Meet James, your average 27-year-old HR team leader working in tech. Apart from his own work, James knows exactly what projects each of his team members are handling.
Paul is currently busy with the concerns of the new IT-and-engineering department’s employees. Isabel is working on the company’s college internship program. Lucy is doing payroll matters.
Just when James thinks his team has enough work as it is, his boss drops a major bomb on him. He wants them to tackle the next big company project. He needs to handle recruitment for a new marketing solutions team the company is forming.This should be no problem, except for one thing. James and his team are already swamped with projects that are in varying stages of completion. Nobody likes telling their boss no. But James knows that in this case, he would have to do so.

But here’s where the problem comes in: how can he say no without getting into trouble?

The Overworked HR Department

You might be on the same boat as James right now. How often are we afraid of refusing something our boss wants us to do? Especially because we’re afraid of getting fired or having a bad run with the refusal.
One study found that many people who work in HR already have a lot of work on their hands. Most of this work is just dealing with the company’s regular employees. According to the study, one member of the HR team could handle up to nine employee queries in a day.
And that’s not even the only thing HR employees have to do in a day. Let’s remember their recruitment jobs, payroll processing, and data management. All that work goes to just one team!
Because of this, it may be possible that you and your HR teammates are actually pretty overworked. Here is a list of six signs to recognize if this is happening in your department:

1) Late starts or long hours
2) Missed deadlines
3) Complaints from other employees
4) Frustrated HR staff
5) Rapid increase in company size, and
6) Budget cuts in the HR department.

Do any of these seem to ring true in your case?
Toss in a boss wanting to add more work to your already-swamped team, then you might be in for some trouble. Luckily, there is an art to saying no to your boss that shouldn’t end in someone (read: you) losing their job.

Saying No Like a Pro

Like in any kind of communication, there are direct and indirect ways to get your message across. You’ll need to know which kind of approach is best suited to a particular circumstance. After all, the direct approach may not be the best option to take in every kind of conversation.

Saying no to your boss definitely falls under the list needing the indirect approach. Exactly what its name implies, this approach makes sure your message is still clear but not too vague.

Here are the steps you need to take to say no like a pro:

1. Assess the situation

The first thing you have to do before you refuse your boss’ request is to assess the situation:

  • What exactly is it that the boss wants you or your team to do?
  • Is there absolutely no way at all for you and your team to work around it?
  • How difficult is the task at hand?
  • Are you certain you have to say no to the request? Or perhaps this is something you and your team can still handle despite all the other things you have to do?

After that, ask yourself: what is the best way to tell your boss? Should you do it face to face at the office? Should you tell him through email or text?

To help you figure out the answers to that, just refer to how your boss sent you the request in the first place. If he made it to you in person, it’s best to respond in person as well. If he sent you an email, you can reply via email, too.

2. Check the facts

After you’re sure you or your team can’t handle the project any more, ask yourself one thing: why can’t you do it?

This isn’t about creating flimsy excuses though. Rather, you need to have real reasons why you and your team cannot push through with your boss’s request.

You could say that, should you handle it, the overload of work may lead to a counterproductive team. Your boss should know that overworked staff don’t perform well.

But you also have to put yourself in your boss’ shoes. Think just how your team’s refusal may affect the entire department or company at large. After all, your boss may have chosen you to do the job because of one of two things:

1) your team is the best choice, or

2) all the other teams are already fully booked with other projects.

Think how refusing this project might put the burden on another person or team. Then ask yourself if there’s anything you can recommend to lessen the damage.

Can you recommend pushing the project’s implementation date further back? Can you enlist another team’s help?

3. Be prompt and honest

Perhaps the best things you should keep in mind when saying no to your boss are these:

1) say it as soon as possible, and

2) don’t make up imaginary excuses.

These are pretty self-explanatory. If you delay telling your boss, he might not be able to find the right replacement or take the right course of action.

Also, don’t settle for lying or making things up to make your refusal seem more legitimate. When the truth comes out, you’ll get into even more trouble than before. Nobody likes a person who lies to get out of doing a job.

4. Find the right words to tell your boss

You’re finally ready to do the hardest part: actually saying no. Of course, you can’t refuse your boss outright as being direct may put you in a bad light. Don’t worry though. Here’s how you can take the indirect approach to saying no to your boss.

Instead of saying: “I can’t do that right now because I still have other projects to finish.
Say this: “I would love to do the job at hand. But do you think you could help me rank the priority of the rest of my projects?

This gives your boss a hint that you are willing to do the work but already have a lot on your plate as is. You can also say: “Would you think this requires more immediate attention over the others we’re doing?” Who knows? Your boss might end up push back the deadline of a current project to make room for this one.

Bonus:  Here are a bunch of email templates you can use to refuse a request via email. Use them for reference if needed.

Stay Productive to Say “Yes” Next Time.

After saying no, you might not be able to get off the hook so easily next time. You and your team should always be ready for the next thing your boss throws at you. Because of this, you’ll want to find ways to stay productive at work.
So the next time the boss thinks you’re the best team to do the job, you’ll be well-prepared to take it on like pros.

How James Said No

Now you’re better equipped to handle rejecting requests from your boss. Make sure to consult your team if needed. They need to know what’s going on and what to expect. Their insight and inputs will be valuable for you in determining the next best thing to do.

Take it from James. He consulted his team then talked to his boss afterwards. “My team and I would love to work on this,” he said. “But, would you recommend that we focus on this over the other projects we have ongoing?”

His boss understood completely, of course. Now, James and his team have found more productive ways to finish their current work. They know that their boss will ask for their help again in the future. Next time, they will know they can handle whatever project comes their way.


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