Proof It’s Okay to Say ‘No’ at Work

May 25, 2016, 1:07 PM UTC
Boy (3-5) chairing business meeting
Photograph by Hiep Vu — Compassionate Eye Foundation via Getty Images

The MPW Insiders network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question: At work, what’s the right way to say no? is written by Sue Quackenbush, chief human resources officer at Vonage.

Saying “no” is one of the most difficult things to say—especially in the workplace. Many people often commit to things they either cannot deliver on, or end up putting themselves in a difficult position rather than just saying no from the get go. But there are ways to say no and still be viewed as collaborative. It’s all about balance and being firm. You can still maintain successful work relationships with an honest “no” and not feel guilty about it.

The bottom line: You have to look at your workload and responsibilities and make an honest assessment of whether it’s a “yes” or a “no” so that you don’t put yourself—or the person asking for help—in a bad position.

Here’s what you can do to effectively decline a request for help:

  • First, understand the ask. Have those asking for help share the significance of the request and why they came to you for help. The dialogue may reveal that someone else is better suited to help, that there’s a better approach, or that the request isn’t urgent.
  • Second, acknowledge the importance of their ask, but show them the relative prioritization of their ask in your world. You can do this by sharing with them what’s currently on your plate and what you’ve already committed to deliver on.
  • Third, respectively decline their request and provide them with alternative sources of help.



If that doesn’t work, apologize, but be firm and respectfully tell them that you’re not in a position to help with the particular request. After you say no, thank them for understanding why you had to decline, and reinforce your openness to provide support in the future.

At the end of the day, saying no is about setting boundaries while maintaining your relationships with colleagues. Even when saying no, the interaction provides an opportunity to better understand your colleagues and build or strengthen your relationships with them. Understandably, this isn’t easy to do, but when done with care and respect, the act of saying no can actually be beneficial for both parties.