You Owe Me: 6 Ways To Pay It Forward Fairly With Professional Favors

Do you know how to ask for a favor at work?

Do you know how to ask for a favor at work?

“You would really be helping me out.”

For many women in business, it seems we are always doing small and large favors for colleagues, clients, peers, bosses, administrators, staff and support teams. Under pressure, we may call on colleagues to help us out.

It is all behind the scenes pressure relief that keeps the engine of your enterprise moving forward—you fill in on a panel when someone drops out, you set up logistics for a meeting when the venue falls through, you help complete a project that is overdue and that is not on your to-do list.

For many #womeninbusiness, it seems we are always doing small and large favors for colleagues, clients, peers, bosses, administrators, staff and support teams.

Unwritten agreements can be life-saving. They can also be a burden. As someone who recently called in a favor on a colleague to fill in on a large project when the original partner disappeared, I know I begged and I know that I will pay it back with my time, energy and input when she needs it most. All she has to do is ask.

“Whether they’re giving you a job recommendation, introducing you to a potential client or just giving some valuable career advice, your professional contacts can make all the difference in helping you achieve your goals. But favors don’t come for free — if you want someone to help you out, you need to build up your social capital first,” writes Nicole Fallon in Business News Daily.

Lisa Carver, managing director of The Execu|Search Group, tells Fallon: “Time is a big commodity, so remember to respect their time and quickly get to your point. Once you’ve asked for the favor, make sure that you don’t only express self-interest. Try and balance the business favor with your personal relationship by asking how the contact is doing or asking about an important project you knew they were working on. This will come across as much more genuine if you are able to maintain regular contact with them.

So how do you decipher what is fair trade and what is balanced? Here are some tips on asking for help and also giving help so no one in the transaction feels the relationship is lopsided.

Ask infrequently. You do not want to be the person whose emails and phone calls are ignored because you are always asking for a favor. Yes, keep track. Yes, acknowledge. Perhaps a big favor once a year is a good pace. But if that favor is to sit on a board of advisors for five years, then no, you can’t ask for another favor the next year. Be cognizant of the time commitment you are asking the colleague to do. Calling someone to be an emcee for a gala fundraiser the night before an event is too big an ask. Asking for someone to fill in on a panel when a speaker drops out two months ahead is more realistic.

Pay back. Not in dollars or gifts of course, but in an equivalent effort. Volunteer to speak on a panel, offer to do some consulting in exchange for the favor you have pursued. I noticed recently that an old friend is always asking me for favors, yet I never call on her. That is because she needs my expertise and the skills she has to offer are not what I am looking for. This creates an imbalance on the peer spreadsheet so I make a point of asking her what she proposes to do for me and my endeavors in return. Can she make an introduction? Can she set up a call with a web designer to offer me a free consult? For sure do not be the one who does not acknowledge the value of the favor. And also be sure not to be the one who is constantly giving and not receiving.

When someone does you a favor in business, pay it back. Not in dollars or gifts of course, but in an equivalent effort. #businesstips #womeninbusiness

Do not ask for too much. In this bartering culture, you do not want to impose your will on a colleague you respect and take advantage of her kindness. Even if someone offers to overhaul your system of accounting, say you know that is too big a favor and scale back the ask. Make the favors manageable. You do not want someone to have a panic attack every time your email or text appears. Graciously couch each request with the room to refuse. “I know this a lot to ask, and I value your time, so if there is any part of this you can do, I greatly appreciate you. And if it is not possible, I fully understand.”

Be ethical. Don’t ever ask someone to breach a trust or a contract. Don’t ask anyone to tell you protected information, betray a friendship or do anything that would cause that person’s credibility or reputation harm. For instance, don’t ask if they can tell you who else is interviewing for a position you are trying for, since that is private. Don’t ask for any information shared in confidence. You do not want ever to be seen as underhanded or covert.  

Say no. Many women are pleasers. Someone could ask a woman to carve a monument out of a mountain and she would try her best to accomplish it. Take the time to consider the ask. Write down the deadline, the time commitment and take a good look at your calendar to see if it would fit. Are you giving up your only day off this month to oblige? You may end up angry if you do. Is it something  you could do and multi-task and benefit from the experience? Then go for it. But if it is too much, if it is a one-way street, if it is highly inconvenient, then say no. Politely. I am often asked by people I just met or barely know if I could read their 500-page manuscript or help them “make sense of my career.” These are big efforts that would require scores of hours I do not have. My response is, “I limit my pro-bono work to the four volunteer boards I am on. I do not have any more capacity but I wish you the best.”

Be grateful. I have done favors for people in my network and understand they appreciate my time and what I can bring to the table. I also have done favors for colleagues and felt they did not appreciate the effort at all. They repeatedly ask for recommendations, consults, introductions, small tasks to be completed and I feel it is a never-ending cycle of trying to fill a big, empty hole of need. So I make sure when I ask for a professional favor, that I acknowledge how much I appreciate it and keep tabs so the relationship stays cordial and fair. Write a note, an email, send flowers or a gift card if you can. Gratitude goes a long way to making others remember you are thoughtful and appreciative. Make sure the ask is manageable and that the gratitude matches the ask. A very distant acquaintance — someone I met at a workshop– asked me to edit her book and accompanied the ask with the manuscript and a $10 gift card to a coffee shop. No, just no.

When you are asking for a favor in #business, be clear about what you want. What are your tactics for asking favors from business colleagues? #womenleaders #womeninbusiness

Whatever you are asking for with the favor, be clear.

Libby Kane writes in Business Insider, “In the first few lines, it should be clear who you are and what you want. Then, you can go on to add details and charm — and, most importantly, what exactly it is you need from the recipient. When do you need an answer by? Did you want a phone call or a meeting or just an email reply?

Kane continues, “If they know what you want and what you expect, chances are much higher you’ll get a reply instead of an eye roll.”

And do say please.       

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project.