You’ve probably experienced this awkward situation: a person makes a request to you in writing, and you have to say no–in writing.
On the telephone or in person, you could respond earnestly, "I’m sorry! I wish I could!" or "Unfortunately, I have to say no." But it’s a bit more challenging in writing. In writing, you can’t add gestures or intonations to soften the message. And for the page or screen you must choose your words carefully–the other person may read them over and over and show them to others.
Here are suggestions for those "bad news" messages.
- Do say no clearly. Avoid being so polite that the reader may not be sure you denied the request.
- Do explain why you must say no.
- Do state what you can do for the reader, even though it is not what the reader requested.
- Do use positive language wherever possible. For example, open with "Thank you for asking for a free copy" or "I appreciate your requesting permission."
- Do treat the reader respectfully. Imagine you are writing to one of your favorite people.
- Don’t write if you are worried that your message might be offensive or confusing. Instead, talk in person or on the telephone for two-way communication. Then write a message confirming what was discussed.
- If you are responding as a representative of your company, don’t criticize the policy that requires you to say no. Otherwise, you undermine the company and may seem untrustworthy.
- Don’t use negative expressions that may offend or embarrass the reader, such as "It is unreasonable," "I never agreed," "You are mistaken," or "You should."
Good example of a negative message:
Thank you for asking me about taking the week before Christmas as a vacation week. I wish I could say yes. Unfortunately, in our retail environment I can’t.
The week before Christmas is the busiest week of the year in our store. We may ring up 10 percent of our annual sales in that week alone. That’s why we have a policy that requires nearly every employee to work that week.
I said "nearly every employee" because we do have a rotation that permits employees to take vacation time that week or the week after Christmas every four years if they wish to. You will be eligible for either of those weeks in your fourth year with us.
The store is closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and you will have both of them off as paid holidays. Also, because you are working Christmas Eve, you will have New Year’s Eve off. I hope those days off will make up a little for having to work the week before Christmas.
Again, thank you for checking with me, Keith. Please let me know if you want to talk more about the Christmas vacation policy. You can also read more details about vacation time in the employee handbook.
Notice that the message doesn’t criticize Keith for asking about a policy he probably should have known already–there’s no point in that. Embarrassing or lecturing the reader never helps. Saying no is enough.