Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Employees: You Have The Right To Say No

I'm constantly surprised by the number of employees who come to me after having signed things their employer shoved in front of them, released claims, accepted transfers or demotions, or even admitted to stealing when they didn't. I ask them, "Why didn't you say no?" They look at me like I've turned into a Martian.

Too many employees don't realize that they do have some rights in the workplace. One major right you have is the ability to just say, "no." That's right. You can say no to your employer.

Does that mean you should say no when you get an assignment you don't like? No. Does it mean you should say no when your supervisor tells you to do something outside your job description? Probably not. Most of the time, saying no will get you slapped with discipline or termination for insubordination. But there are times you should respectfully decline.

Here are some situations where you should definitely exercise the power of "no" at work:

Severance: I suggest that employees never sign a severance agreement the day they get it, especially if they're presented with it when terminated. Instead, tell them you want to review it and take it home. Read it carefully. If you don't understand it, take it to an employee-side employment attorney. You should definitely refuse to sign it if you are releasing claims against the company for minimal dollars, if they are inserting a noncompete provision when you don't already have one, or if you are being told you have to release claims when you're already entitled to severance according to an employment agreement or company severance plan.

Termination papers: You're in your termination meeting. They shove a paper in front of you stating that you've been terminated and every reason in the world why you suck. They demand you sign. Don't do it! Why would you? You don't work for them anymore. They can't make you. What's your upside? If you feel like there's no harm, then sign, "As to receipt only." Make sure you aren't agreeing to what they are saying. You aren't thinking straight, so be very careful.

Resignation: "My employer made me quit." I hear that a lot. How did they do that? Did they hold a gun to your head. Unless you are being offered something substantial in exchange for your resignation (or if the gun scenario really occurs), why would you agree to quit? Make them fire you. At least then you'll probably qualify for unemployment. If you resign, they may say you don't qualify. Some people think it looks better on a resume, but who do you really think you're fooling? Nobody resigns in this economy without having a job lined up unless there's a real problem. That gap in your resume is going to be bad, resignation or no. Instead, if they really want your resignation, get something in exchange for it. Use it to negotiate severance, to get out of a noncompete, or to get something else you really want. You may need help here, so now is probably a good time to talk to an attorney rather than jumping into something.

Admission of a crime: If you're put in a room with Risk Management and told to sign a paper saying you stole something if you want to save your job, don't do it! You're admitting to a crime. Never admit to a crime. First of all, you're fired as soon as you sign. Second, the employer may be entitled to sue you for the value of the item plus two or three times its value, plus attorney's fees and costs. It's a trick. Don't fall for it. Practice these words: "I want to speak with an attorney." Repeat as necessary. By the way, they can't make you stay in that room. Tell them you want to leave. Then leave. If they physically stop you, call 911 or scream for help. Seriously. Then go see a criminal defense attorney.

Demotion or pay cut: If you're given a demotion or pay cut you just can't live with, sometimes it's better to say no and apply for unemployment. If you take the job and can't survive on the money, but will be unable to look for a job while you have the job from hell, then you'll have to quit and probably are disqualified from getting unemployment. There are times it's best to say no.

Promotion: If you're offered a promotion that makes you exempt from overtime, doubles your work, decreases your pay, and the last three guys who held the job died at their desk, say no. Get the details before you accept that promotion. Sometimes, overtime pay means you'll make more and have a better life if you stay where you are.

Release: Severance packages usually come with a release of every claim you ever had or might have against the company. I see some companies that have severance plans requiring severance if the employee is laid off that try to get a release even though you're already entitled to severance. I also see people with employment contracts that entitle them to severance being asked to sign a release in order to get it. Say no. Say it again. Run, don't walk, to an employment lawyer in your state. (Better yet, email them). Why on earth would you release discrimination or other claims when you don't have to? If they want that release, make them give you something you want in exchange.

Transfer: You're being asked to transfer across country in the middle of the school year. Your kids are about to take their SATs, your spouse has a job they love. Say no! At the very least, make sure you get a contract, including that they'll pay your moving expenses, help with getting your spouse and kids situated, and guarantee you a minimum amount of severance if you're fired without cause. Better yet, negotiate that you can only be fired for cause and get a specific term of employment for no less than a year. If they won't put enough guarantees and incentives in writing to make it worth your while, take a pass.

