How to Say No at Work

How to Say No at Work

Some things aren’t hard to say no to, like dog-sitting your neighbor’s odious chow or signing anything in the hands of nonprofit logo-wearers.

But at work, refusing a request won’t just get you puppy dog eyes—from canine or wearer. You wouldn’t want to jeopardize your position with coworkers or bosses, but there are only so many hours in a day. Plus, saying yes all the time might give the impression that you’re a pushover.

Sometimes, you just have to say no.

“The worst thing you can do is overpromise and under-deliver,” says Great On The Job founder Jodi Glickman. “People are afraid to say no, so they’ll typically say yes and hand in shoddy work.” Glickman insists that doing a lousy job is worse than stating your reservations upfront.

Success coach Marilyn Suttle notes that once you’ve decided to say no, you should just be direct. “Don’t say things like, ‘I kind of wanted more time to complete the project,’ or ‘I guess I could try to fit in the extra work.’ Those phrases will get you bulldozed into a promise you can’t keep. You gain more respect from your boss and peers when you consistently deliver on your agreements. Find the courage to be clear.”

While a request from your boss might be more urgent than one from your cubicle-mate, every request deserves the same consideration and courtesy when evaluating whether you can handle it.

“No” Is Just “Yes” …  on Your Terms

When refusing someone’s request, include viable alternatives or conditions to both soften the blow and reshape the request into something you can complete. According to success coach Marilyn Suttle, here’s the difference between a helpful and an unhelpful refusal:

Unhelpful: “No, I can’t get the work done by Tuesday.”

Helpful: “I wish I could have it done by Tuesday. What I can do is deliver half the order by Tuesday and the rest by the end of the week.”

Both Suttle and Glickman agree that clarity is key. When refusing (or “reshaping”) a request, be transparent with your reasoning. This is helpful whether you’re speaking to your boss or to a client.

“Reshaping” Up, Down and Sideways

While a request from your boss might be more urgent than one from your cubicle-mate, every request deserves the same consideration and courtesy when evaluating whether you can handle it. Whether you’re being asked for an audit or a coffee, your response reflects on you, not them.

“Always deliver a 'no' with compassion and clarity,” Suttle reminds us. “Clients especially feel a loss of control when they hear ‘no,’ so make sure to present an alternative option. And whatever you do, avoid the phrase ‘I understand how you feel.’ You couldn’t possibly, and it’s very frustrating to hear.”

There’s a different way to talk to a boss as opposed to someone who reports to you, so we’ve broken down the various politics at play in each scenario. Here’s how to refuse with grace, no matter who you’re talking to:

Your Boss:

Saying no falls under the gray area of whether she is asking you or telling you. When orders filter down from upstairs, the question format is usually a courtesy. So, “reshape” right away if you’re having reservations.

“Sure, but to make that work, I’ll need … ”

-        to delay this other project
-        more information
-        to be put in contact with the client

Your Clients:

Depending on your field, refusing clients can be unavoidable, but make sure to offer them something that is doable. Suttle recommends restoring their feeling of control by offering alternate choices to distract them from the sting of a refusal.

“I’m sorry I won’t be able to help you with that, but perhaps I could … ”

-        Offer you this other product?
-        Put you in touch with someone who can help?
-        Give you this manageable alternative idea?

Your Coworkers:

They understand because they’re probably in a similar boat, but it’s extra important to be transparent. “I can’t get to it before Wednesday because accounting is breathing down my neck,” goes over a lot better than, “Can’t. What are you doing for lunch?” (Learn why you'll live longer by turning your coworkers into friends.)

“Of course, but I’ll need … ”

-        More time
-        More resources
-        Help from you or another person

Want to Get Ahead at Work?

Learn more of Jodi Glickman's tips

Your Employees:

Tread softly and make sure to show that you’re taking your subordinates’ requests seriously. You can reshape the request from your end as well, by expressing what needs to change to garner a yes. (Find out why being too nice at work can hold you back.)

“I’m afraid that won’t work, but … ”

-        I appreciate the effort
-        I’ll reconsider if you change the due date/scope/budget


When others say no to you, be gracious. A little empathy can go a long way. Try to figure out how you can reshape your own request to make it work.

“I understand. So … ”

-        Is there anything I can do to make this more manageable?
-        What do you need from me to make this work?
-        How about if we change it in the following way?


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