(FORTUNE Magazine) – I was sitting on my living room couch investigating the vacant space inside a cocktail olive when the phone rang. It was Meg Spatz from the coast, and I didn't like the sound of her voice. I also didn't care much for the fact that she was calling at all. It was nine measly hours from when I had to be in the office again, and just because it was only eight o'clock her time didn't mean this wasn't a pain where I didn't need one.

"I'm sorry to be calling you at home" is what she said to kick things off. This is what everybody from the coast says when they bother you at home. Thing is, they're not sorry. There's something about it they like, actually. I haven't figured out the dynamic yet, but I will. Maybe it's something simple. Maybe it's the same charge I would get if I called one of them at eight o'clock in the morning, New York time, and said, "Gee! Did I wake you?"

"Just a heads-up" is what she said next. Man, I thought, this is getting worse and worse. I sucked down what was left of my drink and let the silence build between one side of the United States and the other. If there's one thing I hate, it's a heads-up. A heads-up is never good. A heads-up is always bad.

"The Verklempt deal seems to be going south," said Spatz, a crisp, businesslike aura of fait accompli suffusing her tone. "And there seems to be a chance that Ira Bean told Shelly Baffner, who told Max Wolinsky about it," she added with exquisite regret. But something else too...some form of weird...triumph? No, the relief felt by anyone laying off anxiety onto someone else--that was it. Max Wolinsky! You don't need to know what kind of headache Max Wolinsky could inflict on the first four hours of my day. I mean it. You really don't. Because we're not talking about detail here, about facts or situation analysis. We're talking about butt covering, pure and simple.

The heads-up is the No. 1 butt cover of the late 1990s. I personally believe it's a cliche of recent invention, but I don't really know. Perhaps, like the VCR, it was around for decades before consumer society found a use for it; then its penetration couldn't be slowed, let alone stopped. Be that as it may: It wasn't until late last year that I started tracking heads-up on my radar screen. Since then, it's kind of exploded all around me as a means of deflecting criticism, softening reaction, preparing executives for bad news you've possibly created yourself, all that sort of creepy junk. Now hardly a day goes by that I don't hear it probably six or seven times. My culture is infested with people giving each other heads-ups at every conceivable juncture.

Can it be contained? Can it be eradicated altogether? Perhaps. But working under the assumption that business people tend to ride a horse until it's dead under them, I'm betting that most of you are going to keep flogging this heads-up thing--now that it's caught on--until it groans and refuses to budge a single inch more. Given that grim prospect, I'd like to at least minimize the damage, not to mention the odds that I will end up wanting to kill one of you, by offering the following heads-up do's and don'ts.

Don't offer your heads-up when I can't do anything about the situation. The amazing Spatz's perfunctory late-night heads-up call came ridiculously late in the lifespan of this crisis, as most true heads-ups do, well beyond the time when I could act productively on the information. I'm quite sure, by the way, that the earnest Spatz knew the situation was developing throughout the day but decided not to "bother" me with it, considerately waiting until a moment when it would thoroughly harass me and, if possible, my wife, who is a very light sleeper and quite grumpy when awakened by a stupid phone call placed by somebody who isn't dying.

Don't give me a heads-up with nothing but bad news, either. This is very important. So many people think that executives want to be contacted only with important, critical information that helps them shape their day and sharpen their strategic portfolio. Nonsense! Me, I like to get a heads-up about good news once in a while, most particularly when the rest of your update contains something mucilaginous or queasy. So if you've got to tell me our fiercest competitor just won the Nobel Prize for direct marketing, mix in a nice, cheerful observation about how well the public is reacting to our new signage. If all you've got to say is blah blah blah and revenues are flat--pretty soon I'm going to start to hate hearing from you. You don't want that.

Oh, and...just a heads-up: Don't sound so damned regretful about having to give me the heads-up. You know you're having the time of your life. I don't know why, but you are. Don't lie! You know there's something about offering a heads-up that gives you a huge charge. I could hear it in Spatz's voice before she even deposited the crusty piece of information in my ear. "I'm about to give you a piece of really bad news that I know about and you don't," her aura told me, "and you're completely impotent to do anything about it or hurt me because of it. And you know why? Because I gave you a heads-up about it! I'm inoculated! Okay! Thanks! Bye!" All this was imparted in the short amount of time it took her to say, "This is just a heads-up."

Do give me a heads-up if you think I look nice, however. I have a cream-colored shirt and a new off-yellow and maroon patterned tie that I think look smashing together with my blue pinstripe suit. You can give me a call anytime, even after dinner, to tell me how much you liked my outfit, or if you think I got a good tan during my five days off at the beach last week.

Do tell me if you missed me while I was on vacation too. I like to feel that while I'm away, people miss me. I don't mind getting a heads-up about that.

And do offer a heads-up if you hear I'm about to win an award of some kind. I love awards and have never received any that mattered to me. In high school I received the Von Steubing award for debating, but that didn't really get me a lot of mileage. Since then, several of my friends have won some pretty impressive stuff. But not me. I'm still sucking along on the bottom of the pond here, doing my job, wondering what's going to happen next. I could use an award. Advance information of this sort would not be taken amiss.

Do send a heads-up if you see that I've got a little bit of paper towel attached to the bottom of my shoe that's following after me like Mary's little lamb everywhere I go. I've always thought that kind of thing destroyed a person's credibility, so there's no way I would resent that kind of a heads-up.

And I guess you should probably give me a heads-up if you think Bob is mad at me. Also Berliner, Mink, Blatt, or Kreeger or any of their administrative assistants.

On the other hand, in all honesty, it's just possible I'm going to get mad at anyone who gives me a heads-up, ever, even if it's at the perfect moment and is fabulous information. That's the nature of a heads-up. It means heads-down. And in your case, pal, it just might mean heads-off. Just a heads-up.

By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.