Anything illegal: No job is worth going to jail. And guess who they'll throw under the bus when Johnny Law comes a-callin'? It's you. Say no. Better yet, say no in writing. You might want to look at some whistleblower laws to make sure you're doing what you have to do to protect yourself, or talk to an employment attorney about your rights.

Polygraph: The Employee Polygraph Protection Act prohibits most private employers and potential employers from demanding you take a polygraph, and from firing you if you say no. There are exceptions, but they are few. Polygraphs are not admissible in court because they are not reliable. They can say you're lying when you're not. Say no unless you fall within one of the exceptions. If you committed a crime and you are told you have to take it or be fired, take the firing and go see a criminal defense attorney post haste.

These are just some examples of when it's best to exercise the power of "no" at work. I bet you can think of some more. So go ahead. Say no to your employer.


  1. Very motivational post. But usually we spend scared life. Because we have no idea that we have rights to say anything.
    Peterborough office

  2. Great post! As an employment attorney in Alabama, where the "Right to Work" law is really a "Right to Fire Anyone for Anything at Anytime," saying NO may not be a right that will protect you from losing your job. A case in point is a case where a Nurse was fired for refusing to retroactively "fix" medical records to cover a doctor for a malpractice claim. Her firing was upheld by our Supreme Court- but,she ended up getting lots of job offers, and they involved working for better people in happier places. Still, it is scary to think a nurse could be fired for refusing to alter medical records.

    1. Thanks Donnas! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, it's scary out there. People don't understand how few rights they have.

  3. I was laid off 8 weeks ago by the largest retailer in the U.S. I am an executive with the HQ. It was an amicable parting of the ways. They offered me a generous lump sum severance. I did my exit interview and subsequently review and signed the standard separation agreement. Well, now 6 weeks later my severance has still not been deposited and they are now ignoring my calls, texts, and emails. WTF? I guess I'm allowed to sue or file a complaint since they haven't held up their part of the agreement. The contract forbid this but they haven't honored the contract. Such idiocy over a small amount of money and a non-hostile FEMALE OVER 40 ex employee. What is your take on why they would do this? Just because they can?

  4. I don't understand how if I was never told by my boss I was not doing a good job, never been on probation, how can my boss demote me out of the blue and take $5 off my hourly pay. NY sucks

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  6. Can employer make you sign something that says you can't make any doctors/dental appointments on certain days unless it's an emergency

  7. Here's my story...I started my job as the Diagnostic Technician at an auto shop. A year or so later I was promoted to Service Advisor (basically the guy in the office who deals with the customers). I loved this job. No more greasy fingernails, sweating my butt off, cuts and scratches etc...After 9 months the replacement for me just walks off the job and never returns. After a month of searching for a new Tech, my boss gives me an ultimatum....come back after lunch ready to work on cars or I won't be needed anymore. I went home, talked to Mom, the wife, my father in law, the toad who lives in our garden....and decided I really didn't want to ever work on cars anymore. The next morning I changed my mind and went in to talk to the boss. I figured we could do a 3 month contract or something to help the shop while he finds that magical Technician that's so hard to get. He cuts me off mid sentence and says I'm not needed, he will figure it out himself and I would be too expensive to have on his payroll. He says he'll cover my health care for 3 months and pay my vacation owed. Well, after 3 weeks I still haven't found a new job. We decided I better apply for unemployment just in case this drags out any longer. I've never used it before, as I have always been able to get a new job in a day or two. We parted company on good terms (I never like to burn bridges), so I let him know that I filed. He immediately got defensive, told me my health benefits would be shut off and he would contest the unemployment pay. Does he have any standing? I was given an ultimatum and forced to pick either being laid off or doing a job I learned to hate (over the course of 19 years). Then when I gave him the answer he just laid me off anyway. Ideas?


I appreciate your comments and general questions but this isn't the place to ask confidential legal questions. If you need an employee-side employment lawyer, try http://exchange.nela.org/findalawyer to locate one in your state.