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It makes sense for employees to try to please their bosses and maintain a strong professional relationship, but when a boss asks for something that's impossible to comply with, finesse and diplomacy are needed. Regardless of what the request might entail or what your reason may be for refusing, how you decline the request determines any repercussions that it may have. Taking the time to plan your response can protect you from making a career-ending move.
Planning Valid Reasons for the Refusal
Jot down your reasons for declining and honestly assess their legitimacy. For example, a valid reason is that you're so overworked adding a task means compromising on quality. Lacking the training or skills to perform competently or safely is also valid. The United States Department of Labor provides guidance to help employees refuse dangerous work. For requests of questionable morality, such as running a personal errand for your boss on company time, you need to be honest, but diplomatic about your level of discomfort.
Eliminating Invalid Reasons for the Refusal
Avoid reasons that make you appear petty or uncooperative, such as refusing a task because it is demeaning. It's imprudent to complain about the task not being in your job description, because employers usually expect to add additional duties when necessary. If you're resisting because the request involves working with a coworker you dislike, it's not advisable to admit there are people you can't get along with.
Delivering the Refusal
Refuse as soon as possible after the request so your boss has time to make alternate arrangements. Thank her for having confidence in you, but clearly and respectfully state your reasons for declining. Express regret that you have to decline. Don't whine about unfairness or let resentment creep into your tone. Avoid accusatory words such as "always" and "never." Pay attention to your body language so you don't inadvertently project hostility. Lean forward without fidgeting to project friendliness and confidence. Listen attentively when your boss speaks.
Providing Alternate Solutions
Suggest a way to divide the task among several people to demonstrate you care about the outcome. If possible, offer to do an alternate task to reach a compromise. Outline your strengths, especially if you've just had to highlight your lack of skills. Remind your boss of past times when you willingly went above and beyond. Offer to take an upgrading course to prepare you for similar tasks in the future.
You can rebuild your relationship with your boss more quickly if you're a model employee – be punctual, reliable, flexible and willing to work hard and learn new things. Let go of any residual feelings of resentment you have because you were placed in this compromising position. Perhaps your boss reacted reasonably to the increased pressure of an emergency and you were you selected because you're viewed as capable and cooperative. Try to see the positive side of the situation.
- Mayo Clinic: Improve Your Supervisor Relationship and Reduce Stress
- Young Workers Awareness Program: Work Refusals
- International City/County Management Association: Career Compass No. 12 -- Communicating with Your Boss
- The American Association for the Advancement of Science: Mastering Your Ph.D. -- Better Communication With Your Supervisor
Freddie Silver started writing newsletters for the Toronto District School Board in 1997. Her areas of expertise include staff management and professional development. She holds a master's degree in psychology from the University of Toronto and is currently pursuing her PhD at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, focusing on emotions and professional relationships.