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A More Level Playing Field

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The Super Bowl is a key date for any would be entrepreneurs. The milestone was a $12.95 student-shot commercial for Doritos. Not only was the commercial judged to be one of the best of the day, but this commercial officially levels the playing field between massive corporations and small entrepreneurs.

Let’s face it, for the last ten years columnists, career coaches and baristas have talked up the era of the “free agent.” Where we would all say goodbye to the shackles of corporate tyranny and strike out on our own.

But a funny thing happened on this overground railroad to freedom. It never really materialized. Sure Kinkos, Starbucks, Costco and Fed Ex have all made a lot of money catering to small businesses people. But as much as people have thrived outside of the corporate sphere, it’s still a David versus Goliath environment, where you had to avoid getting up the dander of any big corporation or risk being crushed. I’ve had a number of people write to me through the years to describe what it’s like when more attorneys show up at your door than you have employees, so it should be no surprise that big corporations have a unique ability to get their way. Or to get you out of their way.

That’s where the Doritos commercial comes in. For $2.6 million dollars Doritos ran an ad that cost $12.95 to make—to fully comprehend what you just read, you might want to consider rereading that last sentence. Normally such a miniscule expenditure would be referred to as a “shoe-string” budget, but having recently shopped for shoe strings, it’s even a notch below laces.

This commercial is important because it shows that the little guy or gal can come out on top. Part of the reason is obvious, technology. As a friend recently pointed out, the $500,000 editing suite that he used to work on at a network TV affiliate is now available on a midrange computer with relatively inexpensive software.

But there is an even bigger untold story here. Another part of the rise of the entrepreneur is the inability of many corporations to get the value out of all of the brains within their organizations. Like an elementary school class, I believe many corporations are more focused on discipline, litigation and compliance and not drawing out the genius of their people.

Think I’m exaggerating? Ask anyone in corporate America about their day. Most will tell you that they spend most of their time trying to stay afloat amongst hundreds of emails. In fact, today’s average corporate Joe or Jane is less connected to their coworkers than the average free lancer was ten years ago.

Take a bit of technology, throw in the under-use of employees in most corporations and you get an environment where small, feisty organizations can compete—and win—on even the biggest stage.

Tired of working for “the man” (or “the woman”)? Maybe it’s time for you to become one.


“Never follow the crowd.” Bernard Baruch

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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Another Reason to Create a Winning Workplace: Less Litigation

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In recent posts on our blog I’ve mentioned the following as ROI for small organizations that define employee engagement, build and utilize practices to engage employees, and turn to manager team building to create a strong culture that trickles down from leadership:

But there’s another one that has perhaps a greater impact on the bottom line than any of the above: greatly decreased chance of a stakeholder (employee, supplier, customer) bringing forth a lawsuit against your business.

I was astounded to read on HR Daily Advisor recently that according to a survey by the law firm Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., close to 4 out of 5 companies experienced new litigation in 2008.  Compare that to cases you could count on one hand among the 70 companies that make up our Top Small Workplaces Winners and Finalists over the last two years.

And virtually all of those were due not to egregious behavior by the managers or the leadership (not as a result of a toxic company culture), but by natural oversights or miscalculations in contracts and other arrangements between employees and the company.  In addition, to my knowledge these cases were settled quickly and amicably.

So if you want your organization to fall among the 21% that are litigation free, your seemingly “soft” focus on fostering good team building can go a long way toward making that happen.

Your thoughts?

Cross-posted from the Winning Workplaces blog.

About the Author: Mark Harbeke is Director of Content Development for Winning Workplaces.  Mark’s role is to ensure that content on Winning Workplaces’ website is up-to-date, accurate and engaging. He also writes and edits their monthly e-newsletter, Ideas, and provides graphic design and marketing support. His experience includes serving as editorial assistant for Meredith Corporation’s Midwest Living magazine title, publications editor for Visionation, Ltd., and proofreader for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Drake University.Winning Workplaces is a not-for-profit providing consulting, training and information to help small and midsize organizations create great workplaces. Too often, the information and resources needed to create a high-performance workplace are out of reach for all but the largest organizations. Winning Workplaces is changing that by offering employers affordable consulting, training and information.

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What Will First Lady Michelle Obama’s Work-Life Balance Efforts Look Like?

