Employee Personal Issues Can Affect a Small Business’ Bottom-Line

Small businesses are often adversely affected by situations occurring in employees’ personal lives.  An employee’s personal distractions frequently result in decreased productivity on the job, and frequently smaller companies are affected at a much higher level than would be a larger firm due to the smaller firms’ dependence on each and every employee – there are typically no ‘extra bodies’ in a small business.

This being the case, it is critical that a small business owner take every step they can to put in place programs that will help employees  prevent and/or overcome every possible personal distraction that they are able.

Recently, one area that is distracting alot of small business employees is the issue of identity theft.  Therefore, we at Strategic Growth Concepts sought information from an expert on the steps a small business owner can take to aid their employees and keep company productivity high.  The following is an article provided by that expert, Tracy Katz of Identity Theft Consultants. who will provide information about their Identity Theft service.

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Identify theft is the fastest growing crime in America.  Over 252.2 million people have had their Social Security numbers stolen and their personal information compromised by databases getting hacked since January 2005. 

There are five main areas of Identity Theft, including:

  • Driver’s License
  • Social Security Numbers
  • Medical Information
  • Character / Criminal Actions
  • Financial Transactions.

The amount of time an average victim spends clearing their name and restoring their identity is 600 hours and $1500, in addition to any losses they may have suffered prior to being able to get the situation resolved.

As a small business owner, those 600 lost hours can easily affect your company’s bottom-line since typically your employee will have to spend time during working hours contacting companies to restore their identity.  Additionally, they may have to leave work early, or not come in at all so they can take additional steps to resolve the situation.  And when they are at work, they’re stressed and distracted by the chaos that is occurring their personal life and the problems they are experiencing as a result of being an Identity Theft victim.

In many cases, victims of Identity Theft will require legal asistance to help them resolve the situation and the resulting challenges which may occur; another expense that they can likely ill afford when they have already been victimized.  However, Identity Theft Consultants has come up with a solution.  Their Identity Theft service will protect your employees and drastically reduce the employee hours required to restore their identity.  Licensed investigators will work to correct damage caused by the Identity Theft.  The program will allow the employee to stay focused on their work, yet confident that their personal issues are being resolved in the hands of experts.

If your firm would like to know more about how you can help your employees avoid becoming a victim of Identity Theft, or would like to provide them with access to the Identity Theft service should they ever have a need, please feel free to contact Tracy Katz at Tracy@IDTheftConsultants.net .

Motivate Employees with ‘Flexible Fridays’

As with many small business owners, I belong to a number of online social networks including Twitter and Facebook.  I frequently review postings from other members to identify interesting information that I believe will be of value to my target customer, small business owners. 

In reviewing some recent Twitter postings, I came across one from Amy Nichols the CEO of the franchise organization, Dogtopia.  Her posting regarding the ‘Flexible Fridays’ program at her company struck me as a concept that other business owners might have interest in using in these days of high gas prices, long commutes and 60-hour work weeks. Therefore, I asked Amy if she would write an article to share her program with our readers.  The resulting article is below.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. (By the way, as a former D.C. area resident myself, I can absolutely attest to the traffic difficulties Amy discusses in her article; I assure you, I would have been thrilled to have an employer who believed in ‘Flexible Friday’s’ when I lived there!)

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Flexible Fridays

Washington, D.C. is known as our nation’s capital, but it also has another national moniker, that of one of the worst cities for traffic in the country.  Forbes ranked us in the Top 3 Worst Traffic Cities with the likes of Los Angeles and San Francisco. http://bit.ly/ForbesWorstCitiesForTraffic

Commuting in our area is grueling, and after leaving the “rat race” seven years ago to start my own business, I thought I had found a way to truly control the time I spend in my car.  I opened a doggie daycare, Dogtopia, just seven miles from my house.  Our business hours had me commuting outside of the most congested periods of the day, and I felt that I had solved the problem.  No longer would I be subjected to hours of wasted time in my car.  Until I decided to expand the business, that is.

A few years later we decided it was time to grow Dogtopia.  We had great success with the first dog daycare franchise in Tysons Corner, VA and felt it was time to add a “sister store” in North Bethesda, MD.  The new Maryland store would be only 14 miles from the Tysons Corner location – an easy commute between the two.  Or so we thought.  Apparently, the Wilson Bridge that takes you over the Potomac River and from Virginia into Maryland, had other ideas.

