When to Say No to a Bully Boss

two businessmen disagreeing

Most employees try to be as accommodating as possible when it comes to requests from their bosses. For instance, they will take on extra work, perform tasks that are not in their job description, and will even attend events that interfere with family functions. But there are times during your employment when saying "no" to a boss is essential, especially if that boss is a bully.

Even though there are times that you have to say no to your boss, there are ways that you can do this while staying professional. This article discusses when you should say no to your boss and how to do so in a professional, diplomatic manner.

On May 19, 2022, Verywell Mind hosted a virtual Mental Health in the Workplace webinar, hosted by Editor-in-Chief Amy Morin, LCSW. If you missed it, check out this recap to learn ways to foster supportive work environments and helpful strategies to improve your well-being on the job.

When to Say No to Your Boss

Before you confront your boss, make sure the issue is worth taking a stand. Some issues you may want to let play out and see how things progress. But there are other times when you should never accept your boss's treatment or give in to their demands. 

Remember, regardless of how bad you need your job, you have to know where to draw the line. Here are five scenarios where you should always say "no."

When They Are Abusing or Harassing You

Bullying in the workplace is a serious issue. Never ever accept abuse, sexual harassment, or bullying as the status quo. No matter how much you like, or even need, your job, do not sacrifice your mental or physical well-being by allowing yourself to be victimized. It is just not worth it.

Keep in mind that workplace bullying carries significant consequences and can even impact your family if it is severe and ongoing. As a result, be sure you take steps to stand up to bullying.

If your boss continues to harass you, report it to a supervisor. You also can investigate hiring an attorney or filing a complaint with the Department of Labor, especially if the harassment involves your race or disability. The key is that you do not allow yourself to be victimized by your boss.

When They Expect You to Bully Others

Some employers create an atmosphere at work where workplace bullying becomes the norm. They reward employees that step on others to get to the top and overlook their methods for getting there. As a result, the entire workforce begins to feel like excluding others, name-calling, and even cyberbullying are accepted practices. 

As a result, employees start to believe that to succeed at the company, they need to be willing to stab others in the back and slander others who get in their way. There also can be a tremendous amount of pressure to participate in these activities just to keep from being the next victim of workplace bullying.

Such workplaces also tend to have one or two people that always seem to get the brunt of everyone else's bad behavior. They become the butt of office jokes, are excluded from after-work activities, and never seem to be treated with respect. 

If you see this type of activity in your workplace, refuse to participate. Look for ways to stand up for the people being abused.

While you may not be able to completely eradicate bullying from your workplace, you can make it less acceptable for others to participate. You also may be able to influence others to take the high road as well. 

When They Ask You to Break the Law

Every day in workplaces across the country, employees are asked to do things that are against the law. These illegal activities might include things like:

  • Falsifying numbers
  • Over-billing a client
  • Firing someone illegally
  • Overlooking safety concerns

When you are asked by your employer to break the law, this puts you in a lose-lose situation. And no matter which way you go, the path will not be easy. 

On the one hand, telling your boss "no" could get you fired. But on the other hand, agreeing to the demands puts you, and possibly others, at risk.

That's why it is imperative that you refuse to break the law. If you don't say no, not only could you end up with a lawsuit against you, but you could also spend time in jail. Additionally, participating in illegal activities damages your reputation and makes finding future employment much more difficult.

As far as attorneys, law enforcement officers and judges are concerned, obeying your manager's orders to break the law is not an adequate defense. Make sure you say no to anything that requires you to break the law.

When They Ask You to Do Something Unethical

When your boss asks you to do something illegal, you at least have the law on your side when you refuse. Not only are they more likely to back down when faced with the legality of the situation, but they also may want to avoid the risk that you will become a whistleblower on the illegal activity. Most of the time, your boss will rescind their demands. 

But standing up to a boss who asks you to do something unethical is a little trickier. Most of the time, unethical bosses do not like to look at themselves in the mirror. So they are not going to like it when you draw attention to the fact that what they are doing, or asking you to do, is wrong. It may even get you fired. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't stand up for what you believe in.

Have a conversation with your boss about your concerns. But avoid making accusations or overreacting when you do discuss the subject. Remember, your boss may not even realize that their request borders on being unethical. Give them the opportunity to do the right thing before you take your concerns higher.

After your conversation, if your boss still insists that you honor their request, make sure you stand your ground and do not comply.

Remember, the consequences you will experience from doing something you disagree with will be steep. Aside from the fact that it will negatively impact your business reputation, you also could experience health issues. For instance, you may develop ulcers, suffer from anxiety and even lose sleep. Overall, it is never healthy to compromise your values at work.

