Avoid the Guilt Trap: How to Say No at Work Professionally

Are you worried about how to say no at work without feeling guilty? I certainly am. But as someone navigating the adulting struggle and trying to figure out the corporate world, there are far too many other things for me to be worrying about. Like grocery shopping (haven’t done that in a week, but granola bars are like the gift that keeps on giving LOL).

So to take one thing from your plate and mine, here are my top tips for saying no professionally and politely declining requests to complete additional work or work extra hours not in your job description. Mastering how to say no at work is a career-long journey, but these 6 easy tips, email template, and 8 phrases to say no effectively will get you started.

young brunette woman having business call about declining a request at work and working in modern office with laptop –

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When to Say No at Work

This age old question suddenly seems more relevant than ever as our work culture in the US (and around the globe) begins to evolve. More and more, work has consumed our lives. Fear of losing our job or getting a poor performance review pushes us to overwork ourselves. 

Though we may be able to work long hours for a couple weeks or a couple months, it leads to burnout, resentment toward our jobs, and poor quality of life. For this reason, we must all learn when to say no at work and how to say no at work without feeling guilty.

Do I have the right to say no at work?

The first step to learning how to say no at work is recognizing that we have the right to say no. Our workplaces are not run by AI machines and robots, but people with needs, wants, passions, skills, and limits. That last aspect is worth emphasizing because unlike a robot, people aren’t meant to be working 24/7.

God granted us the sabbath day as a day of rest because he knew we, humans, in our limited ability needed it (Genesis 1-2, Exodus 20). I also believe he gave us 24-hour days because 24 hours is all we could handle at a time.

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes even 24 hours seems like a lot to handle.

Secondly, we have the right to say no at work based on our job descriptions. Before you were considered for your position, you applied to the company based on a job description with your job responsibilities and the scope of your work. So when you accepted your offer letter, you and the company agreed that you were hired to perform this specific job. 

Operating outside that job description from time to time is normal. But all the time? That’s an issue you need to bring up with your manager and HR department. They should reconcile your current job duties with your job description. But until that happens, you have to know how to say no to a request at work. 

How can you say no at work and still get ahead?

Another fear that comes from declining requests for additional work is that it will affect promotion prospects. As advice for young professionals go, we want to work hard early to get ahead and have a strong foundation for our career.

However, this advice can be taken too far. “Getting ahead” by always working extra hours, taking on additional work, and assuming the responsibilities of your teammates can lead to unhealthy habits down the line. Thus, it isn’t a smart way to get promoted or a guaranteed method to “get ahead.”

On the other hand, your time and energy is better spent on building your skills, gaining expertise in your field of interest, and establishing a personal brand and eminence

Your eminence is what you are known for. It’s what people come to you for input and insights.

Kara J Lovett Co.

Your expertise in your field of eminence is what leads to your promotion. Consistent performance, confidence, and composure in your role makes you stand out as a leader, too. What’s great about these career building blocks is that they don’t require you wearing yourself out to try to be noticed.

Lastly, establishing strong workplace boundaries as a young professional makes it easier to maintain those habits later on and provides several benefits if you maintain good work-life balance

Learning How to Say No Gracefully in Business

There are many situations where we may need to pull out a “no” at work. 

  • How to say no without being rude
  • How to say no to additional work
  • How to say no to extra work hours
  • How to say no to your boss

For all of these situations, we must respond tactfully and politely. We want to act in the way we  want the conversation to be remembered. In other words, when my coworker or boss is looking back on this conversation, I want them to feel calm, not angry or upset.

Keeping this in mind helps us with how to say no gracefully in business. It reminds us to respond with kindness and not from a place of frustration or stress.

Learning How to Say No to Someone

Learning how to say no professionally is something that takes time and practice. Having a mentor at work who can coach you and role play different scenarios with you is a huge help. So is practicing with a colleague, a trusted friend or family member. 

Acting it out with someone else can help you nail down the best response for a given situation and prepare you for what to expect. While the conversation probably won’t go as planned, you’ll be calmer and more composed when you decline the work request, which will help the other person in the conversation respond similarly.

6 Tips: How to Say No at Work without Feeling Guilty

Now that we’ve established when to say now at work, that we have the right to say no at work, and why overworking ourselves doesn’t really guarantee that we’ll get ahead, let’s tackle the how next.

How do we say no to additional work that’s not in our job description? How do we politely decline a request? And above all, how do we say not at work without feeling guilty?

