Saying 'No' At Work: When It Makes Sense - And When To Hold Back

In the workplace, it can feel natural to say yes to as many things as possible — particularly when you're being asked to do something by a superior. It can sometimes feel like agreeing to do everything is the only way to really show off your capabilities and dedication to the company and your role — thereby making it feel like this is the only way to rise up through a company and get that big promotion you've been aiming for. As author Karen Dillon told the Harvard Business Review, "You don't want to be seen as 'no person.' You want to be viewed as a 'yes person,' a 'go-to person' — a team player." But as we all learn more about self-care and the importance of making sure we create healthy boundaries for ourselves by saying 'no' to things we don't feel comfortable with, it's important to learn about how that spills over into the workplace.


Knowing when it's okay to say 'no' at work and when it's best to take a meminute and pause before making a decision is tough, but it's necessary. It's the only way to make sure you're not only getting a work-life balance that works for you, but that you're also comfortable with your time at work in the way you deserve. So, when is it okay to decline an offer, and when is it in your best interest to hold back? We'll break it down for you.

Say 'no' when you know you don't have the time to do your best work

It makes sense to decline an offer at work when you know you just don't have the time or the capability to do the task the way you know it needs to be done. For example, if someone asks you to work on something with a deadline of a week's time, but you know you're so swamped you'd have to cram your work into just a few hours and not give it your best, the job is better off going to someone who can dedicate the proper time to it. "It's tempting to [take on] everything but if you don't have time to do [something] well, you're doing a disservice to the person you said yes to," founder and CEO of Vivoom Katherine Hays explained to the Harvard Business Review. After all, if you needed help with something, wouldn't you rather get it from the person best for the job, not the one who squeezed it into their schedule?


But it's not just about letting someone else down. You'll also potentially be doing yourself a disservice by handing over something that doesn't represent your best work — and that's no way to get that big promotion. "Sometimes, always saying yes comes to our detriment because it doesn't value our time. The funny thing is, for those who are not as available, their time is often valued more," business psychologist Nitha Fiona Nagubadi told LinkedIn.

Try to be flexible before saying a definite 'no'

Before giving a definite 'no' to something that you know has the potential to be more flexible — particularly when it comes to something like a deadline — hold back a little at first to see if you can make it work, before turning it down completely. By trying your best to accommodate someone else and not just saying a flat-out 'no,' that suggests you're being flexible (which is rarely a bad thing in the workplace). This also establishes that you have boundaries, as well as work of your own that you're busy with. If the project can't be moved, then it may be time to say 'no' — but at least you'll have done everything you could to be accommodating. If things can be altered, then you'll have given yourself more time to complete everything on your plate to the best of your ability, while also making your boundaries clear.


Flexibility isn't just about deadlines, though. If you're struggling to find the time to get everything done but there's a task you really want to do, why not ask if you can split the job with one of your co-workers? By setting clear boundaries but still being flexible, you're more likely to show respect and get that respect back. After all, as career and leadership coach Stacey Staaterman said to LinkedIn, "The companies and the people you work with will only treat you as well as you treat yourself."

Calculate how much recognition you could get for saying 'yes'

We know that not everything is about getting recognition. And, every now and then, it's an admirable character trait to be able to do something for someone that you know no one else will find out about because you know it will help them, not you. If you find yourself constantly doing these somewhat invisible tasks that are unlikely to help your job progression, it may be time to start saying 'no' to them and instead focus on things that really show off what you're bringing to the table. 


Having a schedule filled with behind-the-scenes work can potentially hurt your career, according to Lise Vesterlund, an economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh who spoke to CNN Business. "The fact that you are spending time on assignments that are not using your unique skills means you aren't really reaching your potential ... it can hurt your compensation, hurt your promotion and certainly does not give you any leverage when you try to negotiate." In other words, these often menial jobs could be stopping you from being able to show your dedication and versatility to the higher-ups, so saying 'no' to them and instead using your time elsewhere is rarely a bad idea. "Think more strategically on what is the non-promotable work that really makes sense for you to spend your time ... find out where yours makes the most sense," Vesterlund added.


