5 Times to Say “No” at Work – & 3 Ways to Do It

How To Say -NO- at work and when to do say no - the confused millennial, millennial blog, bullit [ad]

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Saying “no” at work has widely been considered one of the worst things you can do for your career. Many of us are warned that turning down new projects will make us look like slackers. Parents, mentors, and career advisors tell us to be the first one in and the last one out each day. Be eager for more responsibility and people will notice your hard work. So why is it that Sarah in Marketing leaves the office every day at 5:00pm on the dot and is still getting a promotion before you?

We don’t personally know Sarah in Marketing, but there’s a good chance she’s learned how to say “no” to certain obligations that might be holding you back. There comes a point where no matter how motivated you are, you can’t take on any more work. We all have limited capacity, and once your plate is full there’s no going back. Saying yes and overloading your workload when you really can’t WILL lead to burnout. Aside from burnout, it'll increase negativity, exhaustion, and stress. All of which have significant health risks and won’t further your career (or make you happy!). Saying yes isn’t the one thing that’s going to get you ahead of Sarah.

In fact, there are times it's perfectly fine to say no at work. It may make the difference between staying sane and crashing and burning.

5 Times To Say “No” At Work:

…and some steps later on for how to do so diplomatically.

It's busy work.

… and you're boss is asking you to stay late for it ?.

There’s paying your dues, and then there’s staying late at work on a Friday to finish going through your boss’s receipts for her expense report. If this is your first ever job or internship, receipt duty may happen once or twice. But if you’re well into your job and finding yourself totaling up Panera orders at 7pm on a Friday, it’s time to say no. That “extra” extra work is what quickly leads to burnout or demoralization.


Having interests outside your job is what makes you human. Having to sacrifice those interests for the “good of the company”? Not so great. Of course, if it’s the end of the quarter and all hands on deck, you shouldn’t just cut loose for your kickball game and leave the work to everyone else. But for something that you can easily catch up on the next day? Make it known that you need to prioritize your life.

It's not ethical

This should be obvious, but recent current events indicate that it bears repeating. You should not do anything at work that violates your ethics, values, or morals. There’s a particular way to handle these types of requests: “‘Yes, you could come up with some excuse, but that doesn’t stop the next request…Read your employee handbook and possibly talk with human resources to come up with the right way to say no,’” writes careers expert Sharlyn Lauby.

It's in the way of your other work

Being amazing at your job comes with one particular pitfall: when you’re competent, people want you to do all of the things. Showing that you’re amazing at work inevitably leads to… more work. Which is great, because people see you as reliable, dependable, and someone who’s going places. But maybe not for another hour until you finish these 15 decks… ?.

That said, every job comes with a job description. It’s up to you to play referee with what comes across your desk. Don’t let more work get in the way of your other work. If you find you’re taking on alternate tasks that have nothing to do with your real priorities, make sure to take a step back. Performance evaluations tend to happen vis a vis your formal job description, and it would be a shame to get to the end of the year and realize you’ve been off track for months.


You're not the best one for the job

It’s thrilling to take on new projects and tasks that help you learn a skill you’ve never tested before. And often, this is the most valuable professional development out there!

That said, the best leaders are those who know their limits. As one expert writes, “there are those other daunting tasks and assignments that make your mouth hang open and your mind go blank—you have absolutely no idea where to start. You just know you don’t have the skills or expertise to get this done right… while pushing yourself to try new things is always recommended, there comes a time when you’re actually just getting in the way.” You’ll be seen as a more competent leader, team player, and reliable employee if you know your limits and respect the rest of the team’s time and energy by turning down something you just can’t accomplish.


It doesn't add to to the goals of the company.

Organizations big and small go through a goal-setting process each year. Guess what? They’re not doing it for the practice. When organizations bring together employees to determine a consensus on annual goals, it’s to make sure everyone’s work aligns with achieving that goal.

That makes sense at the time, but in practice, managers and coworkers get distracted easily. It’s your responsibility to make sure the work you’re doing is as high-impact toward the company’s goals as possible. “When you receive a proposal that may be a distraction, the best thing to do is hear it out fully and then directly and politely explain why it's not a fit for the company at this time,” recommends Alexandra Friedman and Jordana Kier, cofounders of LOLA.  


Ready to start saying no? Follow these three tips to do so diplomatically.

How to say “no”at work:

Don’t be dismissive.

