Saying “No” At Work

"This entire discussion is inappropriate and uncalled for."

There were a few requests in the “nothreads this week to write about saying no at work.  I want to write about saying “no” to sexual/romantic interest from people you work with (and who you will have to interact with again, so you might need a more nuanced approach than you do with subway strangers or handsy dates) and how to say “no” about the work itself, like, just because you are the only woman doesn’t mean you have to be on the party planning committee.

I need to set some ground rules, first, though.  Here are some assumptions I’m making when I write this stuff:

I’m assuming that you want to keep working at your job for as long as you decide to stay there, and are looking for scripts and strategies to make your day-to-day situation better.  Assholes who probably deserve to be fired may not be fired.  Bad people may go unpunished.  Don’t come here seeking justice.

There are times to take it to the barricades – tell your boss, go to HR, hire a lawyer, file formal complaints, etc.  Sometimes people just need to be told/shown/sued/fined/jailed for their nefarious, entitled, and oppressive bullshit.  Most times are not those times, and often going to HR brings no consequences to the people who deserve them, and many consequences for you.  So when you need to fight?  FIGHT.  But choose your battles.

As the Evil HR Lady explains:

HR does not have the role of playground supervisor.  When you and your coworkers went to HR to complain, you expect her to run over and say, “Bad, bad, manager.  Time out!”  But, it doesn’t work that way.   HR’s job is to help the business.

So, I realize that there is no one solution for every problem, person, conflict, or situation that comes up and there are 1,000,000,000 exceptions to every single thing I say here, but in general, this is my recommended strategy for handling interpersonal problems at work in a way that might help you get what you need in the short-term and fight to win in the long-term.

In general:

1.  Be direct. Address the problem directly with the person you have the problem with as soon as possible, when it’s small.  Face-to-face is best, phone is next best, email last (tone and body language don’t translate well). Keep it brief, professional, and polite.

My friend A. has a story about starting work at a place where there was a guy who clipped his fingernails constantly at his desk and also in meetings.  Gross.  Annoying.  Her coworkers had let it go on forever, they all hated him and talked behind his back and strategized how they should tell him and whether they should report him somewhere and generally worked themselves up into a lather.  A., being the new girl, just said “Hey, that’s really gross, can you do that in private?”

And the guy never did it again.  He didn’t scream, nothing bad happened, there were no negative consequences.  People don’t melt if you give them negative feedback.  Sometimes it is that simple.  Even if it’s not that simple, there is substantial benefit to you in screwing up your courage and saying the awkward thing out loud to the other person.  If you do end up reporting the behavior to your boss or to upper management, the first thing they will ask you is “Well, did you ask the person to stop?” and if you haven’t it removes some credibility from you.

2.  Be polite.  At the start, you lose nothing by being positive, polite, and treating the other person like you assume the best about them (even if you don’t assume that and they don’t deserve it).  Play like you’re playing the long game, in other words – Treat other people like they will do the right thing and give them the opportunity to do the right thing, but make a safety net for yourself for when they don’t.  If shit goes sideways, you want to be able to say “I behaved like a pro at every stage of this and did my best to keep a positive working relationship with everyone.”

Fact: I'm watching you and writing things down.

3.  Document.



Creating a Dwight Schrute-style surveillance log of every sling and arrow and emailing that to your boss won’t make you look good – it will make you look obsessed.  But do note conflicts and conversations down for yourself in a log.  “March 31: Asked K. to wear headphones if he’s going to listen to talk radio (Limbaugh) at his desk.  He agreed to protect my ‘sensitive lady ears’  told me to talk to him again ‘when I got off the rag.’ “

Hopefully you’ll never need to use it, but it’s helpful to have it and to quote excerpts when necessary.

The really devious and actually constructive way to handle documenting a “knock it off” conversation is to send a follow-up email.

Dear K,

I know you were angry about our conversation this morning, but I sincerely appreciate your willingness to wear headphones when you listen to the radio.  I already feel able to concentrate better.

(THEN – IMPORTANT! Ask a question or say something work-related.  Turn the conversation back to work.)

I’ll try to get those TPS reports on your desk by tomorrow morning.  Is there any specific format you’re looking for?”

Is K. a sexist asshole who probably deserves to be yelled at?  Could he technically be reported for implying that your ladyperiod is the reason for your request?  Would you be justified in telling him to rudely step the fuck off?  HELL TO THE YES.

Whether you do that depends on your own comfort level, power level relative to K., assessment of how K. will likely respond and whether your boss would have your back, and whether you want to turn K. into your Work Nemesis vs. getting a reprieve from listening to Angry White Guy Radio all day.

