When and How to Say “No” As an Executive Assistant

Often mistaken as a glorified secretary, an executive assistant (EA) is a pillar upon which high-level administrators and managers build a successful career. Just ask Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) who had the misfortune of becoming Amanda Priestly’s (Meryl Streep) executive assistant in The Devil Wears Prada.

While not every assistant has such horror stories to tell, many EAs can attest to being overburdened and overworked at their job. Part of it has to do with the fact that executives don’t realize just how burdensome they can become. However, an executive assistant’s determination to succeed can become a curse if they cannot set clear boundaries in their job description — i.e., say “No” to unreasonable demands.

Below are some guidelines on when and how to say “No” to your boss at work.

Do Not Accept a Vague Job Description

When applying for a position as an EA, pay attention to what is included and what is not included in the job description. If you see wording that includes …

  • “Etc.”
  • “Miscellaneous”
  • “All other duties”
  • “As needed”
  • “Subject to change”

… then you need to be aware of the implications. The employer is telling you that you should be open to any and all job requests at their discretion. This type of wording leaves you vulnerable to job overload without any leverage to say no when the “miscellaneous” requests come from your boss. So, before you accept a position, ask for clarity on what the wording means.

Do Not Compromise Your Values or Ethics

Before you accept a job, you need to know your ethical and professional boundaries. If you are convinced that your boss is asking you to do something that could ruin your career or implicate you unethically, then it’s time to push back. What are some examples of unethical requests?

  • Your boss asks you to bully someone else such as client, business partner, or employee.
  • Your boss asks you to break the law.
  • Your boss asks you to do something that may be legal but is professionally unethical.

Say “No” to Unreasonable Requests

It is normal to work weekends or the occasional late night in almost any job. You may even be asked to go on a trip from time to time. However, if your employer is unreasonable or takes requests to an extreme, they will cause you to burn out or feel suffocated by work demands.

Therefore, you should never let unreasonable demands cause a work-life imbalance or affect your mental and physical health. Have the courage to say “No” to the demands.

How to Say “No” to Your Boss

Before you say “No” to any request, make sure that the request is unreasonable. Pick your battles carefully. Also, when you refuse a request, do not insult your boss, question their motives, or make any accusations aimed at them. Keep the discussion focused on the issue, not the person. Here are some other tips:

  • Give a valid reason for saying “No.”
  • Offer alternative solutions.
  • Remind your boss of your current workload.
  • Thank your boss for their vote of confidence.
  • Be sensitive and empathetic — not harsh and combative.
  • Ask to delay the task or the deadline.
  • Be direct and honest.
  • Acknowledge that your boss is the boss.
  • Thank your boss for their understanding. That shuts the conversation down.

In other words, be firm but pragmatic. Be kind and courteous, but establish your boundaries. You can only handle so much.

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Genevieve Burke
About author

Genevieve is an administrative assistant currently working at an exciting start-up in the technology industry. In the past, she's worked for an array of companies ranging from global entertainment companies to local businesses. At the University of Chicago she studied Business Administration while working with a local bakery that has since grown into a wide spread Chicago mainstay. Outside of work she enjoys kayaking and volunteering at her local animal shelter.
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