Every day, we make and receive multiple requests in both our personal and professional lives. Most of them are reasonable, but every so often, there’s one that’s not. An unreasonable request typically involves an outsized ask that requires extraordinary effort and seems highly impractical. Or the request may be unreasonable because of when or how it’s made — either the last minute or in an entitled, demanding or presumptive manner, or all of the above.
Earlier in my career, as a junior-level investment banker, I received a request that was a trifecta of each of the above-mentioned elements. As I was about to sit down to dinner with friends, I got a voicemail from a more senior banker at my firm telling me to be on a redeye flight leaving in two hours from San Francisco to Washington DC to attend a client meeting the next morning . More on this shortly.
Invariably, we will receive requests that seem unreasonable — and research shows that if you’re a woman, you may receive more of them. I know I’ve gotten several over the years. These requests may come from people you know, such as a client, work colleague, boss, friend or acquaintance, or from people you don’t know who have reached out to you cold or were referred to you.
Regardless of who is making the ask, here are six strategies to give you a greater sense of agency while responding to a request that doesn’t seem reasonable to you.
Assess the relationship.
How (or if) you respond to the individual and how much you decide to try to accommodate the request, will likely depend on the relationship. Research shows that reciprocity — fulfilling a request for someone who has fulfilled one for you, and vice versa — has a stronger effect for personal relationships than work relationships.
A power dynamic, such as a request coming from a boss (or boss’s boss) or an important client may also affect how much pressure you feel to comply with the request (which is not to suggest that you should).
If it is a cold request from someone you don’t know, the anonymity will likely make it easier for you to politely decline the request (if you decide to respond at all).
Ask open-ended questions about what is really behind the request to shed light on what the other person really needs (versus what they think they need). For example, I asked the senior banker who demanded that I hop on a redeye, “What’s important about having me attend this meeting?” I learned that the client simply wanted a representative from the firm at the meeting and the senior banker wanted an update as to what transpired. If that was all that mattered, I knew that someone else could take my place.
Likewise, if your boss asks you to work all weekend on an analysis, you might ask, “What are you hoping this analysis will tell you?” You may discover that said analysis won’t give them the information they’re looking for and that it can better be found from another source, or there might be a much more efficient way to get a good proxy of what your boss is looking for on short notice that will suffice.
Raise awareness for the other person.
Often, part of the egregiousness of an unreasonable request is that the person making the request has no idea that what they’re asking for is unreasonable. They have a blind spot either around the work involved in fulfilling the request or the impact that fulfilling the request would have on the individual, their team, and other workstreams. What they think is simple might take days or weeks to accomplish and involve way more work than they ever considered. This can especially be the case for more senior leaders who may be more detached from the work.
A good leader will ask about the work involved in getting something done, but if they don’t, you can tactfully share this information to both raise awareness and give them the opportunity to make an informed choice. You might say something like, “This new request will take all week for the team to work on, which means we won’t be able to focus on X. Is this still something you’d like us to do?”
Several consulting colleagues of mine also shared stories about clients asking for significant work that was out of scope on a project. While “scope creep” is inevitable in consulting, you can say something like, “We can certainly do this additional work you’re requesting. Since it’s not in the scope of our original project, let me get back to you with what the additional cost will be.” Again, this tactfully both raises awareness about the extra work involved and gives the other party a choice. It may be a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that gets easier with practice and is one worth having.
Be clear on your boundaries.
A request may encroach upon your values, such as respect, work-life balance, equity, family, health, professionalism, integrity, etc. If you feel angry or irritated by the request, it’s a clear sign that one of your values is being stepped on. I felt my blood start to boil when I received the voicemail from the senior banker requesting that I jump on a redeye with two hours’ notice, as it clashed with my values of respect and autonomy. Being clear about your values can help guide your decision-making when it comes to determining what you will or won’t do (or if you even want to stay in that job).
In addition to unreasonable requests, there are also requests that are downright inappropriate. In a prior job, a colleague was asked to present someone else’s work because she spoke English better (which was a second language for her colleague). Another person shared that when she was in the hospital in grave condition, her boss (without asking how she was), said, “Can you just grab your laptop and finish up these few things?”
Despite the egregiousness of these requests, the silver lining is that they tend to be much easier to say no to. In the case of the presentation, the individual might say: “I don’t feel like it’s my place to speak for someone else’s work. It robs them of the visibility and development opportunity they’ve earned and runs counter to the firm’s DEI goals. These things not only far outweigh the benefits you’re looking for, but it’s something I don’t think you really want.” (This latter part lets the other person save face).
Offer alternative solutions.
When I learned that my attendance was requested at the client meeting in Washington DC to represent the firm and take notes to give the senior banker an update, I found another solution. I called the summer intern in our department who was looking for some good learning experiences, had capacity, was only a short train ride away from the client and was eager to attend — voila! Problem solved. This isnt to say I didn’t get any flack for it, but it also challenged my boss’s assumption about who really needed to fulfill the request. It also raised his awareness that there are sometimes other (better) solutions than the first one that comes to mind and that perhaps he could have better weighed the costs and benefits of the different solutions.
Another type of unreasonable request that I’ve gotten on more than one occasion, is receiving a presumptuous-sounding email request from someone I don’t know, with some version of “I’d like to schedule an hour with you at 9 am tomorrow so you can give me some career advice.” First, an hour is a lot of time to ask for. Second, as is likely the case with most busy professionals, my near-term calendar is quite full, so to expect another person to be free at the drop of a hat is a bit audacious. Third, the tone is quite demanding for someone who is asking for help. On the occasion that I have replied to such poorly executed requests (and there are those I haven’t replied to), I’ve declined their request by saying something like, “I’m often booked weeks in advance, so am not able to meet on such short notice. Here are a few links to resources that might be helpful.”
Let the other person know what would work next time.
If part of what makes the request unreasonable is something that can be modified to make the request more palatable next time, let the other person know. It’s a way to give gentle but direct feedback and make for more positive interactions in the future. For example, you might say, “If you can give me a little more notice next time, we can get you the level of detail you’re looking for in this report,” or “If you can let me know early in the week what you need for the following Monday morning staff meeting, instead of waiting until Friday afternoon, it would help avoid unnecessary fire drills and weekend work.”
Unreasonable requests don’t have to be seen as intractable demands. Using the above strategies can help you respond more effectively and feel more empowered.