Skip forward a few more years and we are now a growing franchise company with 20 locations across the country.  We also have over 30 employees, six of which are in franchise management and report daily to our North Bethesda location.  The North Bethesda location now houses our national headquarters and training center.  Since we began the business in Virginia, that also happens to be where the majority of our corporate staff  lives, thus the daily undertaking of the Wilson Bridge.  The result, I was back to where I started eight years before and dealing daily with the horrors of DC traffic!

It occurred to me last summer that it would be quite easy to work from home on Fridays, and I felt that I deserved a day free from commuting.  My second thought was that my employees would really enjoy working from home on Fridays.  And if I could do it, why couldn’t everyone on our management team?  They would each save two hours or more in daily commuting time, and could therefore have an earlier start to their weekend and more time with their family.  I even came up with a clever name, “Flexible Fridays.” 

The way the program works, you can work wherever you want, but there are a few rules:

  1. Must be available by phone
  2. Must be online and available in email
  3. Must be on Instant Messenger

 The first two are quite obvious; the third requirement is because even when in the office, I often use IM to communicate with my team.  I might have a quick question while on the phone with a vendor or franchisee and it prevents me from having to yell and/or put the person on hold. 

Our initial ‘Flexible Fridays’ program last Summer worked great!  Knowing they had at least one day per week where they could avoid traffic really improved the outlook of the staff, and I know they appreciated my gesture.  There have been a few frustrations, but the slight inconveniences are more than outweighed by the increased satisfaction felt by my staff.

 This year I decided to once again offer ‘Flexible Fridays’ and so far, so good.  Other times of the year it would not be possible due to franchisee training and other commitments, but it has become a nice Summertime perk, and one that I plan to continue indefinitely.

Managing Virtual Employees

 

By Nipa Shah, June 18, 2009

Nancy is a financial analyst working for a mid-sized company located in the United Kingdom, but she lives in Michigan. She works from home in her pajamas and “meets” her boss once a month via video conference.

She is a virtual employee enjoying one of the perks of working from home and leveraging technology to stay in touch with her boss.

Companies across the globe are leveraging technology to retain resources that no longer have to be located in the same building or even in the same country. It is commonplace to hear of an individual working for a multinational company and having never met another team member.

By creating a virtual workforce, companies have been able to create efficiency, reduce travel and overhead costs, and essentially service the end-customer 24/7. Virtual employees, on the other hand, benefit from having a better work-life balance due to flexibility in working hours and not having to dodge rush hour traffic to be at work at a specific time.

Companies, however, face a common concern when it comes to virtual teams, that of measuring an employee’s productivity. Since the employee is no longer under a manager’s nose per se, managing productivity through “oversight” is impossible. Another concern is keeping an employee motivated and connected to company happenings.

The virtual team requires a shift in managerial and employee behavior. Here are some best practices which can effectively help you manage virtual employees:

Level Set Expectations
Beyond the policy and procedures set up by human resources, be sure to level set your expectations with your virtual employee, in a one-on-one discussion. Specifically state how you’d like him or her to keep in touch, how often, by what means (e-mail, chat, phone), and what deliverables you expect to receive at various times during the week. By level setting expectations in a more personalized manner, you create a better working relationship with your virtual employee and also plan for corrective action in the future.

Trust Employees
This is an important responsibility for a manager even when managing an on-site employee. It is an even more important responsibility when working with a virtual employee. Lack of trust can lead to micromanagement, which is never productive. Refrain from micromanagement in the form of “urgent e-mails” and “urgent voicemail” on a daily basis, which can create friction and unproductive working relationships between manager and employee. Trust the employee to do the work assigned and to turn it around in a reasonable timeframe. Once expectations are set, trust the employee to perform and do the work as assigned.

Provide Tools and Support
Virtual employees may require additional support to ensure their productivity. They could run into technical issues when connecting with a company local area network, or they could have issues sending large files through the firewall. All these issues need to be promptly addressed so that productivity is not impacted. Tools such as a BlackBerry, fax, access to resources and webinars, etc. should be offered to ensure employee can do the job.

Create an Inclusive Environment
Just because an employee is virtual it doesn’t mean he or she should be isolated from corporate events and happenings. Virtual employees still need to be included in team meetings, conference calls, town hall meetings, and other events so that they feel as if they are part of the corporate culture. 

