How to Say No to Your Boss Without Being Rude
We have all been in such a situation. You are almost up to your nose in work. You have one project that is due tomorrow evening. Another must be complete before the weekend.
You don’t see how you can possibly complete all this work in time.
As you try to get the most urgent one done, your boss comes up and says she has a task she wants you to do before the day is over.
You almost feel like screaming in frustration, but you control yourself.
Smiling, you nod to the boss and say a nonchalant “Okay.”
She leaves the file on top of your desk and off she goes, leaving you defeated and demotivated because you know there is no way you are beating your deadlines or doing a quality job.
Instead of taking up the new task, wouldn’t it have been better to speak up and say something like, “I’d love to, but look at the pile of work I am working on”?
Yes, it would, but unfortunately, most of us do not have the guts for it.
We just say yes to everything our bosses tell us to do, even when saying no is the better option.
This is because a lot of us believe that saying no to our bosses is tantamount to being rude or insubordination.
However, it doesn’t have to be so. You can actually say no to your boss without coming across as rude.
In this article, we are going to take a look at how exactly to do that, as well as situations where saying no might be the right thing to do, and situations where you shouldn’t do it.
SITUATIONS THAT MIGHT NECESSITATE SAYING NO TO YOUR BOSS
Many people feel uncomfortable saying no to their bosses, even in situations when they know they should.
Unless your boss is totally unreasonable, he/she doesn’t expect you to be completely subservient to his/her every request.
In fact, the ability to say no to your boss can actually impress them as it shows you have initiative, a quality bosses like to see in their employees.
Some of the situations where saying no to your boss might be the right thing to do include:
1. Unreasonable Requests
This one may be tricky as it is subjective.
What may feel unreasonable to you may not look so to others or to your boss. You have to scrutinize the situation carefully and confirm that it is actually unreasonable.
For instance, being asked to work late to finish an urgent task is not unreasonable.
However, if it becomes the norm and it starts eating into your weekends, off days, and even vacation time, it might be time to take a stand against it.
Some bosses are unreasonable and sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself or they will keep walking all over you.
Another good example of an unreasonable request is when you are expected to take on extra work when you are already swamped with tasks that have close deadlines.
In such a situation, the right thing is to decline the additional tasks.
2. You Lack the Skills
This is another tricky one, as it requires courage from you. Your boss might assume you have a certain skill which you actually don’t have.
If it is something you can learn quickly on the job, the best thing is to take on the task and learn while working on it. If a colleague knows how to do it, ask them to teach you.
This actually demonstrates initiative.
However, if the skill is something that will take a long time to learn to do well, you should not feel any shame admitting to your boss that you don’t possess the skill.
The alternative – wasting the boss’s and your time pretending you can do something which you cannot – is actually worse.
However, express a desire to learn.
If the company offers training programs, enroll and learn in readiness for a future scenario when you will again be given a similar task. In other words, do not flat-out refuse the assignment.
Remember that the inability to do something is a sign of, at worst incompetence, and at best lack of versatility.
It is not something to be proud of and you should therefore be humble when expressing your regret that you cannot take on this particular task.
3. You Know Better
This is a situation which requires even more courage and initiative.
Let’s say you know more about a particular field than your boss, and he/she has told you to do a task using a procedure that you know is sure to fail.
Should you speak up when you are sure that your boss is wrong?
With some bosses, this may be misconstrued as impudence.
With a good boss, this will be seen for what it is – initiative.
You must therefore be prudent in the way you express yourself in such a situation.
Do not be cocky or brash when expressing your point of view.
Instead, speak calmly, clearly, politely, and respectfully, giving all the relevant details to ensure your boss understands exactly why you have misgivings.
If your boss listens and it turns out you were right and you save the company time or money, your boss will be impressed with you.
Such initiative is what gets you noticed at work and promoted.
However, take care that your approach doesn’t end up making an enemy out of your boss.
4. Breaking the Law
It is not easy finding a job, and many people just go with the flow when their boss asks them to do something illegal.
Unfortunately, the legal system won’t exonerate you just because you were simply being an obedient employee.
If you are asked to do something illegal, you should say no.
You may lose your job for it, but you will at least sleep with a clear conscience.
Furthermore, you won’t have to look over your shoulder at all times, afraid that the long arm of the law is about to catch up with you.
A good example of law breaking is when the boss asks you to forge documents or falsify certain records.
If you are a new hire poached from a competitor, the boss might ask you to divulge proprietary information from your previous job.
Or you could be asked to engage in improper dealings with customers – for instance, being asked to blackmail or intimidate customers.
If you are a supervisor or manager, one of your superiors might demand that you fire someone who does not deserve to be fired.
Such unlawful termination is a form of workplace harassment and you could be reported to the EEOC.
Breaking the law is never worth it, even when it seems to pay off for the moment (keeping your job and being in your boss’s good books).
Sooner or later, the truth comes out.
Unfortunately, as the person who pulled the actual trigger and left fingerprints, it will be easier to prove your culpability than your boss’s.
In other words, your inability to say no could lead to you being the sole scapegoat while your boss goes scot free.
