Say No To Your Boss

Saying no to a request can be a difficult thing, especially when the person making the request is your boss. Even if you try your best to do everything the boss asks, there are times when you can't and have to say no. Think through your reasons and have a clear picture of what you want to say before you approach your boss. Rather than saying a straight "no", try to find positive alternative suggestions.


Preparing Your Response

  1. Write down a list of reasons why you cannot complete the request. If your boss has asked you to take on some extra work or complete a task that either you don't have time for, or is beyond your job description, it can be helpful to write down a list of reasons why you have to say no to the task. Calmly and rationally brainstorm the problem and organise these notes. They will help you prepare your response to your boss.
    • There may be simple reasons why you cannot do a task, such as childcare commitments or booked holiday time.
    • If you are uncertain if the task is appropriate for you, check it against your job description.[1]
    • If you already have a heavy workload and cannot take on any more, you need to think carefully about how to approach this.
  2. Analyse your work priorities. If your work schedule is the problem and you simply don't believe you can take on the extra tasks, take some time to fully analyse your priorities. Weigh the new task up against the others and evaluate whether you can shift around your existing work. Just saying "I don't have time" could potentially lead to your boss questioning your effectiveness and efficiency, so if time is the problem you need to demonstrate that you can prioritise tasks and complete them in a timely way.[2]
    • Draw up a list of your tasks and order them by priority and deadline.
    • Sketch out how long each one is likely to take, and determine whether there is any chance that you could complete the new task as well.
    • Make a neat and clear document which you can use when you talk to your boss.
    • This is a way of "showing" your boss that you can't do what they ask, rather than "telling".[2]
  3. Put yourself in your boss's shoes. Before you approach your boss it's important that you take the time to put yourself in her shoes and understand her and the company's priorities. Understanding her motivations will help you better formulate your response. If you not doing a certain task is likely to cost the company significant income then you will need a very persuasive argument and an alternative that means the company does not lose this revenue.
    • If you only want to reschedule a meeting due to a prior commitment, think about how this rescheduling will impact on your boss.[1]
    • Taking time to put yourself in her shoes will help you anticipate how she will respond to you.
  4. Consider what language to use. It's crucial that you get the tone and language right in order to say no without saying no. Remember that it is essential that you use neutral language at all times and avoid personalising the situation. This means don't make it about you or your boss, or the relationship you have, whether it is good or bad. Always refer to the company and how to reach the best outcome for the business.[1]
    • Say something neutral and objective like, "If I were to complete this task, then I wouldn't have time to finish the main report this week".
    • Avoid subjective and personal responses. Don't say "I can't do this, it's too much for me".

Approaching Your Boss

  1. Find a convenient time for your boss. Before you approach your boss to talk you should determine a convenient time for her. You definitely don't want to catch her at a stressed or busy moment. You will probably have a good idea of her working patterns, but check her diary on your computer if possible. Depending on the culture and work practices in your office you should ask if she has a few minutes to spare as you want to discuss something.
    • Have the conversation in private if your work situation allows you to get a moment alone with your boss.
    • Keep in mind her workday pressures and work style. If she is a morning person try to speak with her before lunch.
    • If you know she is always first to arrive you could come in early one morning to catch her before the others arrive.
  2. Be concise. When you do talk to your boss it's important that you get to the point quickly and don't skirt around the issue. You need to make sure that you are saying exactly what you mean in a clear and concise way. Don't spend too long dancing around it as your boss will think you are wasting her time and will lose sympathy for you.
    • Avoid saying "yes, but..." as your boss may just here the "yes" and think that you could do this task, if you were more organized.[3]
    • Instead of using negative words like "but", try to use more positive ones.
    • For example, instead of saying "I know you asked me to do this report, but I have too much other work", try something like "I have an idea about how to reorganize the workload on this project".[2]
  3. Explain yourself. It is absolutely crucial that you explain your reasoning clearly and effectively. If you can't make a solid argument then your boss is not likely to understand why you can't complete the task. For example, if you have been asked to do something that is well outside your job description you should make this clear and be prepared to refer to your job description if necessary. Don't walk in waving the job description, but be prepared to refer to it.
    • If time is the problem, you need tangible and indisputable reasons why you can't do the task you have been assigned.
    • Refer to other work you are doing that has priority. Say something like, "I have a deadline for the Spring report next week, so this other task would take me away from that".[3]
    • Try to emphasise how your boss reassigning the task to someone else will benefit her and the company by highlighting the work you will be doing that is more important.[4]
    • Explain yourself firmly and directly, but never in a confrontational or emotional way.
  4. Don't leave it too long. If you know quickly that you will not be able to complete a certain task, or that is inappropriate for you, don't wait long before you schedule a conversation with your boss. If you leave it, it will only make it harder to re-organize the work and still get it done in a timely fashion. If you wait until the last minute, it could be almost impossible for the deadline to be met. This will not endear you to your boss.[1]

Offering Positive Alternatives

  1. Suggest reorganizing your priorities. When you talk to your boss it is important that you do not flat out say "no" if you can possibly avoid it. Rather try to find a way of offering a positive alternative that still amounts to you not doing the task you feel you are unable to complete. One good way to do this is to suggest your boss helps you reorganise your priorities. By doing this you'll be showing your boss that you are seeking to be as productive as possible, but you will also make it clear that your workload as it stands is not sustainable.
    • Take a record of your outstanding work and how long it will take you complete each task to evidence that you have thought about it closely.
    • Asking your boss "can you help me reorganise my priorities?" will demonstrate that you want to involve them in how you manage your work.
    • This will show you respect her opinion and are seeking some guidance about how to work more efficiently.[2]
  2. Recommend a colleague. Another way to suggest a positive alternative rather than just saying no, is to recommend a colleague who could pick up the extra work. Doing this will demonstrate that you have thought about the task and who is best suited to it.[5] Your boss will be impressed that you have thought about her and the company's need to get the job done rather than just your own concerns about being overworked.
    • Demonstrating that you have good judgement and have prioritized the needs to company will make it more likely that she trusts your judgement more readily in the future.[1]
    • You will also demonstrate that you understand what is happening throughout the office and are interested in the development of your colleagues.
  3. Propose new work arrangements. If you are being given too much work to complete in the hours you are contracted to work, this could be an opportunity to approach your boss about establishing a new working arrangement. For example, if you have a long commute that is eating into your productivity you might suggest working from home one day a week which will cut down on your commuting time.[5]
    • If you think a more flexible working pattern would enable you to adapt to different demands at work, don't be afraid to bring this up.
    • Always think about the culture of your workplace and whether more flexible working is a feasible idea.
    • Clearly think through any proposal before you make it. Don't go in with an idea that you have not fully fleshed out.


  • If your boss asks you to do something that is illegal, you have every right to say no. Contact the proper authorities.
  • Stay calm and speak with an even tone.

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Sources and Citations