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CommunityTeam

Travel Smart

Posted by CommunityTeam Jun 5, 2009
Travel Smart
Ten tips for travelers on a budget

By Max Berry

Travel can be hard on a small business owner's budget, especially now that airlines are charging fees for once-complimentary services like checking a bag. But with a little forethought and a willingness to root out the best deals, your next business trip could take you through friendlier-not to mention more cost-effective-skies than your ever imagined. Here are ten tips for business travelers on a budget.

 

1. Appoint a travel guru
Assign someone in your office the task of compiling a bookmark folder of Internet travel tools and discount sites. Sites like Priceline.com and Hotwire.com come in handy for discounted airfare and hotel rates, while Hopstop.com maps public transit routes and offers taxi fare estimates for America's largest cities. When the need to travel arises, save yourself some time by letting your travel guru hunt for the cheapest fares and discounts. Once they've narrowed the options, you can select the itinerary that works best for you.

 


2. Research your destination

 

Base your travel budget on realistic destination costs rather than an arbitrary per diem. If you maintain a set budget for every trip you take, you may find yourself running out of money fast. Likewise, if you bring a Manhattan-sized roll of bills to Tulsa, you may find yourself with far more than you need. Do some research on the city you'll be traveling to; how extensive is its public transportation system? What constitutes eating on the cheap in your destination city? Sites like Yelp.com and Citysearch.com will help you gauge just how much your stay will cost you.

 


3. Negotiate

 

Priceline's name-your-own-price option is a valuable tool for budget travelers, but many hotel managers will negotiate rates directly with customers. Most innkeepers won't advertise this fact, but if you'll be staying with them for a prolonged period of time, you can use that as leverage to get a better price. Angle for your own "corporate rate" by telling the manager that the slight discount you're seeking may make the difference between staying with them or going to another property nearby.

 


4. Take advantage of special offers

 

Frequent flyer programs and credit cards that award points for hotel stays and airfare are smart moves for any frequent traveler. Also consider signing up for a mailing list or two. Sites like Orbitz.com send regular e-mails detailing featured discounts on airfare while most major hotel chains offer special deals to frequent customers. Not every offer will be of use to you, but if it gets you a deal on your next business trip, it will be well worth sorting through the bulk mail.

 


5. Plot a course

 

If you are flying to your destination and will need to take a car from the airport, check the likely cab fare ahead of time (Hopstop.com is good for this). You may also want to use Mapquest or Google to familiarize yourself with the most direct route. Some cabbies will take a more circuitous path in order to drive up the fare if they sense you don't know your way around.

 


6. Pack light

 

This is sage advice now more than ever. Many airlines are charging $15 and up to check even one bag on domestic flights. If you can squeeze everything you need into a carry-on, consider foregoing baggage check altogether. Or, if possible, fly one of the discount airlines (like Southwest or JetBlue) that still allow you to check a bag for free.

 


7. Car rental tips

 

A general rule of thumb for saving money when renting a car is to reserve the smallest model at the lowest price. If the agency runs out of compact cars, they will be required to rent you a larger model at no added cost. You may also opt to waive the insurance. While the added precaution couldn't hurt, chances are you won't need it. Plus, you may already be covered through your own auto insurance or the credit card you used to book the car.

 


8. For short notice

 

When traveling on short notice, check airlines' special offers pages first. If your schedule is flexible and you are open to the idea of odd departure and arrival times, you may be able to snag a last minute deal. This is especially true for flights in the middle of the week. Some discount airlines also offer walk-up fares that are considerably cheaper than those of their large competitors.

 


9. Exercise some discipline

 

It may seem obvious, but resisting temptations like the mini-bar, room service, and in-flight cocktails will add up to big savings. Just as little expenses you'd barely even factored into your budget account for much of your day-to-day spending, small services like these are designed to turn a profit on travelers who are tired, unfamiliar with their surroundings, and lack a better option. Don't fall for them.

