Professionals who do favors know it’s nice to do one—but also know that it’s not always smart. The smartest also know when it is or isn’t smart to do one. To stay smart or become smarter, you should ask yourself the following questions before granting a candidate, colleague, employer, applicant or client any given request for a favor—especially repeat favors:

1. Will doing the favor mean it is likely to be seen as a precedent for repeat requests? This can easily happen. Having broken the ice with the request, the beneficiary may regard it as the “new normal”, e.g., borrowing money from you or asking you to come in on weekends, as though a precedent in common law has just been established.

If the precedent-based phenomenon is the one governing the beneficiary’s psychology and calculations, the way to handle the request is to make it clear that the favor was a “one-off”—a special favor, with no binding force as a precedent.

2. Will performance of the favor be taken as grounds for revised performance standards and expectations of me? Alternatively, the request may seem to recalibrate the beneficiary’s yardstick used to measure your performance and expectations of you.

Whereas the aforementioned “new normal” phenomenon exists purely in virtue of serving as a precedent, the recalibration phenomenon exists because of a change of  performance standards, much as suddenly acquiring immense wealth changes the value of the next, marginal dollar that will be acquired, viz., tending, in the long run, to decrease it and its significance. Having seen “how easy” it was for the favor to be done, any disinclination to ask for a repeat favor evaporates.

One of the clearest, most common dangers in doing anyone a favor, e.g., a boss who asks for extra time in the evening or special consideration for a nephew being screened for a job, is that today’s favor can easily become tomorrow’s expectation and norm, because of the recalibration effect as well as precedent effect.

If the beneficiary appears to have interpreted the favor as a revision of expectations or estimated costs to you of doing a favor, the best response to a follow-up request is to make it clear that the costs to you of doing that favor again have not changed, that the favor was just that—and not a commitment to some “higher” level of performance or to an automatic, legitimized upward revision of expectations of you.

Although the difference between precedent-rationale and performance-rationale for favor requests is subtle, it is real and worth being alert to. In particular, a precedent can serve as a powerful quasi-legal, amended contractual pseudo-legitimization for a repeat request, while reassessed performance of a favor can suggest that the favor granted was more affordable than anticipated, that with “practice” it becomes easier to perform, that the lack of resistance suggests it was not the imposition it was feared to be, etc.

3. Will asking for and being granted the favor be reinterpreted as a right, rather than as a privilege or an imposition? Even if the favor-seeker doesn’t treat a granted favor as a precedent or a recalibration of expectations, it is possible that a different rationale for repeat favor-requests will come into play: entitlement—especially when you are dealing with individuals with a strong sense of self-entitlement.

This can be an especially difficult situation to deal with, because refusal to recognize someone’s presumed entitlement is more likely to provoke stiffer resistance and resentment than refusal to regard a favor performed as precedent-setting or an agreed upon recalibration of standards. That’s because a sense of self-entitlement is likely to be a deeply entrenched character trait, rather than merely a useful tactical concept like “precedent”.

So, when a boss morphs your favor into his right to ask for it again and again, you have to delicately, but clearly extricate yourself from that risk and imposition. How do you that—especially with your boss?

With great skill, you make it clear that entitlement is limited to being entitled to ask, but not entitled to get. You, yourself, have to make a mental note to remember that an inclination to do a favor never creates an obligation to perform it—just in case you are the type to cave in under pressure.

In concrete terms, a gentle evasion or nullification of the request could go something like this: “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t this time. But, of course, I accept doing what I can to help out as an obligation that we all have toward each other.” The beauty of this response is the exquisite “double-think” it embodies: “Yes, I have an obligation because of your entitlement; no, I do not, beyond the entitlement everyone has—which is only the [your] right to be heard, not to be accommodated.”

4. Will doing the favor be made to look like the reverse, viz., made to look as though the benefactor was actually the beneficiary? As an illustration of this, I recall a colleague—on staff at a Japanese Women’s College I taught at years ago. From the U.S. Midwest, she was very well-practiced, if not adept, at getting what she wanted, when she wanted it, including favors from colleagues by making it appear that she was granting, not asking for a favor.

Clever though the frequently-employed technique was, it was, alas, all too transparent, and went like this:  She wanted a ride into town, but was too oblique and unwilling to have to reciprocate later to directly ask for a favor. So, instead, she dropped hints, e.g., “Oh, darn, I have to get to an appointment downtown and I’ve missed the bus… [sigh]. Gosh [sigh]….I can’t believe the time!” No request, no pleas—just a hint. 

When she was offered the ride she wanted, was her response gratitude—gratitude that would have amounted to an acknowledgement of a social IOU? Of course not. No, instead, she replied, “Oh…well, if you really want to go, that would be great!”, as though she had just invited her benefactor to join her on a free Caribbean cruise.

The best way to deal with this kind of manipulation and table-turning is to make it clear that you understood that what you just heard was a request for a favor, not an invitation for a holiday, but to do so with playful, cheeky, but clear humor, e.g., “Go downtown? Yes, that would give me a huge incentive to come back here. Sounds enticing!”[To be used in the event the favor is granted.]

Or, you could say, using the same tactic on her,“Oh dear, my car is low on gas….. [sigh].”—and wait for her to offer to chip in for a couple of gallons [if you are to have any hope of wriggling out of the trip.]

If she does, of course, you’d say, “Well, only if you want to…”

5. Am I being asked for the one favor no one should ever hesitate to grant?  There is one request for a favor that should always be granted; namely, when asked, “Could you do me a favor…

….and never do me any favors?”

It can also be a great favor for you to ask as a very effective way to ensure that nobody ever again asks you for any favors, assuming that everybody gets the hint.

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