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
The importance of communication cannot be overstated. Even with all the technology in the world, it is important to do more than “staying in touch.” On a regular basis and without micromanaging; keep in touch, ask questions, participate in dialog, provide feedback, ask for feedback, etc.  Do everything necessary to stay in touch with your virtual employee so that you have clear communication.

A virtual workforce can be a blessing for companies and individuals alike. To make it work effectively, everyone involved will need to learn new skills and techniques. A successful virtual workforce can help a company save money and increase efficiency. Implement the above strategies and create a dynamic virtual workforce for your company!

Nipa Shah is president of Jenesys Group, LLC, an online marketing and Internet solutions company, providing technology consulting (with emphasis on offshore management) and online marketing. She is also the founder of the Michigan India Chamber of Commerce. Shah can be reached at nipa@jenesysgroup.com.

Benefits vs. Budgets: Providing Employees with Real Assistance During Tough Economic Times

By Darla Mullner; June 18, 2009

It’s no secret that every business today, regardless of sector, is faced with tough financial decisions. To that end, how do companies retain employees when budgets are impacting salaries and benefits? On one hand, management might take the position that with uncertainty in the marketplace, employees, despite reduced compensation packages, will stay in a job no matter what. That’s the short side of the argument.

The larger picture is that the economy is sure to rebound and employees have long memories. One approach is to provide meaningful benefits coupled with real assistance for all employees in an effort to aid retention and provide for an enhanced quality of life.

When faced with a competitive marketplace, the demand for highly skilled workers in a particular industry such as health care is fierce. The most cost-effective and efficient strategy is to hire the best employees during the recruitment phase and retain them for as long as possible by offering benefits that will enhance their quality of life. These quality of life benefits encompass several areas and include financial assistance, health and well-being and work-life resources.

Financial Assistance
In addition to wages, perhaps your organization may allow employees to “assist” co-workers that are facing a difficult financial situation. If your organization is a nonprofit and has a foundation or charitable affiliation, consider whether or not a special employee-fund can be established. Annual or any time contributions can be made and “drives” such as a cookie, flower or the like can generate thousands of dollars. Another way that employees can assist a co-worker in need is through the donation of Paid Time Off (PTO) hours. This is especially useful when an employee is experiencing a serious medical condition and has exhausted their own PTO hours or if they need income for time off.

Large organizations should take advantage of the purchasing power of a big group through discounted services and coupons offered by national retailers and service industries.  For example, employees might receive a 15 percent discount when using an on-campus or nearby daycare provider. Employees might be eligible to receive 20 percent off tax preparation services by a nationally known tax preparation service. Other reduced costs can be negotiated for employee entertainment such as amusement park fees and movie theatres.

Health and Well-Being
Most employers are well aware of continually rising health care costs. Disease prevention and fitness opportunities not only benefit the employee, but healthy team members use less health care services and costs can be better managed. Consider partnering with a local fitness center and offer free or discounted memberships, not only a great benefit, but also a great way to contribute to the bottom line.
 
Employees are people with lives outside the workplace. To ensure productivity and peak performance, offering a free employee assistance program (EAP) when someone needs guidance, counseling, referrals to local services or reliable professional care is often money well spent by the organization. Services include emotional health counseling and referrals, financial consultation including budgeting, credit assistance and college or retirement planning. The EAP also provides legal services including consumer and family law situations, traffic citations and estate planning.

Work-Life Assistance
Going beyond a paycheck can help make a difference in an employee’s life. What can your organization provide to enhance the lives of workers? For instance, consider offering all employees interest-free loans for the purchase of a personal computer. The incentive is that many employees in a large manufacturing firm or service organization may not have access to a personal computer on daily basis. As more communications and employee activities become electronic it becomes even more critical to offer ways to “wire” staff members to the organization. Partnerships with banks or credit unions are also desirable for employees who can take advantage of the option of checking and savings accounts as well as automatic payroll deduction for home and auto loans.

Helping employees hone skills that might be outside their normal job duties is also a great idea. Consider partnering with a local community or business college to offer staff free office software classes such as word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software.