 


10. When in Rome...

 

Once you arrive at your destination, try to take some cues from the locals. There will be no better authority on how to eat, shop, and get around cheaply. If the people you are doing business with live in your destination city, ask them for some advice. If the city you're visiting has them, local blogs and Internet message boards-not to mention Yelp-are excellent sources for advice on how to do as the Romans do.
How to keep your family business alive, prospering and-most importantly-in the family

By Christopher Freeburn

Entrepreneurs who have invested years of time, dedication, and resources into building a business often want to see that enterprise live on as a family asset even after they step aside from the actual operation of the company. Many hope to see their new business become something that each new generation of their family can inherit, passing the business from themselves to the children and grand children and beyond.

 

Unfortunately for these ambitions, the track record of family businesses is not good. "Keeping a family business alive is perhaps the toughest management job on Earth," says John L. Ward, author of Keeping the Family Business Healthy: How to Plan for Continuing Growth, Profitability and Family Leadership. "Only thirteen percent of successful family businesses last through the third generation. Less than two thirds survive the second generation," he adds, noting*, "Only five percent of all businesses ever started actually become family businesses through the appointment of a successor from the next generation."*

 


Many family business fail to remain under the control of the originating family because of changing market conditions, financial difficulties, or disinterest by succeeding generations. Most, however, fail to pass from one generation to another simply because the original business owner failed to plan for the smooth transition of ownership and management to successive generations.

 


The Necessity of Planning
The first step toward making sure that your business stays in your family after you step down is to develop a clear, well-considered succession plan that clearly defines who owns the company and who will run it once you leave. In fact, you should have a succession plan in place long before you consider stepping aside. Without planning, the business and family can be thrown into confusion or rancorous dispute in the event of a sudden and unexpected change in company leadership.

One reason many small business owners neglect succession planning is the emotional issues that such planning raises. Making succession decisions requires the business owner to choose who should get control or ownership of the business in the future. This requires taking a levelheaded view of the available family members to determine who among them has the requisite skills and temperament to manage the business, and who does not. Difficult questions have to be raised and answered: Who will run the business? How will the ownership of the business be distributed? Which family members will not be included in the business's management and ownership? The answers to these questions are sure to provoke some measure of hurt feelings among family members, since not every one can be the CEO.

Further complicating the planning process are the divergent interests of various family members. Not every family member may be interested in joining the business. "The natural desire of a child to steer a course independent of his or her parents can also nip succession plans in the bud," says Ward. A family business can also magnify family issues because the separation between family life and the workplace is thin or non-existent. "Human emotions such as pride or jealousy may become enlarged when work and home are intertwined," warns Ward. There may be disagreement among family members about the distribution of ownership or responsibility in the company. "These are emotionally trying issues for all concerned. As a result, many families abandon the effort at succession because they fear it will destroy the family," Ward says.

Nevertheless, proper planning is the only way a family can assure that a business remains in its hands over the long term. The sooner such planning is undertaken, the better. Succession planning should incorporate a variety of scenarios including potentially disinterested heirs, or a lack of viable family managers in succeeding generations. Putting together a plan in advance will help family members confront these issues as they arise in future years.

In order to increase the chances of your family retaining control of the business, your succession plan should incorporate things that combine family and business activities. For instance, creating a business-training program that offers young family members internship-like positions at the business during their school-age years is a good way to orient them toward participating in the business as they mature.

 


Family problems
"Many family businesses find that the family itself becomes a stumbling block," says Ward. "In later years, the family's growing financial demands tempt the owners to harvest the company's profits rather than reinvest them in additional growth." Over time, a family can come to see a business as merely an asset, rather than a place where they wish to continue working. In such cases, succeeding generations are often tempted to sell the business for an immediate profit to a non-related third party. This is the fate of many family-owned businesses.

 


Running a business can often exacerbate interpersonal pressures that already exist within the family.

 

"The rigors of business also sharpen such typical family problems as sibling rivalry or competition between generations," says Ward. Hurt feelings and ruined relationships can result from decisions made in the business, especially those involving which family members have what responsibilities at the firm. To some extent, there is almost no way to completely mitigate the fallout among family members from business decisions, since there is rarely a way to please everyone.

