Joanne explains how saying no in the workplace takes practice & if you genuinely need to pass on a task - that's okay, just explain your reasons clearly. This article appeared in print and online in the Irish Times on 12th May 2017.

How to say no to work colleagues when all you ever seem to say is yes…….

As seen in the Irish Times on 12th May 2017

Do you find yourself taking on more work than you can handle?  Do you say yes to colleagues knowing that by helping them, your own work will be disrupted?

It can be a real challenge wanting to be a team player whilst not wanting to come across as a pushover. It can be disheartening saying yes all of the time, particularly if you feel you are advancing someone else’s career prospects at the expense of your own.


For many people, saying no is embarrassing, awkward and just not an option. However, saying yes often means late nights at work, unwarranted stress, missed deadlines and an open door to colleagues who may take advantage of your obliging nature. And if by taking on additional workloads another colleague gets to go home on time whilst you work late, you know it’s time to take action.

Joanne acknowledges that it can be difficult to say no if you are used to saying yes, but says that there are a number of steps you can take that will help you to say no diplomatically, but assertively – without losing friends.

Breathing space

Firstly, if someone asks for help, give yourself time to respond so that you are not caught off-guard, resorting to your usual, obliging response. This is easily done if the request for help is sent via email, less so if delivered face-to-face. But give yourself the time you need by acknowledging the request and politely telling the person that you will get back to them a little later when you’ve had an opportunity to review your workload. In doing this you are already laying down the first marker. You haven’t said yes and you’ve given yourself a chance to consider the request and respond appropriately, in your own time.


Next, it’s important that you understand fully what is being asked of you as this will allow you to assess if you are, in fact, the right person for the task or if someone else in the company is better suited to help.  Joanne does not suggest that you pass the buck but, you should have no hesitancy in talking up another colleague’s genuine skills, expertise or sheer brilliance by suggesting that they are invited to help out instead. Ultimately this could result in a better outcome for all concerned.

Once you understand what is being asked of you, consider the urgency of the request, advises Joanne. Is it more urgent than what you are doing? If the answer is no, you should certainly decline the request for help, but you could offer to assist at a later date when you have more time on your hands.

Think about why you are being asked to help; is it a show of confidence in your ability, are you great at multi-tasking or are you just known as someone who is really helpful.  Such reasons can be great for your ego, but little else.

Already committed

Conversely, maybe you’ve noticed a recurring pattern featuring the same colleague looking to unburden themselves of mundane, cumbersome or challenging tasks time and again. If this is a scenario you recognise, diplomacy has to take a back seat and being assertive is the only way forward. If you can, speak to the person directly and explain that you have a number of urgent and important projects to which you have committed finishing and therefore have no additional capacity at this time. Capacity and committed are great words to use when you want to say no but you’re not sure how.  They cover a multitude without saying too much, but are just enough to let the other person know, with absolute certainty that you are saying no.


Joanne says that if you do not feel confident enough to address a colleague face-to-face, an email is fine. Keep it short and to the point and do explain why you cannot assist, usually due to your own workload, impending holidays or tight deadlines and don’t forget those two great words, commitment and capacity. But remember; do not put anything in writing that you would not be happy for your manager or boss to see.  A refusal should not hinder your own career prospects nor should it present you as an unhelpful colleague.

Yes is OK too

Sometimes it’s ok to say yes. Maybe you can genuinely help and perhaps you do have 20 minutes in your day that will unburden another colleague or have genuine, positive consequences for the company.  Saying yes can be beneficial to your career and the way in which you are perceived by work colleagues. By taking part in projects outside of your usual remit, you may get a share of the plaudits, recognition or even a financial reward.

Say no all of the time and you might be seen as someone who is not a team player and not interested in helping others.  What’s really important is knowing how and when to say no and recognising when yes is the right option.

Joanne Foley

Joanne Foley, Regional Recruitment Manager for Dublin