The lifeblood of any business is its workforce. Today’s leaders must recognize that without talented, highly skilled and dedicated workers, many organizations would merely be buildings with equipment and furniture. Therefore, the best investment we can make for the future is the investment of a compensation package that provides employees with useful and meaningful benefits that enhance their quality of life.

Darla Mullner is human resources director at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora, IL, a 183-bed hospital providing health and wellness services to the greater Fox Valley community.  Rush-Copley was named one of Chicago’s 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in 2008. Mullner can be reached at dmullner@rsh.net.

10 Employee Handbook Mistakes Made by Small Businesses

All businesses with employees will benefit from having an employee handbook. Writing your company’s policies and procedures requires you to spend less time answering questions and explaining the rules and regulations of the office. Having a standardized employee manual will also lessen your chances of ending up in court.

To help you prepare an appropriate manual we’ll highlight some common mistakes that typically occur during the creation of employee handbooks, as follows:

Not having the handbook reviewed by a lawyer. There are many ways to state your policies, some of which may be vague or potentially misconstrued and leave you open to potential legal issues. Have an attorney who is well-versed in employment law review your handbook before designating it as complete and distributing to your staff.

Not taking into account federal and state laws. It is imperative that laws such as the Family Medical Leave Act, among others, are not mis-stated in your handbook. You also want to insure that your company policies are not violating personal rights. Both of these items are another reason to have an employment lawyer review your handbook prior to distribution.

Creating the long version. While you want to cover all of the essentials, you also don’t want to go into such great detail that you hand employees a novel that they’re unlikely to read. You want employees to be willing to become familiar with the contents. 

Not providing a means by which employees can complain about harassment or discrimination. The law requires that employers provide an opportunity for employees to voice such complaints as well as having a process in place by which their complaints will be addressed.

Failing to read such a handbook first. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel when you develop your company’s handbook, there are plenty of employee handbooks available to read as well as templates that can be found to help you construct yours. Review employee manuals from other companies and take advantage of available tools to help you in the development of your company’s employee handbook.

Failing to update your handbook. At least once per year, your company should update its employee manual – more often if there have been significant changes in company policies or laws related to employment.  Reasons to update your employee handbook typically include new laws, new technology, and various changes in how you conduct business.

Not having a disclaimer. A disclaimer prevents an employer from being boxed into a corner. Without a disclaimer, the handbook can be construed as a contract. There needs to be some room for the employer to use discretion and work within the general guidelines of the handbook. Therefore, do not make the mistake of neglecting the inclusion of a disclaimer for your company’s protection.

Not using straightforward language. If the handbook is too vague or technical and not clearly understood by employees, then it won’t serve its’ intended purpose. Instead of writing it in ‘legalese’, make sure everything is easy to understand and reader-friendly.

Not tactfully introducing the handbook to current employees. In order to prevent concerns among the staff that their jobs may be in danger, make it clear to employees that the handbook is just a means of clarifying procedures and policies so that everyone is on the same page. Be prepared to answer questions regarding the handbook.

Failing to make sure all employees have a handbook. You should have everyone sign off that they have received the handbook and keep the sign-off sheet in their employee files.

Resources for Developing Your Company’s Employee Handbook:

For more information helpful in preparing an employee handbook, see the Employment Regulations section and the Employment & HR Center of Allbusiness.com. For an employee handbook checklist, see the Employment Policies and Termination section of the AllBusiness.com Forms & Agreements Center.

Why Your Firm Needs an HR Professional

One of the questions I am often asked by small business owners is, “I only have one employee, why do I need to worry about human resources issues?”  While I can certainly understand the question – particularly if they don’t have a clear understanding of human resources, I find myself surprised that I get this same question from small businesses that are much larger than a one person firm.  In my career I have worked for (as an employee) and with (as a consultant) a significant number of small businesses that have had several hundred employees and still did not believe they had a need for a staff to perform HR functions (or even a person!).  As many times as I’ve experienced it, I’m still surprised.

However, given that experience, I thought it would be a good topic to broach as today’s blog post as I think it may launch some good discussion.  So here’s my statement of opinion, even if you have only one employee, you need to have an understanding of human resources issues.  And, if you have more than five employees, your understanding of HR and the type of HR program you put in place need to be substantially more comprehensive.  My justification follows.

