Business Etiquette of Saying No

“Can I ask you a favor?”

Do you get a rush of adrenaline when you hear this question…or do you feel a pang of dread?

For many of us, the chance to provide a career-related kindness is an opportunity to savor, the business etiquette equivalent of helping jump start the battery of a friend’s stuck car.

On the other hand, in business, we also encounter scenarios when we simply cannot (or would prefer not) to assist.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons for feeling this way and yet, for someone who’s a giver, saying “no” can be far more difficult than saying “um, okay.”

Have you ever been asked for a reference by a former employee whose abilities you don’t hold in high regard? Or for an introduction to a valued connection by someone you barely know (or trust)? What would you do with a request to pass along the résumé of a candidate whose abilities you know to be subpar?

It’s human nature to want to help, and yet when assisting also means ignoring our own best instincts, an uncomfortable paradox is typically the result. Having been in all of the situations above, here is my best personal manners and business etiquette advice:

The Recommendation Request
You detract from your own credibility when you provide a glowing reference for a former employee whose work performance was anything but. Difficult though it may be, professional ethics dictate you decline this request—gracefully, of course. I suggest responding along these lines:

“I’m honored you’ve asked me to recommend you and would be happy to confirm your position and dates of employment. With respect to a recommendation, it’s probably best for you to seek one from someone who can better represent your skills than I can.”

Your honest but sensitive reply should serve to prevent a similar request from this individual in the future.

My Daughter’s Roommate’s Boyfriend Needs a Job
“You know lots of influential people, right? Can you help him?” More often than not, this sort of ask comes from an acquaintance who saved your business card from a chance meeting at a trade conference eight years ago. You barely recall the acquaintance and of course, know less than zero about his daughter’s roommate’s boyfriend.

I’m a big believer in karma and doing good things for others without any expectation of reciprocation. And yet, your network of contacts, a coterie of individuals you’ve likely spent years establishing, is not something to treat cavalierly. The response to this request should also be a graceful “no.” I recommend a variation on:

“Much as I’d like to assist your daughter’s roommate’s boyfriend, I make it a policy only to connect individuals I’ve met and can unequivocally recommend. I hope you understand.” Leave it at that; no further elaboration is necessary.

The Résumé Referral
“Could you pass my C.V. along to your human resources department?” Although in your eyes an acquaintance may not be suited for a particular position, in this case, you can leave it to the hiring manager to make this determination. Don’t promise a glowing referral, and certainly don’t make one if you are not feeling it. I propose:

“Of course I can pass your résumé along.” (A true statement of fact.)


“I’ve been asked to forward this résumé for your consideration.” Full stop. Where it goes from there is out of your hands.

Bottom line? Tough as it may be not to go out of your way for those who ask for your business help, for others to continue to trust you, you must trust your own gut. Adhere to that standard and your network of contacts will continue to value your referrals, knowing they are heartfelt, genuine and truly worthy.