How to Say No to Your Boss

Respectfully Decline an Assignment

Young woman working at desk in office
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After careful consideration, you are dismayed to realize that it would be best not to take on a new assignment from your boss. There may be several reasons for arriving at that conclusion. Maybe you are swamped with other work, or the new project requires skills you don't have yet. Your justification for saying no to your boss may seem entirely legitimate to you, but will your boss think it is.

Valid Reason or An Excuse?

There are valid reasons for turning down an assignment, but your boss may consider other ones poor excuses. Before doing anything, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I already working on several high priority assignments that leave me no time for this one?
  • Does this project have a higher priority than my others?
  • Can I delegate some of my work to subordinates or coworkers?
  • Can I put some of my lower-priority assignments on the back burner while I work on this new project?
  • If I don't currently have the skills that are necessary to complete this assignment, can I acquire them quickly?
  • Am I the only person in the organization who has the skills and background to complete this assignment? In other words, is my employer relying on me?

The Wrong Reasons To Say No to Your Boss

Do not turn down an assignment from your boss on a whim. While the reasons listed here may seem like good ones, they probably aren't good enough for your boss.

  • The Project Seems Too Challenging: If you have the skills to work on an assignment, don't turn it down because it will be difficult. Your boss expects you to work hard and won't look kindly on your turning down a project because it's going to take a lot of effort to complete.
  • It Isn't Part of My Job Description: As long as you have the skills to complete an assignment, turning it down because it's outside your job description is just wrong.
  • I'm in the Middle of Planning my Wedding, About to Go on Vacation, Etc.: Do not put a personal event ahead of your job under most circumstances. There are exceptions. If your employer has approved time off and it conflicts with your working on this project, for example, talk with your boss.

Good Reasons to Say No to Your Boss

If your boss is relatively reasonable, he or she should be able to understand these reasons for bowing out of an assignment:

  • After putting together a plan to complete the project and realizing there aren't enough hours in the day to meet the deadline, it is imperative to speak up. It's better to explain why a stated timeframe is unreasonable than staying silent and ultimately failing to complete the assignment.
  • If taking on the new project means neglecting all your other work, say no to your boss, but explain why. He or she may decide to lighten the rest of your workload to free up your time.
  • You have no choice but to decline a project when you don't have the necessary skills for it. Talk to your boss about acquiring them in time to work on any future projects that are similar. Perhaps they will pay for your training.

How to Say No to Your Boss

Thoroughly explain your reasons for turning down an assignment and don't wait too long to do it. Give your boss the opportunity to assign the project to someone else. Make it crystal clear that you have given it serious consideration. If you are qualified to work on a project but have too much else to do, your boss may help you delegate your other assignments.

  • If your reason for saying no to your boss is that you don't have enough time to work on the project, prepare to present a progress report of your other projects. He or she may not even remember assigning them to you or may not be aware of them if someone else did.
  • If you think your other work will suffer from taking on an extra assignment, explain that to your boss. He or she will appreciate your honesty and your unwillingness to neglect your other projects.
  • If you don't have the necessary skills to complete this assignment, admit it to your boss. It would be worse to pretend you can do something when you really can't.