 


In the end, constructing a clearly defined succession plan as well as management structures and policies that have been spelled out beforehand will go a long way to reducing the natural friction that running a family business can generate.
By Reed Richardson

"Have you heard the latest?" Every day, this phrase or one similar to it, can be found in nearly every workplace, whether it's written in the subject line of a discreet intra-office email or spoken in hushed tones across the water cooler or behind cubicle walls. What follows this conspiratorial come-on is more often than not unverified, unsubstantiated, and occasionally unseemly information, the type of office chatter that can appear, on its face, as harmless speculation or good-natured ribbing but that, if left unchecked, could ruin someone's career or wreck someone's business. Smart business owners, in other words, should recognize that office gossip and workplace rumors can have a profound effect on their bottom line and that not having a strategy to handle them could be a recipe for disaster.

"You're never going to erase gossip altogether," acknowledges executive coach Peggy Klaus. "Still, I really counsel people and businesses to stay away from it as much as possible because it's an energy-suck, a time-waster, and it's very debilitating for morale." A recent Randstad survey of more than 1,500 U.S. employees found that most employees recognize the pernicious effect of gossip. In that survey, three out of five adult workers listed gossip as their top workplace pet peeve. But if so many of us view gossip as annoying, unwelcome behavior, why then did the survey also find that only 8 percent of workers complained to their boss or supervisor about it?

 

A natural tendency
"It's just human nature," explains Klaus. "We are social, and gossiping is seen as a way to build relationships and alliances with people. It also lets you feel like you are in the know and more in control." And she points out that this tendency for employees to secretly speculate about who's up and who's down or what a company's future holds is exacerbated during turbulent economic times. "Anxieties are at an all-time high right now," she notes. "And the recession is like a giant Petri dish for gossip."

Coupling this economic uncertainty with a small business can make for even more trouble, says human resources trainer Hunter Lott. "Think about the potential effect that one or two gossips in an office of 20 can have versus an office of 200," he says. "Because of that, it's more imperative for small companies to stay on top of office gossip and rumors."

 

 


Gossip may be at least somewhat true
It can be a challenge to do that, however, since office gossip often begins as a slight embellishment of the truth. In fact, social scientists Nicholas DiFonzo and Prashnat Borida, authors of the book Rumor Psychology, found during their research that "most workplace rumors are 95 percent accurate." Matt Shollenberger, a licensed counselor from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who has worked with several victims of workplace gossip, agrees. "If the gossip is something that's believable, it's harder to defeat," Shollenberger says. "Whereas outrageous rumors are usually able to be squashed very quickly."

Still, business owners ignore outrageous rumors at their peril, he notes, as those have the greatest potential for harm. Shollenberger says he has counseled several clients whose careers unraveled because they could not shake nasty personal rumors about themselves, many of which put them in a kind of a Catch-22. "Despite denying all the gossip and swearing a rumor isn't true, co-workers and supervisors can still remain suspicious of a gossip victim because, well, what else are they going to say in their defense?" Shollenberger notes. "And if an incendiary rumor about an employee goes unaddressed by HR or management for too long, the victim can start to feel isolated and betrayed, like everyone knows the gossip." That kind of poisoned work climate-where petty office politics outranks productivity-can soon lead even well meaning companies astray and makes a company ripe for a lawsuit.

 

 


Make your values clear
To combat an out-of-control gossip situation, business coach Klaus counsels her business clients to first give a "state of the union" speech. "You come out and reiterate your company's culture and values and be very clear about what will and won't be tolerated," she says. In addition, she recommends that small business owners then follow up by providing their employees with safe, non-judgmental ways of dealing with serious, hurtful rumors, like a confidential suggestion box, an open door policy, or, in cases that might directly involve the boss or business owner, third-party mediation. "The more transparent the process and the more feedback you give, the better," Klaus says.

 


Human resources consultant Lott notes that, to be effective, any anti-gossip effort must not play favorites. "What I tell bosses now, especially those in small businesses, is that there is a performance aspect to every job and there is a behavior aspect to every job," he explains. "They are separate, but equally important elements." If this clearly becomes a company's standard, Lott says it becomes much easier to discipline that obnoxious salesman whose customers love him but whose rumor-mongering is detrimental to the office atmosphere. "It's great to have a behavior policy as a benchmark," he adds, "but it doesn't have to be an official policy as long as there are clear, commonsense consequences to bad behavior."

