3 Times it's Okay to Say No at Work

Deborah Swerdlow

A stopsign.

“No” is one of the most common first words for English-speaking babies. But as working adults, it can be one of the hardest things to say—especially at the office.

“No” doesn’t have to be a scary word. It can be empowering. And sometimes, it’s the right thing to say. But aside from the obvious deal-breakers like being asked to do something illegal or unsafe, how do you know when to say “no”?

Here are three scenarios when it’s totally okay to say "no," plus advice on what to say instead.

When you get an assignment from someone other than your supervisor

We all want to be helpful at work, so it’s tempting to say “yes” in this situation, especially if you work in a small organization where there’s a culture of pitching in. But if you’re being asked to take on a substantive project, it’s a good idea to check with your supervisor first, for a variety of reasons.

For example, your supervisor may want you to decline the assignment if she’s about to give you an important project that relates directly to your duties. Or, if this co-worker has a habit of coming to you with projects instead of going to others on his team, that’s something your supervisor may want to know.

How to say no: “Thanks for reaching out. Let me check with [SUPERVISOR'S NAME] to see if I’ll be able to handle that. I can get back to you by the end of the week. Does that work for you?” You may also suggest that for future requests, it would be helpful to simply CC your direct supervisor on the email (if email is how these types of requests and assignments generally come in).

Why this works: You’re acknowledging the request, explaining the step you need to take before responding, and letting them know when they can expect an answer. This will also help you to help your supervisor more effectively "gate keep" for you.

You may also ask why your co-worker approached you for this assignment. That information can help your supervisor determine if it’s an appropriate task for you or if someone else would be better suited.

When you're asked to take on a project but you have too much on your plate

Assuming you’re managing your time well, the ability to recognize and acknowledge when you have more work than you can handle is an important professional skill. It means you understand your limits, which will help minimize burnout. It also shows colleagues and superiors that you’re willing to speak up and advocate for yourself.

How to say no: “If I take on X project, I’m concerned that I’ll have too much on my plate to do a good job while juggling this new project with existing and ongoing projects. If you feel that X project is an important one for me, can we chat about what I may be able to de-prioritize to make room for X?”

Why this works: It shows you’re being thoughtful about your time and considering your whole workload. It can also give your boss important information about your workload. For example, if you don’t have capacity for this new project because you’re spending 40% of your time on a project that she thought would take 15% of your time, that’s something she needs to know.

Pro Tip: You don’t have to wait for a new assignment to talk to your boss about a heavy workload.

When you feel you’re not the right person to take on the task

Before you decline a task that you don’t feel qualified for, examine your feelings. Are you sure you’re not the best person for the job, or are you letting impostor syndrome hold you back? Is it possible that this task will take you out of your comfort zone, in a way that stretches your skills or allows you to branch into a new area you’ve been wanting to try? If so, consider giving it a try!

If you still feel like you’re not the best person for the job, it’s okay to say no.

How to say no: “I don’t think I’m the best person for that project because [fill in the blank with the reason, such as lacking experience in a critical area]. Would you like me to think about who might be a better fit? And I’d be happy to support the project, but I don’t think I’m the best person to lead it.”

Why this works: You’re explaining why you’re declining the request, which demonstrates that you’ve thoughtfully considered it, and you’re offering a solution. You’re also offering to support the project, which shows that you aren’t trying to pass the buck.

Pro Tip: If you can’t take on the task because you lack a certain skill that’s available through a training, you can use this opportunity to ask your organization to sponsor you for that training.

Reclaiming the word “no”

“No” is only a scary word if we allow it to be scary. When you face a scenario where “no” feels like the right answer, remember these tips:

  • Be thoughtful about why you’re saying no
  • Explain your reasoning
  • Offer alternative solutions, where possible

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Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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