If K. does what you want him to, you’ve won the day. Let it go.

If K. does NOT do what you want to do, and if he continues in his charming vein, you now are well-set up to escalate the verbal conversation.  You can get pissed off.  “Look, we talked about this – can you turn the radio off or wear headphones, please?” (Document!) and “Do not talk about my period or call me a bitch again.  That is out of line and not the way you talk to people at work.” (Document!)  Feel free to say: “Wow.” and “Really.” and “I do not appreciate your language.” in a flat, deadpan tone.  If shenanigans continue, take it to your boss.

4. Informal chats before formal complaints. If you’re taking it to the boss, start face-to-face. A script (with pauses for the other person to talk) might go like this:

Hey, boss, I hate to bug you about this, but I’ve asked K. several times to wear headphones at his desk if he’s going to listen to the radio, and he’s gotten really hostile about it.  The last time we spoke he called me a “bitch” and turned the radio up.  First, the noise interferes with my concentration.  Second, the programs he listens to have a lot of racist/sexist content and I don’t think I have to listen to Howard Stern feigning masturbation at my desk.  I’ve tried to handle this professionally and keep focused on work, I’ve tried bringing my own headphones (I can still hear his stuff). I can forward you some email exchanges we’ve had – can you speak to him about it or suggest any further steps I can take?  I don’t need to be friends with the guy, but I do need him to turn off the radio and to knock off the insults.”

(Then add a note to your Schrute-log.  “April 15:  Spoke to boss about Kevin’s language and behavior.“)

A good boss will say “I’ll handle it.”  A good boss will pull K. aside and say “Hey, can you cool it with the radio?  It’s bothering your coworkers.  Also, it’s 2011, and we don’t talk about the periods of our coworkers or call them ‘bitches.’  You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to be polite.

What your boss wants is for this problem to just go away and for everyone to focus on work with as little fuss as possible.  What your good boss needs is some evidence that you’ve tried to handle it yourself and are not just being a petty tattletale. Oh look, you have those nice emails you sent that show you were always professional and trying to keep a positive relationship!

If your boss doesn’t want to hear you face-to-face, or is too much of a coward to handle K. (or is just too busy, or doesn’t really get why it’s a problem), then email your boss about it (ie, start the paper trail on your boss).

Again, I hate to bother you with this, but the behavior with K. is getting worse.  Enclosed are some of the emails he’s sent me recently (If K. has been stupid enough to put insults in writing, this is GOLD for you).  Have you been able to talk with him, or do you have any suggestions?  Can we talk about moving his desk or mine somewhere else?  Working in such a noisy environment with such a hostile person is really getting in the way of the work, and I need this to stop.”

5.  TCOB. Hopefully this goes without saying – Keep doing an excellent job at your actual job.  Take care of business.  Come in on time, dress nicely, batten down your professional hatches.  If this goes up the chain, upper management will look at both you and K. and cynically decide “Who is more useful to us?”  That person is undoubtedly you, but you want it to be obvious that it’s you.

Also, protect yourself by sending some resumes out and seeing what’s available.  Send some friendly emails to people in your network.  If this goes badly, you want to have other options.  Even if this doesn’t go badly, perhaps there is a workplace for you free of K. and the whole stupid problem.  If your boss finds out that you’re looking, you have a good foundation for saying “Hey, I love working here and I don’t want to leave, but this whole thing is really getting me down, so I put some feelers out there.”

"Why don't you fill out these forms if they'll make you feel better."

6.  Level up. If it’s still not working – if K. and the boss are golfing buddies – then you have a nice case to take to your boss’s boss and/or HR.  Read your company’s personnel policies carefully so that you are informed and as protected as you can be.  If you are taking it up the chain of command, it’s still best to keep a polite tone and ask questions rather than make demands.

I have x problem, I’ve taken y steps so far*, I have told my boss, it’s still going on. What do you suggest I do? What would you do in my shoes?  What are the company’s policies for dealing with consistent hostile behavior and sexist remarks from a coworker**?

(*Don’t share your entire Schrute-log with HR up front, give the highlights and not the details. Otherwise you look obsessed.  **You know what these are because you’ve looked them up, but it’s better to ask a question and get an idea of how management sees these policies and also to show that you asked this question in writing somewhere ***!!! Edited to Add !!!: Write this email with the assumption that a lazy, unprofessional VP or HR person might just forward this to your boss and say “what’s the deal?”  Do not badmouth your boss in writing).

