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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: When Being Helpful Is Just a Headache

Have you ever had a good business deed come back to bite you in the butt? Put yourself out there for someone and regretted it?

Maybe you lined up a job for a friend's kid for the summer, and the kid never showed up. Perhaps you extended some supportive credit terms to help someone you trusted, and got stiffed anyway. Almost every business owner I know has tales of woe -- some of them doozies -- about trying to do good things that turn out badly.

For me, the most common regrets come from personal introductions and referrals gone wrong. I enjoy making connections -- if my business has a fantastic supplier, it's my pleasure to pass on the good word... or at least it should be. But it seems that more and more I find myself wishing I hadn't. I've been accused of being "too nice," and sometimes I think my accusers are right.

"Omigod, who is this guy you sent me?!"
The phone call that started with those eight words is a classic example. A (now former) business friend asked me for advice on planning his first trip to Asia. I very happily connected him with Lori, my travel agent of 20 years. She's better than any online resource and I probably should keep her to myself. But again, I love sending new business to great people.

The end of the story is that he took excessive advantage of her time, inside knowledge, and resources, was at times overbearing and even rude to her, only to take all the valuable information she gave him and book his trip elsewhere. I never in a million years would have expected that kind of behavior from him. Lori is one of the most tirelessly helpful, nicest people I work with, and one of my longest-established business relationships. Some flowers and an apology for the bum-lead cheered her up, but now I am hesitant to send her more of the business she so deserves, and that's a shame.

Sure, professionals and other grown-ups should be mature enough not to hold the matchmaker responsible for the outcome; we all know that not all connections pan out. My problem is when people don't have the good sense to handle things with the tact that a personal introduction demands. After all, you are putting your good name behind that introduction, and if things get ugly, it can be embarrassing, offensive, or even infuriating.

And there are far worse stories. Like the one about the drug-addicted veteran my family sent to rehab (at our expense, along with some rent money to keep a roof over his family's head) with the promise of a good factory job if he came out clean (everyone deserves a chance). But the kid whose car that troubled co-worker stole on lunch break probably didn't appreciate our special efforts and good intentions. Maybe "cosmically" we still did the right thing, but in the end it sure didn't feel like it.

I choose to believe that nice guys don't finish last, but find myself wondering if there are, as those earlier-mentioned people have told me, limits to being a nice guy.

I still love the idea of putting people and companies together, and I still want to help people in any way I can. And if I'm really confident about the people and personalities involved, I'll still put my name behind a referral. But I've decided that my reputation and my (perhaps excessive) desire to do good deeds are not mutually exclusive, so I'm much more hesitant to raise my hand than I used to be.

Have you been burned trying to be helpful? Do you keep putting yourself out there with karmic optimism, no matter how often your good intentions turn to grief? Please share your thoughts, and any juicy horror stories about good deeds gone bad -- maybe you'll make some other readers feel better about their own experiences... and hey, that would be very helpful of you.

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(Flickr photo by stevejb68)