 

 

A teaching opportunity
To prevent minor office rumors from spiraling out of control (and to save small business owners from constantly refereeing petty squabbles), it's also a good idea to teach employees how to address or deflect gossip on their own. The number-one way to do this, most experts agree, is confrontation-+diplomatic+ confrontation. "Gossips typically don't like being confronted," says licensed counseler Shollenberger. And he adds that gossips will typically back down and think twice about doing it again if they're faced with the prospect of repeating their rumors directly to the subject or if someone else calls their bluff and suggests they take action instead of complain behind another employee's back.

 


Nevertheless, confrontation, while good in theory, rarely occurs in practice. The Randstad survey of workplace pet peeves found that just barely over one-third-34 percent-of workers were willing to express their displeasure directly to the gossiper. This unwillingness to confront a workplace gossip often arises from two distinct worries.

 


The first of these, Klaus acknowledges, is the very real fear of being ostracized, something she says she has experienced first-hand. "I was teaching at a graduate program in England and a colleague kept trying to get me to provide him with some personal information about someone else," she explains. When Klaus wouldn't comply, she says she quickly became persona non grata among most of the staff and, for a couple of weeks, no one would really talk to her. "You're suddenly seen as a self-righteous prig or goody two-shoes and you're not one of the cool kids anymore," she explains. "So, it's not surprising that when it comes to confronting or rebuking a gossip, we often don't do it."

 

 

The right way to confront
The other main obstacle to directly addressing a nasty office rumor revolves around the fear of instigating an ugly shouting match at work. But confrontation, Shollenberger explains, doesn't have to turn into a conflagration. "So many clients, when they come to me, don't know how to diplomatically confront someone," Shollenberger acknowledges. "I teach confrontation with a small ‘c.'"

To do this, he counsels against using the word "you" when addressing a potentially gossiping co-worker. "That word puts people on the defensive right away," he says, heightening the chances of a conversation escalating to something unprofessional. In addition, he recommends following up with sets of what he calls "facts/feelings." "For example, you might say ‘I've heard a nasty joke is being told behind my back about my recent absence from work and that makes me feel angry and hurt." This strategy, Shollenberger explains, gives the gossiper the benefit of the doubt and prevents minor misunderstandings from erupting, while, at the same time, making clear the repercussions of the rumor and the fact that it won't go unanswered.

In the end, perhaps the best way to reduce gossip and workplace rumors is to preempt them from happening in the first place. "When employees don't know what's going on or why certain decisions are being made, that's when gossip and rumors start up," says Lott. "So if a business wants to prevent gossip and rumors, a simple solution is to talk with employees as much as possible to fill that communication gap instead." After all, gossip doesn't tend to go very far around the office if the answer to "Have you heard the latest?" is always "Yes, I have."
As much as we may think we can handle a multitude of tasks in our business, the reality is that we need help to work efficiently and grow our companies. With the unemployment rate high, there are many talented workers that you can tap for the work you need done. How you set up the work arrangement can have important business and tax consequences, so do it right!

by BigIdeas4Biz

Your options
You can hire employees and grow your payroll, use independent contractors, or rely on temporary workers who report to you from agencies.

Practical considerations. If you foresee a continuing need for help, then hiring an employee is probably the way to go. You can train the person and develop employee loyalty. It doesn't make sense to hire someone only to fire him shortly thereafter; it's unfair to the employee and you'll needlessly hike your employment costs. If you only need someone for a special project or are unsure whether your business can make a long-term commitment to an employee, then consider using an independent contractor (IC) or turn to an agency for temporary help.

Cost. Having an employee is more costly than using an IC. With an employee comes an employer's obligations to pay the employer share of Social Security and Medicare (FICA) taxes, federal unemployment (FUTA) tax, state unemployment insurance and workers compensation. You also have to withhold income and FICA taxes from an employee's wages, include the employee in any health, retirement or other benefits program you maintain, and file returns with the IRS and states. In contrast, there are no tax payments or benefits obligations for a business that uses an IC. For a temporary worker, you pay the rate charged by the agency; there are no additional tax payments or benefits obligations on you.

