How to say ‘That’s above my pay grade’—without sounding ‘rude or unprofessional’: Public speaking expert

As we return to pre-pandemic working hours and arrangements, how do you deal with a manager who thinks you should still be on call 24/7?

You want to be a team player and stay professional. But when your manager repeatedly ignores your workload, primary responsibilities, and schedule, pushing you to the brink of burnout, it’s time to set boundaries.

When your boss gives you jobs above your pay grade, use these phrases to set boundaries without coming across as childish, rude, and professional:

1. “Wait, let me think it through.”

As a public speaking coach, I always tell people to consider their audience before they speak. Take a minute to process your boss’s request.

For example, if they want you to work on a last-minute client project at 5 p.m. on a Friday, stop and ask yourself: Is this a pattern lately?

In general, if your boss respects your time and is trying to solve a really pressing issue, he may deserve the benefit of the doubt. But when they pick on you—and only you—that’s a different story. Do they at least offer to step in and help?

Anyway, put your feelings aside. You’re not saying “yes” or “no” yet; They just take their time to rate.

2. “What is most important?”

If you’re overloaded with responsibilities and your boss wants to add more to your list, it’s fair to ask which of your other responsibilities can be reduced or put on hold.

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You might say, “I’m not doing all these tasks as well as we want. Is there anything that could take a back seat or be delegated to someone else?”

Don’t lead with an impatient or frustrated tone. You don’t tell your boss how you feel; They help them calculate what is realistic.

3. “I’d like to help, but I can’t right now. Let’s find a workaround.”

If your boss’s goal seems reasonable but their timing is unrealistic, let them know.

Explain why you can’t accommodate their request, but take it a step further by suggesting, “Maybe there’s another way we can handle this.”

Then brainstorm a few possible solutions. Perhaps you can complete the task on a Saturday morning before the kids wake up in exchange for taking half a day off the following week.

4. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Negotiations are part of life. Sometimes you will lose and sometimes your boss will lose. They know that.

If your position is appropriate, all you have to do is stand firm. Be polite and resist the urge to explain everything. They asked. you said no

Ironically, while conflict seems negative in the short term, mastering the art of saying “no” sets clear expectations, reduces the likelihood of similar conflicts in the future, and sets a foundation for a respectful and enduring relationship.

5. “Sure! Happy to help.”

Somewhere in this conversation lies an assessment of your own self-interest. No matter how you feel or what you think is fair.

Ask yourself what makes you happiest in the long run: Does an extra hour on Friday save you a headache later?

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For example, if your ultimate goal is to buy a car or support your family, and that extra hour will help you get the raise that’s big enough to meet those goals, it might be worth saying yes.

John Bowe is a language trainer, award-winning journalist and author of “I have something to say: mastering the art of public speaking in an age of segregation.” He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney’s, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here and keep following him LinkedIn.

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