If the person has been laid off, or his or her business is tanking... First, try to gauge how that person feels, says Juanita Ecker, president of etiquette consultancy Professional Image Management in Troy, N.Y. "Sometimes people just want support, not a barrage of solutions," she says. If you sense that's the case, say, "I'm very sorry to hear about this." Don't dig for details.
• If you've heard the bad news through the grapevine, don't bring it up, says Ecker. Stick with "How are you?" and let him or her choose to introduce the topic.
• If someone is indignant, discourage rash actions, such as sending an ex-employer or ex-client a nasty e-mail.
• If someone is weepy, again, express your support. If you know the person well, point out his or her strengths, such as strong job skills, a killer track record, or an extensive network. "When they're in that state, people don't think of the good things about themselves," says Ecker.
• If someone is trying to find work, offer to serve as a reference, if appropriate, and share any job leads. Lend books or articles that might be helpful. But unless you're dealing with a family member, don't offer to give or loan money, says Ecker. If they couldn't repay, hard feelings would be unavoidable.
If someone asks for help—a reference, a job, a contract—that you're not comfortable providing, be honest but tactful. Say, "I'm very sorry, but I'm not able to provide the reference you want," or ,"I don't know your skills well enough to recommend you," or, "I'm just not able to agree to that right now." Try to offer something else, even if it's just reading material or referrals to online resources they may not be familiar with.
• If a client or supplier is having business woes that could jeopardize your company, don't lay on the guilt trip or show panic. You want to preserve your business relationship. Acknowledge that the climate is tough and suggest that you keep in close touch. Above all, avoid anything such as, "I was counting on your business! How could you do this to me?"
If someone asks you, "How's business?" With a close friend, it's O.K. for you to treat the question as more than just a polite greeting. But in most cases, if your business is going well, avoid the temptation to brag. Just say, "Fine! I've developed some new services and am working with new clients." If it's going badly, don't drag down everyone's mood (including your own) with a litany of troubles. Try, "Times are tough, but I'm taking the long-term view."
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