Here are 6 of my top tips for saying no and not feeling guilty. 

1 – Be Honest When You Say No at Work

Answering a co-worker’s request with a no seems daunting. What’s the right excuse? How do you frame it just right? The answer to both these questions is surprisingly simple. 

People want to hear the truth when you decline their requests. While you don’t have to provide all the details, even a small portion of the truth prompts people to honor and respect your decision. 

How do you say no effectively at work?

When you tell people why you must decline a request, be firm and don’t waver on your decision. If you start to bend the workplace boundaries that you’ve set, then people are more likely to walk over your boundaries again later. 

Remember that you don’t have to provide the whole story of why you’re saying no. Short answers are actually best because they show that you’ve made your decision and this a decision you’re not going to change.

  • I can’t add this extra report to my plate because I have a family commitment this afternoon. It’s been on my calendar for weeks, and I can’t move it.
  • I have to prioritize another project right now, so I won’t be able to help with this.

2 – Realize No’s Can be Polite

One of the reasons we shy away from saying no is because we don’t view them as being polite and because we want to be liked. However, declining a request and being polite aren’t mutually exclusive. 

In fact, being honest about your limitations and what you don’t have time to do is being polite.

It’s much preferred and better than committing to something you don’t have time or energy to do and then letting someone down on the other side.  

How to Politely Decline a Request

When it comes to how to say no politely in business, there are three attributes to include. 

  1. First, listen to the other person’s request with attention and compassion. Perhaps they are in a bind or feel overwhelmed, too. You can be a good coworker just by listening to their request without interjecting your no right off the bat. 
  2. Second, frame your response around the limitations of time and demands of work instead of your inability to help them with the request. All of us have business demands, obligations, and goals that we have to meet. Make sure they know that you have to prioritize those for yourself, too.
  3. Lastly, when you say no at work, try to come up with alternatives to the person’s dilemma. Can you help them prioritize their work? Is there someone else on the team who can help? Should the team consider bringing on another person in the future? 

Although you can’t help them by doing the work, you can suggest other ways to get the work done.

3 – Understand the Value of Your Time

This third tip is specific to how to say not at work without feeling guilty. One way feelings of guilt creep in when we have FOMO (fear of missing out). 

Perhaps working the extra hours or doing the additional work will lead to something? If other people in my team are going to the training, maybe I should to even though it means I have to work late tonight?

But instead of accepting FOMO as the norm, why not think about the value of our time? Time is the only resource that we can’t get back. 

No matter how much money we have or things we buy, we can never acquire more time. 

Kara J Lovett Co.

How to Say “Not Interested” Politely in Business

If you understand the value of time, then it should influence how you spend your time. Instead of trying to do everything, what tasks or activities are most important to you? To your career?

Once you answer those two questions, then you know how you should spend your time and energy.

It will become easier to say, “Not Interested” when opportunities come up that don’t match your interests and your career goals.

For example, I was invited to partake in a new initiative to get certified in a new software. When I researched the certification, I found out that it would take 120 hours of study time during nights and weekends. 

After researching the software, I found that this certification did not line up with my career goals and that my time would be better spent pursuing other skills. Once I had this check in with myself, it was much easier to say “Not Interested” to the program invitation without feeling guilty.

4 – Say No to People Pleasing and Yes to Respect

Another reason we may feel guilty when learning how to turn down additional work is because we want to please our boss or be liked by coworkers. 

The sad face the person has when we decline the request sticks in our head for weeks after. We feel terrible for not helping or putting in the extra hours if we didn’t have concrete plans for the evening. 

The other side of this situation though is that if we did say yes, we’d be battling a lot of similar requests down the road. Suddenly, we find our schedule full with extraneous meetings, too many commitments, and all of the team’s most tedious and hated tasks. Worse, we’ll be known as the yes man or yes woman and be asked to do everyone else’s work.

Is that really worth being liked or the most popular? No, not in business, or shall I say, anywhere else.

How to Turn Down Additional Work

Instead of wanting to please other people, we should work to earn other’s respect. Professionals are respected when they perform their job duties, understand their time and resource limitations, and hold others to the same expectation.

So when you turn down additional work:

  1. Be clear, firm, and explain why. 
  2. Be compassionate and sensitive to the other person in your delivery.
  3. Don’t waver on your decision. 
  4. Pick a moment where you and the person can have an uninterrupted, focused, one-on-one conversation.