“Acknowledge the importance of their ask, but show them the relative prioritization of their ask in your world. You can do this by sharing with them what’s currently on your plate and what you’ve already committed to deliver on.” – Fortune

Do think things through.

Start by “assessing the request first by determining how ‘interesting, engaging, and exciting the opportunity is,’ and then by figuring out whether it’s feasible for you to help,” – Harvard Business Review



Timing is everything.

What has happened in the office right before this request?” The environment in the office may impact your ability to say no. Even though you know saying no is the right thing, there are also times when it pays to grin and bear it.  – Fast Company.

Do a regular gut check. If you’re worried that saying no is having a negative impact on your professional reputation. Rather than waiting for your annual performance review (seven months from now), ask for regular feedback on BULLIT. Our platform makes it easy for peers, mentors, and managers to reflect on your performance, all while keeping you in control. Show, hide, agree, disagree, and comment on anyone’s feedback. Saying no to something doesn’t mean you don’t care about your job. In fact, actively managing your reputation is one way to prove you’re completely connected.

No means no, especially when it means you can say yes to the rest of your life!

To read more about what BULLIT’s all about, check us out: bullit.me/


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57 thoughts on “5 Times to Say “No” at Work – & 3 Ways to Do It”

  1. These are all great tips! I also think it’s important to take clients into consideration. For example, your boss may ask you to do a project that worked for one client, but it doesn’t make sense for the other. I find this happens A LOT and people say yes, but have problems putting the plan into action because it simply doesn’t make sense. Instead, suggest an alternative so you’re not saying no, but you’re offering an idea that will truly help your client and your company all at once. What comes with saying no is having the confidence to know when it makes sense to say no and why you’re suggesting something different!

  2. I’ve found myself saying no to things that aren’t part of my job, and I’m so glad I have. I have enough to do and people will ask me to do things that they should know his to do themselves – so I’ll usually say, I’ll show you how I do it once, and then you can do it next time.

  3. Agree with so many things in this post! I definitely had to say no a couple times especially when I wasn’t being paid for using my degree and them wanting to use it. Seriously so ANNOYING!

  4. Saying no at work is complicated but at times needs to be done. Thanks for the helpful hints. I loved the video:-)

  5. I used to leave me desk job right at 5:30 everyday. I saw my boss expecting those that worked late to always work late and I was not going to get caught up in that. Great tips for saying no too! I could use them freelancing as well lol.

  6. In my previous job there were a few times in which I was asked to do things that weren’t entirely ethical. Hence why I’m no longer there and couldn’t agree more with your prompts!

  7. I LOVE saying no lol. As women, I think we want to please and we’re told as young girls to say “yes” all the time to help other people out. There’s nothing wrong with going the extra mile or helping out when needed…there’s a difference though with saying NO when you’re being taken advantage of.
    Love this Rachel!

  8. Another fab post Rachel! There are definitely times it is important to say no. I think if you are thoughtful before saying “no” and don’t act like an entitled brat it will actually help you do your job better and ultimately gain respect.

  9. It’s not easy saying no to the boss! But I know it’s super important not to burn out! This is a great post for people who may be in a tough spot and aren’t sure how to deal with it!

  10. I am a full time teacher and the idea of something not being ethical is an argument I have made in the past. No, I don’t always win, but I voiced my truth and opinion. To me, I’d rather be authentic and stand out when it is awkward than act like I am truly OK with something that is against one of my values. But, girl it is HARD to do!!! xx

  11. Ashley Stephenson

    I need to share this with my friend. She spends entirely way too much time at work because her boss asks her – she needs to learn to say no!

  12. Couldn’t agree more with the philosophy of turning down work because it’s getting in the way of your REAL job – the things you were hired to do because you’re uniquely good at them, and they push the company’s goals forward. This is an argument that your boss will never argue with, no matter who they are, because it’s clear that you’re not just turning it down out of laziness or pride – it’s that you’ve thought through what your/the company’s priorities should be.

  13. This is such great advice for millennials! I know I personally struggle with saying “no” in most situations, whether it be work-related or not, so any advice on how to be more assertive and say “no” in non-beneficial situations is so important.

  14. Denay DeGuzman

    As the mother of two millennial daughters I can say with confidence that you’ve just given members of your generation great advice! Having the confidence to voice your concerns, communicating them with thoughtfulness and respect, is half the battle.

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