When you have to say "no" to an employee
Updated: Dec 1, 2020
Sometimes you have no choice but to say “no” when you know the fairer answer to a workplace request would be “yes”. There isn’t money for an employee’s deserved raise; enough earned vacation days for a salaried individual’s extended vacation plan, though they have given the company many weekend hours; or sufficient resources to upgrade an outdated piece of equipment. No, no, no.
Even before you say it, you feel some angst about the potential reaction – will the employee continue to push the issue to everyone’s discomfort, bring others into the discussion after the fact, or shut down and disengage from their job? And how long will they hold the "no" decision against you?
For you — accountable for bigger picture outcomes — the obvious answer is a decisive “no”; for them, it is a stinging setback after taking a risk in making the proposal. Adding insult to injury, they likely have little recourse to your decision. You might tell yourself that dealing with these issues is why you make the big(ger) bucks, but you also know those bucks stop with you, and feeling like a jerk, well, it’s hard to put a price on that, even when you are doing the right thing for the company. Ultimately that is the right thing for all. But it still feels like a lose-lose scenario.
There are some approaches you can take to lessen the sting, even when the answer still must be “no” in the immediate future:
Engage the employee in your “if/then” red-light logic. Explain that if you say yes to a raise, then you would need to approve four other raises as well, the division wouldn’t meet profit goals, etc. Maybe they can see a solution or suggest a compromise that would work.
Try to offer a “yes” alongside the “no” which honors your duty to the company but also allows for some accommodation. “I simply can’t grant any raise at this time, but I could approve an extra three days of paid vacation time as a bonus for your great performance first quarter, and we’ll discuss a raise next quarter if we hit 105% of our goal” or “I can’t approve vacation time that you haven’t earned because of the company’s strict policy, but I can assign some work to you that could be done remotely on a project which you might complete during that time.”
Respect the staff person’s right to make a reasonable suggestion and reinforce that behavior, even if you can’t honor the request. A sentence that begins with, “I’m glad you brought this to me to consider” sets a better tone than an immediate, apologetic no. All the person hears is the “no” if you lead with it.
Don’t apologize for the decision if it was the right one, but do express a true empathy for what the answer means to the employee: “I can understand why this answer isn’t what you want to hear, and that you are disappointed with it and probably with me, too, and I wish I could have made a different decision, but this is the right decision at this time.”
Don’t kick responsibility for your decision to someone else. “I’d like to do what you’re asking, but… [the board/CEO/your direct supervisor] would have my butt.” This Teflon response will invite discussion in the broader workplace and it erodes trust in your authority to make decisions on behalf of the company. These “us against them” explanations seldom work out the way you hope. There is no “we” in “no”.
Try to determine a fair timeframe to revisit the idea. There is a reason you said no at this time, but is that a permanent no? Might you offer a date when you could revisit the discussion?
If there is no hope at the present time, or into the foreseeable future, for employees to improve earnings, have updated equipment, or to establish better work/life balance, you won’t be able to retain top talent. If you can’t see a “yes” on the horizon for a reasonable request, now may be a good time to consider more realistic staffing levels, pricing structure changes, or 80/20 client composition analysis. Working on your business rather than in it is prudent if you find yourself having too many of these conversations and asking your best employees to shoulder the burden of not having an effective strategic plan or workable cash flow projection.