Learn To Say No At Work, Or You’re Going To Be Stuck Doing Other People’s Stuff!

It couldn’t have been easy for Preeti to enter a male dominated field, but through grit and hard work, she had reached the top. And best of all, she was determined to ensure that the women who came after her didn’t suffer as she had.

[This is a work of fiction, though many of the situations and conversations are based on real life ones.]

“What is the bride-to-be doing in office? Your house must be crawling with guests. How did you get away?”

“Oh hi, Kavya”, Anu looked up with a smile, her high ponytail swinging playfully around her. “You have no idea how claustrophobic it is at home. I just had to get away, so invented an emergency.”

“I can well imagine. Been awhile, but I’ve been there too, remember?” Kavya looked fondly at her young colleague. Anu was literally glowing in her deep blue silk suit and polki earrings, even though her face was scrubbed of all make up. “I’m glad that when you wanted to escape you thought of the office”, she smiled. “Though if someone sees you now, our reputation of being an employer offering a flexible work environment will be torn to shreds!”

“Oh Kavya, I need a favour from you please. When you meet Mummy at the wedding, if she askes you why I had to come to office during my wedding leave, will you make some excuse please.”

“Sure. I will tell her that you love the office so much you couldn’t stay away.” Anu’s face fell, and Kavya smiled. “Just kidding. Good you gave me a heads up, I will think of some story. After all, flexible working environment should also mean the right to come to office whenever you want to.”

“Thank you so much, Kavya. Really appreciate it.”

“No problem. None at all. I’m getting into a meeting now, and may not meet you before you leave. All the best. And don’t forget to wear those bangles before you leave, or you might get into trouble at home.”

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The pile of bangles that Anu had slipped off and placed next to her laptop reminded Kavya of that time, ten years ago, when she had done the same. Her brother-in-law’s fiancée was conducting a Mata Ki Chowki at home, and she’d worn an embroidered saree to work knowing she may not have time to get home and change. Just when she was about to leave, her boss had called her in and asked her to prepare a pitch document for a potential client. Nearly in tears, she had called her husband and asked him to pick up the fruits and sweets that she was supposed to get. Slipping off her bangles and propping up her wristwatch next to the laptop, she got down to work.

“You are looking lovely, Kavya. That deep blue really suits you.”

Kavya looked up and smiled. “Thank you.” Normally she loved chatting with Preeti- she was the only lady in senior management and was always available for encouragement and advice even though Kavya wasn’t a part of her team. But not today. Today she was in a hurry to finish the pitch and leave. “My brother-in-law’s pre-wedding rituals”, she offered by way of an explanation. “I have to rush as soon as I am done with this pitch.”

“Oh yes, you mentioned. The wedding is in Goa, isn’t it? I am sure you will have a lovely time.”

Kavya’s eyes filled with tears. “I was really looking forward to the week in Goa, but this pitch has come up suddenly. I hope I don’t have to work on it through the wedding.”

“Couldn’t you have briefed someone else to take over for a week? When you are on holiday, you should be on holiday.”

“This came up just this afternoon. I have to give Gautam the first draft. I hope there aren’t too many iterations, because my in-laws will be really upset if I am late. I am the older daughter-in-law. It doesn’t look good if I am not around.”

“Naturally. But knowing you have the wedding, why did you take up the project? You should have reminded Gautam you were going on leave.”

Kavya looked aghast. “How could I do that? He’s my boss.”

“Kavya, when you can’t do something, you have to learn to say no. Otherwise, everyone will walk over you.”


“No buts. Nobody will think any less of you if you say no when you just cannot do something. If you don’t learn to say no, you are going to be stuck doing all the work nobody else wants to do. And you wouldn’t what that, would you? Anyway, I won’t detain you now- I know you are busy.”

Half an hour later, Kavya mailed the pitch to her boss, and called her husband to ask him if he could come and pick her up from office. Her IM pinged. Her boss wanted her to come over. She sighed as she picked up her laptop and made her way to his cabin- she hoped he would not ask her to make too many changes. She needed to be at the function in another hour or so!

When Kavya pushed the glass door with her shoulder and slid into her boss’s cabin, she was surprised to see Preeti there. Gautam pointed to a chair. “Kavya, sit down. Preeti says one of her associates is going backpacking in Europe for two weeks. She wanted to know if you would cover for him when he’s away.”

