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Monthly Archives

November 2011

IRS ISSUES RULES FOR EMPLOYER-PROVIDED CELL PHONES

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The Internal Revenue Service has issued guidelines to clarify the tax treatment of employer-provided cell phones. The guidance relates to a provision in the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which removed cell phones from the definition of listed property, a category under tax law that normally requires additional recordkeeping by taxpayers.

The Notice provides guidance on the treatment of employer-provided cell phones as an excludible fringe benefit. According to the Notice, when an employer provides an employee with a cell phone primarily for non-compensatory business reasons, the business and personal use of the cell phone is generally nontaxable to the employee. The IRS will not require recordkeeping of business use in order to receive this tax-free treatment.

Simultaneously, an IRS memo to its examiners announced a similar administrative approach that applies to arrangements common to small businesses that provide cash allowances and reimbursements for work-related use of personally owned cell phones. Under this approach, employers that require employees, primarily for non-compensatory business reasons, to use their personal cell phones for business purposes may treat reimbursements of the employees’ expenses for reasonable cell phone coverage as nontaxable. This treatment does not apply to reimbursements of unusual or excessive expenses or to reimbursements made as a substitute for a portion of the employee’s regular wages.

Under the guidelines, when employers provide cell phones to their employees or reimburse employees for business use of their personal cell phones, tax-free treatment is available without burdensome recordkeeping requirements. The guidance does not apply to the provision of cell phones or reimbursement for cell-phone use that is not primarily business related, because such arrangements are generally taxable.

Details are in the memo and in Notice 2011-72, posted on IRS.gov.

EXCLUSIONS FROM COVERAGE UNDER EPLI POLICIES

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In addition to General Liability, Errors and Omissions (E&O), and Directors and Officers (D&O) policies, some employers also buy Employment Practices Liability Insurance (EPLI). An EPLI policy usually covers claims by employees and former employees under federal, state, and local discrimination laws, including Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), etc. EPLI policies usually exclude claims arising under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and sometimes the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

A recent federal district court ruling, that an EPLI policy did not cover a lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), reinforces the need for employers to do a careful review of possible exclusions in their EPLI policies.

In Cracker Barrel Old County Store, Inc. v. Cincinnati Insurance Co., the EEOC sued the employer alleging systemic sexual and racial harassment based on 10 EEOC charges. The employer settled the lawsuit and signed a consent agreement with the EEOC to pay $2 million. The company had an EPLI policy and submitted the claim to its insurer. However, the insurer refused to cover the costs of the settlement, arguing that a suit filed by the EEOC was not a “claim” against the employer under the EPLI policy, which defines “claim” as “a civil, administrative, or arbitration proceeding commenced by the service of a complaint or charge, which is brought by any past, present or prospective employee(s).” The employer sued the insurer for indemnification. The trial court dismissed the company’s suit, holding that because the EEOC, rather than an employee, filed the suit, the EPLI policy did not cover the claim

This case highlights the potential cost when an employer does not understand the scope of insurance coverages. Employers should review their policies to ensure that they have a complete understanding of what their EPLI policies will and will not cover. Although this review should occur when the policy is purchased, at a minimum, the employer should review its coverage with the insurer after a lawsuit so that it has a full understanding of what will be covered.

Provided by the law firm of Shawe Rosenthal.

THE REALITY OF RETIREMENT PLANNING

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In August 2011, CNNMoney.com polled more than 8,000 individuals asking whether their retirement plans are on track. More than half (51%) said “Yes,” 29% said “Not quite but we’ve got a plan,” 12% said “Retire? I’ll be working forever,” and 8% said “Haven’t got a clue.” This is consistent with other polls I’ve seen about how people manage their finances. For example, roughly half of Americans have a personal budget and the other half don’t. Chances are that the half with budgets has their retirement plans on track. Many employees will be working much longer than expected, in large part, due to their financial ignorance.