Don't be afraid to turn things down that don't align with your end goal

We're all busy these days and most of us have big goals we want to achieve, but the only way we're ever going to get there is if we use our time wisely and stay focused. That's why you should try to avoid feeling guilty about turning things down that don't align with where you want to end up in your career. Of course, there are always going to be day-to-day tasks at work that maybe don't have much to do with your dream job — if you haven't already acquired it, that is. However, anything in addition to your everyday requirements that don't align with your future can be met with a 'no' in order to allow yourself enough time to work on things that will get you there. 


Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse, told Harvard Business Review that she carries around a list with her career goals written on it, which she checks when asked to do something work-related. If what's being asked of her won't help with her end goal and it's not within her job description, she says 'no.' "[The list] helps me say 'no' more easily because I see immediately whether or not [the request] fits with my goals," she explained. "It makes me feel less guilty about saying 'no' and makes me more purposeful about how I choose to spend my time."

Try not to give a kneejerk 'no' if you're asked to do something after normal work hours

No one likes being asked to do something outside of work hours, but before you give a hasty rejection to something that begins at 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, think about if just giving up a few hours of your evening could have a big benefit for you in the long run. "[Consider how] interesting, engaging, and exciting the opportunity is," Karen Dillon suggested to the Harvard Business Review. "Think about what's on your plate, whether priorities can be shuffled, or whether a colleague could step in to assist you [on your other projects]. Don't say 'no' until you're sure you need to," she added. This could include everything from in-office or hybrid work tasks to team-building exercises, all of which can be just as important to make your presence known in the workplace.


Of course, it's important to set boundaries, and if you're only contracted to work certain hours, make sure people respect that so you can enjoy your life outside of the workplace to the fullest. However, every once in a while, a few extra hours here and there could be the thing that sets you apart from your colleagues. It's fine to turn something down when you already have important plans you're committed to, but if you're free, where's the harm in showing you're a go-getting team player?

Think about if someone else can do the task better

Before giving a 'yes' or a 'no' when you're asked to take on a task, think about if you're really going to be the best person for the job. There will be a number of factors to consider here, including how you'll be compensated, how much time you have to complete it, and if what you're being asked to do is actually suitable for you in terms of how qualified you are. Equally, it's important to think about if there's someone the job will be better suited for, particularly if it's something that won't help you personally move up in the company. 


As Linda Babcock, author and economics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told CNN Business, "If someone asks you to do something that is non-promotable for you, is there someone in the organization who that work might be promotable for?" Not only will you be making great connections by thinking of others, you'll also free up your own time to do the things that will work best for you. Similarly, while you're passing over jobs to the people they're most suited to, you too are more likely to have things that are right for you come your way when the time is right by keeping those connections open and showing that you're looking out for others as much as yourself.

If you're underqualified, don't hold back on turning something down

Not every task is suited for everyone and you always want to put your best foot forward in the workplace, especially when you have ambitious goals to make your way up the ladder. That's why answering with a 'no' may be the only option if you're asked to do something you know you won't be able to complete to a high standard because you're not qualified to do so. As business coach Jon Dwoskin explained to Forbes, "In these moments, be a team player, but decline in a way that is respectful. You cannot, nor should you be expected to, take on a responsibility where you could be set up for failure. Protect yourself, but try to seek a solution to solve the problem."


One of the best ways to decline something in this situation without making a big deal could be explaining that you don't feel comfortable taking this on until you're better educated on the subject. You can also ask if there's anyone around who can show you how it's done so you'll know for next time. "Let [your bosses] know that you always enjoy the excitement of working on new things, but this is not something that you feel is using your skills in the best way," Kathi Elster, executive coach and business strategist at K Squared Enterprises, told "Be sure to recommend something that you think would [fit your] skills."