Even if you are among the smallest of small business owners, you are still going to find yourself dealing with human resources related issues (even if you didn’t understand before today that those issues were human resources issues).  Some of the areas I’m thinking of would include:

·         Finding employees as you need them, and hiring the best ones that you possibly can

·         Once you’ve hired the best person, what programs and policies do you need to put in place to make sure that you can keep them

·         Training programs to help new employees learn company policies & procedures, as well as their new job responsibilities

·         Pay rates – are you paying them too much or not enough; are there any issues with a person being more than another person doing the same work though they have less experience; is there any chance they’ll train with you and then move to your competition because you don’t pay them enough?

·         Non-compete agreements.  While obviously drawn up by your legal advisor, it’s a human resource responsibility to insure that all new employees have signed them and that this information is tracked in their file.

·         Also, company key, equipment, credit cards, etc. – these need to be tracked and monitored  by employee to insure that your company is protected

·         Benefits – even if your only benefit is a paid holiday, there is still tracking that needs to be done; and if your company benefits are more extensive there is vendor identification, bidding, and management; as well as government reporting, tracking by employee and many other tasks associated with benefits.  Also, are your benefits meeting the legal minimum limits required in your state?  Are they competitive enough to help you recruit the employees you need?

·         Payroll – I know that most small businesses think this can be handled by the bookkeeper, however, there are a great many legalities involved at the state and local level with regard to employee payroll administration, time tracking, records management, etc.  If not handled properly, this issue alone can put your company in serious jeopardy!

·         How do you counsel an employee if they are having trouble with a co-worker

·         How do you counsel an employee if they are having performance issues

·         Terminating employees who are not performing or who have broken a company policy (and by the way, development of those policies is another HR issue)

·         Annual performance evaluations that need to be done on every employee

·         Worker’s compensation – are you paying the correct rate?  How do you handle it if someone gets injured at your place of employment or on a jobsite?  Do you know what the procedures are and how it will affect your company?

·         Do you have an employee handbook so that everyone knows the rules and understands them clearly?  If not, this leaves your company vulnerable if an ex-employee decides he or she has cause to sue you.

·         Do you have job descriptions for every position – and performance standards?

Convinced yet?  This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I believe it will give you some perspective on why the average small business owner shouldn’t be trying to handle human resource issues without the assistance of professionally-trained HR staff member or similar resource.

Remember, the right staff can help you build your company to a great deal of success – or they can contribute significantly to its downfall.  As a small business owner, you have enough on your plate with the many hats you are already wearing.  Therefore, it’s not in your firm’s best interest for you to manage the details of human resources legalities and such for which you have no training.  Just as you need a professional skill level in an attorney and an accountant, I would recommend if you still believe that your firm is too small to have a full-time HR need, then you should hire at minimum a part-time staff member or outsource the work to a consulting firm who specializes in such issues.  Either option will give you the benefit of the expertise you need while still keeping your costs as low as possible.

If this article has caused you to re-think the way you are handling your firm’s human resources issues, please feel free to contact us to schedule a free consultation with one of our HR associates to discuss your areas of concern and how we may be able to assist you so you can go back to doing what you do best – increasing the profitability of your company!

Has Your Firm Implemented the Required COBRA Changes?

There has been a great deal of debate recently about whether or not the recently passed ‘American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’ would provide benefit to small business, and I am certainly a participant in that debate. However, one provision of this legislation was recently brought to my attention and it is a provision that will provide tremendous benefit to those workers who were recently laid off and are attempting to keep their medical coverage thru COBRA.

As you are likely aware, the cost of COBRA coverage is significant. In most cases, ex-staffers trying to cover just themselves and not a family are likely paying in the range of $400-500 per month; family coverage likely puts them in the $1000 per month range. Not easy to manage when you’re out of work and trying to live on unemployment. 

Therefore, the recently passed Recovery legislation contains a provision that enables laid off employees who meet the criteria to pay just 35% of their premiums for a specified period and still maintain their coverage, with the former employer or their benefits administrator covering the remaining 65%.  While this may sound like a problem for small business, the Recovery Act also contains a provision that the business will essentially be “paid back” for the expense by taking a deduction of the equivalent dollar amount in its payroll taxes. 

The information on this provision is lengthy; therefore, I have posted  articles providing the details on our website at http://www.strategicgrowthconcepts.com/humanresources/HR-Resources-for-Employers_I58.html