It’s a problem we all face in the workplace: being asked to take on additional tasks that, frankly, you just can’t manage. Saying no is difficult, it feels awkward and rude. It feels like you’re the only one who isn’t accepting extra work and that you’re not being a good employee.
I find that, in my personal anecdotes, women fall into the trap of saying yes way too often. We feel we need to prove ourselves in the workplace, and nothing says “I can take on the world!” like overloading your schedule and having your status permanently set to busy. It doesn’t exactly feel progressive to turn down extra work when it’s presented to you specifically, especially when your boss or colleague states that “you’re just the person they thought of for X job!” However, saying no is good practice. You will find as you move up the corporate ladder that there will be more and more opportunities presented to you, with less time and resources available to handle them all. Learn to say no with confidence and without causing a rift in the workplace.
It’s 4PM on Thursday afternoon. You have booked Friday and Monday off and are planning to go to a cottage weekend with your family. Your boss comes by and says, “Did you grab a ticket to that conference on Saturday? I didn't see your name registered - it’s free you know! I really think you’d have fun and it’s a great opportunity for you to learn from our board members.” You freeze - do you tell your boss that you have no interest in the conference because you want a weekend of wine on the dock? Or do you accept another bump in your plans in favour of work?
Most women we polled would try to do both: accept the invite to the conference, sneaking away early Saturday evening to head up to the cottage and still have Sunday and Monday for your vacation. But, not only is this unfair to you and your free time, you don’t need to do this. You made plans, and you have no obligation to work while on vacation or on weekends, unless your contract is pretty unfair. You can say something along the lines of, “Boss - thank you for the invite! I did hear about the conference and I am disappointed to miss it, however I already made plans for my long weekend and will not be in town. Next time there is a conference, please let me know. I would be happy to attend.” You have spoken clearly and calmly, you have turned down your boss’s request, but also provided a fair reason and let them know that you’re still interested in future opportunities. You aren’t available this time, but you are keen on knowing about this type of opportunity in the future. A reasonable boss would respond that, at worst, they are disappointed you can’t attend (but, hey - you already said you were equally disappointed!) but they understand and hope you have a great weekend.
Write out What you Want to Say
Knowing what you’re going to say and how you want to phrase it is important. You obviously are not looking to offend the individual who is extending the offer, and you want to turn it down tactfully. Write out what you want to say in advance. You may struggle to manage it all, especially in-person, but stick to your main points and don’t ramble. Do not feel guilty for turning something down. If the person you’re speaking with interrupts you, let them say their piece, but keep what you want to get across on track. Don’t let them deviate you from your answer.
When turning down a task, event, or project, you often feel you need to provide a reason for not accepting. The truth is, that you don’t need a reason or an “excuse” to refuse to do something. However, turning down a task, especially when work-related, feels a lot more socially acceptable when you have a reason to support your decision. If you feel it’s inappropriate to say “I can’t accept this X right now” without a “because” then be truthful with your reasoning. If you’ve accepted too many event invites this month and just need a night to yourself - say so. If you are already overloaded with projects and do not have the time or resources to allocate towards another one - say so. If you feel the need to provide a reason, make sure that you’re honest and firm. Try not to blame others, such as saying you have to attend a friend’s birthday or you need to watch your brother’s kids. It’s your decision to turn down this offer and no one else is involved in that decision. You don’t want to accept it for yourself and that needs to be known.
What if there is Push Back?
If you’ve said no, and provided a reason as to why, yet your boss or colleague continues to push, you need to remain firm. Tell them that you are grateful that they thought of you for handling the project or inviting you to whichever event, but that you are not able to manage it at this time. Do not let them convince you that you can handle part of it, or delegate portions, or simply “look it over.” If it’s not something you want to accept as a whole, do not let them convince you to take part. Be strong in your decision.
As a Canadian, I will tell you that it’s difficult to be angry with someone that says “I’m sorry that I can’t accept this right now but let me know of any future opportunities that you need assistance with” with an apologetic smile on their face! Don’t be afraid to go full Canadian, but know that you do not need to feel guilty over your decision to say no sometimes.