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How to Say 'No' at Work Without Sounding Like a Jerk

Robin Reshwan

A client of mine recently told me about firing a seemingly skilled employee, because he answered an important business demand from their biggest customer with a simple "no." It rarely goes well when a customer or employer who pays you lots (or even an average amount) of money hears "no." And while I am a fan of the less-is-more strategy, using those two letters without any other words to cushion their impact can often be a career-limiting move.

Here are a few ways to decline requests without jeopardizing your job:

First, make sure you understand the underlying requirement before flatly declining. For example, let's pretend you work in accounting, and a sales manager frantically asks: "Can you print out a recap of my team's expenses now?" Your initial thought might be: "No. I am working on month-end close, and everything else needs to wait until I complete my part of the close."

However, a better tactic is to learn more about what is actually required and the related deadline. For example: "Sounds like you are in a hurry, Hal, and I would love to help. It is month-end close, which typically ties up all of my time for two more days. Is there something specific you are trying to find, and do you have a deadline you are trying to meet?"

By starting with a "yes" in terms of your desire to be helpful and then pursuing more information, as well as giving context about the conflicts you face, you have both positioned yourself as an ally while still controlling your workflow. After you learn more, you are in a better place to advise on the best ways to accomplish the goals and still meet your demands.

Next, consider the stakeholders. Most businesses exist to make money, and every role in a company is to either assist in the pursuit of revenue, to solve key business problems or both. Effective employees understand how their work impacts revenue and/or solving business problems. When faced with a tough request, dig deep enough to recognize who the stakeholders are -- the people, departments or companies that will benefit or be harmed by your ability to comply with what is being asked.

When you truly recognize the players involved, you have a much clearer picture of potential impact. This can shift what seems like a simple "I don't have time for that task" mentality to: "Of course, I would like to get the King of All Things Related to the Reason I Have a Paycheck a cup of coffee. Right now."

However, if key stakeholders are not involved and you have other responsibilities that take precedence, the request may move to a low priority or a no priority. It is, however, still advisable to start your "no" with a "yes, I would love to help." But now add in your priorities, such as, "My plate is full today with X, Y and Z super important things. I could tackle the thing you need on a different day, unless you would like me to ask our CEO if your dry cleaning is more pressing than coordinating her call with our investors about our Q2 sales performance." The snark is optional (you should probably avoid it all together), but laying out what you are doing and for whom is an effective way of dismissing requests that aren't critical to the mission.

Finally, some requests require a "not it." Remember growing up, when you played a game where the last one who answers is "It" and gets stuck with the least preferable of consequences, like extra chores or riding in the back of the car with the drooling dog? Even though you're the one the request came to, you may not be the right or the best person to respond.

However, it is essential that you orchestrate the "not it" flawlessly. Here are some things to consider: Is the request too junior for you or not part of what you do? Telling a client: "I don't handle that" can come off as: "Not my problem -- it's yours."

With these situations, thank the requester for reaching out to you, get a complete understanding of what is needed and related timelines, and offer to respond as quickly as possible with the best next steps. Take ownership of determining who should take over, and then inform the requester of what has transpired. Try: "Hi Maggie. I was able to determine that Joe in Customer Service can work on that replacement order immediately. I have brought him up to speed, and he will be contacting you today to assist." The extra care may take a few minutes and ensures that your client feels like gold.

If a request is too senior, or you are not well educated on how to handle it, resist the urge to give information without consulting someone with more experience. At times, some employees' desire to add words to a conversation gets the best of them, and they just turn down a challenging or abnormal request -- without exploring possibilities. Better to respond with: "Hmm. That is an interesting question. May I get back to you within two hours to determine next steps?"

Notice I used "next steps" in both scenarios. The value of that expression is that it neither promises resolution nor is a shutdown. Instead, it sets up that something will happen next, just with no commitment as to what. Once you have determined that your proposed response time will work for the requester, you can seek advice on how to handle or to whom to escalate.

Taking a step back is better than a flat-out "no" in most business situations. Be sure to express your willingness to be helpful, then move to setting expectations that both honor your current priorities but factor in the significance of the request. And, of course, seek out advice from those with more expertise before responding to a new or seemingly unprecedented demand. Learning how to master these scenarios will have a positive impact on your career progression.

Robin Reshwan is the founder of Collegial Services, a consulting/staffing firm that connects college students, recent graduates and the organizations that hire them and a certified Women's Business Enterprise (WBE). She has interviewed, placed and hired thousands of people across a broad spectrum of companies and industries. Her career tips and advice are used by universities, national clubs/associations and businesses. A Certified Professional Résumé Writer, Robin has been honored as a Professional Business Woman of the Year by the American Business Women's Association. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and as a Regents Scholar from University of California, Davis.

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