What implication does this have for employers? Consider this:

  • More than one in three workers (36%) say they expect to retire after 65, and one in four workers (25%) actually do so. How do you expect to manage this fact? How will it affect any succession planning? What will be its impact on productivity and customer relations? If you’re an HR That Works user, please watch our Webinar, Rehirement vs Retirement! Understanding, Attracting and Retaining the Mature Workforce, presented by Gail Geary.
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of financial education. Two years ago, we did a Webinar that remains relevant today with Dave Ramsey’s business coach, George Campbell. This Webinar explained how the financial stress of individual employees compounds to affect a company as a whole. We’ve also brought in the nation’s top teachers of accounting to do a Webinar on The Accounting Game. We’re currently setting up a webinar with the Certified Financial Planner Organization to teach basic financial planning on the home front.

As employers, we have to acknowledge that if we don’t address the two greatest concerns of our employees – how they handle their health and how they handle their money – the impacts of those challenges will fall on our organizations. Please make sure to attend the webinar on Financial Planning.

WHEN TO USE EXPERTS IN TRIALS

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A recent article in the California Labor Employment Law Review discussed the dos and don’ts of using HR experts in trial. Here’s a list of “appropriate” uses:

  • Common techniques of employee screening and selection.
  • Methods of employee evaluation.
  • Techniques for selection of employees for promotions.
  • Operation of seniority rules in a unionized workforce.
  • Processes for employee discipline.
  • Adequacy of policies prohibiting harassment and procedures for reporting it.
  • The “interactive process” of accommodating an employee with a disability.
  • The reasonableness of a proposed accommodation in a specific business context.
  • Adequacy of investigations into workplace misconduct or “whistleblower” complaints.
  • Management of employees with work-related illnesses or injuries.
  • Design and application of employee compensation and benefit plans.
  • Design and application of ethics codes.

What you are doing to bring this level of expert knowledge into your company proactively – thus avoiding the need for an expert at trial?

SAGE ADVICE

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A recent issue of Volleyball USA shared wise advice from 12 of the top volleyball minds in the nation. As someone who not only has coached kids’ teams, but also many executives, I found valuable pearls of advice in the article that can help all of us to be better managers and leaders:

