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How to Respectfully Decline an Assignment

by Lisa McQuerrey

Turning down an assignment offered by a superior, or saying no to a task requested by a colleague, can be uncomfortable and challenging. To prepare yourself, you need a firm understanding of the responsibilities and requirements of your job so you can diplomatically and professionally express yourself if you are unable to take on an assignment.

Optional Assignment

Your supervisor might extend an opportunity to stretch your skills or challenge yourself professionally by offering you an assignment outside your everyday work responsibilities. Accepting this type of assignment can endear you to your boss and demonstrate your willingness to be a team player. However, if the assignment is not something you feel comfortable or qualified to take on, or if it puts you at risk of not giving full attention to your other responsibilities, politely decline by explaining the circumstances. For example, you might say, “While I appreciate the opportunity to head up this task force, I feel I would be more effective in a committee member role. I've never done this before, and I know this is a critical project for the team.”

Job-Related Assignment

If your supervisor gives you an assignment that’s in direct relationship to your job duties and responsibilities, your rationale for declining it needs to be strong. For example, if you have other pressing tasks with critical deadlines looming, and the assignment would jeopardize your ability to give full and necessary attention to your other projects, you need to have a conversation with your boss about prioritization. You might say, “I'm currently working on the advertisements for the upcoming educational program as well as finalizing newsletter copy for print deadline. I feel it is best to decline this new assignment so I can attend to my existing responsibilities."

Colleague Request

While co-workers are typically expected to assist one another in a team environment, don't let yourself get into the habit of taking on a co-worker’s tasks and responsibilities on a regular basis. In particular, try to avoid getting entwined with a colleague who leaves her own projects until the last minute and then asks you to drop what you’re doing and help her meet her deadlines. You might say, “I understand you're frustrated this project isn't complete. But I have several things I'm in the middle of that I need to get finished by the end of the week as well, so I'm not going to be able to help you.”

Recommend Alternatives

Declining an assignment can be easier if you offer your manager or colleague an option outside yourself. For example, you might tell your boss, “If you're looking for a group leader, Jim has been talking about how he’d like to take on more leadership roles, and I know he's enthusiastic about this particular project. He might be a good resource for you.” Suggest to a colleague that she ask for an extension on her deadline or say, “I know our intern just finished up a major project. She might have some free time if you need an extra set of hands.”

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