A smart VP or HR person is going to say “You’ve done great, so sorry you had to deal with this, we’ll take it from here – just keep doing your job.” They’ll investigate and knock some heads together.  Or not.  They might be idiots.  They might be cowards.  They might just try to cover the company’s ass and decide it’s not worth the trouble.  But you’ve done your best and acted like a pro.

Does this all sound exhausting?  Does it seem demeaning and annoying to think about having to coddle assholes and cowards and be polite long past the point where you should have to be polite?  Does it make you want to sing HELL TO THE NO?  Does it make you need to listen to this just to cleanse the prospect of acting like some subservient, accomodating corporate wage-slave who needs to take shit from anyone from your mind?  Are you fucking fed up with having to manage other people’s emotions and expectations and act like a good little soldier?

There is a reason that this scene gets re-enacted over and over again on YouTube:

I don’t know about you, but I watched that three times in a row.

Let me be clear:  No one has to put up with discrimination or threats or abusive behavior, at work or anywhere else.  No one has to be polite in the face of abusive behavior, at work or anyone else. I’m not telling you that you have to play by anyone’s rules or take shit from anyone.

However, there are a lot of bad behaviors that are not actionable offenses.  If you want to climb the corporate ladder, it’s good to know the rules – both the written ones and the unwritten ones – for handling this stuff and wherever possible use the rulebook to your own advantage.

There are no guarantees, but if you can show that you acted like a pro at every step of the way, you kept your temper (or lost it only very strategically), you chose your battles, you didn’t get petty, you spoke up for yourself clearly and directly and showed that you aren’t a pushover who will just endlessly take shit or be passive-aggressive, you stayed positive and focused on the work, you let people save face and did not hold onto grievances, and you can document everything (but not in an obsessed, petty, Schrute-way), you stand a better chance of getting what you want at work and of rising to a position where you can make things better for others.  And if it all goes south, a polite, respectful hard-working employee with excellent documentation makes one hell of a plaintiff.

8 thoughts on “Saying “No” At Work

  1. and, hey, sometimes? things can be a one off, and a quick visit to hr can take care of things quick and easy with little fuss. i had a really hostile co-worker who confronted me off-site once. he was serious, and it was scary as hell. dude was totally on the steriods, yo. anywhoo, i went to h.r., and even though they were limited in what they could do, since it was off-site, they had my back. one of the things you mentioned in another post is that people up the chain are usually aware of bad behavior. this was the case in my situation. one stern talking to was all it took for him to leave me alone.

    i also had a boss sexually harass me. i was very straightforward about her behavior. very professional. it continued, and when i complained? i was mysteriously let go. it was a side job at a neighborhood deli in college, so not a BIG DEAL job, but it goes to show that these things go both ways.

    “Face-to-face is best, phone is next best, email last (tone and body language don’t translate well).” <– this is pure gold and can nip many problems in the bud before they escalate.

    1. Oh yeah – safety issues? Go right to HR. Don’t fuck around with it. The Gift of Fear has a great chapter on violence at work and predicting it all the way back to the hiring stage.

      Someone who comes in for an interview with stories about how everything is someone else’s fault is not who you want to hire, for so many reason.

      As for the deli, smaller family businesses are less likely to have firm policies in place or a fair structure for enforcing them. Such is at-will employment.

  2. Awesomeness.

    I’ll add a side note that talking about bad behavior at work with colleagues is a double edged sword. I would avoid discussing situations with anyone but trusted friends, unless there is immediate danger looming. If there are witnesses to bad behavior, note who, where and when. If they have responses to the situation, note that as well.

    This is great resauce, Captain!

    1. It’s smart to document who else was there, for sure!

      Also, I just caught this piece about how it helps to give management time to remedy the situation – you can’t quit right away and then sue without giving them a shot.

  3. Yes, but this whole thing relies on having a willing HR department. I’ve never worked anywhere with a HR department that functions for employees beyond first-day induction and payroll – and many small businesses don’t have HR at all.

    When I told a HR officer I was being bullied by my immediate manager just a few weeks into a new job, her ‘helpful’ attitude was, “Well, she’s like that to everyone. Don’t take it personally.”

    Umm…surely if she’s rude to everyone, that’s even more of a problem! Luckily, the problem was solved when the manager left a few months after I started – but I left soon too. Anywhere that values its employees doesn’t treat them like that!

  4. “…and many small businesses don’t have HR at all.”

    Yeah, I’ve known people in this situation and no one I’ve asked really knew what to do with it except “leave as soon as possible”. Which never seemed like a good answer. : /

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