how to say no to things at work

Here’s a round-up of advice about how to say no at work.

the basics

how to say no to a work request

can I flat-out refuse to do a project?

how to say “that’s not my job”

how to tell someone “this is your job, not mine”

how to tell coworkers “you need to do that yourself”

how to say no to coworkers who ask me to take on work I don’t have time for

how do I say no to admin tasks that aren’t my job?

I don’t want to be the go-to person for everything at work

how to say no to your boss (podcast)

saying no when your workload has become unreasonably high

how to “push back” with vendors, partners, and other external contacts

saying no in networking

how to set boundaries when contacts get pushy

how to turn down requests to meet, network, or pick your brain

specific cases and miscellaneous

you need a not-to-do list

how do I stop people from asking me to perform the admin tasks from my old job?

how to turn down “volunteer” (but not really) projects at work

how to say “no, I won’t clean the bathroom”

I’m sick of being the office printer lady

I don’t want to be the office baker

my coworker constantly asks me for personal favors

{ 44 comments… read them below }

    1. Sloanicota*

      Yeah I realize this is a work blog but honestly 80% of the problems in my social circle stem from people being unable or unwilling to say no. (Relatedly I’d guess 20% of the problems come from the inability or unwillingness to hear other people’s no).

    1. Just Another Cog*

      I did, too! As a woman, it’s so hard for me to say ‘no’ without feeling like I have to smooth over the negative vibe that comes with it. It’s such an energy suck.

  1. Antilles*

    I love these sorts of posts. Would be great if there was a specific “advice round up” tag for these sorts of lists since these are the kind of evergreen posts that people just keep coming back to.

  2. Sloanicota*

    Why is this so hilarious to me today? I tell my boss all the time that the decisions about what we *don’t* do are just as important as what we do – and it plays out the exact same way at the individual level. Your time and energy are limited. Focus them on the places you can make a difference in ways that matter. Say no today :D

  3. Charlotte Lucas*

    My manager is incapable of saying No on behalf of my team. Even when we were at about 60% staffing. It’s exhausting.

    1. Me (I think)*

      My old boss would do this and tell me, “Make it a priority.” He would say that to everything.

      To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything is a priority, then nothing is.

          1. BubbleTea*

            I liked the first version! Too many high-priority fires turn into one big out-of-control blaze.

      1. OtterB*

        Some years ago, one of my coworkers was promoted to project leader. We assembled and gifted him a “beginning management kit.” I don’t remember most of the contents, but I do remember the 3 tennis balls labeled Top Priority, Highest Priority, and Priority 1, for juggling.

    2. Coin Purse*

      I had a boss who would encourage us to “dial it to 11” for any request, no matter how far afield from our role. So you were absolutely forbidden from deflecting any ask, no matter how much it was a bad skill fit. Don’t miss that.

  4. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    I think I was reading these hoping to find the magic words for the guy who thinks I am his administrative assistant instead of a manager with 20+ years here. He is such a broken stair. But in that case, I have learned just to put things back on him and not cave. E.g., he sent me a document he had edited from a version I had sent around. I asked him for a redline, and he sent me instructions on how to make a redline. So I asked him again for a redline, and he did send me a redline, attached to an email that said “I showed you how to make a redline.” With anyone else, I might make a redline, but this guy who is constantly hectoring me while also not actually doing his job, nope. But all to say, it is important to know that some people won’t like it and will double down, so learning not to wait for agreement or take the path of least resistance is sometimes necessary.

    1. Striped Sandwiches*

      Ugh, hate it when you have to manage colleagues or even your own manager for things which are their job. And a lot of the advice out there is to actually just manage them! Like if your boss doesn’t respond, you should follow up. No, they should just respond, it’s their job. It shifts the time and organisation burden onto you.

  5. Filicophyta*

    Consider adding “How to say no to a promotion”? Or is that too much of a different angle?

