How to Say ‘No’ at Work

This author learned the value of saying no at work, even though it was her 'dream job.'

I learned a lot in college. I absorbed countless communication theories, fostered my public speaking skills, and finessed the power of the written word. Whether I was trekking through the snow-covered campus in the winter or exploring the bustling streets of Rome during my time abroad, learning opportunities were all around me.

My college career was filled with experiences that challenged me to grow academically, personally, and spiritually, so when I walked across that stage on commencement day, I felt secure, accomplished…finished.

I started my first “big girl job” two days after graduation with confidence and determination.

I was ready!

In reality, the transition to the professional world rocked me. Days were dictated by train schedules, meetings, conference calls with people I had never met, and an influx of emails including the phrase “ASAP.” I accepted that all this came with the territory of working at a PR agency in the nation’s third largest city.

What I couldn’t come to terms with though was an overarching expectation to say ‘yes’ to everything.

As Millennials, we are encouraged to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities, jumping out of our comfort zones, and taking on things that will force us to grow in some capacity.

During the first weeks of my job, a manager advised me to “say ‘yes’ to every single thing someone asks you to do in this office.”

Every. Single. Thing.

I blindly followed her counsel until it became suffocating. Superiors asked me to do things that threatened my morals and ethics, like twisting numbers to improve measurement so the company could take credit for work that was not ours for the sole purpose of winning over clients and earning new business.

Growing up Catholic, one of the most important lessons I learned was the ability to differentiate between right and wrong.

While the hard work, creativity, and persistence of public relations felt right, I knew manipulating numbers was wrong, and I could not continue to work in an environment that celebrated doing the wrong thing.

“Listen to your conscience” — I heard that piece of advice way before going off to college, probably in preschool. As a post-college grad, it kept replaying in my head. I learned there is power in saying ‘no’ to what’s wrong.

I said ‘no’ to manipulating metrics to impress a client.

I said ‘no’ to pitching a product I didn’t believe in.

I said ‘no’ to stretching myself too thin in a demanding workplace.

I said ‘no’ to working over the weekend (again) instead of attending a family reunion.

I said ‘no’ to being a cog in a machine rather than a person of value.

Ultimately, I said ‘no’ to the job itself.

That final ‘no’ to what I thought was my “dream job” taught me who I am: a person of integrity who will not compromise that for a paycheck.

Saying ‘no’ to things that went against my conscience offered me so much more than saying ‘yes’ to everything ever could.

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