Recently, someone asked me a seemingly simple question:

If I’m asked to work over the weekend, stay late at night or attend an event that conflicts with a personal event like a concert or a wedding, how do I say no to my boss without actually saying no, and without having my career suffer?

Unfortunately, however, the answer isn’t so simple.

If You Haven’t Done This First, You Are Probably Out of Luck

In my decade-long experience of working with companies and their teams, I’ve seen bosses pay lip service to the idea of work-life balance, and I’ve seen leaders actually set the example. 

That’s why I firmly believe that no matter what someone says, the only way to say no to a request that violates personal time and conflicts with personal obligations without having your career suffer is to have clear boundaries set from the beginning of the employment relationship.

Some employers will never value personal time and obligations; others will recognize the importance of employees having balance in their lives, so that they can re-generate their energy and be more productive at work. If you really want to have the ability to say “no” gracefully, get clarity even before you accept a job position about what the parameters of that will look like, and then continue that discussion with your direct supervisor.

Clarity Is Key To A Successful “No”

So, how do you actually get clarity?  By asking the right questions, and not shying away from the topic.

For example, directly ask in the final stages of the job interview process if it is a requirement of the job that you always be available. If the answer is no, follow up with another question about what circumstances you will be expected to work outside of normal business hours, or what are the conditions for you to be able to take solid personal time without worrying you will need to cancel. Ideally, the person that will be your direct supervisor will be answering this question for you.

When you get the answer, you will want to gauge the sincerity of it. Is this lip service, or do they mean it? Do they provide examples willingly to you about what work-life balance means in their company? Even better, do actual employees have stories about how they are able to balance work in a way that is appealing to you?

If You’re Top Talent, You Have Leverage

Although in today’s world there is still a strong bias in favor of the employer that employees be “always on,” to remain competitive over time, work-life balance for top talent is even more imperative. Progressive employers understand this, but others will be struggling with attracting and retaining top talent in the years and decades to come. 

The old paradigm of work and hustle is shifting to a more balanced model – and if you’re in a position to be considered a star, or in an industry where talent is scarce, you can use this to your advantage.  That being said, you still want to do it from the beginning!