NEW YORK – Want a loan? Advice? When an employee needs help, many small-business owners are comfortable mixing the personal with the professional and willingly provide some support.
J. Colin Petersen has assisted staffers in a variety of ways: giving them extra cash, providing lawyer recommendations, lending a personal car, taking employees to doctor appointments and replacing a stolen smartphone. And “just listening to the anxieties of any of my team members that need a sympathetic ear or advice about how to handle a problem.”
Petersen, president of information technology company J-I.T. Outsource, believes that if he helps his 12 full-time employees when they’re wrestling with a problem, their performance – and in turn, his Fresno, Calif.-based company – will benefit.
Many small-business owners take an interest in their employees because they want a friendly or even family-feeling atmosphere, unlike the ambience of a big corporation. They also want staffers to feel appreciated as people, not just as workers, and know that employees who are treated well are less likely to leave. But employment law attorneys and human resources consultants advise owners to strike a balance – there can be unintended consequences when a boss is too friendly or too generous.
Nicole and Dennis Drake are mindful that the employees of their two Tropical Smoothie Cafe franchises are high school and college students who can use a little guidance about work and life. The couple ask staffers at the stores in Gainesville and Ashburn, Va., about school, what subjects they’re taking, how they’re doing. Nicole Drake, who describes herself as a math nerd, offers help with homework and makes sure that working at the stores doesn’t interfere with school assignments.
“This job is not your last stop, so there’s no way your grades should suffer,” she tells her young staffers. And when they’re ready to move on, she lends a hand with resumes. The Drakes also have helped with extracurricular activities, including fundraising in memory of a young woman who killed herself who had been a friend of one employee.
“When you’ve got a team, you want to do what’s right,” Nicole Drake says.
Owners need to be sure that their compassion, especially if it comes in the form of loans, gifts or other benefits, is available to all staffers. Showing favoritism can make an owner liable if an employee who feels discriminated against sues the company.
Employers should also have objective criteria they follow when they’re offering help, says Nannina Angioni, an employment law attorney with Kaedian LLP in Los Angeles. For example, if they’re willing to lend money for medical bills, they can’t decide to offer it for one kind of illness but not another.
Angioni also recommends against handing out personal advice – someone who didn’t have the boss’s ear could later retaliate.
“You can comfort someone, but don’t get into details,” Angioni says.
Owners need to create a balance, says Jay Starkman, CEO of human resources provider Engage PEO, based in Hollywood, Fla.
“While you want to be approachable, you want to create a collegial atmosphere,” Starkman says. He suggests that if employees go into the owner’s office and start to unburden themselves, the boss can listen but should set a time limit. And if staffers seem to need advice or support, connect them with an employee assistance program for free counseling.
But always act humanely: “You don’t want your place of employment to become this sterile, nobody-can-talk-to-each-other, horrible place to be,” Starkman says.
The staffers at Samantha Martin’s public relations firm tend to be young people newly arrived in New York who find they have big bills to pay and don’t have family nearby. So she’s lent employees money to get an apartment or pay for dental work and given others advice about personal problems. She can’t afford big corporate benefits, but these are things she can do.
“As a boutique firm, we become family,” says Martin, CEO of Media Maison, with 14 staffers. “It has made a huge difference – my employees are loyal, they trust me, they treat my business like it’s theirs.”
At the same time, Martin sets boundaries: “I’m not their best friend, and I’m not trying to be.”
The owners and managers at cSubs in Montvale, N.J., know they must tread carefully. So they’ve found ways that feel appropriate to assist staffers at the company, which creates software to help organizations manage publication subscriptions.
Five years ago, when a staffer’s daughter needed a special brace for a spinal condition, co-workers collected $800 of their own volition. Human Resources Director Leianne Eskinazi asked cSub’s owners if they wanted to help too, and they matched that amount.
“You want to do the right thing and always help your people, but there are limits to what an employer can do,” Eskinazi says.
When disaster strikes, many small-business owners try to help staffers whose homes are damaged or who suffer other losses. Owners can pay staffers who miss time at work due to disasters without fear of recourse, Angioni says.
Hillary Wootton paid staffers of her Homewatch CareGivers company when they couldn’t work last October during and after wildfires that destroyed thousands of homes in Santa Rosa, Calif. Many clients were evacuated from the area and stayed away for weeks. Hourly paid caregivers were losing money.
“We realized we had a lot of people who very much depended on their regular hours to make ends meet,” Wootton says. “My husband and I looked at each other and our bank account and said, ‘What could we do to help?'”
With less money coming in from clients, Wootton could pay her staffers only minimum wage. But when they came back to work, she became more liberal on other rules. “We’ve kind of relaxed our ‘no OT’ policy,” she says.