  • Control the controllable. Don’t spend time dwelling on the last play – good or bad. This holds true of the workplace. What was not controllable is what Dr. Deming would call a general variation. Eliminating general variations is the responsibility of management. Trying to control uncontrollable or special variations is extremely difficult and tends to be a waste of time. Don’t dwell on mistakes made. Correct the problem and move on.
  • Pursue perfection. It’s unattainable, but striving for it will bring out the best in your players. Again, Dr. Deming would say “Amen.” He taught Japanese industry to manufacture toward perfection, not toward a tolerance. This is one reason why the Lexus brand is “the relentless pursuit of perfection.” Do your best to generate perfect hiring, retention, performance, motivation, teambuilding, and compliance practices. Settling for anything less is a mistake.
  • Have fun! The team has to be able to laugh, and sometimes it’s at the coach’s expense. Life is too short to not have fun managing and working with employees. Having fun is a choice. So is being a fun boss – or employee.
  • When under stress, call a timeout. I’ll often call a timeout and gather my work team to do a head check, outside of our “normal schedule.” Owners and coaches have to be sensitive to when it’s time for a timeout.
  • Coaching and functional teams are about relationships of trust. If you want to develop trust in your team, you have to prove yourself to be trustworthy. I believe that trust is the single most important factor in the workplace. People who trust each other perform better. People who trust each other don’t sue each other. The basis for trust lies in both the ability and the desire to perform. That’s true of you and anyone you manage. One of the best ways to know that you can trust somebody is to test their skills and assess their character.
  • Talent isn’t rare. What’s rare is a talented athlete who has the work ethic to become the player they’re capable of becoming. We’ve all seen “talented” employees underperform just because they’re not driven toward excellence. In a sense, they’re wasting their talent. There are also times when management can dampen the desire to perform, especially when most of the energy focuses on pointing out mistakes rather than acknowledging victories.
  • Championship teams find ways to win when it’s difficult to do so. Things aren’t going to be rosy all the time – just ask anyone who’s been in business for the past three years. However, even in a recession many companies have survived and thrived. As the saying goes, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going!”
  • Although coaches are change agents, they need to buy in before there can be any significant change. Bosses are change agents, too! How well are you selling your vision and getting buy-in? How can you make the notion of change something that people embrace rather than try to protect themselves against?
  • Design your offensive and defensive system around your athletes, not your athletes around your system. Determine the strengths and weaknesses of your employees and design a system that plays to their strengths. Again, there’s a consistent theme of being clear about employee skill sets and affinities. None of us are good enough to guess at these things – that’s the value of using testing and assessment tools. Ultimately, you need to put a square peg into a square hole.
  • Winning is a by-product of taking care of your players. Focus on helping them become better people and they will become better players. I’m always amazed how many employers don’t understand this. Very few employers are willing to invest in their employees and prefer to squeeze what they can out of them. If you’re not engaging in education, teambuilding, and other ways of growing your people, there’s no way you’ll be a long-term winner.
  • The worst mistake you can make is being afraid to make mistakes. Amen! In fact, we have to make mistakes faster than our competition. We try to mitigate against the potential of making a mistake. See the Webinar I did on “Stop Making Mistakes!”
  • As a coach, you get what you tolerate, whether errors, technique, or behavior. As the Buddha said, “What comes to you comes from you.” What are you tolerating in yourself or others? Are you the type of coach/boss who settles for mediocrity because demanding excellence might require a different quality of effort on your part?
  • The “we” is greater than the “me.” Business is a team sport. As they say, there’s no “I” in team. Are you focused on providing incentives for the team first or individuals first? Remember, a rising tide floats all boats. Check out the five-minute video I did on a powerful team-building technique.
  • Don’t allow your people into the game until they’re ready to play. Do your employees come to work ready to perform? How many employees prefer to begin the workday by gossiping? As one of the coaches stated, “Once they walk in, it’s time to go to work.” They should do their talking, texting, and lounging elsewhere.
  • Get the best athletes who qualify for your program. There’s no substitute for getting the right person in every seat on the bus. Great coaches know this – and so do great business leaders. The book Good to Great makes this point loud and clear.
  • If players have excellent results using their own style, do not change their technique. This is always a Catch-22, especially in the sales arena. For example, you might want your salespeople to sell a certain way that goes against the grain of how a very successful person is selling currently. Remember, what matters most is producing results.
  • Select the skills to teach by identifying the most athletic movements, and copying the great players. This idea of “modeling” applies to successful people and companies. What’s the most important activity or function that your most productive employees perform? What is it about the “how” of their performance that all people who perform this function should consider a “best practice” (bearing in mind the advice about letting top performers stick to their own style)?
  • Enter the gym with the beginner’s mind. Every day offers an opportunity to improve, as long as players remain open to learning. The same thing holds true for coaches and bosses. Do you come to work every day with a “beginner’s mind”? Conversely, do you think you’ve figured it all out already? A great question to ask yourself is: “What can I learn today?”

To what degree are the owners, managers, and supervisors at your company following these well-tested bits of coaching wisdom?

OKLAHOMA HEALTH CARE WORKERS GET MORE THAN $244,000 IN BACK WAGES

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Health Management Associates Inc., which operates Midwest Regional Medical Center (Oklahoma City, OK)., has paid $244,341 in overtime back wages to 1,064 registered and licensed practical nurses and certified medical assistants. Wage and Hour Division investigators found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including deductions that were made for lunch breaks when employees were not taking an uninterrupted lunch and failure to maintain required record keeping. The company cooperated with the investigation, and agreed to pay back wages and comply with the FLSA in the future. For more information, read the News Release.

EDITOR’S COLUMN: IMPROVING EMPLOYEE PRODUCTIVITY

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Over the years, I’ve written and spoken about performance improvement/productivity many times. Here’s what I’ve come to notice and believe:

