The How and Why of Saying No to Your Boss

Daniel and the Limits of Obedience

“Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best.” – John C. Maxwell

In a recent post, I explained the debt a man owes to his employer. (If you weren’t paying attention then, you can read it here.) In that post I presented a general rule that employees should find a way to say yes to every reasonable request from a boss, provided the request isn’t illegal, unethical, or immoral. However I also explained that there are times when it is absolutely appropriate to say no, even when doing so brings negative consequences.

"Daniel Cast to the Lions" from "The Bible and its Story" published in 1908. Public domain

Saying no can lead to consequences. Daniel Cast to the Lions from “The Bible and its Story” published in 1908. Public domain



Enter Daniel

In the Old Testament book of Daniel, we see the story of a young man of Judah who was taken captive along with three of his friends by King Nebuchadnezzar and forcibly resettled in Babylon. Some scholars disagree on this point, but since Daniel and his colleagues reported to the king’s chief eunuch, it is not out of the question that these young men were castrated as part of their captivity. Not exactly the “onboarding” or the welcome a new hire would wish for.

The king assigned the best of these young men to study the history and culture of the Babylonians for three years, and upon passing their tests, to serve as wise men and seers in the royal court. Part of this preparation included eating the food and drinking the wine that Nebuchadnezzar himself ate — food that was ritually unclean for devout Hebrews.

Daniel had a dilemma. He could displease God by violating the ceremonial law, or he could displease a tyrant by refusing his hospitality — a capital offense. Instead of offending, he asked if he and his devout friends could eat vegetables and drink water instead. When the chief eunuch protested that he would receive the king’s wrath if Daniel fared poorly, Daniel suggested a ten-day trial. When he and his fellow test subjects exhibited better health and a better appearance, Daniel received permission to continue eating consistent with the law of God.

Along the way, Daniel and his friends — who received the Babylonian names Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — received honor and promotions as they remained faithful to God even as they served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar and the rulers who succeeded him.

Thrown to the Lions

A quirk of tyrants and other absolute rulers is that they tend to overestimate their greatness. In Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar created an idol in his image and sought to punish anyone who failed to worship it. After Nebuchadnezzar’s son Belshazzar fell to Darius the Mede, Darius himself tended to grandiosity.

To be fair to Darius, some advisers who were jealous of Daniel sought to eliminate him by tricking Darius into signing a ban on prayer or petition to any god or man but the king. Under Medo-Persian law, a decree signed by the king was irrevocable. The conniving officials knew that Daniel was pious, and they spied on him as he prayed three times a day to the God of Israel. When the corrupt schemers reported Daniel’s disregard to the king, Darius tried unsuccessfully to amend his decree, but with regrets he ultimately kept the law. As decreed, he threw Daniel to the lions, covering the den with a large stone and affixing it with the royal seal and left him there overnight.

Lessons from Daniel

I’ve listed some of the principles that I have adopted based on the life of Daniel:

Propose an alternative – Daniel acted constructively to resolve the dilemma over eating unclean foods. When you’re faced with a task or duty that violates your conscience, this is a possible course of action. In the US, employment law requires reasonable accommodation for religious restrictions.

Present your results – Daniel mustered the facts and showed the benefits of his proposed dietary alternative. Your boss may not share your beliefs, but if the results are clear, only a micro-manager would find fault.

Perform in every area – In all other aspects of his work, Daniel came through without compromise. Look, not every task is going to be pleasant, but not every task is a moral quandary either. Seek to learn constantly, and seek to excel in every aspect of your work — especially the parts you like least.

Profess the truth – One thing you’ll notice about Daniel is that in every face-to-face encounter with the king, he pointed consistently to the sovereignty of the Living God. I think if I had been imprisoned, taken from my home, and emasculated, I would find it easy to be bitter and non-compliant. Daniel overcame all those circumstances, told the truth always, and served as an adviser to four kings. In addition, God let Daniel know that he was “greatly loved.”

Persist – When you know the right thing to do, make sure you do it. Don’t shade the truth. Don’t pretend to go along to avoid the consequences. Throughout his story, Daniel didn’t waver. This is what integrity looks like.

Prepare to endure the consequences – When you know that remaining faithful — to God, your conscience, and your principles — will put you at odds with your employer, accept the consequences. Daniel did not protest or fight his being thrown to the lions, but God delivered him from being eaten. Not so the traitors who conspired to trap Daniel.

One last rule of thumb

I know I’ve said it before, but the brightest line for determining whether or not a boss’s request calls for a rejection is this:
If he commands what God forbids or forbids what God commands, do not comply. That was where Daniel dug in, faced certain death, and survived.

So how about you? How are you preparing to live with integrity in your workplace? Add your comments below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Bring your best manners, please.

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