How to Say No: Navigating Non-Essential Work Requests


“I find it really hard to say no to my coworkers—even when they’re asking me to do things outside of my job duties. Are there nice ways I can turn them down without damaging our relationship?”—Willa from Norman, OK


Sometimes taking on work outside of your job duties can be beneficial. You will gain new experiences that could lead to additional interesting projects or even to a new career path!

That said, you need to balance your priorities and maintain your sanity by not taking on more than you can handle or projects that have no professional value to you.

Saying no, especially to work requests, can be challenging. You want to appear as a team player and a capable worker. When colleagues ask for help that you are unable to give, the key to maintaining good working relationships is respect.

  • Listen to everything they have to say, pause for a moment and politely say no.
  • Clearly and concisely provide an explanation as to why—there’s no need to provide a lot of detail, but sometimes it helps to support your statement with facts.
  • In some cases, you may need to stand your ground and refuse several times, but as long as you are respectful, it should not damage your relationship.

The next time you find yourself in this situation, consider using one of the following responses:

  • “I’m sorry you’re overloaded. I wish I could help, but my plate is full right now.”
  • “Wow, you do have a lot going on! I would love to help you, but I’m booked up with XYZ project.”
  • “Thank you for thinking of me, but I just can’t take on the extra work right now.”

If the timing just isn’t right but you would be willing to help at another time, one of the following responses could work.

  • “Honestly, I’m not sure at the moment. Can I take a look at my workload and get back to you?”
  •  “I can’t help you with this today, but is your deadline flexible? I have some time tomorrow.”
  • “I’m sorry, I can’t help this time, but let me know if you need help on another project.”

Whatever you do, be honest and don’t beat around the bush. If you know you aren’t going to help, be straightforward from the beginning. If you really do need some time to ponder, there is nothing wrong with that.

You can also offer alternative solutions to the problem. Maybe there’s another coworker who has time for or interest in the project. Maybe your coworker can get an extension or talk to her boss about reprioritizing her workload. If you can’t help with the work itself, maybe you can help your coworker think through the problem.

Lastly, in some unfortunate situations, no matter how nicely you say no, a coworker may hold a grudge. In these cases, all you can do is be professional and polite and hope that he comes back around. When you can’t help, checking in later and asking how the project’s going can help to mend any hurt feelings. Maybe even bring a cup of coffee or a snack to smooth things over.

Remember, you did nothing wrong by saying no.