How to say ‘no’ at work (without harming your career)

Use these tips to turn down a request and still shine.
By Dawn Wotapka

When it comes to the workplace, learning to say "no" is just as important as saying "yes."

"Saying 'no' is an essential skill for career success," said Jennifer Brick, CEO and a career coach with Capdeca Solutions in New York. The key is to agree to the requests that will help you learn and grow, while politely turning down those that won't build your skills or that will leave you feeling overloaded.

But many employees, particular newer ones, "often want to become the go-to employee and prove themselves professionally," said Beth Cabrera, executive vice president of KNF&T Staffing Resources in Boston. "They initially believe that if you don't say 'yes' to every request, then you might miss opportunities."

By taking on too much, however, you may end up with more than your fair share of work, potentially leading to long hours, subpar work, and, eventually, feeling burned out.

That's why being able to say "no" gracefully is an important skill to learn. Try these tips for turning down requests while maintaining a positive image:

Truly consider the offer. Before turning down an opportunity, assess it. Will it help you reach your career goals? Are you passing on an offer that could stretch you? Could you meet great contacts who could be mentors or coaches?

"Ask yourself, 'What is my end game here?'," said Sara deJuliis, CPA, a supervisor with Albero, Kupferman & Associates LLC in Wilmington, Del., and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

If the opportunity doesn't match your goals, it may be best to take a pass. "If you are working towards growing your career, you simply can't say yes to everything or you will end up working on things that take you further away from the promotion you want," Brick pointed out.

In addition to considering your workload, think about the bigger picture for your employer, she advised. "Know what is important to your manager, leadership team, and company and invest in those things," she said.

Ask about priorities. When approached, consider how the task or project would fit into your existing workload. Make sure you communicate about your current projects and ask if this new one will take priority, said Riley Adams, CPA, a senior financial analyst with Google in Mountain View, Calif.

The requester may not know what's currently on your plate. "Ask your boss what projects you should de-emphasize as a result of being given new work," Adams said.

Plus, asking this question shows that you "want to turn in quality work and you have self-respect enough to ask for prioritization and possible assistance," he said.

Avoid a blanket "no." When turning something down, consider your words carefully. Skip "any use of terminology that could suggest an 'it's-not-my-job' mentality," Cabrera said. "Instead, be honest and transparent."

If you have too much on your plate, say so. You could also suggest a time in the future when the project could be done, provided it isn't urgent, said Ashley Bryan, CPA, a controller with Threaded Fasteners Inc. in Mobile, Ala., and a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy.

You can also ask for assistance or redirect the request to someone else, Bryan said, perhaps by asking the requester what he or she wants to accomplish and leading him or her to conclude someone else might be a better fit. Try language like "So-and-so is going to know a little bit more about that based on what they do on a daily basis," she suggested.

Bite the bullet. To be sure, sometimes you can't turn down work. In those cases, remind yourself that you're going to learn, that you'll be better at your job for taking on the responsibility, and that most work assignments make you stronger. "You may not see it from day one," Bryan said. "It's when you look back at those difficult projects, that's when you grew the most."

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at

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