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We have heard for some time that Michelle Obama’s pet concerns on the campaign trail, which she hoped to be able to continue while in the White House – and will indeed be able to after last week’s dramatic election finish for her husband, President-Elect Barack – are helping families create a healthy work/life balance and easing the struggles for military families.

It’s no wonder the former is an issue that’s close to Mrs. Obama’s heart.  This article from the UK-based Telegraph newspaper talks about her own work/life balance struggles, in three distinct phases of her life: while growing up on the South Side of Chicago and seeing an ailing father continue to work hard, and leave business matters at the office; while herself transitioning from the legal field to civic and community work after marrying Barack and having their two daughters, Malia and Sasha; and most recently while Barack was on the campaign trail.

Mrs. Obama even wrote a heartfelt essay on the topic of work/life balance last month on the popular BlogHer community of women bloggers.  Here’s how she spells out the plight for working women:

As we all know, our country is in the midst of a major economic crisis.  And we’re all feeling the effects.  …

And folks are feeling it at the workplace.  Because right now, thousands of women across the country don’t have family leave at their jobs.  And those who do can’t afford to take it because it’s not paid.  And 22 million working women don’t have a single paid sick day.

That’s just unacceptable.  Families shouldn’t be punished because someone gets sick or has an emergency.

This is from the employee perspective, but Obama’s cause has direct implications for small and midsize business leaders.  Morra Aarons-Mele, a graduate student specializing in women and leadership, framed this exceptionally well recently on The Huffington Post,

Why should we care about “work life” issues when our savings and retirement funds are literally halving by the day?  Because “work life,” as nondescript as it may sound, is the stuff that keeps American families afloat.  Work life refers to issues ranging from sick leave to health care to early education and child care.  It also encompasses flexibility and better work-life balance, which have strong effects on companies’ bottom lines and employee productivity.

So what would organizations’ employee engagement activities geared toward helping workers achieve a more harmonious balance look like – ideally – four or eight years from now?  Obama hinted at this during a plenary address she gave at our annual small business leadership conference two years ago, when she spoke about creating relationships between businesses and the community.

Community organizing didn’t just help Barack become President-Elect; it has also helped his wife use resources at her present employer, the University of Chicago (and later its Hospitals) to transcend both entities from simply a “name” in their neighborhood to a visible, tangible source of inspiration and assistance.

As we spelled out in our article summarizing her remarks at our event, Obama pointed to the creation of such initiatives as school “Principal-For-A-Day” and community fitness programs as ways to not only bring the University’s and Hospitals’ employees out in the open, but to better connect their passions to their work.

This model has been readily adopted, to great effect, by some of the firms we’ve since honored as Top Small Workplaces.  For instance, 2008 winner The Redwoods Group, an insurance provider for YMCAs and Jewish Community Organizations that’s based in North Carolina, requires its 100 employees to volunteer 40 hours of service annually to nonprofits.  A condition of their employment, the company argues this has contributed directly to their steady employee growth (27% over the last two years) – including the ability to recruit cost effectively – and industry-low turnover (less than 6% on average the last two years).

So one plausible – again, ideal – work/life balance scenario is the government serving an encouraging, perhaps advisory role in helping small business leaders adjust their employee engagement best practices so employees can focus their passions on helping their communities, while at the same time benefitting the organization through enhanced workplace team building and lower rates of absenteeism and presenteeism.

Do you concur?  Or do you see Obama’s work/life-related efforts playing out differently?

Cross posted at Winning Workplaces

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How Small Business Could be Reshaped After Today’s Election

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Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be an endorsement of any party or candidate but, rather, an exploration of issues affecting small business as shaped by what will *most likely* happen at the polls today.

Today’s election will be historic, no matter the outcome.  If you’re anything near the political junkie that I am, you’ve been watching for the last few days the result projections of some of the major pundits from the basic and cable news networks, as well as from some of the bookies.

If there is a commonality here, it is that Barack Obama looks poised to win fairly big or really big; and that the Democrats will make gains in both the House and Senate – although the Senate “magic 60” number is still a far cry as of this writing.

Yet, if we assume the above, as David Gergen has noted on CNN, even without the Dems getting a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, they would still have a greatly enhanced ability to push through legislation that supports their agenda, with a president ready (on most issues) to sign it into law.