When They Make Unreasonable Requests

Everyone has to work late sometimes. And it is not uncommon for employees to work weekends. But some bosses are extremely demanding and unreasonable and take these expectations to an extreme. For example:

  • They might require employees to spend countless hours on a frivolous task at the expense of family time.
  • They might demand that employees sacrifice weekends and vacation time to show their commitment to the company.
  • They may even guilt employees into attending a happy hour every night or risk being shunned by the company.

At some point, these unrealistic demands can start to feel overwhelming and cause an employee to feel like "enough is enough." If you find yourself in this type of work situation, you are bound to burn out from the ongoing pressure and the uncertainty of what will be expected of you next.

You may even feel like you no longer have your own life, and work is all you have. You no longer see your family and friends, and by the time you get home, you are so tired that you do not have the energy to make a healthy meal, exercise, or even walk the dog. 

Remember, you need to have a life outside of work, and if your employer does not allow for this to happen, it will begin to take a toll on you. What's more, working for someone who is unpredictable and unreasonable can cause a number of health issues. Never let the demands of an unreasonable boss steal your health and your life. 

How to Say No to Your Boss

When you need to say no to your boss, give them a clear reason why you are turning down a project. Make it clear that you've given it serious thought, but be direct and honest. And be sure to let your boss know immediately so they can assign the task to someone else.

Having the right words to say can make saying no easier and allow you to maintain your professionalism without becoming angry or flustered. If you find that you need to say no, consider using some of the following phrases:

  • "Thank you for thinking of me, but I'm afraid I can't take on any more projects right now."
  • "That isn't something that is within my skill set. Maybe there is someone else who would be better for that task."
  • "I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline."
  • "I don't have time for that right now. Maybe if you ask me again in a week or two, I might be able to schedule it."
  • "I'm flattered that you thought of me for that project, but no, thank you."
  • "Sorry, I've already made other commitments. I hope you understand."
  • "I'm not qualified to do that, so I'm afraid I won't be able to help."
  • "Sorry, but no. I have other priorities right now."

No matter how you phrase it, focus on being direct. A brief explanation is all that is needed. You might suggest an alternative, such as asking someone else, or, if you might be interested in helping later, suggesting that they ask you again at a later date.

Benefits of Saying No to Your Boss

Of course, confronting your boss is not an easy task. It also can be scary. But finding the courage to do so could make your work experience less miserable. Research shows that pushing back may help bullied employees feel less victimized.

According to a study by researchers at The Ohio State University and the University of Georgia, employees that stand up for themselves not only feel less like a victim but also tend to feel more committed to their job and satisfied overall.

What's more, the study also found that they did not suffer the same level of psychological distress as someone who just takes the abuse.

A Word From Verywell

Saying no to your boss may not be easy, but it can be an important way to establish boundaries and protect yourself from a boss who might be requiring too much. It is particularly important to know how to say no if your boss is a bully or if they are trying to get you to do things that go against your values or even the law. Fortunately, there are often ways that you can say no politely while still maintaining your professionalism.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can I get fired for saying no to my boss?

    Employees have the right to say no to their bosses without being fired, within reason. If your boss requests that you do something that is outside the scope of your job description and you refuse, you do face the risk of being disciplined or terminated. This is why it is so important to learn how to decline requests while staying polite and professional. You can say no to requests that are unreasonable or potentially criminal.

  • How can I tell if my boss is being a bully?

    Workplace bullying is common, but many people don't even recognize when their boss if bullying them. If your boss undermines your work, stands in the way of your success, isolates you in the workplace, or intrudes on your privacy, they are bullying you. Verbal abuse is an obvious form of bullying, but more subtle forms include questioning your competence or spreading rumors about you in the workplace.

  • When should I go to human resources?

    If you have made efforts to address the bullying and it persists, it is time to get outside help. Before you go to HR or another member of management, document the bullying incidents. Write down what happened, when it happened, and who witnessed it.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Giorgi G, Perminienė M, Montani F, Fiz-Perez J, Mucci N, Arcangeli G. Detrimental effects of workplace bullying: Impediment of self-management competence via psychological distressFront Psychol. 2016;7:60. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00060

  2. Killoren R. The toll of workplace bullying. Res Manag Rev. 2014;20(1).

  3. Aquino K, Thau S. Workplace victimization: aggression from the target's perspectiveAnnu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:717–741. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163703

  4. Tepper BJ, Mitchell MS, Haggard DL, Kwan HK, Park H. On the exchange of hostility with supervisors: An examination of self‐enhancing and self‐defeating perspectives. Pers Psychol. 2015;68:723-758. doi:10.1111/peps.12094

  5. Workplace Bullying Institute. 2017 Workplace Bullying Institute U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.