When you’re confident, and you stand your ground, people are a lot more likely to accept your answer.


4. Offer a rain check

Whatever the reason for saying ‘no’ – whether it’s genuine or not – it’s understandable to worry about potential ramifications for your promotion chances or, simply, your day-to-day relationship with your boss. You don’t want them to always see you as that person who let them down when they needed help, for instance, while you don’t want to lose out on that junior management position to Debra just because she was able to show up.

Therefore, to try and preserve your reputation and soften the blow, let your boss know that, although you’re unavailable this time, you are open to being called in the next time something happens. Despite saying ‘no’ to the current request, you’re following up with a positive offer; it’s also a good idea that when you do return to your desk, you go the extra mile to stay in your boss’s good books and reiterate your commitment to the job.

5. Offer a solution to the problem

Just because you’re unavailable, it doesn’t mean that you can’t offer some alternative suggestions. Perhaps a task can be delegated to someone else, for example, or you could suggest that you’d be happy to come in earlier tomorrow and ensure that everything is up to speed.

This shows that, although you can’t come in, you do care about the task being accomplished. Remain firm, but don’t completely disregard the situation that’s going on at work.

6. Don’t cave to threats

It shouldn’t come to this, but if your boss turns nasty and starts issuing threats in order to try and coax you in, don’t take the bait. Not only is it giving in to bully tactics, but it also suggests that your original reasons for not coming in were not very robust in the first place, making you look bad.

Simply remain calm and professional and reiterate your original point: you’re sorry, but you already have other commitments today that you can’t toss aside and that nothing has changed in that regard.

A good manager understands that their staff needs time away – mentally and physically – from the office, so questioning your commitment to your job, or threatening to make your working life more difficult, is not a valid reason for you to come in. Besides, any manager that disregards the fact that you have a personal life, and expects you to put the needs of the company first, is not the kind of boss that you want to be working for.

7. Don’t let it get out of hand

If it’s a very rare occurrence and something genuinely unexpected has happened, you can forgive your boss for calling you in. But if it is becoming a frequent thing and you are constantly working outside of your contracted hours, then one of two things is happening: your boss is either demonstrating a total lack of resource and time management or they are taking advantage of you.

If it gets to this point, you should sit down with your manager (during normal working hours!), and request to address the issue. Point out that your employment contract is being violated and that you are not getting the levels of rest and recuperation you need to effectively do your job. If nothing changes, then you should think seriously about taking your skills elsewhere.

Finally, if your boss offers to give you the hours back in lieu, make sure you get it in writing. Unfortunately, many managers have a tendency to ‘forget’ about your sacrifices or, even worse, take them for granted, so if you are offered the time back – make sure you get it.

Remember: there’s nothing wrong with covering shifts for people and coming in outside of your regular work hours, but you also need to consider the impact on your personal life and, indeed, your health. You need your time off, so don’t allow yourself to feel guilty or pressured into giving it up.

More often than not, a firm ‘no, I can’t’ will do the trick. You can avoid saying ‘yes’ without feeling bad, after all. Be confident in your answer and try to provide an alternative solution, and you should be fine to put your feet up and continue enjoying your time off.

Have you been asked to come in out of hours? What did you say or do to get out of it? Let us know in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 24 September 2014.