Since the journalism industry gets upended once a month or so, I consider myself an expert in business relationships—namely, what to do when you lose your primary career, your side-gig, your lucrative project, or even your relationship with a person who has been your lifeline to a particular industry or company.
First, the tough news: It sucks. It’s one thing to piss off people on the internet and shatter a friendship or two. It’s another to watch a source of income evaporate, especially if it was one that made up a considerable chunk of your “real” or “fun” money.
But a business relationship can sour even if you aren’t getting fired, laid off, or rejected from whatever it is you do for a person or company. You might also suffer the cold shoulder—a special form of hell where you have to blast out 800 percent more annoying emails and follow-ups to pull down 20 percent of the work (or replies) you previously did. Ugh.
Thankfully, there are a few techniques you can try to make the most of a rejection in the business world.
Don’t let your relationship get to that level
This advice is obvious, so I’ll try not to dwell. Whether you’re working on a side project for someone else or you only have to worry about a single, primary job, your top priority—in addition to getting your work done—is to maintain your relationships with your professional colleagues. That’s especially true for the ones who have power over you.
It’s annoying, I know. But I’m not talking about the “go schmooze them and show interest even if you don’t really want to be friends” aspect of business relationships. Your work, your effort, and your business relationships go hand in hand.
If you’re starting to notice that things just don’t feel the same with your boss or primary gig-giving contact, think about what you might have done to change that relationship. It’s (obviously) not always going to be your fault, but it’s possible that you might be taking more liberties than you used to: not checking in as much, acting a bit more confrontational, turning in sloppier work, missing deadlines, etc.
This is especially pertinent for those partaking in the gig economy; if your contact isn’t giving you as much work anymore, they might be trying out someone who is easier to deal with than you, for whatever reason.
Again, sometimes relationships can sour through no fault of your own, but a little self-reflection never hurt. If you identify an issue that might be impacting your main business relationship, fix thyself… or start looking for a backup gig.
Ask for feedback every now and then
There’s little I dislike more than having to reach out and ask someone else for feedback; I don’t hate feedback itself, I just feel like it’s the kind of thing a competent manager or colleague should provide on a regular basis. That sets the expectation that feedback is meant to encourage and improve, not “correct” or punish.
One of the best ways to figure out whether there’s been a change in your professional relationship with someone is to ask them. And going the “can I get some feedback?” route is a great way to ease into this conversation—much more so than lobbing over a, “So… do you hate me?”
Resist the urge to have your conversation over the tool you use to communicate day-to-day tasks. Don’t do it on Slack, nor text messages, nor email. Ask to chat on the phone, go for a video conference if you’re remote or, best of all, have a face-to-face meeting.
While I can’t advise you about what to say, since every situation is different, I would generally recommend leading in by reaffirming your commitment to whatever job is your doing, offering some ideas of why the relationship might be strained (and presenting those in a clear, but gentle manner), and being receptive to any feedback you receive. You might not be able to restore your relationship after one conversation, but at least the other party will know your intentions. And if they’re not total jerks, or have already written you off, they’ll probably be willing to mend the fence.
In the interim period, I recommend doing everything you can to be on your absolute best behavior—super-behavior, in fact. Don’t kiss your colleague’s ass. Instead, let your newfound interest in your business relationship shine through your work.
Proofread everything you do an extra time. Send in your work a day beforeits deadline. Manage up, so long as you can find that fine line between “pestering with updates” and “a genuine interest in keeping your primary contact appraised about important information.” Make your interest, enthusiasm, and passion for your work more visible.
When it all falls apart, pivot
Whether you’re past the point of no return or you’ve done everything right and are stuck with external factors you can’t control, you might lose your gig or side project. Not only does that mean a loss of income for you, but it’s also an artificial breakup of sorts between you and your primary business contact. If this person is amazing, they’ve probably been dropping hints (or having honest conversations) about the possibility or eventuality of this outcome.
First, don’t take it personally, even if your business contact was a super-jerk and the direct cause of your lost gig. Tempting as it might be to go off on a tangent about how terrible they are (to them), keep your eyes on the prize: that sweet sack of money you get for working.
When confronted with the loss of a business relationship—and likely with it, your income—a good technique to try first is to barter. Try to suss out what it is that makes you persona non grata. If it’s not actually you, and instead some change-up on a company’s end, maybe you can realign your arrangement to hold on to some semblance of whatever it is you’ve been doing.
For example, if you’re being cut because of budgets, consider lowering your rates or negotiating some new arrangement that at least has you making some money while you seek out other opportunities. Nobody likes to lose money, but it’s a lot easier to lose 25 percent and have a long runway to find other ways to supplement that than to lose 100 percent out of the blue.
If you’re crafty, you’ve also (hopefully) been noticing deficiencies in your company’s other work; or, to put a positive spin on that, new opportunities that the company might like to hear about. Before you’re put out to pasture, consider pitching a few of these ideas as a means to pivot your gig from one focus area to another.
You might still have to accept a cut in work or money, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve been able to “negotiate” my way out of a lost gig by having a thoughtful discussion with my primary business contact and arranging new work for the company, based on an understanding of what they were doing, what they weren’t doing, and what (more) I could do for them.
In other words, always have an ace up your sleeve—and play it while you’re still on your business contact’s radar. Months after you lose work might be a little too out of sight, out of mind.
Exit with grace to secure future opportunities
So, that’s it. Your work dried up, you couldn’t salvage new work, and you’re about to say goodbye to a gig (and a business contact) forever. First, no matter how things ended up, do not crap on your (former) colleague—at least, not publicly.
Tempted as you might be to fire up a Twitter storm about how someone or someplace wronged you or treated you poorly, or how mad you are that your favorite gig is gone. Burning a bridge is only a temporary solution to your unhappiness.
If your business contact was a reasonable, respectable person, and things just didn’t work out for any reason, never consider the relationship over. I’m not saying that you have to invite the person to lunch (or a Destiny raid, or whatever) once a month forevermore, but it never hurts to keep in touch.
Even if you don’t communicate much, or at all, keep the relationship on the positive side of the spectrum. You never know when an opportunity might reopen at a company, and you might be the first person on your former colleague’s mind, so long as you exited your previous gig on as happy a note as possible.