How To Say 'No' To Your Boss (With Examples and Tips)

Updated December 2, 2022

Saying no to your supervisor can be a necessity at certain times throughout your career. Regardless of your role in an organization, doing so can help you better optimize your workload and improve your department's efficiency. Knowing how to refuse your supervisor is a valuable professional skill, but it needs to be done for appropriate reasons. In this article, we discuss when saying no to your manager is acceptable and how you should do it.

Why is knowing how to say no to your boss important?

Although managers are tasked with figuring out the best ways to use their employees' time, it is likely that, on occasion, an employee will have objective reasons to refuse a given task. The reasoning can vary, but some employees may be reluctant in saying no to the person that can determine their future within the organization. However, knowing how to refuse your supervisor when having proper reasons to do so is important, as not doing it may be detrimental for both yourself and the organization.

Related: Requesting a Deadline Extension at Work: Tips and Examples

Acceptable reasons to say no to your supervisor

Some of the most valid reasons to refuse your supervisor are:

Lack of time

One of the most widely encountered situations in which an employee needs to say no to their supervisor is when they are given a task that they simply do not have time to properly attend to. Explaining your workload and current priorities will help your manager understand your refusal.

An unlawful request

Saying no to a task that would be illegal is also a valid reason. Performing illegal activities, even when instructed so by your supervisor, can result in legal challenges and affect your professional reputation.

An unethical task

Similar to situations when a given task would likely break the law, refusing a task that you consider unethical, for reasons that can be related to personal choices, religion, values, life situations or other similar contexts, can be a correct career move. Although unethical tasks are typically harder to define than unlawful tasks, you should politely explain your personal stance. This can also include refusing professionally inappropriate psychological or physical pressure from your supervisor.

An unreasonable request for personal time

Although many employees work overtime and spend personal time with work colleagues, doing it beyond a certain limit typically leads to burnout and a lack of efficiency at work. Saying no to your supervisor when they request that you perform various activities outside work hours, such as working during weekends or attending various company gatherings, is a valid reason to refuse.

When you are underqualified or overqualified for a task

It may be best to say no if you are given a task if you know it requires crucial skills that you lack, as doing an improper job may hurt the organization. Similarly, receiving a task that requires significantly lower qualifications than you possess is valid grounds for refusal and the best way to do so is by showing your supervisor the more efficient things you can do with your time at work.

Related: 10 Leadership Positions

Ways to say no to your supervisor

The most efficient ways to refuse your manager are:

1. Give a valid and logical reason

You may have a perfectly logical reason for refusing a work task and you should properly explain it to your supervisor. It's best to do so by stating the facts and letting the supervisor realize by themselves that the request they made is not feasible now.

Example: “I understand that the new employee requires mentoring and I'd love to be the one who initiates her within the company, but I estimate that the Johnson account and supervising work on our new headquarters will take up to 35 hours this week. Therefore I'm afraid I absolutely have no spare time.”

2. Express your gratitude

Showing gratitude despite saying no is likely to help your supervisor better receive your refusal.

Example: “It's an absolute honor that you thought of me for the McGinnis file, as it shows your faith in my professional abilities. However, I'm afraid that, given my busy workload over the next few weeks, one of my colleagues should do it.”

3. Empathize with your manager

Regardless of your reasons for refusing, it's important to acknowledge the fact that your supervisor has an important issue that needs to be resolved.

Example: "I understand that the task you're giving me is very important both for the client and our organization, but I'm afraid I won't have enough time to deal with it over the next few weeks. I feel the task deserves much better attention than I'll be able to offer.”

4. Be direct

If you feel you are fully justified to refuse your superior, you should do it straightforwardly.

Example: “I'm sorry, but I can't come to the office on Saturday morning because I need to attend my son's football match. It's the finals.”

Related: How To Nicely Say 'No' (With 50 Examples)

5. Delegate someone else

If you are given a task that you don't have time for or are not prepared to handle, proposing that another colleague should do it is typically a good way to say no, assuming the colleague has the time and qualifications to perform the task.

Example: “I'm afraid I don't have the time to take up another client at the moment, but I think Vanessa would be up to the task and she has more experience than I do with that type of client.”

6. Delay your refusal

When put on the spot, allowing yourself more time to formulate a proper refusal may lead to a better outcome. Later, when you have had the time to think about the situation, you will be in a better position to formulate a good argument for saying no.

Example: “I'm afraid I am on a tight deadline and I need to finish this today. Can we talk about it in the afternoon, after I complete my current task?”

7. Acknowledge your manager's authority

Being refused by an employee may not be pleasant for some supervisors. You need to let them know that your refusal is not a challenge to their authority.

Example: “I understand that this is entirely your decision and you know more about the client than I do, but I honestly think I won't have the time to offer them my full attention because of the other projects I'm involved in.”

8. Keep it professional

Regardless of the situation and of your reasons to say no, it's important that the conversation remains strictly professional, even if you have a personal issue with the task.

Example: “I understand this project is important and I have plenty of previous experience with similar situations; however, as you know, I am the most experienced person in the team when it comes to corporate clients and working with small and medium enterprises will take up a lot of my time.”

9. Set clear boundaries regarding your personal time

Many organizations occasionally want some of their employees to work on weekends and holidays. If you do not wish to do so, you must make it clear to your employer, instead of constantly refusing them afterward.

Example: “I understand that we are on tight deadlines and some work will need to be done on weekends and this upcoming Easter. However, as much as I'm loyal to this company, my family needs me to be there so I'm afraid I won't be able to work overtime. I will, however, use my office time with maximum efficiency.”

10. Plan your timing

Manager roles are often stressful and emotionally straining. You must pick a good time to say no to your manager.

Example: “I'd love to talk to you about the Penske file, but I see that you have a lot on your mind right now. Can I come to your office in an hour to discuss this?”

11. Suggest another way

If you're not satisfied with a task that was given to you, suggesting another way of doing it may change your manager's mind. If they agree with you, then you will likely receive praise for your creativity. If they refuse your alternative, then you will know they have given the task much thought and you should try to comply, despite your reservations.

Example: “Me going to Dallas to meet with the new prospect may help us get the contract, but it will take away time from other existing clients. Here's what I suggest: the prospect will be in town next week; why don't I set up a video call where I explain what we can do for them and make a formal offer? We can then sign the papers when they arrive, next week.

12. Ask them to help you with your schedule

Another way of saying no when you don't have the time for a task is by asking your manager to help you organize your schedule. This way, you'll be sure that they realize how busy you are.

Example: “Working on the Anderson account is right within my expertise, but I'm afraid I need some advice from you on how to organize my time. I have the Hernandez and Wu accounts to finish this week and they both require a lot of my time. How do you suggest I handle this?”

13. Explain the negative consequences of the request

If you feel that a task that has been given to you may negatively affect the organization, you should use facts to explain the situation to your supervisor.

Example: “Purchasing prime materials for the entire year may be too expensive. According to industry studies, the price for prime materials is likely to drop by as much as 30 percent over the next few months, so I suggest we wait before making a stockpile.”

14. Explain that you are underqualified for the task

If you're given a task that you don't have the experience or skills to complete, the best way to refuse is by asking your manager to help you learn how to do it.

Example: “I'd love to handle imports, but I'm afraid I need more experience in international law. Could I get more training on that issue these upcoming months?”

15. Suggest a compromise

If you want to avoid a straight refusal, you can suggest an acceptable compromise.

Example: “Taking on the Peterson account would be great for me, but my schedule is pretty hectic this week because of the conference. I suggest that Jerry begins preliminary talks with their team and I can join him in a week or two to finalize.”

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