Consider why you're being asked to do something before turning it down

Before saying 'no' to a proposal, it may be a good idea to consider exactly why you're being asked to take on the task over someone else. If you feel you're the go-to person to help with remedial jobs because people know you'll say 'yes,' it could be the perfect time to start setting that boundary. However, if propositions are specialized and less frequent, try showing a little empathy to the person asking you to complete the task before you say 'no.' Are they coming to you specifically because they know you can be relied upon? Do they need your specific skill set to complete something important? Are they struggling with their own workload and need a rare helping hand? If you find being asked to do something is more of a one-off with an important reason behind it, then holding off on a 'no' may be one of the most compassionate things you can do to help someone else through a tough time.


But, if you have to say 'no,' as hard as it might be to say it, don't just ignore your co-worker until they go away. "Not responding is not a professional option. That signals that you aren't showing any empathy or priority to the person making the request — and it doesn't help either of you in the short or long term," certified high performance coach David Grieve explained to Atlassian.

Never feel like you have to bend your rules in the workplace

If you find yourself having to do something you don't morally or ethically agree with in the workplace that you would never do in your private life, then there should be no hesitation in turning down whatever it is you're being asked to do. "Saying 'no' is incredibly difficult, but if an employee is being asked to bend ethics — or the law — declining a request is essential," president of Insider Career Strategies, Scott Singer, explained to Forbes. "Line up your sponsors, remain firm, be fact-based and explain why you'll pass," he added, noting that the consequences that may stem from saying 'no' will never outweigh the difficulties that can come from compromising yourself.


The same can be said for any situation in which you feel as though you're losing your dignity or will be humiliated if you say 'yes.' Kimberly Janson, the President and CEO of Janson Associates, explained to Forbes that in a healthy workplace, your ethics should never feel under attack. "Employees should not feel pressured to compromise their ethics. While it may be difficult, employees should remember their behavior must be defendable to future employers or other parties," she shared. "Expressing discomfort with a specific request and sharing the reasons might be best for all in the end." Depending on the situation, if you feel it's warranted, you may even want to explain why you were made to feel uncomfortable to HR so it doesn't happen again.


Say 'no' when you need to put your health first

Many hold the belief that you can't help anybody else if you're not willing to put yourself and your health first, which is why if you're tasked with something that compromises your health in any way, it's a good idea to say 'no' until you're capable of doing your best. "It is important for lower-level employees to set clear and respectful boundaries when it comes to their physical, mental, and financial health," Dr. Liudmila Schafer, an Associate Professor of Medicine, told Forbes. This can also extend into needing to take time off to look after yourself or a loved one, as it's sometimes imperative to take time off from work. "Some people feel pressured to work through an illness, but that can have financial or legal consequences for the company," added Dr. Schafer, which is why you should also set a boundary of not accepting jobs to do at home while you recover. By working through a more serious illness, not only are you risking not doing your best, but you're also more likely to take longer to recover.


Equally, if you go into the workplace when you're ill, you're also more likely to make those around you sick too. That can then have disastrous results for the company. Even when you're feeling well enough to work again, you may still want to say 'no' to anything extra until you're back to full health.

Make sure you're not just saying 'no' for the sake of it

When it comes to saying 'no' at work, there are plenty of legitimate reasons why you have to turn things down — that's absolutely fine and it's an important boundary to set. But, equally, if you're looking to work your way up and you see yourself working at this place for a while, it's still important that you only say 'no' if you genuinely have a legitimate reason to do so. 


Turning things down for the sake of it when you have the time and resources to help out doesn't exactly demonstrate that you're a team player who takes their career seriously and is willing to dedicate themselves to climbing their career ladder. "I love when my employees say 'no' to me. It means they are thinking for themselves, as opposed to just following an archaic method of top-down leadership. However, I do not expect to receive a 'no' without an explanation," Andrew Royce Bauer, CEO of Royce Leather, told "I want my workers to reason — to think intelligently — to transform our company ... into something better than it is today."