It is far better to lose your job than to lose your reputation, go to jail, or live with a troubled conscience.
6. Unethical Situation
Not everything that is “wrong” is illegal. It is easy to stand up to your boss when they ask you to do something illegal, since you can quote the law and get them to back off.
However, when your boss asks you to do something unethical but not illegal, it becomes a trickier conundrum.
If it is professionally unethical, you can point this out to them and explain that you are not comfortable with doing something you know you shouldn’t do as a professional.
Ethics are sometimes subjective, and it could be that what you consider unethical may not register as such to your boss.
Furthermore, the boss might resent you putting a mirror in their face, showing them how unethical their actions are.
You must therefore be very careful how your frame your refusal.
Ensure you don’t make accusations or overreact when you broach the subject with your boss.
Remember that he/she may not consider the action unethical.
Be respectful and detailed in explaining why you don’t feel comfortable doing what they are asking.
The consequences of doing something unethical are the same as those of doing something illegal – except that there is no risk of going to jail. You will lose your reputation and you will have a troubled conscience.
SITUATIONS WHEN IT’S NOT OKAY TO SAY NO TO YOUR BOSS
Just because you can say no to your boss doesn’t mean you should do it every time. Your boss has certain rights as your employer.
They are empowered to give you certain orders.
Saying no in some situations would be a sign of laziness, disobedience, pettiness, or similar qualities that don’t portray you in the best light.
Some situations where it is not okay to say no to your boss include:
1. When the Task Seems Too Challenging
You should not say no to your boss just because a task seems too difficult.
This will portray you as a lazy, incompetent worker that has no initiative.
As an employee, it is your responsibility to undertake all work-related tasks you are given by your boss, provided you have the skills to work on them.
In fact, you should be grateful for challenging tasks as they are an opportunity for growth.
Consider that your boss is giving you the challenging task knowingly. Perhaps the boss wants you to prove your mettle.
If that is the case, refusing the opportunity will demonstrate to your boss that you have no initiative.
Taking up the opportunity and working hard to succeed at it will demonstrate that you are worthy of advancement in the workplace.
This could be the chance for you to earn that promotion you want.
2. When the Task is Outside Your Job Description
Provided you have the skills and the ability, you should not turn down tasks assigned to you by your boss.
When you refuse a task because it’s “outside your job description”, this portrays you as a lazy or closed-minded employee.
Employers and managers want employees who are adaptable and dynamic. In hectic times especially, employees are expected to take on more roles.
3. Personal Reasons
You should never say no to a directive by your boss because you have “something else going on” in your personal life.
A good example is when you are planning a wedding and you feel taking on the task your boss is giving you will eat into the time you would have spent going dress-shopping and so on.
You should not put personal events ahead of your job – or seem to be.
However, when you really have to (for instance, because a friend got into a car accident), politely explain to the boss why you can’t work on his/her directive at the moment.
If your boss is a reasonable person, they will understand.
DIFFERENT TACTICS YOU CAN USE TO SAY NO WITHOUT SOUNDING RUDE
Saying no to your boss no is always a risk. You need the art of diplomacy.
No matter how right you are, your boss still has the upper hand.
Being in a subordinate position, you have to be wise in how you say no to your superior.
Below are some tactics you can use to say no to your boss without sounding rude.
Ask Them to Help Your Re-Prioritize
One of the most prevalent reasons why anyone would google “how to say no to your boss” is because of your superior assigning you more work when you are already swamped with work.
Looking at the mountain of tasks you have to go through and the deadlines staring you in the face, you can’t imagine taking on any extra task.
This creates a dilemma: should you bravely take on the task or should you dare to say no?
The problem is that taking on the task will lead to decreased quality of work, since you will be rushing through the tasks without giving much thought or care to the execution.
Furthermore, you are likely to be late in completing some of them.
In such a situation, the best thing to do is to remind your boss that you already have so much on your plate.
A polite way of doing this is to say something like, “Sure, I can take on this task, but I am already working on X and Y. What should I reprioritize as I work on this?”
Furthermore, it puts the ball in their court. Now they have to make a decision.
Should they let you keep doing what you were doing or explicitly tell you to work on this project and put the others on hold for a moment?
If one of those projects has an urgent deadline, bring this up, and the boss will have to assign it to someone else, or put the new project on hold.
Give a Progress Report
As we have noted, getting extra work when you are already very busy is one of the main triggers of the desire to say no to a boss.
Furthermore, we have noted that the boss may not even be aware that you are too busy to take on a new task.
Your boss might be busy too and may have forgotten assigning the earlier tasks.
Another way of politely reminding him or her that you already have too much on your plate is to give a progress report of the other tasks you are working on.
Telling him or her where you are with the other projects will jolt him into remembering that he already assigned you other tasks, which might also be urgent.
If the boss doesn’t take a hint, you can outright point out that you still have to work on these projects and some of them have urgent deadlines.
This puts the boss in a position where he/she has to make a conclusive decision.
The boss will then either assign the urgent tasks to someone else or tell you to go on with them and assign the new task to another person.
Recommend a Colleague
If you are too busy to take on the extra task, instead of flat out that you cannot work on it, let your boss know about the projects you are working on, and then recommend one of your colleagues for the job.
