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Have you ever been asked to do something beyond the scope of your responsibilities? Did you say yes, even though you didn't think it was a great idea? If you’re uncomfortable with saying no to people, we have good news: there are ways to decline work that are professional—and even helpful. 

Why is it so hard to say no?

For many of us, saying no can be a real challenge. After all, we don’t want to be perceived as lazy, unhelpful, or unwilling to be part of the team. There are times when you may feel you can’t say no, like when a supervisor is making a request. Other times, you may not want to disappoint a colleague whom you respect. There’s also the worry that if you turn down an opportunity, you may not be approached for future projects. And for women in particular, saying no to work can be hard, as so many of us have been socialized to always be helpful and accommodating. 

Whatever the reason, it’s important to acknowledge the inner voice that’s telling you, “I really don’t want to do this.” After all, if you’re not committed to the work you’re saying yes to, no one is going to end up happy as a result. The key is to be able to say no in a way that doesn’t offend, burn bridges, or otherwise reflect poorly on you. 

Be honest and offer alternatives

The best way to decline a request is to be prepared with honest reasons, and propose alternatives or other suggestions. Below are a few situations with examples of how you could politely say no:

  • Your supervisor wants you to manage an additional program, but you’re already overworked. This is a case where you need to be clear about what other projects you’re working on and how much of your time they take up. You can say something like, “I’d really like to take on this program, but I’m spending [X AMOUNT OF TIME] on [CURRENT PROJECTS]. If there’s a way that we can redistribute some of these other responsibilities, then I would definitely have the time necessary to devote to this program.” This way, you’re not saying you’re unwilling to do the work, and you’re also reminding your boss what your day-to-day currently entails. 
  • You’ve been asked to be the point person for tech-related troubleshooting on your team, but it’s outside of your skillset (and your job description). Sometimes when you’re in an administrative role, you’re expected to be the go-to Help Desk. But if you’re being asked to take on a lead role of managing tech issues that you’re simply not equipped to handle, you need to let your supervisor (or team members) know. You could say, “I’m great with running the A/V in meetings, but this is really not an area I’m familiar with. Maybe I could contact someone in tech support?” Again, you’ve made it clear that you’re not unwilling to do the work—it’s just not your area of expertise. You could also express your willingness to be trained (if you're interested).
  • A colleague has asked if you’d like to collaborate on a project, but you’re just not interested. Rather than just saying your hands are full, try to think of people that may be interested in working with this colleague on this particular project. Perhaps someone else would be a better fit. That way, you could tell them, “I’m not sure that I’m the right person for this, but I may know someone else who would love the opportunity. Would you like me to connect you?”

Saying no remotely

The fine line between politely declining a request or seeming disinterested can be blurred in writing; sometimes we rely on the subtleties of face-to-face interactions. So in remote work situations, a video call is often a better option than an email or Slack message. You can always follow up a call with an email so that you have a record of it. 

Pro Tip: You don’t have to say no on the spot. Ask for further details or time to think it over, so you can fully assess what you’re being asked to do. This will help you come up with a tactful response.


Have you ever found it hard to say no to work requests? Why, or why not? Share your thoughts on Facebook!

Lakshmi Hutchinson profile image

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

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