How, When, and Why to Tell the Boss “No”

How, When, and Why to Tell the Boss “No”


Many of us have a hard time saying no to anyone, including those closest to us such as children, significant others, and good friends.   

It’s not hard to understand why. We don’t want the people we love to get angry with us, and we don’t want to disappoint them either.

Unfortunately, sometimes a “no” has that effect.

When it comes to work, a “no” can mean the loss of the boss’ favor, or even the loss of a job. However, there are times when no other answer will do. (Pun sort of intended.)

Here’s the 411 on the how, when, and why of telling the boss “no.”


  • Mindfully
  • Firmly
  • Calmly


  • As necessary


  • The boss has requested something that can’t be done.
  • The boss has requested something that shouldn’t be done (i.e., is not a best business practice and is liable to result in a bigger problem than the one you’re trying to resolve).
  • The boss has requested you violate your personal code of ethics.
  • The boss has requested you break the law.

Of course, saying no isn’t always as easy as this lists implies. Your boss may not accept your no readily, despite all the good reasons she should. So before you even say no (and here’s where the “mindfully” part comes in) prepare for your boss’ resistance, and:

  • Have an alternate suggestion (or two) in mind.If doing what the boss wants can’t or shouldn’t be done, what else can you suggest that’ll get him or her to the same goal?
  • Have your facts straight.Your boss will want to know why you’re saying no, and you’ll want to have an answer. No problem. You’ve got sound reasons. Be prepared to state them briefly and clearly and without a whole lot of emotion, no matter how you might feel about your boss’ request.
  • Know whether this is the hill you’re willing to die on.If your boss insists you do something illegal or unethical, you’ve got a serious decision to make. Continuing to resist could cost you your job or any kind of peace on the job. Are you willing to risk it? Only you know the answer, and you should know it before you utter the word “no.” That being said…
  • Understand that most causes aren’tworth a fight. The boss is still the boss, and if she persists in demanding you do something you don’t think is good to do, do it anyway and carefully document the instructions you were given. Perhaps you’ll learn your boss was actually on the money! Or perhaps your instincts will be confirmed. Either way, your rear is covered. 

It’s All About the Boundaries

Physical boundaries separate countries and psychological or emotional boundaries separate you from me, so that it’s clear where you end and I begin.

Psychological boundaries are both good and necessary for healthy relationships, including work relationships. Without good boundaries, lines get crossed and feelings get hurt, or worse.

For example, a boss who demands at the last minute that an employee stay late, unconcerned how doing so will affect the employee’s plans for the evening, is evidencing bad boundaries. Rather than considering the employee as a separate human being with rights and responsibilities, this manager is treating the employee’s time as though it were his own.

(Now, I’m NOT saying it’s wrong for a boss to ask an employee to stay late when there’s work to be done. Instead, I’m making the point that the dismissive attitude of the boss in this case is indicative of someone with little regard for what belongs to others—a classic boundary issue.)

And sadly, poor bosses typically demonstrate poor boundary management.

If you work for a bad boss, or even an overall good boss who’s nonetheless challenged in this area, you’ll be much happier if you learn how and when to say no.

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