Employee versus IC?
When engaging a worker, you can't arbitrarily put a label on the person to suit your needs. You can't call someone an IC and avoid employer obligations if they are really an employee. The IRS and states are on high alert to make sure you properly classify workers.
The IRS wants to be sure you are properly withholding taxes and paying your share of FICA as well as FUTA (federal unemployment tax).
States want to be certain you're paying state unemployment insurance and workers' compensation.
Proper classification of a worker turns on your degree of "control." If you have the right to tell the worker when, where, and how the work is to be performed, then the worker is probably your employee. While there is no single factor that nails down worker classification, here are some factors to consider:

Factors indicating employee status:
You can say when and where the work is performed (even if the person is working from his or her home).
You provide job training.
You dictate the order or sequence to follow in performing the work.
Your evaluation system measures the details of how the work is performed.
Factors indicating IC status:
The worker uses his or her own tools and equipment and purchases his or her own supplies.
The worker is allowed to hire assistants.
Your evaluation system measures the end results.

Note: A temp worker is the employee of the agency that arranges the placement with you. The agency, not you, has the employer's obligations.

Protect yourself
When you engage an IC, have him or her sign an independent contractor agreement to spell out the work relationship. The agreement is not a guarantee that the IRS won't question your arrangement, but it serves to remind the IC of his or her tax responsibilities.

Be sure to provide the IC with an annual information return, Form 1099-MISC (a copy of which is sent to the IRS). The return is required if payments for the year to an IC are $600 or more.

Be consistent with your treatment of workers. If ICs are doing the same work as people on your payroll, the ICs are probably employees too.

If, despite your best efforts, the IRS reclassifies your workers as employees, you can avoid tax penalties if you rely on "Section 530 relief" (the title comes from the section in the law that created it). There are no penalties as long as you provided the 1099s and had a reasonable basis for treating the worker as an IC. "Reasonable basis" means that it is common practice in your industry to treat such workers as ICs, there was a court decision or IRS ruling supporting your position, or you had a prior audit that did not change your worker classification.

Bottom line
Whether you're prepared to take on help now or anticipate doing so following an economic recovery, be sure to keep worker classification issues in mind. When in doubt, consult your tax advisor.
The task of choosing a health insurance policy for you and your employees can be daunting. Small business policies come with widely varying prices and a range of options for coverage that sometimes seem almost impossible to decipher.
By Reed Richardson

Worse, even the cheapest policies can seem absurdly expensive. But many of you no doubt feel that a robust health insurance plan is necessary to attract and retain a talented group of employees. Many of you also probably feel that it's just the right thing to do. You care for the people who work for you and want to be sure they're protected in the event of accident or illness.

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Fortunately, with a little work, you should be able to find a plan that protects the health of your workers while not endangering the health of your business. Given the fact that you can take a tax deduction for premiums paid to qualifying group health plans, the right health insurance plan may even seem like a bargain.Well, almost.

Regulatory issues
Government regulations differ from state to state. That said, your company should be eligible for small group coverage if it has at least two full-time owners or workers and it's a legitimate business entity (with a business license or articles of organization).

The percentage of your employees participating in your company health plan also must meet the minimum set by your chosen insurance provider. Some regulations dictate how much of an employee's premium the employer must pay, usually around 25 to 50 percent. You might also choose to extend coverage to employee spouses or dependents, but that's usually not required. Once you check your state's regulations-try the state insurance commissioner's office-give some thought to a few questions that will affect your final choice. Among the crucial issues: Who will be eligible for coverage? Should you include part-time employees? Will there be a waiting period for new hires before they qualify for coverage?

Also consider which of these factors matter most to you and to your business: Monthly premiums. A start-up or a business with modest profits might decide to simply find the cheapest reliable coverage around. A firm that needs to deliver a more robust benefits package to attract and retain employees will consider springing for something more expensive. Either way, you'll want to keep a sharp eye on what you get for your extra dollars-and you should give careful thought to whether those extra benefits are worth the money to your business.

Out-of-pocket costs. This is the amount you and your workers will end up paying for deductibles and co-payments for a range of services, from drugs to doctor's visits to hospital stays. A company with a younger staff might save money by choosing a policy with higher out-of-pocket costs, since workers might not need as much medical care. Older workers or employees with health problems might be hard-pressed to meet out-of-pocket costs on some cheaper policies.

Provider options. Here again, the age of your employees might make the difference. A plan that allows patients broad discretion to choose (or keep) their physicians might appeal to older employees. Younger workers might be more flexible.

