How to Say No to Your Boss

Respectfully Decline an Assignment

Young woman working at desk in office
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Your boss just gave you a new assignment but you know there is no way you will be able to complete it. Maybe it requires skills you don't have yet or you are just swamped with other work. While you think you have a good reason to say no to your boss, you wonder if he or she will think it's a legitimate one.

Some reasons for turning down an assignment are valid ones, but some may sound to your boss like you are making excuses.

Following are several questions you should ask yourself before you do anything. After that are bad and good reasons for turning down an assignment. Lastly, there's advice on how to say no.

Ask Yourself These Questions to Help You Decide Whether to Say No to Your Boss

  • Am I already working on several important assignments that leave me no time for this one?
  • Can I delegate some of my other work to subordinates or coworkers to make room to do this assignment?
  • Can I put some of my other assignments on the back burner while I work on this one?
  • Will accepting this assignment cause me to neglect or not give my full attention to another important one? 
  • Do I entirely lack the skills necessary to complete this assignment or can I acquire them quickly?
  • Am I the only person in the organization who has the skills and background to complete this assignment?

Bad Reasons To Say No to Your Boss

Turning down an assignment from your boss is not something you should do on a whim.

While the reasons listed here may seem important to you, they probably aren't good enough for your boss.

  • The Project Looks Too Difficult: If you have the skills to work on an assignment, but feel it will take more effort than you prefer to make, turning it down will reflect poorly on you. 
  • It Isn't Part of My Job Description: You should be willing to go outside your job description as long as you can do the work.
  • I'm in the Middle of Planning my Wedding (or Another Personal Event):  An event in your personal life should never take precedence over anything that is part of your job.

Good Reasons to Say No to Your Boss

Though you should give an assignment careful consideration before you turn it down, if your boss is relatively reasonable, he or she should be able to understand these reasons:

  • When you put together a plan for completing the assignment and realize there aren't enough hours in the day to meet the deadline, you will have to speak up.
  • If you have to neglect all your other work to complete a project, you will have to say no to your boss. He or she may decide to lighten the rest of your load so you can work on this assignment.
  • You have no choice but to decline a project when you don't have the necessary skills to successfully work on it.

How to Say No to Your Boss

Be prepared to thoroughly explain your reasons for refusing to accept an assignment. Make it crystal clear that you have given it serious thought. Don't take too long to let your boss know your decision. He or she will need ample warning in order to assign the work to someone else. If you are qualified to work on a project but have too much else to do, your boss may decide to 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 list of the other projects for which you are responsible. 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 this to your boss. It would be worse to pretend you can do something you cannot. Ask him if future projects will require these skills. If his answer is "yes," let him know you will do your best to acquire them. The company may be willing to pay for your training.