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Family_Leave_body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family events such as the birth of a child or looking after an ailing parent. Eligible employees must have worked at least 1,250 hours over the past 12 months for a business that employs a minimum of 50 workers within a 75-mile radius. A few states have more lenient qualifications, but the requirements of the federal law do not cover a significant part of the small business workforce. What are the ramifications of this and how can they be addressed? Is family leave an advantage for, or an unfair burden on, a small business? As owners and workers grapple with these issues every day across the country, here are some things to consider. 


Increases worker loyalty

Businesses that do offer paid family leave are the exception, as the United States is one of the few countries in the world that do not require it. Advocates for paid family leave argue that it actually works to the employer's advantage because employees tend to be more devoted to businesses that strongly support them.


"When workers come back, they tend to be more loyal and focused, feel greater happiness, and a resolve to do a good job," says Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership For Women & Families, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that was instrumental in getting the FMLA passed in 1993. "They're grateful for being able to take the time that they needed to get their kids off to the right start. Or, in the cases of those caring for seriously ill family members, to be able to spend that time and not have their attention divided when they're working."


Coming up with a sensible paid family leave plan that is fair to both the small business and the employee will naturally vary depending on the individual workplace, but Shabo says that policies should be gender neutral and cover at least a portion of the worker's wages. Businesses also come out ahead since returning employees don't have to be retrained and can get up to speed much faster than a new hire.


Although some managers might encourage employees to take time off when they need it, attitudes can be hard to change. For example, a recent study found that more than half of the fathers who worked at companies that offered paternity leave used only a few days of the time they were entitled to. This is a mistake, Shabo says, since paternity leave lets fathers cement a permanent bond with their child and, at the same time, help new moms recover faster and resume their careers.


"I think it's really important to dispel the myths that people might misuse the program, concerns that this is outrageously expensive, or that people might take more time than they need," Shabo says. "That's really not what the evidence shows at all."


Family_Leave_PQ.jpgDesign a plan

Since the definition of family leave has expanded to include caring for a sick parent and, in some cases, dealing with problems posed by the military deployment of a family member, small businesses that actively get their employees involved in developing policies are likely to be more successful and equitable.


"When employees have a voice in helping to design the plan, they are really helpful in taking into account the needs of their business and their own," says Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, a national network of coalitions that advocates for family-friendly workplace polices. "Obviously the policy you design is best done to apply to all family leave purposes," which can minimize the resentment that some employees without children may feel.


Bravo says that the plan should also cover how to handle the responsibilities of the employee about to go out on leave to make the transition more seamless. For example, before the employee leaves, have them put together a document with the work that they do, current projects that they're involved with, and their key contacts. Next, assign specific responsibilities to the team members remaining.


"Even though it might seem counter-intuitive, customers appreciate that employers are paying attention and have a plan," Bravo says. "So if you say to a customer: 'Jim, I'm going to be out on maternity leave and I'm so happy to introduce you to my colleague Don who's going to be taking over your account while I'm gone,' then you've made the connection. They know each other. They're prepared for it. And this person also understands the client's needs. That's a really good thing."


Be flexible

Some small business owners find that they have unique advantages over large companies when it comes to formulating a family leave policy.


"There's more likelihood for customization, whereas in large companies they have a much harder time looking at each case separately," says Kari Firestone, the president and co-founder of Aureus Asset Management, a Boston-based independent investment firm. "When you have standardized policies, they're often not very flexible."


Founded in 2005, Aureus has 12 employees and offers a mix of fixed and flexible family leave policies. Employees are eligible for up to six weeks of paid leave with the option of taking more time unpaid. Aureus is also open to discussing other scenarios with workers on leave, such as working part-time or some kind of at home/on-site combination arrangement. "We've been able to be both flexible and, I think, loyal to the employee in a way that creates more loyalty back to our company," Firestone explains.


When the wife of an Aureus employee had a baby about a year ago, Firestone strongly encouraged the father to take the several weeks of paid leave that he was entitled. Instead, he took about 10 days. There's still reluctance on the part of fathers to take time off "because they think they'll lose their place and they'll seem soft to management," Firestone says. "I consider it a virtue. And I think we all at this firm feel the same way—it's important that the fathers are there both to support their wives or partners and bond with their babies."


Firestone has tried different ways to cover for employees out on leave, including hiring temp help. She understands how other employers might not see the immediate benefit of offering some type of paid leave, "but I think that's short-sighted. It matters to me to be forward thinking and positive toward the concept of parental leave as we can be."


New_Employees_body.jpgby Erin O’Donnell.