Indemnity vs. managed care
Health insurance policies fall into two basic categories: indemnity and managed care. Under indemnity plans, also known as fee-for-service plans, the insurance provider will reimburse for all or part (usually just part) of a visit to a doctor or hospital of the patient's choice. This coverage offers unlimited discretion to the patient, but it is much more expensive
than managed care coverage.

That's why managed care options are more popular. They come in three forms:
HMOs. Health Maintenance Organizations tend to be the least expensive plans around-but there's a catch. Enrollees are limited to the HMO's sometimes limited network of providers, and must rely on a primary care physician to refer them to specialists.

PPOs. Preferred Provider Organizations are the most flexible plans. They contract with a network of doctors and hospitals that work at discounted rates. However, patients who are willing to pay a bit more can go outside of that network. Moreover, patients don't need a primary care physician to refer them to specialists. PPOs tend to be significantly more expensive than HMOs.

POS plans. Point-of-Service plans combine elements of HMOs and PPOs. As with an HMO-and unlike a PPO-enrollees must select a primary care physician who can refer them to a specialist within the plan network. But you also have the freedom to go outside of the network, just as with a PPO.

The devil in the details
Once you've decided upon the type of plan that's right for your business, you'll have to sort through various policies within each category. You may find options that will save you money without compromising on your primary goals. For example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts offers a policy called HMO Blue Preferences with small deductibles for certain services and slightly higher co-payments. "Maybe you go from a $10 co-payment to a $30 co-payment for an office visit," says BC/BS spokesman Chris Murphy. "That lowers the employer's premiums, but employees still get the quality that Blue Cross/Blue Shield offers."

In most plans, the equation is pretty simple: the higher the deductible, the lower the monthly premium. In other words: You pay more, your employees pay less. If your employees pay more, then you pay less. You need to decide how much of their health care you can reasonably ask your employees to shoulder. Again, this is a tough decision that is likely to involve an array of considerations and each owner is likely to reach a different conclusion depend-ing on the owner's industry, the particular mix of employees involved, and the owner's individual sense of responsibility for his or her people.

Some policies offer riders for supplemental coverage, like eye exams and dental care. They're often inexpensive-around $8 to $12 per month-and you can offer them as an option to individual employees. "The eye exam option might make sense if you have an employee base that's getting a little older," says Sam Gibbs, senior vice president and general manager of eHealthInsurance, an online resource for finding and comparing plans. "Dental riders might make sense for workers with young children."

Some providers offer extra services-which can be especially useful for small firms without human resource departments. For example, Aetna.com provides information about various medical conditions and different treatments, and helps covered employees track their out-of-pocket expenditures and deductibles. Bear in mind that premiums rise. "Find out how quickly a health carrier has increased rates for small business customers," says Cecelia Brock, PhD, a consultant with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and president of her own small business consulting firm in San Diego. That information should be available through your insurance agent or directly from the company.

While you're at it, make sure you buy from a reputable carrier-perhaps a well-known firm such as Aetna, PacifiCare, Blue

Cross/Blue Shield, or Health Net. Check ratings with A.M. Best (www.ambest.com) an independent firm that rates carriers' claims-paying ability. And beware of "defined benefit" health care plans. "If you have a heart attack, a defined benefit plan will pay a flat amount-maybe $10,000-and that's it," says Gibbs. "That won't do it."

Don't promise too much
You may wish to provide blue chip coverage to employees and their families-but make sure you can afford to do so. Otherwise, you'll have to reduce coverage, which can disappoint or even infuriate some employees. "When you start taking things away from people, that's when you start having employee relations problems," says Brock. Whatever coverage you choose, keep your staff informed about their coverage. "Communicate, communicate, communicate," says Adam Sturtevant, vice president of employee benefits for TD Banknorth Insurance Group in Portland, Maine. "Explain the value of your firm's health care benefits to employees. That way, they'll understand what you are doing in return for their contributions to the company."

True, it can be painful to write those premium checks. Choose your policy wisely, however, and your dollars will buy you happier, healthier, and more productive workers. What's more, you'll know that you're doing the right thing by the peoplewho make your business a success.

Reed Richardson is managing editor for Business 24/7.

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