  • People can only perform as well as the system within which they work. As Dr. Deming said, “Most employee failures are management failures.”
  • People can’t perform beyond their abilities. This “Peter Principle” means we have to be very clear in testing and assessing folks’ natural abilities and desires.
  • We need a clear definition of “good performance.” This involves two questions: What are the most important things you do every day? And, how would you know if you were doing them well without having to ask me or without my having to tell you because the benchmarks are clear?
  • Create 90-day goals, weekly To-Do lists, and daily task lists. Share your goals, discuss them, support them, and reward them.
  • Praise specifically and as often as possible. Instead of saying “You did a good job today” say, “I particularly like how you handled that customer when … “
  • Nurture and support your best performers. Unfortunately, because these folks are too busy to generate drama, managers often ignore them to focus on people more interested in being right about things than getting work done.
  • Surprise people. Hand them a gift card for dinner, put an article about them in the paper, nominate them for a reward, throw a surprise birthday party for them, etc.
  • Don’t hang on to losers or victims. If people aren’t performing after you’ve done your best and they seem more interested in drama than productivity, you must let them go. If you don’t, you’ll undermine your culture and goals in the process. Make sure to deal with poor performance now, and follow the lawyers’ recommendation to document any significant concerns.

IS GROUP LIFE INSURANCE ENOUGH TO PROTECT YOUR FAMILY’S FINANCIAL FUTURE?

By Life and Health | No Comments

If you are expecting Life insurance to fully provide for your family’s financial security, then you should think beyond the Group Life insurance that may be provided by your employer. A group policy might give you a false sense of security in believing you have adequate coverage.

Although some employers might offer several times your regular salary in Life insurance benefits, you owe it to yourself to ask if this is enough. How long would this amount last given your current expenses and debts? There is also the question of providing for your children, and their higher educational needs. It is important to make the time and effort to calculate how much is enough to cover your family’s financial needs should the unthinkable happen. This is especially important if you are the sole wage earner for the family.

As a general rule, people should have seven to ten times their annual salary in Life insurance, particularly younger people with families to raise. Younger people need to be aware that now is the optimum time to purchase Life insurance; as their policy will cost much less than if they wait a few years.

If you are starting a new job or thinking about switching jobs, there is vital information about group life insurance benefits that you need to consider.

If you leave a job, the downside of most group policies is that you cannot take the coverage with you; it may or may not be portable. Even if the coverage is portable, the insurer will normally require conversion of your term policy to a higher priced Whole Life policy. Certainly, it is preferable to accept the high priced conversion policy rather than having no coverage at all.

Advantages of Group Life policies:

  • Employers provide policies, most often at no charge to you.
  • Policies can be used as a supplement to an Individual Life policy.
  • Most policies are guaranteed issue with no medical underwriting required.

Disadvantages of Group Life policies:

  • Group Term Life insurance has no cash value and cannot be borrowed against.
  • There is no flexibility or choice with regard to the terms of the policy.

When it comes to Life insurance, don’t leave your family in a precarious financial position. Take steps to make certain your coverage is more than a fraction of what is really needed.

TRIM COSTLY MEDICAL EXPENSES WITH GOOD HEALTH CARE HABITS

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As the cost of health care expenses have continued to increase, health insurance has simultaneously become an important element to prevent people with health issues from choosing between not seeking needed care and going bankrupt. Whether privately purchased or employer-sponsored, health insurance plans do play a vital role in keeping health care costs in America at a somewhat manageable level for most people. That said, a lot of Americans are still unknowingly paying more than necessary on their medical expenses.

Whatever end of the financial spectrum you’re on, you’re probably more than willing to take a few simple steps if it would result in reducing your health care spending. You can actually significantly cut your medical expenses just by becoming familiar with your personal practices and health insurance plan.

Pay attention to your health. Regular exercise isn’t just good for the mind and body, it’s also good for your finances. Living a healthy lifestyle is one of the best financial moves a health insurance consumer can make. Countless studies have shown that those with a healthy lifestyle, including staying active and eating healthy, live longer and spend only a fraction of what those with unhealthy lifestyles do in health care expenses. If you want to lower your medical expenses and visit your physician less frequently, then make sure you’re following an exercise plan approved by your physician and avoiding unhealthy habits like tobacco use or excessive alcohol consumption.

Always remember to follow your health care plan. One of the main causes of patients having to pay a medical bill out-of-pocket is from visiting a doctor or medical facility that isn’t part of their particular health plan’s provider network. Claims for out-of-network providers may be paid at a reduced amount or rejected entirely. To help you avoid such often unnecessary expenses, ask your insurer for a complete listing of the doctors and hospitals in your network. Whenever possible, choose a doctor within the network. You can also make a plan for emergencies that would help you avoid costly co-payments for hospital emergency room visits.

