How To Say “No” To Work The Right Way

When the demands of your job start to encroach on your personal and family time, you have every right to say ‘no’ to your boss. This is how to put your foot down.

Clocking overtime a few days a month is not an issue for you, and you don’t mind working on a Sunday if your team is trying to meet an important deadline. But when colleagues keep calling you when you’re not supposed to be at work, or your boss bombards you with text messages in the middle of the night and expects you to respond to them, it might be harder to comply. Your personal time is sacred and you’d like to keep it that way.

Angela Spaxman, co-founder of Hong Kong-based career and executive coaching company Loving Your Work, says you have every right to say ‘no’ to your boss. “It means you believe you’re worthy of your job and deserve your time off. But remember, you have to be willing to accept the consequences that come with refusing your boss’s requests.”

It’s important to be confident when you say it, says Angela. “If you can say it without any negative feelings towards yourself or others, it’s more likely to be accepted
with grace. On the other hand, no matter how appropriate your reasons are, if you feel defensive, weak or guilty when saying ‘no’, it may come across as unreasonable, and your boss is likely to respond in kind.”

To make it a little easier for both you and your boss, try these tips:

  1. Build a relationship with your boss based on mutual trust and respect.
  2. Set clear boundaries regarding when you work and don’t work. Use them as a communication tool and a standard for yourself.
  3. Prove to your boss that you care about his/ her goals as well as your own.
  4. Be flexible with your boundaries if you can, without giving up what’s important to you.
  5. Communicate your boundaries to your boss early on,  so if he/she asks you to do something outside your work hours, you can reasonably and politely

When work gets too crazy and you’re just like..

Still feeling a little unsure? Here are 3 real-life stories from women who put their feet down with varying success.

“I said ‘no’ and it affected my career.”

“When my boss called while I was on holiday to ask me to get in touch with a potential client, I told him I couldn’t. I figured he would understand that I was on leave and did not want to be disturbed. For the rest of the day, I also ignored his text messages and email. When I got back to the office a week later, I learnt that the client mistook my unavailability for disinterest and took her business elsewhere. My boss was not impressed and had trouble trusting me with important clients after
that.” — Elaine*, 35, Marketing Manager

“I said ‘no’ and my boss backed off.” 

“I was fed up of being asked to work overtime every night, so one evening, when my supervisor told me I would likely have to stay till 11pm, I politely said ‘No, I can’t.’ I didn’t explain why and I didn’t apologise, nor did I offer to make it up to her in some other way. She looked surprised but did not say anything. The next night, she asked me to stay late again. I told her I’d been working overtime a lot and I didn’t want my job eating into my personal time anymore. She simply nodded and said she understood. From that day, she never asked me to work late unless it was absolutely necessary.” — Janine*, 28, Shipping Executive

“I couldn’t say ‘no’ and it backfired on me.”

“I was fine working overtime a couple of times a week, then my manager started asking me to stay late more often and come in to work every other Sunday. I decided it would not be in my best interest to refuse. Pretty soon, I was working six days a week, every week, for about 10 hours a day. It was crazy but I just couldn’t put my foot down. I was even working when I was on leave and medical leave. After about a year, my health was affected. I was so tired and stressed out that the quality of my work suffered and I was no longer as productive. In the end, I had to resign because I had come to resent my job and my manager.” — Josephine*, 36, Marketing Communications Executive

*Names have been changed in the interest of privacy.

From the print edition. Original text by Sasha Gonzales.