How to Politely Decline Extra Work: Here's What to Say

Professional in an office setting, illustrating how to politely decline extra work


Amanda Cardoso
Amanda Cardoso
May 20, 2024 at 12:2PM UTC

Not sure how to politely decline extra work? If the movie The Devil Wears Prada has taught us anything, it's that constantly overworking yourself to meet your boss's needs and prove your worth only seems like a winning plan. The truth is, this non-stop effort is often a recipe for an unbalanced life, filled with stress and strained relationships. 

Thankfully, most workplaces aren't Miranda Priestly-level intense. Still, taking on extra work is pretty common for many employees in all types of environments. (Picture a manager assigning tasks that fall outside your job description or a colleague asking you to cover for them. Sound familiar?) 

It's tempting to accept every assignment thrown your way—you might fear getting fired or simply worry about not being seen as a team player by your coworkers. It's important to remember, though: Trying to be a high achiever all the time doesn't guarantee results, and it's OK to say no if you need to.

The good news? You don't have to quit to avoid the extra tasks. Learning how to politely decline more work can take a lot of weight off your shoulders and make your job more manageable. 

Can I refuse to do extra work? 

Yes, you can decline extra work. “It's common to feel pressure to take on more tasks, yet it's essential to recognize that you were hired to fulfill specific responsibilities,” says Angela Justice, Chief People Officer and Executive Coach at Just Group Advisors. “It's your employer's job to manage workload distribution effectively.

Of course, you shouldn't decline every single request just because you feel like it. But if there's a good reason to say no, you can—and should—do it. Here are some situations when it's perfectly acceptable to turn down extra work:

If it's work outside your scope

Imagine a client manager at a marketing agency—who typically handles client relations—suddenly having to take on the copywriting for a campaign. Seems a bit weird, right?

Sure, the cooperative world is more collaborative than ever, and with shrinking teams, job descriptions have become longer and more complex. But here's the thing: Collaboration shouldn't mean agreeing to tasks that are completely beyond your scope and expertise.

If you're not the best one to do it

Don't feel equipped to do what you've been asked for? That's another solid reason to politely decline—unless, of course, you're keen on learning a specific skill or tool and see this as a growth opportunity.  By accepting more work that you're unlikely to do well, you could end up drowning in follow-up requests for adjustments.

Let's circle back to the example of the client manager tasked with copywriting. Even though they might have some basic knowledge as a marketing company employee, it's not their daily responsibility. The project would benefit more from having someone with a background in writing take on this to-do.

If it affects your primary responsibility

By trying to help everyone out with their jobs, you might put your own workload at risk. Before saying yes, ask yourself: Will this take so much time that my assignments are going to be sidelined? Is it such a demanding task that finishing it will leave me neglecting my main responsibilities?

If you already have a lot on your plate

Taking on extra work when your to-do list is already full can create some complications. It may lead to delays and force you to juggle everything to fit into your deadlines. Declining extra work allows you to prioritize what's already on your plate—especially if the request is not urgent or it's outside your scope.

It's easy to fall into the workaholic trap if you're an overachiever or trying to prove your worth in a new company or role. However, accumulating too much work is also one of the fastest routes to exhaustion and an unhealthy work-life balance. 

If it's an unreasonable request

Imagine your boss coming to you on Thursday with a request for a completely new strategy to increase sales in 2024. At a first glance, it seems like a reasonable task within your role as a sales director. Then, he adds that it needs to be done by Monday morning.

Not only is it unlikely that you'll be able to finish it in one business day, forcing you to work on the weekend, but the insufficient time will undoubtedly affect the quality of the work. When facing completely unreasonable or unrealistic requests, it's perfectly OK to say no.

So, how to politely decline extra work?

We know that saying no to a manager or a coworker might seem like something out of a movie, but it's entirely doable in real-life situations too. The key is to combine three essential elements: politeness, assertiveness, and a compelling justification. Here's how:

1. Start by expressing gratitude

If your boss or colleague has reached out to you, it's likely that they trust your capabilities. So, a good way to start your response is by expressing gratitude for being considered for the task. This sets a positive tone for your interaction and shows them that you're happy to be seen as a team player.

2. Be assertive and straightforward

Don’t soften your message with  “maybe”, “we'll see”, or “I don't think so.” Just say no. An indirect answer can be interpreted as willingness or availability to do it—and they'll either ask you again or pressure you for a yes. To avoid this and make sure they got the message, be direct and straightforward.