How would this scenario affect small businesses?  A look at four issues that are central to their survival and success – two of which have been covered at length by candidates of the two major parties and the media, and two of which have been largely ignored – offer a clue.


  • Obama’s plan, as detailed on his website, stresses cuts in capital gains taxes and additional tax cuts for corporations that create jobs in the U.S.
  • The Democratic Party website also talks about efforts of the majority Democratic Congress (elected in 2006) to “slash regulations on small companies.”
  • Point of contention: The now-familiar “Joe the Plumber” caveat: Entrepreneurs who start businesses that generate more than $250,000 in annual revenues would see their taxes go up – albeit to 1990s levels.


  • Obama: Establishment of a new Small Business Health Tax Credit to help small firms provide affordable health insurance to their employees.  He has also talked about creating an insurance pool that individuals and small firms can pay into and receive the same benefits that members of Congress receive.
  • Democratic Party: Emphasis on cutting bureaucratic waste – chiefly by standardizing electronic medical records – that would, along with incentives to increase competition among health plans, reduce company-paid premiums over time.
  • Point of contention: Nationalizing healthcare, which would mandate the coverage of children, would keep costs high.

Changes in Labor Laws – Specifically Enactment of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)

  • Obama: A Proponent of the EFCA; wants to make it easier for employees to form unions.
  • Democratic Party: Behind the EFCA. They also list a goal of raising the minimum wage.
  • Point of contention: The EFCA and federal increase in the minimum wage are both hotly contested issues, with adoption of both falling pretty squarely in the “workers, yay; business leaders, nay” columns.  Since the federal minimum wage was just raised in July, the EFCA bill, if it were highly modified, might stand a better chance of gaining the support of small business leaders in the shorter term.

Immigration Reform

  • Obama: Reduce the bureaucracy that slows the process for illegal immigrants to earn legal status, which he argues will “meet the demand for jobs that employers cannot fill.”  Crack down on employers that hire undocumented immigrants.
  • Democratic Party: Supports “economic development in migrant-sending nations, to reduce incentives to come to the United States illegally.” Long-term, this would ensure that tax dollars from businesses as well as individuals aren’t stretched as thin.  The party also echoes Obama’s above concerns.
  • Point of contention: This is a sticking point for leaders of some smaller firms that are actively hiring undocumented workers.  Most other business leaders seem concerned that their taxes are not raised for inadequate or unnecessary measures to secure our borders.

So, would a fly on the wall of a small organization in February 2009 see a noticably different landscape than in the same firm today?  Probably not.  Still, it doesn’t hurt to project how the probable shift in the balance of power in Washington after today will play out for these enterprises.  Who knows, it may even shape smaller-scale efforts – the things we love to talk about and help our clients refine – like employee engagement best practices and workplace team building.

What say you?

(Cross-posted from Winning Workplaces Blog)

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Minimum Wage: Keeping It Clean, and Getting it Done

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The U.S. Senate has just voted to raise the federal minimum wage. After smooth sailing through the House, as part of the “100 Hours” agenda, things hit a snag in the Senate. It’s all about taxes — isn’t everything? The Senate so far is seems unlikely to pass a clean bill that does nothing but raise the minimum wage (as the House did), but instead seems determined to cut taxes for small business owners, who — it is argued — are adversely affected by the minimum wage. Will it be possible to raise the federal minimum wage — ever?

Is it really true that small business owners fare adversely when the minimum raise is raised? Or is that one of those political maxims that has been repeated so many times that everyone believes it? It may not even matter, if we can’t get the minimum wage raise through the Senate otherwise. But those who argue we shouldn’t couple the issue have some strong arguments. A recent Washington Post article by Steven Pearlstein demolishes the typical arguments for coupling minimum wage increases with small business tax breaks one by one.

1. Small businesses with low profit margins will not be able to pass along those costs to consumers.
Pearlstein responds:

To begin, both economic theory and history suggest that small business will, in time, pass on its increased costs to its consumers. Small businesses that pay low wages tend to compete with other small businesses that pay low wages, so they will all face the same cost pressures and respond in similar fashion. The worst that can be said is that a higher minimum wage will add, very modestly, to overall inflation.

