Learn How to Say “No” to Employees

For some business owners, the hardest thing to say to an employee is “no.” What if it kills their motivation? Or worse yet, they get mad and quit, leaving you empty-handed. On the other hand, if you say nothing, their actions could hurt your business and the customers you serve. The good news is you can provide corrective feedback and still maintain a productive employee. Here are some guidelines to help you achieve both.

Just Another Tool in Your Bag

First, remember that “no” is part of a wide range of feedback tools ranging from praise for going above-and-beyond to punishment for violating the rules. The trick is using the right tool for the right situation. Failure to say “no” can be just as harmful as failing to give an attaboy (or attagirl).

Feedback, both positive and negative, is an essential part of the communication process. It lets employees know how they’re doing. It also opens up the door for staff to get more information. It could be that they didn’t understand your direction and the “no” provides a forum to clear up the confusion. 

3-Step Process

The American Management Association suggests effective refusals follow these three steps:

  1. Be direct - Listen first, ask questions to clarify, then clearly state your feedback. Don’t cloud it with an ambiguous statement like, “Well, I just don’t think so,” or “I really shouldn’t.”  Instead, say “No, I won’t be able do that,” or “No, I’ve decided not to grant that request.” 
  2. Provide context - Give the employee a business-related explanation for your refusal. For example, “I won’t give you that day off because it’s the beginning of our big holiday sale and I need all hands on deck to serve the rush of customers.” Sticking with business needs helps you avoid the “sorry” card. It’s not personal, it relates to the success of your business. And that works to everyone’s advantage.
  3. Offer alternatives, when possible - If you can, offer another solution. For example, “I won’t give you that day off but I could give you two half-days off next week.” Another option is to revisit the request when business conditions improve. Doing so acknowledges that their needs are important and you would like to try to meet them.

It’s More Than Words

Pay attention to how you deliver the words in your “no” message. Looking away, covering your mouth or shifting around in your chair can dilute your meaning. It can give employees the impression that you’re not fully on board with your refusal. That can open the door to unwanted negotiation. 

Instead, maintain eye contact, orient your body so you are facing the employee. And don’t multitask. Pay attention to the employee’s nonverbal behavior too. It’s your view into whether they received your message.

Prevention Can Avoid The Need for a No

Avoid the need for saying “no” by making your expectations clear from the start. It starts with new employee orientation and can be reinforced in staff meetings or weekly one-on-one sessions with individual employees.

Many businesses use employee handbooks to establish clear guidelines for things like customer interactions, vacations, or work schedules. It provides an ongoing reference that you and your employees can refer to when resolving issues.

Leaving the Door Open to Innovation

Employees can be the best source of new ideas for your business. Some will be blockbusters, others will be bombs. So reward the generation of ideas first before you say “no.” That sends the message that you value their contribution regardless of whether it gets implemented. Who knows, your “no” may spur them to come back with an even better alternative.

“No” is just as necessary as “yes” when it comes to running a successful business. It’s part of steering your employees’ behavior to achieve your desired outcome. But by approaching it consistently, you can still maintain a productive work environment.

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