Always know and follow the rules pertinent to your particular policy and insurer. These rules can vary from policy to policy and insurer to insurer; don’t assume one policy will be the same as another. For example, some insurance policies, such as health maintenance organizations (HMOs), are structured to only provide coverage for specialist visits when your primary care physician refers you to the specialist. On the other hand, preferred provider organizations (PPOs) could provide partial reimbursement if you visit an out-of-network doctor, but you’ll still be responsible for a greater portion of the bill than when using a doctor in your network. The insurance lingo itself can also be fairly complex. Ask your insurance agent if you have any difficulty understanding the specifics of your coverage.

A good rule to remember for most any type of insurance policy is that a higher deductible generally results in lower premiums. A lot of people pay high premiums in an effort to keep their co-pays down even though they’ve rarely had a need to visit a hospital or specialist. Those in good health, that don’t have a history of frequent hospital or doctor visits, and that don’t expect either element to change may be spending more in premiums than they would ever save in lower co-pays. In this case, it may be better to consider accepting a higher deductible to save money on your monthly premiums.

Maintaining a health insurance plan is just a necessary evil with the cost of health care services today, but do ensure that it isn’t the only way you’re trying to control your health care expenses. Take every opportunity to trim the fat and control your health care expenses. You surely have better places to spend your money than on costly, bad health care habits that result in additional costs, unnecessary doctor and hospital trips, and high payments.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO GET RELIABLE HEALTH INFORMATION ONLINE?

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Individuals have more access to health information than they’ve ever had before. A simple Google search on a specific health topic can yield advice from hundreds of different sources. Although access to the information has improved with the inception of the internet age, the resulting concern is often the quality and reliability of the various information and contributors.

One recent survey discovered 60% of all adults have looked up online health information at least once. Meanwhile, another study reviewed multiple online health-related studies and concluded that online health information aimed at consumers is often biased, inaccurate, or otherwise flawed.

So why is it that so many health websites publish misleading and inaccurate information?

Some entities operating health-related sites have a hidden agenda behind the information they’re providing to the consumer. Drug companies often finance groups promoting awareness for previously unrecognized conditions to literally create consumer demand for their new, expensive drugs – a tactic known as disease mongering. For instance, according to Dartmouth Medical School researchers, restless leg syndrome didn’t become a diagnosed disease until a drug company first developed a drug to treat it. Furthermore, a recently published study in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that many health advocacy groups taking funding from drug companies fail to disclose this fact to consumers.

Other entities operating health-related websites might be providing misinformation because they choose to disregard scientific evidence that disputes or contradicts whatever health belief they’re promoting. For example, despite the exhaustive research that led to the U.S. Institute of Medicine’s 2004 finding that there’s not a relationship between autism and childhood vaccinations, many supposed health websites are still scaring parents into thinking autism can be caused by vaccinating their children against potentially deadly diseases. One can run into a similar situation with Morgellons disease. Despite the current scientific consensus that Morgellons isn’t some new, unexplained dermopathy, but rather a manifestation of delusional parasitosis, many health websites are still making claims that the etiology is a parasitic infection.

The Solution. It’s simply not practical or affordable for an individual to make a doctor appointment for every health question they come across. So the solution isn’t to not use the internet for health questions or information, but rather to use it selectively. Here are two tips:

  1. Before trusting a health-related website’s information, ask yourself the following questions:
    • Is the information current?
    • Where did the information come from?
    • Who’s contributing and controlling the website’s content?
  2. Only use websites that have been certified by a quality rating organization, such as the Health On the Net Foundation (HON), or that have been otherwise deemed trustworthy. HON’s search engine will only show results from websites providing objective information that’s consistent with sound scientific evidence, such as by the Healthfinder.gov website. The nonprofit website FamilyDoctor.org, which is supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians, is another reliable source of medical information for consumers.

The internet can help individuals become more informed about their health and more capable in making some decisions about their health care, such as if they should get screened for a particular cancer based on symptoms they may be experiencing or their medical history. However, one should never use the information on any health website, regardless of its reliability, to self-diagnose and/or self-treat.