(See Washington Post article.)

2. A minimum wage increase will cause small businesses to hire fewer workers.

There is also general agreement among economists that a higher minimum wage, at the levels we are talking about, will have a minimal impact on adult employment. Slightly higher prices might reduce, slightly, the demand for Wendy’s hamburgers, cheap hotel rooms and dog-walking services. But largely offsetting those effects will be the increased demand for goods and services by tens of millions of Americans who will finally be getting a raise. A higher minimum wage doesn’t lower economic activity so much as rearrange it slightly.

(See Washington Post article.)

3. Small business create the majority of new jobs in this country, so we should not pass measures discouraging them from doing so.

[A]s economist Veronique de Rugy of the American Enterprise Institute reported in a paper last year, new jobs have been created by both large and small businesses in roughly the same proportion. In truth, the bulk of new jobs have always been created by a relatively small number of new firms that grow fast and get quite big — think of companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, CarMax. Most have little in common with the small-business lobby in Washington or fast-food restaurant chains or the members of the Kiwanis Club in Helena, Mont. As a rule, companies like these couldn’t care less about the minimum wage or special tax breaks to offset it.

(See Washington Post article.)

Pearlstein also points out that small business owners have already benefited from business tax cuts enacted earlier in the Bush Administration, astutely opining, “If it is now imperative to reduce business taxes when the pay of minimum-wage workers is rising, you have to wonder if there will ever be a time when the small-business lobby thinks it doesn’t deserve a tax cut.”

Despite Pearlstein’s presence in the newspaper of our nation’s capital, and the fact that his ideological bent is hardly that of a flaming liberal, it’s not clear that anyone’s really listening. Except that some small business owners already know better, according to an article which says that a growing number of small business owners recognize that paying a decent wage lowers employee turnover, improves morale and is the right thing to do. “People who tell you that raising the minimum wage will hurt small business are flat out full of it…Small business owners know that keeping workers is easier and cheaper than finding and training new ones…Our long-term employees are way more likely to establish ongoing relationships with customers,” said Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl, a music retail business in St. Louis. (See TomPaine.com article.)

The minimum wage increase has already faced one setback, as an effort to pass a clean bill failed in the Senate. (See New York Times article.) As I write this, the Senate is likely to pass a minimum wage bill with small business tax cuts attached. (See The Reporter article.) Now the two houses of Congress have to reconcile the proposals — never an easy task — while contemplating what the President is likely to do. President Bush has indicated that he would consider signing a minimum wage bill with tax breaks attached, so there’s an interest in getting a bill that will actually be signed into law. (See Statement of Administration Policy.)

But there’s also the little wrinkle that the House of Representatives is supposed to be the body that originates tax bills, and Rep. Charles Rangel, now the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is insisting that the House take the lead on tax bills, which may delay working out the issues between the two bodies. (See Associated Press article.) Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, has indicated that the Senate may be open to limiting some of the tax cuts. (See ABC News article.) So despite the House’s swift passage of a clean bill, we may still be in for a long, hard fight before those workers in states without a higher minimum wage are able to benefit from a federal minimum wage increase.

Those small business tax cut bills can occasionally carry the kind of tax cuts that employee advocates can support, such as a provision contained in 2004’s American Jobs Creation Act — part of the Civil Rights Tax Relief Act. (Ironically, the problem solved in part by the 2004 law arose from a provision inserted in the 1997 minimum wage bill, called — you guessed it, “The Small Business Job Protection Act.”) (For more information on the history of this issue, see “The Long and Winding Road.”)

But this time, workers really have to question whether more tax cuts for small businesses are really necessary, or just a way to keep a myth alive until the next opportunity to raise the minimum wage. Perhaps before assuming these accompanying tax cuts are necessary — it would be helpful for Congress and the President to separate economics from politics. They might even conclude — like the Economic Policy Institute did — that a minimum wage increase requires new small business tax cuts, “like a fish needs a bicycle.”

Tell the Senate to Keep It Clean: Pass the Minimum Wage Increase Now

UPDATE: The Senate on Thursday, February 1 overwhelmingly passed a minimum wage bill with the tax increases referenced above. (See New York Times article.) (The blog was originally published before the vote occurred, although the outcome was not in doubt.)

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