Think about the people that you enjoyed working with for group projects in college. For me, it was those who knew what part of the project they wanted to work on and when they could get it done by. If they were able to rally the troops and hold other people accountable to their work, even better. 

These are the people that earned my respect, and if you adopt these principles as a young professional, you’ll gain your coworker and your boss’ respect, too. 

Related: Tips for Dealing with Tough Work Situations

Group of young professionals having a meeting to discuss new decisions, plans, results, strategy, and responsibilities.

5 – Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries

Since I have a whole article dedicated to how to set workplace boundaries and establish clear expectations at work, I’ll be brief. 

Having boundaries set in place as an employee and as a team pave the way for saying no at work without feeling guilty. When you are politely declining a request, you can point back to the policies your team agreed on beforehand or the personal boundaries you’ve set in place.

6 – Memorize “No” Phrases to Make the Conversation Easier

My last tip for how to say no professionally at work without feeling guilty is memorizing short “no” phrases that you can use for different situations. While no two situations are alike, these phrases will give you a good place to start from and ultimately remind you that: 

You have the right to say no. 

8 Phrases: How to Say No Professionally

1. “Thanks for thinking of me. While I’d like to help, I have other commitments that can’t be moved. So, I won’t be able to attend / I can’t work late / I can’t commit to this additional work.” 

2. “Unfortunately, my schedule is packed this week, so I won’t be able to take on additional work. Once things calm down, I’ll be glad to lend a hand if I you still need assistance.”

3. “I would hate to commit to something that I couldn’t follow through on, so I will have to pass on this.”

4. “While this sounds like a great opportunity, it doesn’t match my career interests. I think my time would better be served by focusing on …”

5. “I appreciate you coming to me with this, but I don’t think I’m the best person for the job. I have these projects / tasks / deliverables that I need to prioritize.”

6. “I have a commitment / family emergency / other meeting at that time, so I won’t be able to attend. If there is a recording or meeting minutes, I’ll do my best to review those afterward.”

7. “You said this needs to get down now, but for me to complete it, I would have to work all weekend, and I can’t do that. I work hard all week to ensure that I can relax, recharge, and take care of myself during my time off. I’d appreciate it if you and the team would respect that. However, I’m happy to take a look at it first thing Monday morning.”

8. “Even though I can’t help with this request, I can help you think of ways to get it done. Do you have a few minutes to brainstorm?”

How to Say no Politely in an Email – Free Template

In addition to these resources for how to say no at work without feeling guilty, here is a free template to help you say no in an email. Personalize it with your own details to make it your own.

Dear Jane,

I received your request to <change all of the tables to charts in Excel by tomorrow morning.> Unfortunately, I cannot meet this deadline. Right now,< our boss> has told me to prioritize <finishing these emails to the client>, and I’ve already committed to finishing it <this week.> 

Thank you for understanding. Hopefully another member of our team can help with this request.

Best Regards,

<Your Name>

The Big Caveat of Saying No at Work

All of this being said, there is an important qualifier to everything I’ve mentioned above. You have to be doing your work and performing your job responsibilities to your boss, your team, and the company’s satisfaction.

You were hired to do a job, and you have to be completing your job duties.

The tips I’ve outlined about how to say not at work without feeling guilty is for situations where you’re being asked to do something in an unreasonable time frame, outside of your scope of work and job duties, or that would damage your work-life balance significantly.

Every job will have parts that we don’t like , but we have to do anyway. That’s just part of working, and saying no to those things won’t get us anywhere.

When you receive a request for additional work or long hours, take a moment before you reply. Pray and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you on how to best respond.

Stop Feeling Guilty for Saying No at Work

Learning how to say no at work without feeling guilty is a process. It’s an uphill battle that requires going against the norm of our work culture that tells us we must work extra hours, let people dump their work on us, and be people pleasers to get ahead and keep our jobs. But this leads to a poor quality of life for us and a work-life balance that’s out of whack and detrimental to our wellbeing

The fact that we are limited beings with limited time, energy, and resources is not something to be afraid of. It’s something we should embrace. 

Because every time we say no to one thing, that means we can say yes to something else—the things that really matter. That build our career and establish our personal eminence.

Everything else can wait. So stop feeling guilty, and start practicing how to say no at work. It’s a skill that will serve you far, far after your time as a young professional.

How do you say no in a difficult situation?

Leave me a comment below!

Don’t miss this! More posts about Working and the Young Professional Lifestyle:

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