Yes, you read that correctly. It's OK to say no to your boss; the key is in how you do it. Saying "no" can make you sound contrary, which is why you need to come up with creative alternatives. And saying "no" can even be difficult when a peer asks you to do something, but it will save you pain -- and maybe even your career -- in the long run.
During your initial tenure you should always put in extra effort and dive into your work, but you need to start setting limits. If you work 80 hours a week the first six months, your boss will always expect this of you. Naturally, the amount you're expected to work depends on your industry and company, so take that into consideration when establishing boundaries. If you've been asked to do something unethical or illegal, you should address it immediately with human resources.
How to Say No to Additional Work
After you've worked at your new job for six months to one year -- depending on your industry and the time it takes to ramp up in your job -- you're asked to take on a 10th client. This means you'll be expected to work 80-hour weeks, which isn't OK with you. The key is not saying to your boss, "no, I can't," but rather, it's to pitch an alternative solution and present it as a better way to solve the problem your boss and your company face. Keep in mind as you plan your approach that your boss will care primarily about how it affects her and the company, not you, even if she's a strong advocate for you and your work. And on a practical level, it's usually best to tell your boss when she is less busy (e.g., midweek and not at the beginning or end of the workday).
Consider other colleagues. Maybe you have a colleague whose background is actually a better match for the client. Maybe a peer is interested in professional growth in the client's focus area. No matter how competitive you are, there are many positive things that can come from sharing work and professional growth opportunities. However, making such a suggestion isn't a guarantee. It may not be possible, for other reasons of which you're not aware, or for reasons that are out of your control.
Redefine responsibilities. Perhaps accepting additional work is the perfect time to relinquish other responsibilities that you have outgrown now. This could be an opportunity to redefine your scope of work. Once you come up with a plan, schedule a meeting with your boss or choose a convenient time to go see her (preferably not on a Monday or Friday). Bring the proposal with you and prepare to answer questions as to how this will help her. Will you relieve some of her responsibilities? Will you help to make her job easier in another way?
Suggest a new work arrangement. This may be an opening to inquire about a flexible work schedule. If the new project means more hours, perhaps working from home one day a week is viable. You need to calculate how many hours of commute time you'd save that you'll then apply to working at home.
Don't be afraid to say "no" to your boss, but if she's come to you with a request that isn't crossing the line of legality, have a strategy in mind. You want to develop a clear argument and plan for how the work can be done in a more efficient way. No matter how much you work on a sound proposal, it's not guaranteed that you will convince your boss your plan is a good one. You may end up having to take on the new project or client for a few months, and return to the subject at a later date if you find it is not working well for you -- and the company.
Marcelle Yeager is the president of Career Valet, which delivers personalized career navigation services. Her goal is to enable people to recognize skills and job possibilities they didn't know they had to make a career change or progress in their current career. She worked for more than 10 years as a strategic communications consultant, including four years overseas. Yeager holds an MBA from the University of Maryland.
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