“Of course, Gautam. But as you know I am supposed to be on leave next week. My brother-in-law’s wedding in Goa. I told you…”. Kavya’s voice trailed off.

“You are on leave next week, aren’t you?,” asked Preeti. “He’s leaving only towards the end of the month, so there will be enough time for him to brief you adequately. In fact, Gautam”, Preeti looked directly at Kavya’s boss, “since Kavya is going to be on leave next week, he can cover up for her now, and she can return the favour later. How does that sound?”

Before either of them could react, Preeti picked up her phone and called her associate. “Just come over to Gautam’s cabin. Kavya has made the first draft of a pitch. You can take it over from here, and handle it when she is on leave next week.” Preeti looked at both of them with glee. “There. It’s all settled now. Kavya, you can give him a debrief now, and he can take it over from there. Have fun in Goa.”


Kavya smiled at the memory. Preeti was a force of nature. What she wanted, she got. It couldn’t have been easy for Preeti to enter a male dominated field, but through grit and hard work, she had reached the top. And best of all, she was determined to ensure that the women who came after her didn’t suffer as she had. A whole generation of young women owed so much to her mentorship.

It was from Preeti that Kavya had learn to draw boundaries. “You have to know what is important to you”, Preeti would often tell her. “And you need to know how much you can do. Prioritise.” When Kavya was forced to put in her papers during a difficult second pregnancy, Preeti had come to the rescue by giving her a short term assignment she could do from home.

That assignment had been followed by another one, and one more, till Kavya had more than she could handle on her own. Rather than turn down assignments, Kavya had taken a leap of faith and hired a senior from college who was looking for a flexible work option. Her firm now had 12 employees, all women.

Initially, all of them worked from home, and met once a quarter at a team lunch. But Kavya had soon realised that many of the women wanted to get out of home occasionally. She took up office space and converted it into an open plan office with a meeting room, a balcony full of plants, a pantry and both formal and informal seating. Employees came to office whenever they wanted to. Some even brought their babies along with their nannies. One of the older children even had her Maths tutor take lessons at the office!

And today, Kavya was meeting a male candidate who desperately wanted to join the firm. Hemant had been a part of the client team during an assignment, and had been after her to consider recruiting him. “Kavya, I really want to work with you. Please take me on as your mentee”, he’d begged. He was excellent at his job, but Kavya was in two minds about taking on a male employee. “I really don’t know, Hemant. This is an all-woman team. Why would you want to join us? Wouldn’t you feel awkward.”

“I have seen how you operate on trust and I love it”, he insisted. “I want to work at a place where I am responsible for what I commit to deliver, and you don’t care about how and where the work is done.”

“You make me sound so ruthless”, Kavya smiled. “Sometimes you cannot deliver what you have committed to, but the rule is that if that is likely to happen, you inform well in advance, and seek help if needed.”

“Exactly. That’s’ what I love about your firm. You treat us as responsible adults. And you enable us to have a life outside of office. Come on, Kavya. You can’t refuse to take me merely because I am male. We too might want to have a work life balance.”

They had gone back and forth. And Kavya had ultimately sought advice from Preeti. “He reminds em a lot of myself when I was his age”, she said. “When I wanted to join the firm, I was the only female. I fought to be recruited. I can’t deny him, can I? But you have a point about the environment being all female. Maybe you should ask the team to decide?”

Never had Kavya imagined she might be seriously considering recruiting a male. But had she ever dreamt that one day she would have her own firm with 12 employees and be acknowledged as one of the topmost niche consulting firms in the business?”

Hemant walked into the meeting room. “Hi Kavya. I have never been so nervous in my life”, he confessed. “By the way, this is Borky.” Borky looked at Kavya and gave her a tentative wag.

“Hi Borky”, she said, putting her hand out. Borky shook hands solemnly and rolled over for a belly rub. “I don’t know about you, Hemant, but the team may just decide to hire Borky”, she said.

Editor’s Note: For IWD 2023, we’re publishing #MentoringStories in both fiction and non-fiction, for the IWD2023 theme #EmbraceEquity. This non-fiction piece is one of the winners. See all mentoring stories here.

Image source: a still from short film Listen, Amaya!

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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