I am the third-generation owner of a family business. The company is struggling now, and I can no longer afford to pay my parents who stopped working 11 years ago but still draw paychecks. Though the company has no legal obligation to pay them, my dad is threatening litigation. I made them an offer that will be burdensome for me to pay, but I’ll do it if it keeps the peace. My dilemma: When people come into the business and ask about my parents — or say: “What great people!” — how should I respond, considering they have put me in financial and emotional peril?
Here’s what I know about family businesses: As a young man, my grandfather opened a tiny sporting goods shop and worked ferociously to make a go of it. Eventually, his sons joined him and helped grow the business. When he retired for health reasons, they kept paying him from the income of the business, as they should have. There would have been no income without my grandfather!
So, while I’m sorry for your troubles, I don’t fully understand them. When parents turn 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 must agree. Why else have you paid them for 11 years?
Family business members can also be lax about formalizing agreements. I assume your parents gave you the company in exchange for the continued paychecks. But for how long? Hitting a rough patch, as you have, may be an argument for belt-tightening or innovation, but not for stopping payments that your parents rely on.
Open the company’s books to them and try to work out a solution together. Maybe they can afford to take smaller payments or forego them. If they need the money, though, you may have to sell the business. As for customers who ask about your parents: Don’t bad-mouth them! That will only alienate people who want to patronize your business.
You’re Making It Worse!
I recently went through a painful breakup. I discovered my partner had lied to me about many things. With the help of a therapist, I am starting to see that parts of our relationship were emotionally abusive. It’s a lot to unpack! Still, some friends say things to me that feel shaming: “Why can’t you see how badly he treated you and be glad it’s over?” I know they’re trying to help, but they’re actually compounding my pain. How can I tell them without seeming ungrateful?
I get that striking the right tone may be difficult here: appreciative of your friends’ support, while shutting down glib remarks. Why not role-play the conversation with your therapist in advance? If your friends are hurting you, it’s worth a session.
This leads me to a different point: The delicate work of examining our deepest feelings does not make for great lunch conversation. It’s too subtle and sensitive for casual chats. Choose one or two of your closest friends to confide in about your former relationship. And only discuss it with them when you, and they, have the time and emotional energy to give a difficult subject its proper consideration.
A Tip on Tipping
Do I have to 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 ill, 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 making your tip question about the minefield of counter service at your local coffee bar! Generally, gratuities are for “personal services”: the waiters who bring you your food, the stylists who cut your hair and the taxi drivers who ferry you home when you’ve stayed out too late.
I tip the groomer. My dog’s monthly shampoo and haircut are as much a personal service to me as my own visits to the barber. Making a donation to an animal shelter in lieu of tipping your groomer is as convoluted as donating to a food bank in lieu of tipping your waiter. (If you can afford it, do both.)
About Your Money Troubles …
Our 10-year-old daughter told us that her friend’s father was fired from his job recently and the family is feeling stressed. I haven’t said anything to the parents because they didn’t tell me directly, and they may feel uncomfortable talking to me about their challenge. We’re not close friends. (We coordinate car-pooling.) Still, it feels dishonest to pretend I don’t know. Should I broach the subject?
You should not. Your first instinct is the more generous one. Regardless of the circumstances, any job loss can feel embarrassing or shameful. And a chatty child is not an invitation to probe a sensitive subject.
I particularly disagree that discretion about a matter that is none of your business is somehow “dishonest.” Better to be quietly supportive of the family than to insert yourself in its troubles. Pick up an extra car-pool shift instead!
For help with your awkward situation, send a question to SocialQ@nytimes.com, to Philip Galanes on Facebook or @SocialQPhilip on Twitter.