When and How to Say ‘No’ to Your Boss (and Keep Your Job)

Woman gesturing no

You’re not Superman or Wonder Woman or [insert superhero of choice here]. Yet it sometimes feels like your boss thinks differently. They expect you to meet a billion deadlines in one day, read their minds and generally move heaven and earth to get the job done. And they also expect you to prioritise a new assignment over your current (and might I add, overwhelming) workload.

So, what do you do? Well, you tell them ‘no’ (provided that you have a valid reason to do so, of course).

Saying ‘no’ to your boss might sound like really bad career advice, but it’s sometimes a necessary evil.

Whether you’ve been asked to cover a shift, work extra hours, add yet another task to your workload or whatever your particular situation, here’s how to say ‘no’ to your boss – without being rude and, most importantly, without getting fired

When Is it Okay to Say ‘No’?

First things first, let’s take a quick look at when it’s actually okay to say ‘no’ to your boss:

  • You simply don’t have time: If you’re swamped for time and drowning in a sea of assignments, then preparing a list of all the projects you’re working on might be a good idea. Remember, if some of the tasks you’re working on weren’t delegated to you, your boss may not even be aware of them.
  • You’re not skilled enough: If you think you don’t have the right skillset to complete the assignment, the best thing you can do is to be honest about it. But, instead of flat-out refusing the assignment, be sure to come up with a solution – for example, getting training to improve your skills in the particular area that you’re lacking.
  • Your other work will suffer: The last thing you want is to underperform in your job. If you’re really worried that your other work will suffer as a result of taking on new work, say so!
  • You’re being taken advantage of: Sadly, not every boss is a good one. And if you happen to work for a bad one, then chances are they’ll try to take advantage of you at every opportunity. So if you find yourself working late every night or constantly running personal errands for your boss (which have nothing to do with your work), then now’s a good time to start putting your foot down.
  • Your values will be compromised: This one can be a little tricky, but if what you’re being asked to do goes against your personal values and you don’t feel comfortable doing it, then speak up. After all, if you don’t have your heart in it, then quality goes right out the window – and your boss will appreciate your honesty. Also, if you’re being asked to do something that is illegal or unethical, say ‘no’ immediately!

When Is it Not Okay to Say ‘No’?

While the following reasons might be good enough for you to turn down an assignment, I can assure you they won’t be for your boss.

  • It’s not part of your job description: The duties and responsibilities in your job description should be considered as the bare minimum, and you should make every effort to go above and beyond expectations. Especially if you want to go far in your career. So, instead of saying ‘it’s not my job’, think about your future at the company. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
  • The project looks too difficult: All this does is make you look lazy – which isn’t exactly among the top qualities employers look for in employees.
  • You’re too busy planning your wedding: A wedding is, quite understandably, a very nerve-wracking event to plan for, but spending company time ordering a cake and booking a venue for your big day is never a good idea. Especially if that’s your reason for declining to take on additional work. Not only will you lose the respect of those you work with but also, potentially, your job.
  • For the heck of it: Remember, there are always at least 10 other people lined up waiting for your job – meaning, your boss won’t think twice about hiring someone else who actually wants to do what they’re being asked.
  • You’re new: The truth is that if you’re within the first six months of a new job, you need to be more of a ‘yes’ man (or woman) if you want to prove your worth as a hardworking and motivated team member. 

How to Say ‘No’ to Your Boss

Now that you have an idea of when it’s okay (and when it’s not) to say ‘no’ to your boss, here are a few tips to help you do just that:

  • Consider their request: Before you jump to tell your boss ‘no’, make sure that you give their request a little thought and evaluate the validity of the reasons you’re saying ‘no’ in the first place. Ask yourself whether you’re already working on multiple assignments that leave you no time for this one. Can you delegate some of your other work to make room for this assignment? Could you put some other assignments on the backburner while you work on this one? Would taking on this assignment cause harm to your other work?
  • Buy yourself some time: If you need to, ask for a little bit of time to figure out whether you can or can’t honour their request. Say something like: ‘Can I have a couple of hours to think this through and see where it fits alongside my other priorities?’
  • Don’t say ‘no’: What I mean by this is to say no without actually using the word ‘no’. In other words, instead of saying ‘No, I don’t have time for that’ or ‘No, that’s not my job’, try taking a more tactful approach to explaining your reason. Something like ‘I would be happy to do that project, but I’ve got two deadlines coming up, and I don’t think I would be able to work on it this week’ could do the trick.
  • Be straightforward: It’s important that you explain your reasons (whatever they may be) as clearly and as straightforward as possible to avoid any possible misunderstandings. For example, saying something as vague as ‘I can’t do that now’ can be taken to mean ‘I’ll be right on it in an hour’.
  • Suggest an alternative: Employers love employees who can offer solutions to their problems, and this is your moment to shine. Even though you won’t be able to work on the assignment directly, try to offer an alternative to stay in your boss’s good books. This could be something like politely suggesting they speak to someone else who may be more suitable for the particular task.
  • Don’t lie: Be honest and upfront about your reasons, because chances are your supervisor will discover the truth later down the road if you lie to them. And this will only reflect badly on you and result in a loss of trust. However, if your reasons are slightly personal (for example, you would have to work with a co-worker you absolutely loathe), then you might want to bend the truth a little.
  • Don’t be rude: There’s no need to be mean or resentful, however slighted you may feel. So that means no sighing, no grimacing and definitely no it’s-not-my-turns. Watch your tone, body language and overall reaction, and try to be polite about your rejection – but not too polite. Find the perfect balance of firmness and graciousness. 

Have you ever had to say no to a ‘boss’? Why and how did you go about it? What was the outcome? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences, as well as any tips and tricks, with us!