3. Give a brief and honest reason

Offering a reason for your refusal it's not only polite but often necessary, especially when the person handing you more work is a boss or a manager. Be honest, but brief. For instance, if your schedule is already packed, you could say something like, “My week is already full because I need to finish the sales presentation by Friday.”

4. Offer an alternative solution 

Finish your answer by offering an alternative solution. For instance, if the request is outside your scope of work, suggest a colleague who may be a better fit for the task. This simple gesture won't take much of your time, but can make a big difference by minimizing the impact of your rejection and showing that you care.

How to decline extra responsibility at work: Examples

For some, saying no is incredibly difficult. Women, in particular, might find it especially challenging to use this two-letter word. We're often raised to be agreeable and prioritize other people's feelings—plus, some work environments can be tougher on us, leading to pressure to overperform.

Our tips above are a good starting point, but seeing them in action may make things easier. Below, you'll find seven examples of how to politely decline additional work in different situations. 

Example #1: When it's too much more responsibility

Your manager asks you to handle a task or project that would put a lot more responsibility in your hands, but you don't feel ready for it. Here's how to decline extra responsibility at work in this situation:

Thank you for considering me, Anne. However, I can't take on more responsibilities at this moment as I'm already leading two projects for client Y and Z. I'm sure someone else on the team would be available to help.

Example #2: When it's more work for the same pay

“Rather than allowing an assumption that extra responsibilities won’t lead to a promotion, assume that they will, and guide the conversation accordingly. Express enthusiasm for the expanded scope and its implications for your role and compensation,” says Justice.

“This approach asserts your value and ensures that your contributions are appropriately recognized. If they're unwilling to adjust, it becomes easier to decline, having established clear boundaries,” she adds. 

Here's how to decline more responsibility at work if you would like a pay increase:

I appreciate the opportunity to take on these added responsibilities. Let's discuss how this aligns with my title and compensation. 

Example #3: When they ask you to work more hours

If you're asked to work overtime and don't know how to decline extra hours at work, this can help you form an assertive and polite response:

Hi, Claire. I would love to help, however, I'm not available to take extra hours as I have other commitments after work. Can we figure out an alternative? Maybe I can help you find someone on the team who is available.

Example #4: When the task is outside your scope

A colleague reaches out to you for help, but the request is not related to your scope of work. Here's how to decline extra work that's not your responsibility:

Thank you for reaching out to me, Sarah. But I'm afraid this falls outside my scope as an editor, and I will have to decline taking it on. I suggest you contact the marketing team instead. If you have any request related to editorial content in the future, I would be happy to help.

Example #5: When you're not the best fit for that job

Your manager asks if you can edit an image for the company website, but as a marketing assistant, your knowledge in Photoshop isn't the greatest. You know that if you do it, the results won’t be up to par. Here's how to turn down extra work you're not fit to do:

Sadly, I need to decline because image editing and Photoshop are not my expertise. The results are unlikely to be up to company standards. However, I have someone on the social media team who can help you with that.

Example #6: When what's being asked is unreasonable

Let's say you're a video editor, and you’re asked to finish editing 10 hours worth images in one day. One way to approach it is to make it clear that their expectation is unrealistic and offer another solution. For example:

Sorry, Scarlett, but a day is not enough time to edit a video of this length, and I already have other videos on my to-do list for this week. I could do it if you can push this task to next week.

Example #7: You have other priorities at the moment

If you're unsure how to decline more work when your to-do list is already full, Justice suggests focusing your response on reprioritization. “This approach acknowledges the finite nature of time and tasks, shifting the responsibility back to the employer to manage workload effectively,” she says. 

You could say something like:

I’m currently working on X, Y, and Z, which take one hundred percent of my time. Would you rather I drop one of my current projects to take on one of these new responsibilities? How should we reprioritize this work?

Don't feel guilty

If you've made it this far, you've learned how to politely turn down extra work in various scenarios. The next step is learning how to let go of the guilt or fear of saying no. “Standing up for yourself and honoring these boundaries often enhances your professional image,” Justice says.

In a healthy work environment, saying no to extra work—when it's reasonable to do so—should not be an issue. If you feel consistent pressure to take on an overload of tasks, even when they're out of your scope or you aren't equipped to handle them, maybe it's time to start looking for new opportunities.

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