      1. Hlao-roo*

        A few of the posts I found are:

        Letter #1 of “turning down an internal promotion, is this company stringing me along, and more” from February 20, 2015

        “I don’t want to move up into a leadership role” from April 2, 2015

        “do I really have to have career ambition?” from April 14, 2021

        Letter #2 of “company didn’t even read my application, forced to take a promotion you don’t want, and more” from July 30, 2021

  6. WillowSunstar*

    This will depend on where you work and who your manager is. In a recent previous job before COVID, I was actually yelled at for being politely honest about being too busy to do something else right that minute.

    1. Jaydee*

      I think that highlights an important related issue – what to do when you politely and professionally said “no” in an appropriate situation but your boss or colleague responds in an impolite, unprofessional, and inappropriate way? Because a lot of people would probably take away the lesson that they’re not allowed to say “no” and they just have to keep doing more and more things or else they’ll get yelled at. But that’s not a good outcome. Now, the short-term answer might be “I’m not allowed to say ‘no’ to Bob when he asks me to do X at the last minute even if I’m in the middle of Y and Y will be ruined if I stop to do X instead.” Or it might even be “Bob will yell at me if I say no to him about anything.” But there might be a lot of different options for where you go from there.
      – Was this a one-off situation and Bob is remorseful afterward?
      – Is there a different way to approach Bob that gets the result you want?
      – Does Bob just need to get the yelling out of his system and if you sit there calmly and wait for him to finish his tantrum then you can move on to a semi-productive conversation?
      – Do you actually need to just drop Y and do X when Bob says so because he’s the one with authority to decide and prioritize between those two things?
      – Is it time to look for a new job?
      – Should this be reported to Bob’s boss or HR?
      – Are there other co-workers and supervisors who are not jerks that yell and who *are* receptive to you saying no to things sometimes?

      1. WillowSunstar*

        Well, I actually was told by my manager in that job that I was never allowed to say no, which would have been nice to know that was an unwritten rule beforehand.

        Thankfully, I am in a different job now and we are allowed to actually prioritize things and set things aside sometimes when needed.

  7. Toodles*

    I would love some updates on these letters! How did the letter writer get on pushing back? What happened in the short and long term?

  8. Lucy P*

    I need this too, but…arggh. I’ve said no on things and they slowly creep back to my desk. I think I also need to learn to tell myself “NO”. It’s one of those offices where things generally don’t get done if I don’t do it (or they don’t get done in a timely manner), but I really need to learn to stop doing it. Like the first person to make a cup of coffee Monday morning spilled sugar on the counter and left it there. If I hadn’t cleaned it up it would still be there. (I’m the admin, so I feel like it’s my job.)

    Outside of the office, it’s starting to look really ratty. Our location makes a great place for people to hide out after hours, do “stuff” and not get caught. There’s beer cans, coffee bottles, a Taaka bottle, and various other pieces of trash. It’s outside of the cleaning company’s scope, so they won’t do it. It’s really starting to bother me and I’d be really embarrassed about it if we actually had non-employee foot-traffic. Still, it’s not my job to clean up the premises and I’ve not been given a budget to get someone else to do it. So, as much as I want it cleaned, I have to tell myself “No”, because if I do that, who know what else will bet tacked on to it.

  9. Mangled Metaphor*

    My boss specifically said this to me at my last one-to-one. Mostly because it’s my previous boss (and her team) who keep leaning on me heavily to fix their problems. I’ve not worked for that team since before the Year We Do Not Name!
    Unfortunately, there is still an overlap (a sliver of one, but it’s there) which means there are things that’re legitimately something they *can* ask me to do (that I really mustdn’t say no to), and they’ll slip in a Cudja sandwich! As in, I get a legitimate request, a cudja (could-ya-just) request, with a second legitimate request tacked on the end, so that it’s so much more effort, awkward and has sooooo much more potential fallout attached to refusing the cudja.
    I may just print out a few key points to pin next to my monitors where my EX-boss can see it. Yes, that’s passive-agressive, but I’ve found few other techniques that work.

