Saying "No" Effectively

Although we may want to shout, “No, nope, nada, absolutely not, don’t even think about it!  Are you kidding me?!” when we receive an unreasonable or unethical request from the business, it is probably not the most effective way to say no.

Tips to make “no” less painful

There is an art and a skill to saying no effectively.  Even when we have to turn someone down, if it is done with grace and empathy, there is the possibility of winning friends and creating allies through the experience.  During the process of writing my book How to Be a Wildly Effective Compliance Officer, I thought about my experiences as a Chief Compliance Officer and reached out to other compliance professionals to find out how they were able to say no effectively, while still keeping the relationship with the business as good as it could be.  What should we do when we have to say no?

Respond immediately to the request

Nothing irritates the business more than sending an email to the Compliance department, then waiting an eternity for a response.  I met one compliance officer whose default position was not to answer emails.  She felt that if the request was urgent enough, the business would follow up, and she could therefore prioritize only the most important initiatives.  This approach did not win her friends!

As soon as the business makes a request, acknowledge that you have received it.  If you can’t answer right away, tell them that you are working on a response and give a timeframe for when the final answer will be given.  If you can’t respond by the date you said you would, let the business know right away and tell them when they can expect an answer.  In this way, even if you have to say no, the business will know that you’re paying attention to their need and that you’re doing your best to work with them to find a resolution.

Explain your decision

Sometimes people in the Compliance profession say no without giving a reason.  Perhaps we’re too busy to give a full explanation, or we don’t feel the business would understand or care if we did.  Explaining the law or policy that blocks the approval will go a long way toward the business respecting your decision.  Failing to give an explanation can make the business feel disrespected or that your decisions are arbitrary or capricious. 
When you have to say no, use it as a learning opportunity to teach the business why you made your decision.  If the request was against your policy, point out the place in the policy that you relied on.  In this way, the business is better educated about the policies and how you make decisions, so they will be more likely to follow the policies in the future. 

Do it quickly

If you have to say no, deliver the message as soon as the decision is made.  Sometimes people think that it is better to wait until they are asked for a follow-up to deliver bad news.  Don’t wait.  Bad news travels quickly, so it is better to deliver it yourself as soon as possible.

Try to find alternatives that you can approve

When you have to say no, rather than waiting for the business to suggest an alternative, try to come up with one yourself.  The business needs to know that you understand the value of their initiatives.  By trying to find a solution with them, you are participating and making yourself a valuable member of their team.  If you work with them to find a solution to their problem, you make it more likely that they will work with you instead of working around you.

Be empathetic

If you have to say no, do so in an empathetic way.  Saying that you’re sorry you’re unable to approve the decision, or that you know how much the project means to the business will help you to be perceived as a team player. Very few people enjoy saying no to a request.  Explain that you wish you could say yes, or trying saying, “I understand how much you wanted to undertake this initiative, but unfortunately, it just isn’t possible.”  People are much less likely to hold resentments against you personally if they feel that you are working with the business and that you understand them, even though you had to say no.

By employing these tips and techniques, we can make ourselves much more effective when we have to say no to the business.