It can be difficult to turn down a request from a superior, but there are ways to decline a request without losing your job.

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It’s that time of year. Fledgling workers are heading off to new jobs, diplomas in their hands, dreams in their heads.

Are you one of them? Do you feel trepidation along with your excitement? After all, even if you’re not a total work newbie — if you’ve toiled, say, flipping burgers or pulling lattes — this time feels different. This time is for real.

Fret not. What you are most worried about probably won’t happen.

On the other hand, what you’ve never thought to worry about may appear out of nowhere as a significant issue.

One such issue may be finding yourself having to say no to authority figures. This can be especially difficult for younger workers because they’re so eager to show what they’re made of, rise in the ranks, and in general, take the world by storm. Sometimes, however, “no” is your only realistic, ethical and safe answer.

The good news is that it is possible to turn down a request, or even an order, without finding yourself unemployed. How?

By saying yes — to an alternative. Maybe you absolutely can’t do the thing your boss is asking of you, but you can do something else — such as suggesting an alternative plan, for example, explaining why it is smarter, faster or cheaper.

By saying, “Did you know?” Often those who ask for the impossible don’t realize it’s impossible. Here’s where you calmly clarify the situation. Emphasize consequences and, again, suggest an alternative.

By saying, “I will try.” Maybe your requester is well aware that a thing can’t be done but, for reasons beyond anyone’s control, has to attempt it anyway. In that case the best thing you say is, “Sure,” while mentioning (as always, calmly!) the reasons this course of action will likely not work.

By saying, “Could you explain further?” Is the request truly outrageous? Asking the superior to elaborate will sometimes result in that superior backing down. He or she may simply not dare to repeat it, or may modify the request to make it more reasonable.

By saying nothing at all. Certain inquiries don’t deserve answers (“What is your race?” or “Who are you voting for?”). People sometimes do ask them, though, so stay cool. You don’t have to answer every question that’s put to you. Your best response may be just a smile.

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use and of the novel “The Paris Effect.” Email her at