Do it in such a way that it is not misconstrued, either by the boss or the colleague as a lazy avoidance of extra responsibility.
Express to your boss why you think your colleague is the best person for the job.
This will impress the boss, as it shows you have thought through what is best for the company and not just your concerns that you might be overworked.
If it turns out that you were right and your colleague does a good job, it will demonstrate your good judgment and ability to delegate tasks to the most appropriate person.
It also shows that you are not afraid to let your colleagues shine. Added together, these show that you have the qualities of leadership and initiative.
Such initiative could even help you get considered for a promotion.
Explain Why You Cannot Take on the Extra Work
The most obvious way to say no to your boss is, in fact, to just say it.
This means explaining where you are coming from, and why you are not in a position to take on the extra task.
This tactic covers all situations, not just being assigned excess tasks, but also the other situations we covered, such as being asked to do something illegal, unethical, or that is against your values.
You must be concise and targeted in your explanation while at the same time covering all the relevant details.
This ensures you say enough to convince your boss while at the same time not wasting his or her time.
Use your knowledge of the art of negotiation or diplomacy in this situation. Say nothing or do nothing that will anger the boss.
Say nothing or do nothing that will distract the boss from your message. Be polite and respectful, but be firm and direct and don’t sugarcoat things.
Depending on the situation, have some documents to back you up with facts, just in case.
A good example is when the boss asks you to do something prohibited by the company’s code of conduct.
You can pull out a copy of the company code of conduct and use it to support your argument.
It is not always enough to explain to the boss why you can’t act on his request.
Remember that your boss relies on you to make work easier for him.
This is where empathy should help you – the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Most people don’t have empathy towards their bosses, just like most children don’t have empathy towards their parents until they themselves grow up and become parents.
What you should do is imagine yourself in your boss’s shoes.
As a boss you are super-busy and have a lot of responsibilities on your plate.
Now imagine trying to get something done and the person you thought would help you do it says they cannot do it. How would you feel?
If you have never thought of that, you can probably start to see why you may sometimes have tension with your boss – because you only see things from an employee’s point of view.
Now, if you were the boss, what would you want your employee to do if they can’t act on the task you are handing to them?
The boss came to you because they want you to make their work easier.
Even if you are not in a position to help them with the task they have on their hands, you can still make their work easier by suggesting an alternative.
For instance, if you can’t work on the task right now, you can ask to come to work early the next morning and work on it.
Another alternative, which we have already mentioned, is recommending one of your colleagues for the task.
You could also think up an alternative way to get the task done without either of you having to break a sweat.
For instance, if the boss is sending you somewhere on an errand, find another employee who is going out on an errand of their own and request them to include the boss’s errand in their to-do list.
That way you get to stay on at the office working on your urgent task while the boss’s request gets carried out by someone else.
This kind of thinking on your feet shows the boss that you are a creative thinker who is able to come up with practical solutions and take initiative.
It’s impressive and might even put you in the boss’s radar for a promotion.
Give Your Idea as a Suggestion
We saw that sometimes, it might be necessary to say no to your boss because you don’t agree with their idea or strategy.
However, if you flat out tell them that you don’t agree with their strategy or that you don’t think it will work, it might sound rude and appear like you are trying to belittle their intelligence.
Instead of saying that, the best approach is to give your idea as a suggestion.
For instance, you could say something like “Can I suggest another approach?”
If your boss says yes, it means that he is willing to consider your idea, and will have no problem switching to your way it is seems like the better approach.
If he says no, then it is best if you just do things his way.
If you still disagree with him, you could say something like, “I understand that this is not the time for new suggestions, but I have a major concern, which is…”
Declining a request from someone who has a say over the future of your career is not sensitive matter, therefore it is always a great idea to soften the blow by acknowledging the important of what they are requesting, even if you are in no position to oblige the request.
You can do this by saying something like “I understand how important this is to you, but unfortunately, I have to finish this other project XYZ which you need by evening, and cannot therefore give this task the attention it deserves.”
The ultimate antidote to appearing rude is saying “thank you”.
How many times do you say thank you?
Most people forget, or they find it hard to say, but these two words can make a huge difference, especially when you are dealing with someone in authority – like your boss.
Consider that your boss is giving you the task because she believes you can perform it.
If it is a challenging task, this is a high compliment coming from your boss because it is a way of telling you that she knows she can rely on you to deliver.
Therefore, even though you have to decline, don’t forget to acknowledge your boss’s high regard of your abilities by thanking him/her for the opportunity.
Saying “thank you” will take the sting out of your refusal.
It won’t get the job done, but at least your boss won’t walk away feeling anything negative towards you.
Sometimes, it might be better to say no to your boss than to accept a request if you are not in a good position to carry it out.
However, if you have to say no, you need to do it politely and with respect.
Don’t just say no, but explain why you are not in a position to handle the request. If possible, suggest alternatives on how the task can get done without taking you from what you are working on.
In addition, it is a good idea to put yourself in your boss’s shoes. This will help you understand his/her thought process better so you can come up with the best approach.
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