When It's Okay To Say "No" At Work

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.

By Kaitlin King


Often, at work and in life, the best answer is simply, "No."

We tend to romanticize “yes” as a culture — just watch Yes Man, search “yes quotes” on Pinterest, or listen to vintage Taylor Swift (“Baby, just say…”).

We love the idea of possibility and with the rise of the heroism of entrepreneurship, saying “yes” is associated positively with adventure, risk, and freedom. We often think that on the other side of “yes” is a realized opportunity.

“No” isn’t quite as sexy, unless you’re speaking a romance language and ending your sentences with it (c’est vrai, non?). But “no” protects boundaries, values, and needs, and has just as important a role in our well-being and success.

Increasingly, we are operating at a time where American companies are transitioning from encouraging “work/life balance” to “work/life integration.” Thanks to technology and globalization, the 8 to 5 workday, two separate phones (company and personal), and office buildings are being exchanged for accommodating schedules around individual commitments, answering emails on weekends, and working remotely.

As we blend our work and play, we allow our passions and efforts to flow between the two, hopefully finding consistency in our motivation and growing holistically as women. We no longer need to change personas as we step out of our pumps and into our flip-flops, but we can find harmony in our identities and unite them as one.

In this way, the principles that guide our lives when we say no to drinks with an unhealthy ex-boyfriend are the same as when we decline participating in a prank with our colleagues involving a whoopee cushion and the boss’ chair. There are just as many reasons to say no in the office as there are reasons to say no outside of it.

Related: How To Set Yourself Up For A Successful Day

If you are faced with a questionable situation at work, ask yourself these two questions (in this order):

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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.

Does this honor my personal belief system?

Liz Ryan, CEO and founder of Human Workplace, says: “We all announce our priorities and re-commit to them every day.”

Our actions speak loudly of our purpose and character, even if we don’t realize it. Mission-oriented people understand that every piece of life affects the other. As we say in my company’s value statement: success without integrity isn’t.

If an opportunity arises at work that calls for denying your innermost values, compromising them to get ahead will only lead to more compromising — and eventual failure, not success.

Does this honor the company?
The main difference between you as an individual and you as an employee is that you are being paid by a governing body to help that body. Simply put, part of your job is to make your company better.

Not all company decisions are right, but being a part of any activity that works against your organization could be challenging your employment contract as well as your personal integrity.

Be honest with your team and supervisors about anything that seems off-kilter, and if there are areas of grey, remember to document and use data to back up your actions. Today, many corporations are using anonymous hotlines for employees to be able to report internal unethical behavior. You can also seek counsel on sticky situations from your human resources manager.

Who you are and what you value does not need to be squelched or sacrificed in your place of work. We should all be able to rest our heads at night with a clear conscience.

If that’s not your current reality, it might be time to re-examine the areas of your life — both professional and personal — that could use a “no” to re-align with your standards.

Next: How To Moves at Work — And Get What You Want Now
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