Welcoming new employees to your small business is about much more than filling out W-2s and setting up their email. New hires will fit in faster and more easily with good planning and a speedy introduction to your company’s work habits and culture.

A new employee is naturally trying to make a good first impression at work. But it’s just as important for the company to start this new relationship off on the right foot, says Harvey Deutschendorf, author of The Other Kind of Smart: Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success.

“You risk the person getting the wrong first impression, and it’s difficult to change that,” Deutschendorf says.

A written strategy is especially important for welcoming new employees in smaller firms, Deutschendorf says, because it’s less likely that there’s an entire HR team to handle it.

Define roles

Start by defining a role for everyone in welcoming the new employee, from management down, Deutschendorf says. Ask your current staff questions about their own onboarding process:

  • What was it like for you on your first day? Your first week?
  • What could others have done to make you feel more comfortable, accepted, and appreciated?

Business coach Alisa Cohn of New York City recommends asking current employees how they view the company values and culture to develop your corporate self-awareness. “You can ask employees, ‘What was the biggest surprise when you got here? What’s different here from other places you’ve worked?’” Cohn suggests.

Evan Hakalir says he helps new employees learn about the company and their industry before they set foot in the office of, an online apparel retailer for boys based in New York City. Hakalir, the firm’s co-founder and partner, prepared a PowerPoint presentation about the company for incoming employees, and he sends them articles to study before their first day.

The company, which launched in 2010, now has eight full-time employees. “We’re more attuned now to the amount of time it takes to get somebody acclimated,” he says.

New_Employees_PQ.jpgEnlist other employees

Small businesses don’t tend to hire new people as often as large firms. So it helps to have a written process that doesn’t have to be reinvented with each new hire.

Using the “buddy system” gives the new employee a point person to help navigate everything from break room etiquette to asking for time off, says Jennifer Martin, owner of Zest Business Consulting in northern California. “It allows that new employee to be enmeshed a little more quickly into company culture,” she says.

In a smaller firm, new employees are usually trained by other staff members who have their own job duties to fulfill. So it’s important to hire prior to your business’s busy seasons, Hakalir says.

“If you bring in new people during those busy times, it’s very, very hard to spend the amount of time you need to spend with that person,” he says.

At Andy and Evan, new employees are assigned to shadow another staff member for the first two weeks of work – but not his or her own supervisor. Hakalir says new people are encouraged to ask their mentors any and all questions.

Mark Anthony, director of Combat Tactic, a martial arts studio in New York City, likes to use an apprentice model for new instructors. They will also shadow a more senior instructor for the first couple of weeks before they are allowed to teach a class on their own.  During that training, Anthony says he watches closely for signs that the new employee is leaning in to the work.

“Experience has shown me that a person not taking notes usually ends up leaving,” Anthony says.

The traditional lunch with the boss on the first day is still a great way to encourage more casual interaction away from the office, Martin says. In very small firms, she says, each employee could also take turns going to lunch with the new person, to help integrate them naturally with the rest of the team.

Feeling welcome

It’s important to make sure the rest of your staff understands the new person’s role and duties before he or she arrives. Then, Cohn recommends creating a “people plan” for the employee’s first day, first week, and first month, to determine the important people they should meet, either one-on-one or in groups. Help them also to know which meetings they should attend, she says.

Hakalir says he and his partner also schedule a few hours alone with the new hire to share their vision for the company. “They get to be a little more comfortable with us, which is important. You don’t want them tiptoeing around you,” he says.

Welcoming a new employee is also a great occasion for an office get-together. Hakalir says his firm plans an outing every time someone new joins the team.

In some businesses it may even be appropriate for clients to participate in the welcome process. Anthony says their martial arts students sometimes come along on a night out with a new instructor. “It really feels like a family, and I think it helps us business-wise,” Anthony says. “People feel like they’re getting more out of it than just the service, and that helps us expand.”

Be prepared

Nothing says, “Welcome to the Team” better than a well prepared work space. Make sure new workers have everything they need to get started, whether that’s a computer and phone or a clean uniform and the right tools. Consider also a welcome gift such as company logo items or just a personal note of welcome.

Deutschendorf suggests making a visual organizational chart with pictures of other staff members and maybe even some personal information about their interests. He also recommends asking new employees how they prefer to learn new information: would they rather read a manual or have someone show them a process? Those are cues as to how they work best, he says.

And don’t forget that coming into a new workplace is an intimidating time, Deutschendorf adds. “Employers often miss the part a lot of people fear about going into a job: how am I going to get along with everyone there? Are they going to like me?” Deutschendorf says. “When people feel more comfortable and accepted, they’re more open to asking questions. They’re going to think more clearly and make fewer mistakes.”

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