  10. Anonymouse*

    Hoping there is one about saying no when your boss assigns you someone else’s work when that someone can’t or won’t do their job. Thank you for the list!

    1. Mermaid of the Lunacy*

      I usually say “Right now I’m working on A, B, and C. If I take on D for [insert person’s name here, important so boss knows YOU know it’s not your job], how shall I reprioritize my tasks?”

  11. Username pendi g*

    Interesting… was thinking about it today. In a previous job I was classed as difficult for trying to put boundaries, and ultimately people hated me because I refused to do whatever people asked me to do (I didn’t think of it as my job, but some of them thought it was)… ultimately I think saying no at work can get you classed as difficult to say the least.

  12. rollyex*

    It’s probably in some of the AAM advice, but I’ll say it here: if saying no is hard for you, practice it in low stakes situations. Practice, practice, practice. It’ll become easier.

  13. La Triviata*

    Years ago, in a different job, I had our CFO who handled most HR decisions, say something about having lower level staff report to two different executives in completely different departments. I mentioned that it had been tried at my job before that; he asked how it went and I said, simply, “catastrophic” and then explained that with wildly different responsibilities and priorities, the lower level person would end up making at least one of those people unhappy. Depending on who had more authority in the office, the other executive would end up with their work falling to the bottom of the priority list. At later jobs, while still fairly low level, I learned to ask managers which project should go to the top of the priority list. It did ease stress somewhat.

  14. YesWoman*

    Omg, I need this in my life.

    After my company demanded of me that I do my work – existing of 95% verbal and written communication – in an entirely new language that I didn’t speak fluently, wasn’t hired for, and was never discussed (during interviewing or otherwise)…

    …I tried to do it, learning the language in my spare time while during the day having my manager crack the whip and demand the exact same performance as everyone else in the team doing their job in their native language, and even threaten to put me on a PIP for it…

    …and then quitting my job exhausted and more than embarrassed for being called out bin front of my peers in meetings by my manager and altogether made to feel like the worst employee ever…

    … I think I need to learn how to say ‘NO’.

  15. MooseCat*

    Wow, this is timely. I was told recently by another manager that when I said “no,” it was rude to just flat out say that; I should have said “I’ll consider it.” But… I had already considered it? And I’m allowed to say no? Frustrating, for sure.

    1. Random Bystander*

      Yeah, some people can be downright nuts about an actual refusal, even when there’s nothing impolite about how it’s delivered. I used to rely on kind of a non-committal “Hmm, I’ll see if I can fit that in” and then a half hour later “Doesn’t look like I’ll be able to fit that in today”. But that was with something that was strictly outside my job description–back before 2020 when we were in cubes, the hospital’s cleaning staff would come through and empty trash and vacuum. The vacuuming was once a week, the trash was daily, but basically you would just take your trash can out from under your desk if you needed it emptied, and if it was under the desk and you were there, they’d pass you by. There was also a small vacuum (like the cheapest stick vacuum) that could be used if you really needed it before vacuuming day (you dropped your brownie and now there’s crumbs on the carpet, that kind of thing). Then this one kind of busy-body who was about 15 years older than me said that I should really vacuum the space (our cubes kind of put people in pairs, so you really only had two walls for yourself) because my desk mate has asthma and the dust really bothered her. No, I was not going to vacuum–but it would have been a BFD if I’d said no flat out, so I’d go with the ‘hmm, I’ll see if I can fit that in before I go home today’ … and darned if I never did manage to fit that in.

  16. Angstrom*

    The “office baker” letter — I’m boggled that people would feel entitled to ask a colleague “Would you spend your time and money to bake treats for me?”
    No, no, no and hell no.
    There are professional bakers who would be happy to help you and who would appreciate your business.

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