Needy Coworkers? 7 Ways to Say 'No'
Work + Life Balance

Needy Coworkers? 7 Ways to Say "No"

by Sarah Landrum
Photos Diana Zapata | October 13, 2015

WE'RE PREDISPOSED TO FEEL WE'LL DISAPPOINT SOMEONE IF WE SAY "NO," BUT WHEN IT COMES TO COLLEAGUES (OR EVEN BOSSES), IT'S IMPORTANT TO KNOW WHEN TO PUT YOURSELF FIRST.  

You're neck-deep in work. Suddenly, a coworker pops up beside you, and asks you to do them a little favor. When you check the task though, you realize it's more than just a "little" favor. But, for one reason or another, you can't refuse and decide to help. 

Sounds familiar? Don't worry. Saying "No" is not easy for most of us. When you turn down a boss or coworker, it often feels like turning down something else — usually a chance to prove that you're a competent and reliable employee. After all, successful people are the ones who say "Yes" to everything, right?

Not quite. Steve Jobs once said, "Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." If you can say "No" to the wrong things, you'll have more leeway to pursue the right ones. {Click to Tweet}

So what counts as "wrong," exactly? Good question. You can start with tasks that fit one or more of the following criteria:

"Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do."

THE DEADLINE IS UNREASONABLE 

Let's say you're asked to write a report within a day, when it normally takes a week to complete. If you tried to meet a deadline that tight, and ended up with a report that needs a ton of revisions, won't an extended deadline be a better solution? 

THE TASK INTERFERES WITH YOUR OTHER WORK

You're already struggling to juggle everything on your plate. The last thing you need is someone butting in and insisting you do this and that "within the next five minutes." Since the person has that much time to convince you to do their work for them, it's probably more productive to let them do it on their own.    

THE TASK ISN’T IN YOUR WHEELHOUSE 

Granted, you can learn how to do a completely unfamiliar task on the fly. But if you're asked to do something like write a thorough report on OSHA regulations within an hour, you're well within your rights to politely decline the assignment. Say something like, "I'm sorry, but this is beyond my expertise" and recommend someone else who's an expert.     

YOU’RE ON VACATION 

Vacations are supposed to recharge you for the workplace. If you're answering emails in the middle of sunbathing in the Caribbean, you might as well not take time off at all. Let your coworkers know when you're on vacation, and tell them to contact you only for urgent situations that need to be attended to ASAP. 

YOU’RE FEELING UNDER THE WEATHER 

When you're sick, it's tempting to try powering through your workload anyway. But you'll do everyone — including yourself — a favor if you choose to rest and recover instead. This way, your coworkers don't have to worry about you suddenly falling over in the office, and you don't have to worry about your illness getting worse.

Saying "No" is going to be hard at first...But with practice and persistence, it'll prove to be one of the most valuable skills you'll ever learn.   

YOU’RE BEING TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF 

It's okay to do small favors for coworkers once in a while. However, if you're starting to feel as overworked and under-appreciated like Anne Hathaway's character in The Devil Wears Prada, that's a sign you need to put your foot down. {Click to Tweet} You're a skilled professional, not a glorified errand girl, so don't be afraid to let people know when they've crossed the line.

YOU’RE ASKED TO DO SOMETHING UNETHICAL OR UNSAFE

Remember the Enron fiasco? That's what happens when companies choose profit over principle. If you're regularly asked to do things that make you uneasy, consider looking for another job that's more in line with your personal values. You can also try to stand your ground, as long as you're prepared to face a long, hard road ahead. The same goes for requests you feel are unsafe. If you are at all worried about your well-being, it’s okay to say no. Even if the task “meets regulations,” it could be unsafe considering OSHA doesn’t set hazard-specific standards. 

SOME TIPS ON SAYING "NO"

Even if you have a good reason for turning something down, it's still unnerving to do it in front of bosses and coworkers. You're not used to it and your colleagues probably aren't either. Still, it's worth trying out these steps:

  • Take a deep breath. This will put you in a state of mind where you can give a polite, reasonable refusal. 
  • Start with a sincere apology. Avoid padding it with wishy-washy words like "maybe" or "I'll do it later." Otherwise, that won't be the last time they'll pas s the buck to you. 
  • Suggest alternatives. People always appreciate it when you do your best to help no matter what, rather than just complaining about it. 

For example, let's say a coworker suddenly got sick, so your boss gave you their workload instead. Since your plate is full already, you can't take on the extra work. Say, "I'm sorry, I can't do that given my current workload. But John Doe might be able to do it."

Saying "No" is going to be hard at first, especially if you're the people-pleasing type. But with practice and persistence, it'll prove to be one of the most valuable skills you'll ever learn.

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Can you think of a situation where you couldn't say no even though you wanted to? Why not? Tell us in the comments.