I am the third generation to own a family business. The business is in trouble now, and I can no longer afford my parents who quit working 11 years ago but continue to receive paychecks. Although the company has no legal obligation to pay them, my father is threatening legal action. I have made them an offer that will be heavy for me to pay, but I will if it keeps the peace. My dilemma: When people walk into the business and ask about my parents – or say, “What great people! – how should I react, given that they put me in financial and emotional danger?
Here’s what I know about family businesses: When I was young, my grandfather opened a small sporting goods store and worked hard to get by. Eventually his sons joined him and helped grow the business. When he retired for health reasons, they continued to pay him out of business income, as they should have. There would have been no income without my grandfather!
So while I apologize for your problems, I don’t fully understand them. When parents hand over a prime asset (like a business) to their children, rather than selling it to the highest bidder, they may still need compensation to support themselves. You have to agree. Otherwise, why did you pay them for 11 years?
Family business members may also be lax about formalizing agreements. I guess your parents gave you the company in exchange for keeping the paychecks. But for how long ? Hitting a bad patch, like you did, can be an argument to tighten your belt or to innovate, but not to stop the payments your parents are counting on.
Open the company books to them and try to find a solution together. Maybe they can afford to take smaller payments or forgo them. If they need the money, however, you may need to sell the business. As for customers who ask questions about your parents: don’t insult them! This will only alienate the people who want to patronize your business.
You make it worse!
I recently had a painful breakup. I found out that my partner had lied to me about a lot of things. With the help of a therapist, I began to see that parts of our relationship were emotionally abusive. That’s a lot to unwrap! Yet some friends tell me things that make me ashamed: “Why can’t you see how badly he treated you and be glad it’s over?” I know they are trying to help me, but they make my pain worse. How to tell them without appearing ungrateful?
I understand that it can be difficult to find the right tone here: appreciating the support of your friends, while silencing offhand remarks. Why not simulate the conversation with your therapist beforehand? If your friends are hurting you, it’s worth a session.
This brings me to another point: the delicate job of examining our deepest feelings doesn’t make for a good lunch conversation. It’s too subtle and sensitive for casual conversations. Pick one or two of your closest friends to share your old relationship with. And only discuss it with them when you and them have the time and emotional energy to give a difficult subject the proper consideration.
A tip on tip
Should I tip my dog’s groomer? It hadn’t occurred to me until my dog walker, who picked up my dog from the groomer when I was sick, made me feel guilty for not tipping. Wouldn’t the tip money be better spent going to the local animal shelter?
Thank you for not asking your question about the counter service minefield at your local coffee bar! Usually, tips are for “personal services”: the waiters who bring you your meal, the stylists who cut your hair, and the cab drivers who bring you home when you go out too late.
I tip the groomer. My dog’s monthly shampoo and haircut is as much a personal service to me as my own visits to the barber. Donating to an animal shelter instead of tipping your groomer is as complicated as donating to a food bank instead of tipping your waiter. (If you can afford it, do both.)
About your money problems …
Our 10 year old daughter told us that her friend’s father was recently fired from his job and the family is feeling stressed. I haven’t told parents anything because they haven’t told me directly, and they may feel uncomfortable telling me about their challenge. We are not close friends. (We coordinate the carpooling.) Still, it’s dishonest to pretend I don’t know. Should I bring up the subject?
You should not. Your first instinct is the most generous. Whatever the circumstances, any job loss can be embarrassing or shameful. And a talkative child is not an invitation to probe a sensitive subject.
I particularly disagree that discretion over an issue that is none of your business is somehow “dishonest”. Better to support the family quietly than to insert themselves into their troubles. Instead, choose an additional carpooling team!
For help with your tough situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.