13 Clever Ways to Tell Your Boss “No”

Sometimes it's the best option—for both you and the company.

13 Clever Ways to Tell Your Boss “No”

Sometimes it's the best option—for both you and the company.

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Nobody wants to say “no” to their boss, but sometimes it has to be done for sanity’s sake. Yes, it’s technically your job to do what your boss tells you, but sometimes even they don’t realize that you have too much on your plate to realistically take on more work—and in these instances, you need to put your foot down. And in other instances, it’s entirely likely that you know how to do your job well enough to know that your boss is either micromanaging incorrectly or his or her course of action isn’t the wisest one.

So how can you say no without offending your boss (or ending up in HR’s office)? Before you hit send on your email or waltz into their office, make sure your message is firm yet empathetic, and entirely professional. And if you can, offer your boss a suggestion for another way to get the task done, as it’ll both get you off the hook and make you look like an effective problem solver. Ultimately, it’s possible to say “no” politely and effectively. Here’s how. And for more workplace advice, learn Exactly How to Ask for a Raise.

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1
Give them a valid reason.

Don’t just tell your boss you don’t want to do something because you don’t feel like doing it. Come armed with a legitimate reason. For instance: If your boss wants you to help train a new employee but you already have too much on your plate, kindly explain to them that you’re already swamped with (insert your massive to-do list here). Any good boss will understand that you can only be in one place at a time. If the new task is more important, they’ll most likely push the deadlines for the other assignments to ease your workload.

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2
Always offer alternative solutions.

Your boss isn’t going to appreciate it if you just tell them that he or she is wrong or you’re too busy to help with no further solution to the problem at hand. But what they will appreciate (and remember at your next performance review) is if you offer alternative suggestions and make their lives exponentially easier.

A great example of this would be if your boss asked you to stay late on a Friday—a Friday where you’ve already made plans. Instead of giving your boss a flat-out nope, tell him or her, that while you’re busy that night, you’re more than happy to come in for a few hours on Saturday (or even earlier Monday morning) and help with whatever they need. You don’t have to cancel your plans, and the work that needs to get done still gets done. Win-win! And if being overworked is a problem for you, read up on The 50 Top Secrets of a Perfect Work-Life Balance.

Woman talking to her boss at work.

3
Remind your boss of your existing workload.

If you have multiple bosses, then they might not be consulting with one another to see what’s already on your plate before they give you a new assignment. And unfortunately, should your bosses assign more than you can handle, the only person who will look bad at the end of the day is you. Therefore, it’s up to you to keep all of your higher-ups in the loop, lest they overwhelm you with assignments that realistically won’t get done on time.

Man Being Sexist to Female Coworker

4
Show your gratitude.

Even when you say no, you should thank your boss just for considering you to take on more work. It might sound weird, but as The Humor Advantage author Michael Kerr explained to Business Insider, your boss is only offering you more work because they have faith in your abilities—and that in itself deserves some recognition on your end.

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5
Find someone else to do it.

When you approach your boss with the news that you can’t help them at the moment, it will soften the blow to add to this statement that you have, however, found another qualified employee who does have some time to lend a hand. Any good co-worker will be happy to help out—so long as their schedule isn’t overbooked, too.

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6
Be empathetic.

Refusing a request from the person who signs your paychecks is a sensitive matter, so always remember to acknowledge the importance of your boss’ request before denying it. One way to go about this would be writing something like, “I understand that this is important and must be done thoroughly, but unfortunately I don’t have enough time on my schedule to give this assignment the attention it deserves.”

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7
Buy yourself some time.

Don’t agree to do something just because you’re put on the spot. If your boss calls to see if you can handle something but you’re already in the middle of a lengthy assignment, explain that you’re on a tight deadline and ask to approach the topic again later that day. Then, when your head is clearer and you can address the subject, you can explain that your plate is already too full and provide an alternate solution. And for more work solutions, don’t miss the 20 Genius Ways to Make Work More Fun.

Woman is confronting her boss at work.

8
Don’t beat around the bush.

Let’s face it: Not all managers are easy to deal with. Some bosses simply see work as the first and only priority, which often results in many a long night at the office. But how do you tell your boss no when they ask you to spend yet another night working late?

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to be direct. You can’t expect your boss to read your mind, and so unless you tell them that you don’t want to work late, they might not even realize that it’s a problem for you (especially if they themselves are workaholics). And if you’re not sure if your boss is bonkers or not, you may want to familiarize yourself with the 15 Signs Your Boss Is a Psychopath.

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9
Acknowledge who’s in charge.

Newsflash: It’s not you. In your email or response to your boss, make sure that you include some iteration of the words “I understand that ultimately this is your call.” You have every right to say “no” in certain scenarios, but you still want to ensure that you don’t anger your boss or engage in any sort of power struggle.

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10
Firmly end the conversation.

At the end of your email, write something along the lines of, “Thank you for understanding.” As management author Suzy Welch explained to CNBC, this tactic is “unbelievably effective” because it prevents any further back-and-forth on the matter. The last thing you want to do is leave wiggle room in your email for your boss to misinterpret your words and sucker you into accepting the assignment you’re trying to say no to. And for email etiquette tips you can use every day, don’t miss the 17 Genius Email Hacks That Will Improve Your Life.

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11
Don’t make it personal.

When you talk to your boss about why you’re unable to handle their request, make sure to keep any personal politics out of it. Everything you say should be factual and work-related, and you should avoid bringing any of your personal problems with your job or your boss into your response. An example of what not to write: “I just really don’t feel like doing this project because it’s beneath me and all of my other coworkers are doing much more important things.”

Woman is working hard at night, last one in the office.

12
Set boundaries.

“If you don’t want to be on call during weekends or holidays, make this clear in the beginning where there is more leeway and where it’s black and white,” workplace communications expert Diane Amundson told Fast Company. That way, when your boss needs someone to work on Christmas, you won’t be the first one asked.

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13
Read the mood.

Don’t tell your boss that you’re too busy to take on another project when he’s in a bad mood. If your boss is already noticeably anguished, then your email might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back—and the last thing you want is to be a scapegoat for your boss’ fit of fury. Instead, just wait an hour or two for your boss to cool down before you file your request. By that time, your boss will be better prepared for some more bad news, and will be understanding of your predicament. And for more ways to kill it in the workplace, don’t miss the 60 Best 60-Second Productivity Hacks.

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