Skip to main content
Career Advice

Ditch the Doormat: Learn How to Say No at Work

By Krisha Maclang on July 7, 2015

No. Such a short and simple word consisting of two letters but somehow manages to leave many people tongue-twisted.

A lot of people find it really difficult to say no. Especially for us Pinoys who find it hard to say it out of fear of disappointing people. Instead, we say “maybe”, “we’ll see”, “tignan natin”, and other similar phrases.

It’s even tougher to say no in the workplace. If we say no to overtime, colleagues might say we’re too lazy to put in the extra hours. What if the boss asks me to take on this new project on top of my current work load? Will he consider it as saying no to opportunities and leadership?

The truth is it’s almost as hard to hear the word no as much as it is to say it. There are some situations at work when a no isn’t possible or it could be detrimental for a project. You don’t want to be that unhelpful jerk that has no team-playing skills.

So how can you diplomatically say no at work without sounding like a jerk?

Make sure you know what they want

When it’s crunch time and you have ten million other things on your plate, it can be very tempting to immediately shut down any request asked of you. Yes, it’s a hassle having to deal with someone else’s work load on top of your own, but you don’t have to be a meanie. It’s possible that what they want is actually doable and will only take a couple of minutes.

When someone approaches you to ask for help, find out exactly what your co-worker wants from you before you turn them down. It’s tempting to say no right away but you may be able to help him or her without even breaking a sweat. Offer the help that you can give but make sure you don’t compromise your own work.

The next time someone asks for help, you can say, “I would love to help you out pero sunod-sunod ang deadlines ko ngayon at bukas. Ganito nalang, give me a list of items that you think I can help you with along with the ideal deadlines, and balikan kita mamaya on the things I think I can do and when I can do them.”

With this spiel, you’re not really saying no to the request. Let’s consider this your I’ll-help-you-but-on-my-own-terms kind of speech. Ideally, it will give you the one-two punch of a.) letting your co-worker sift through the clutter to give you the relevant tasks and b.) diplomatically work out a timeline that works for the two of you.

Offer the next best thing

Another way you can say politely say no is by giving them an alternative. You’re not exactly saying no to the person. You’re just saying yes in a way that works best for you.

Let’s say a co-worker is asking you to help out with organizing the company’s Christmas party. You have a million other pending items on your desk and it’s not really something you would put at the top of your to-do list. But you owe this particular co-worker a favor for helping you out before.

Instead of letting yourself be guilt tripped into becoming an event organizer or committee head, offer your help with something else instead. Offer to man the registration booth on the day of the party or come a little early on the day of the event to decorate the venue.

Another alternative for projects that aren’t urgent is to offer your help with the project at a later date. You’ll get the time you need to accomplish what needs to be done while being able to help some other time.

With these options, even though you’re not giving the person exactly what they want, you are still giving them something valuable as an alternative.

Say no without saying no

The trickiest part about saying no is knowing how to say no to your boss. You wouldn’t want to seem like a lazy and impertinent upstart when you really want to impress your boss. As much as your boss wants to be able to keep tabs on all of your projects, sometimes he or she simply forgets about some of them.

A good way to say no without saying no is to subtly remind him or her about your workload. Instead of blatantly saying no to your boss, ask them to sit down with you and help you prioritize your workload. When you run down the list of key projects you need to do, you can also include the day-to-day tasks that still take up crucial minutes or hours out of your work day.

Asking your boss to help you “prioritize” is basically getting his or her go signal to push aside other tasks to make way for the new task that needs to be done or to postpone the new task for the older tasks.

Be firm but gracious

There are some situations where you really can’t avoid saying no. The key to pulling off the art of saying no is to strike a balance between being too nice and possibly rude.

Stand your ground and say that no, you really can’t do it, but don’t be a jerk when you say it.

Let’s say you have a long-awaited vacation at the end of the week. You planned your workload to prepare you for the two or three days when you’ll be out of town. You’re all set when suddenly here comes a colleague asking you to please, please, please pick up the slack for his or her unfinished project because “sige na, last na.” You know that helping out your co-worker will eat up all the time you allotted for all your own projects so there really is no other recourse but to say no.

Don’t accept the task if it will compromise your own job and don’t say, “No, I’m not going to do it because kasalanan mo yan kaya ayusin mo.” Be firm with your decision to say not but remain gracious.

Instead say, “I would love to help you but, as you know, I’m leaving for vacation at the end of the week. I need to finish my projects before I leave so I have to prioritize them first.”

You’ll get your point across without being impolite or coming off as a doormat.


Learning to say no at work isn’t being maarte, it’s a prerogative to surviving the corporate world. You won’t get anything done if you spread yourself too thin and you won’t be able to give your best work if you have too much on your plate. It’s about respecting your time and other people’s needs. Saying no is an art. And like different forms of art, you just need to practice to pull it off flawlessly.