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

It’s sometimes harder than you think.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Illustration of a man feeding a baby while on the phone to a businesswoman

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 responsible for your next promotion, after all, which can make it all the harder 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 can’t physically come into work, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make you any less reliable of an employee. A reasonable and understanding boss will recognize this.

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

Why it’s okay to say “no”

While it’s normal to feel pressure to say “yes” and keep your supervisors appeased when they unexpectedly ask you to come into work, saying “no” is important for maintaining a work–life balance.

By declining such a request, you are setting a boundary for your manager, indicating that you are not on standby outside your prescribed working hours and that they cannot expect you to be either. While you may feel guilty at first for protecting your time and energy beyond the bounds of work, this is necessary to prevent burnout and is well within your rights as a worker of any company.

When to say “no”

In the simplest terms, if you were not scheduled to go to work, then you have no obligation to accept your boss’s request, especially if it is on short notice. For example, if you get a call an hour before the shift is meant to begin, it is not reasonable that you would be expected to show up for it.

Meanwhile, if your supervisor gives you a heads-up a few days or hours ahead, this might be more feasible. That said, you are still not obliged to accept.

Of course, there may be emergencies or last-minute changes, and you may not always want to turn down a request to go to work, but it’s important to only agree if this aligns with your schedule.

How to say “no” politely

Sometimes, accepting a request to go to work might be easier than the alternative, but you must learn to stand your ground and stay firm with your choice. However, you must still be tactful and respectful in your refusal.

For example, don’t lie about the reasons you cannot go in. In fact, you don’t need to offer an extensive explanation or excuse. Simply state that you have other obligations that cannot be rearranged and that you will not be able to come in.

Furthermore, be responsive when your boss reaches out. The quicker you let them know, the sooner they will be able to find someone else who may be available.

Do you say “no” by phone, text or email?

Depending on how your manager gets in touch with you, you could respond accordingly.

That said, if they give you a call and you are unable to answer, then shooting them a text might be the fastest way to get back to them and let them know you are not available. It might also be wise to have a written record of your interactions with your boss, especially if they are pushy with their requests.

If you don’t feel comfortable receiving calls or texts from work, then you could clarify with them what is your preferred method of communication (eg: email) so they can stick to that in the future, too.

Best excuses for saying “no”

Excuses to Say No When Asked to Work Out of Hours

Tips for saying “no”

1. Don’t give silly 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’ll 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 favor 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.

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”.


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!

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’re revealing that they either are genuinely desperate or 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 behavior and make it increasingly harder for you to say “no”.

By being firm, and sticking to your original reply, you’ll show your boss that you’re 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.


I understand that you need someone to come in, but as I said, unfortunately, I can’t today. That will not change.

3. Be confident in your answer

When saying “no”, ensure that you exude confidence.

As soon as you start to waver or hesitate, you’ll give 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 — if your decision is “no”, then stick to it and don’t say “maybe”. When you confidently stand your ground, people are a lot more likely to accept your answer.


Sorry, but I can’t come in with such short notice, as I have other commitments.

4. Take a rain check

Whatever the reason for saying “no”, it’s understandable to worry that this could affect your chance at a promotion or, simply, your current relationship with your boss.

You don’t want them to see you as that person who let them down when they needed help, for example, nor do you want to lose out on that junior management position to someone else just because they were able to show up.

Therefore, to preserve your reputation and soften the blow, let your boss know that although you’re unavailable this time, you’re 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 work, you go the extra mile to stay in your boss’s good books and demonstrate your commitment to the job.


Unfortunately, I can’t say “yes” this time. However, I can definitely come in and help out next week if someone can’t make their shift.

5. Offer a solution to the problem

Just because you’re unavailable, it doesn’t mean that you can’t offer suggestions that could resolve the issue.

Perhaps a task can be delegated to someone else, or you could say you’d be happy to come in earlier the next day and ensure that everything is up to speed.

This shows that although you aren’t available to work at that time, you do care about helping with the resolution of a problem. Stand your ground, but don’t completely disregard the situation at hand.


Unfortunately, I can’t come in today. However, Steven is familiar with this project and could communicate the issue with the clients so it can be resolved today. Otherwise, I’m more than happy to come in early tomorrow and talk with the clients myself.

6. Don’t cave into threats

In situations where your boss tries to guilt, threaten or emotionally manipulate you, it’s vitally important to let them know that you’re not going to fold. It shouldn’t come to this, but if your boss turns nasty and starts issuing threats in order to twist your arm, don’t take the bait. Try to stay calm and professional, and reiterate your original point.

A good manager understands and respects the fact that their staff need time away from work. Someone questioning your commitment to your job, or threatening to make your working life more difficult, should not be 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.


I’m sorry, but I already have other commitments today that I can’t reschedule. Nothing has changed in that regard.

7. Reiterate your rights

Following up from the previous point, a good way to deflect threats and deal with their unreasonable demands is by reiterating your rights.

Make sure that you’re up to date with local and national laws that apply to your industry and role, and familiarize yourself with your employment contract, as there could be certain points that you could use in your favor.

If your employer demands that you come in to work and starts making unfair requests, you can stop them at their tracks by pointing out that your employment contract is being violated and that you’re not getting the levels of rest and recuperation you need to effectively do your job.

That said, if nothing changes, then you should think seriously about taking your skills elsewhere.


I’m sorry I can’t make it in today, but as you know, you’re legally obligated to inform me of my shifts at least 24 hours in advance. I’m not able to come in on such short notice.

8. Set boundaries

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’s becoming a frequent thing and you’re constantly working outside 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’re 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.

Finally, if your boss offers to give you the hours back in lieu, make sure you get it in writing. Unfortunately, many managers tend to “forget” about your sacrifices or, even worse, take them for granted, so if you’re offered the time back, make sure you get it.


Unfortunately, I won’t be able to fit this into my schedule, and I would appreciate it if you refrained from asking me to work outside my regular contracted hours.

9. Consider the ramifications of saying “yes”

If you’re quite a compliant person who can be easily persuaded to change their mind, then you need to find a way to stop yourself from saying “yes” to extra work you didn’t ask for in the first place.

A good way to do this is to consider the cost of saying “yes” and giving up your free time to dash into the office. Whether you have arranged doctor appointments, made plans with friends or have family obligations, consider how caving into your boss’s requests could derail your entire day and the impact this could have on your personal life.


I would love to help, but right now isn’t a good time for me, as I am too busy with prearranged obligations.

10. Reassess your work–life balance

Do you often prioritize your work over everything else? If so, saying “no” could be challenge for you.

Establishing a healthy work-life balance is essential for many reasons, including your mental health and family life. Relearning how to approach your work in a healthy way can be a process, but a good way to start is by setting clear boundaries for both yourself and your employer — especially if they’re now accustomed to you always showing up when you’re not obligated to.

Next time you’re asked to come into work during your time off, make sure to communicate to your boss that you need to take a step back and focus on other matters.


I’m sorry, but I need to prioritize my family, as I have been overwhelmed with work this past week. I hope you understand.

Final thoughts

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

More often than not, a firm “no, I can’t” will do the trick. As long as you’re confident in your answer, you should be fine to put your feet up and continue enjoying your time off.

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

Originally published on September 24, 2014. Updated by Melina Theodorou.