It's one of the shortest words in the English language, and yet, for so many it is incredibly hard to say in the professional world. Employees are too often afraid that by saying 'no' to anything from -a project to severance- they will somehow tarnish their reputation. Within reason, of course, this is absurd, and may just be the thing that is keeping you from reaching your true potential. That's right- instead of saying yes to everything, see what happens when you say no.
I stumbled upon this little secret quite by accident. The first time it happened, I was a radio DJ living blissfully in Omaha, Nebraska. Say what you will about the Heartland, but that time and place were a huge highlight of my career. Most people never get to see what a gem of a city Omaha really is. I was in heaven. So when a potential new employer in a bigger city offered me more money for a more high-profile job, I said no. It may sound crazy, but I was that happy in Omaha.
But here's the thing. That would-be employer? He didn't take no for an answer. Instead, he came back with an offer for more money! Believe it or not, I said no a second time. I wasn't playing games. And guess what he did? Yep. He came back again, only this time he asked me to come say no in person. Now it just so happened that I had a good friend living in that particular city, and I saw it as a great way to network professionally, while catching up with my friend. Needless to say, the weekend was a huge success, and the rest was history. My friend needed a roommate, and the employer offered me even more money. Turns out that by saying no I made the employer want me even more.
Years later, I would use the 'no' secret again. It was at the end of a job; not the beginning, but it still had a positive outcome.
I had been working at a start-up that was clearly not working out the way I'd hoped. I could see the writing on the wall. The media department I had been hired for never got off the ground, department heads were let go, and layoffs began. I began to brace myself for being laid off, and to tell you the truth, I was fine with it, because whereas I had kept my promise to do the "temporary" research they asked of me, they never kept their promise to utilize my twenty years of media experience (in all fairness, those who had made these promises were let go, and the few remaining didn't seem interested in my television background). So in those last few weeks, I went to work knowing the hammer could fall at any time.
When the layoffs began I wasn't surprised. Day after day someone new would be called into HR, and leave the building with a cardboard box. The day they called me in, I was mentally prepared. I went in, and listened closely to what they had to say. I said nothing beyond nodding, and telling them I understood. I thanked the HR professional for her time. That can't be a fun job. The underboss, a young man decidedly fresh out of college, explained that I had a right to speak with the CEO, and here's where it got interesting. I said yes, I definitely wanted the outgoing interview with the Big Cheese.
"You want the meeting?" he asked confused.
"Yes, I do."
"But you'll just have to come back again. He's not here."
"That's fine," I said before leaving with my cardboard box.
People get funny when you've been laid off. As I left that day, there was a wake of condolences as good wishes from my coworkers, and whereas I appreciated that, I didn't need it. I couldn't have had a healthier mind-set. You see, in my original line of work, Radio, lay-offs are par for the course. They are so commonplace that you begin to accept them as inevitable, so when I was laid off of the start-up, it was really no biggie to me, especially since it wasn't the job they'd advertised. I don't think anyone expected to see me so upbeat on my way out. It was liberating!
When I got outside that day, I had a great idea. I immediately called my friend, Mary Jane, an expert in HR.
"MJ," I said. "I think I want to try a social experiment."
I explained that I had just been laid off, and that after everything, the severance packages were pretty meager.
"Do I have to accept what they offer? Can I ask for more?"
"Sure," Mary Jane said laughing. "They don't have to give it to you, but I'll bet with your positive attitude they just might. It's worth a shot- what have you got to lose?" MJ and I shared another laugh and she wished me luck.
The very next day I dressed well for my exit interview. When I arrived, the energy in the room was strange. Some people looked at me with surprise, like "Why is she here?" Others were already aware of what I was trying, and they were all smiles. The younger boss who had given me the news just the day before approached me sheepishly. A newfound confidence swelled inside me as I smiled at him.
During my meeting, I was cordial, professional, and very upbeat. I explained that I absolutely understood the reason for their changes. I consoled them for having to let so many talented people go.
"I know that can't be easy, nor fun."
Then, I simply explained that the severance package they offered wasn't fair, given the promises I'd been made, my original reason for being hired, and other jobs I had turned down to be a part of their company, and the fact that it was past Thanksgiving, and nearly impossible to find a job until the new year. Then I I politely declined the severance package as not commensurate with my experience. Just like that.
The room was very still before the boss spoke. If anything, I think he admired my guts. Or maybe he agreed with me completely. Either that, or he just wanted to move on. Regardless, I ended up getting more money that day, and perhaps most importantly, maintaining my professional integrity. As a bonus, I was later told by a coworker that I was something of a legend in that office for having my unique exit meeting. All because of that little word... No.