How to Politely Tell Coworkers “That’s Not My Job”

The road to burnout is paved with long hours, a burdensome workload and a lack of boundaries when it comes to saying “no” to coworkers. Instead of a full plate, you’re balancing multiple plates on sticks as the inevitable is bound to happen — gravity and burnout.

When you initially got hired, your job description likely included the ability to be a team player, and you take that very seriously. When you need help, it’s not very professional to turn someone away, is it? At the same time, you don’t want your performance to suffer by taking on too much.

When you’re being asked to do work outside of your responsibilities, others aren’t necessarily aware they’re taking advantage of you, but the requests add up. Is it possible to tactfully push back on too much work while still showing you’re that “team player” the company hired? Yes, it is.

It’s Okay to Say No

The written description of your job duties outlines what you’re responsible for as an employee. However, most companies do state you can expect to add on to that list in the course of your employment.

That doesn’t mean that you should be a constant crutch for other clueless employees or someone looking for an easy out on work (while taking all the credit). That doesn’t mean that as the “go-to person” you’re required to be the constant well of resourceful information and all around direction-pointer — eventually, the well runs out of water.

By constantly saying yes to extraneous projects and requests, you become stuck in a hamster wheel of doing everyone else’s work instead of the projects that further your career path.

Sometimes, your manager’s no help, providing you with vague directions that aren’t clear what happens when someone drops the ball. So, what’s a team player supposed to do? You pick up the pieces.

For most, saying “That’s not my job” is a royal sin right up there with “The customer can be wrong.” If you refuse to perform a task, it’s possible to lose your manager’s favour or support, but when facing burnout, you have to stand up for yourself.

Saying No by Refocusing on Your Priorities and Empowering Coworkers

You’re getting burned out if you notice that you’re becoming more irritable, disillusioned or experiencing physical symptoms, such as back pain or poor sleep. Dysfunctional work environments and unclear job expectations contribute to eventual burnout.

There are times when refusing extra work is okay and appropriate. Saying no empowers coworkers to find the answers for themselves. Saying “That’s not my job” can come off as negative and snippy, but you can say no and still be a team player by emphasizing your priorities:

Admit You Have a Heavy Workload: “Unfortunately, I’m swamped right now, and I can’t give this matter the proper attention.”

State the Priority: “Client X needs a complete rework of this proposal before end of day, so I can’t pitch in.”

Offer a Clue: “That’s not my specialty, so I’m not the best resource for your question. However, if I were feeling lost, I’d check with Department Y.”

Don’t Do the Work of Other Departments: “I’m not the one who typically handles this, and unfortunately, I’m not sure who does. Perhaps you should check with your manager.”

These responses will differ depending on your role and who’s asking. For example, if you’re an assistant and the supervisor of another department needed help yesterday, it’s a good idea to dig a little more and offer assistance. If Busybody Bob is guilt-tripping you about doing his work, redirect him by refocusing on your priorities and try to empower him to do the research himself.

In your need to help and be a team player, you’re disregarding your professional boundaries and upsetting your work-life balance. You’re letting your performance suffer and aren’t being a good example for your coworkers. Empower your coworkers to excel in challenging situations while you focus on doing your best at your job.

Turning Down Extra Work When It’s From Your Manager

What about when it’s your manager making constant requests for you to go the extra mile? Saying no places you at a greater risk of losing their favor, right? That might happen, but you could also lose their respect and a client by not performing at your best.

When your manager asks you to take on too much, and you know it’ll affect higher priority tasks, you need to speak up. State that you’ve noticed increased requests for assistance on Projects A and B, but handling the workload with attention to detail is difficult without reducing focus to other projects coming up on deadline. This technique also applies when you’re part of a team but feel you’ve got the heavier end of the workload.

The idea is to strategize with your manager, so you don’t look like you’re backing out of work. Play up to your manager’s goals and missions to anticipate needs and address them. All you’re doing is figuring out how to get everything done to the best of your ability, and your communication helps build a good working relationship.

When your manager asks you do tasks that you don’t feel particularly capable of, you understandably want to refuse. Do you feel like you’ve given it your best go, or are your talents and skills being squandered? Ask for flexibility. State that while you’ve found these tasks challenging, you’d like to challenge your skills in another specific direction.

Don’t risk burnout because you’re feeling guilty about not being a team player. It is possible to politely tell a coworker “That’s not my job” without sounding snippy. Refocus coworkers and your manager to the high priority tasks on your plate, and be professional with your language.

It’s always responsible to refuse extra work when such queries take away from higher priorities. Don’t forget that those priorities also include your health.

Sarah Landrum

Sarah Landrum recently graduated from Penn State with degrees in Marketing and PR. Now, she's a freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on navigating the work world and achieving happiness and success in your career. You can find her tweeting on her coffee breaks @SarahLandrum