Devote Some Time to Internal Leadership Development

Many factors go into the success of a company. You’ve got to offer high-quality products or services, provide outstanding customer service, and manage your inventory or supply chain. But there’s at least one other success factor that many business owners often overlook: internal leadership training and development.

Even if all your executive and management positions are filled with seasoned leaders right now, there’s still a major benefit to continually training, coaching and mentoring employees for leadership responsibilities. After all, even someone who doesn’t work in management can champion a given initiative or project that brings in revenue or elevates the company’s public image.

Ideas to consider

Internal leadership development is practiced when owners and executives devote time to helping current managers as well as employees who might one day be promoted to positions of leadership.

To do this, shift your mindset from being only “the boss” to being someone who holds an important responsibility to share leadership knowledge with others. Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Contribute to performance development. Most employees’ performance reviews will reveal both strengths and weaknesses. Sit down with current and potential leaders and generously share your knowledge and experience to bolster strong points and shore up shortcomings.
  • Invite current and potential leaders to meetings. Give them the opportunity to participate in important meetings they might not otherwise attend, and solicit their input during these gatherings. This includes both internal meetings and interactions with external vendors, customers and prospects. Again, look to reinforce positive behaviors and offer guidance on areas of growth.
  • Introduce them to the wider community. Get current and potential leaders involved with an industry trade association or a local chamber of commerce. By meeting and networking with others in your industry, these individuals can get a broader perspective on the challenges that your company faces — as well as its opportunities.
  • Give them real decision-making authority. Probably not right away but, at some point, put a new leader to the test. Give them control of a project and then step back and observe the results. Don’t be afraid to let them fail if their decisions don’t pan out. This can help your most promising employees learn real-world lessons now that can prove invaluable in the future.

Benefits beyond

Dedicating some time and energy to internal leadership development can pay off in ways beyond having well-trained managers. You’ll likely boost retention by strengthening relationships with your best employees. Furthermore, you may discover potential problems and avail yourself of new ideas that, otherwise, may have never reached you. Our firm can provide further information and other ideas.

Reduce Insurance Costs by Encouraging Employee Wellness

Protecting your company through the purchase of various forms of insurance is a risk-management necessity. But just because you must buy coverage doesn’t mean you can’t manage the cost of doing so.

Obviously, the safer your workplace, the less likely you’ll incur costly claims and high workers’ compensation premiums. There are, however, bigger-picture issues that you can confront to also lessen the likelihood of expensive payouts. These issues tend to fall under the broad category of employee wellness.

Physical well-being

When you read the word “wellness,” your first thought may be of a formal wellness program at your workplace. Indeed, one of these — properly designed and implemented — can help lower or at least control health care coverage costs.

Wellness programs typically focus on one or more of three types of services/activities:

  1. Health screenings to identify medical risks (with employee consent),
  2. Disease management to support people with existing chronic conditions, and
  3. Lifestyle management to encourage healthier behavior (for example, diet or smoking cessation).

The Affordable Care Act offers incentives to employers that establish qualifying company wellness programs. As mentioned, though, it’s critical to choose the right “size and shape” program to get a worthwhile return on investment.

Mental health

Beyond promoting physical well-being, your business can also encourage mental health wellness to help you avoid or prevent claims involving:

  • Discrimination,
  • Wrongful termination,
  • Sexual harassment, or
  • Other toxic workplace issues.

If you’ve already invested in employment practices liability insurance, you know that it doesn’t come cheap and premiums can skyrocket after just one or two incidents. But, in today’s highly litigious society, many businesses consider such coverage a must-have.

Controlling these costs starts with training. When employees are taught (and reminded) to behave appropriately and understand company policies, they have much less ground to stand on when considering lawsuits. And, on a more positive note, a well-trained workforce should get along better and, thereby, operate in a more upbeat, friendly environment.

To take mental health wellness one step further, you could implement an employee assistance program (EAP). This is a voluntary and confidential way to connect employees to outside providers who can help them manage substance abuse and mental health issues. Although it will call for an upfront investment, an EAP can lower insurance costs over the long term by discouraging lifestyle choices that tend to lead to accidents and lawsuits.

Hand in hand

Happy and healthy — there’s a reason these two words go hand in hand. Create a workforce that’s both and you’ll stand a much better chance of maintaining affordable insurance premiums. We can provide further information on how to reduce potential liability and lower the costs of various forms of business insurance.

Following the ABCs of Customer Assessment

When a business is launched, its owners typically welcome every customer through the door with a sigh of relief. But after the company has established itself, those same owners might start looking at their buying constituency a little more critically.

If your business has reached this point, regularly assessing your customer base is indeed an important strategic planning activity. One way to approach it is to simply follow the ABCs.

Assign profitability levels

First, pick a time period — perhaps one, three, or five years — and calculate the profitability level of each customer or group of customers based on sales numbers and both direct and indirect costs. (We can help you choose the ideal calculations and run the numbers.)

Once you’ve determined the profitability of each customer or group of customers, divide them into three groups:

  1. The A group consists of highly profitable customers whose business you’d like to expand.
  2. The B group comprises customers who aren’t extremely profitable, but still positively contribute to your bottom line.
  3. The C group includes those customers who are dragging down your profitability. These are the customers you can’t afford to keep.

Act accordingly

With the A customers, your objective should be to grow your business relationship with them. Identify what motivates them to buy, so you can continue to meet their needs. Is it something specific about your products or services? Is it your customer service? Developing a good understanding of this group will help you not only build your relationship with these critical customers, but also target marketing efforts to attract other, similar ones.

Category B customers have value but, just by virtue of sitting in the middle, they can slide either way. There’s a good chance that, with the right mix of product and marketing resources, some of them can be turned into A customers. Determine which ones have the most in common with your best customers; then focus your marketing efforts on them and track the results.

When it comes to the C group, spend a nominal amount of time to see whether any of them might move up the ladder. It’s likely, though, that most of your C customers simply aren’t a good fit for your company. Fortunately, firing your least desirable customers won’t require much effort. Simply curtail your marketing and sales efforts, or stop them entirely, and most will wander off on their own.

Cut costs; bring in more

The thought of purposefully losing customers may seem like a sure recipe for disaster. But doing so can help you cut fruitless costs and bring in more revenue from engaged buyers. Our firm can help you review the pertinent financial data and develop a customer strategy that builds your bottom line.

Tax-free Fringe Benefits Help Small Businesses and Their Employees

In today’s tightening job market, to attract and retain the best employees, small businesses need to offer not only competitive pay, but also appealing fringe benefits. Benefits that are tax-free are especially attractive to employees. Let’s take a quick look at some popular options.

Insurance

Businesses can provide their employees with various types of insurance on a tax-free basis. Here are some of the most common:

Health insurance.  If you maintain a health care plan for employees, coverage under the plan isn’t taxable to them. Employee contributions are excluded from income if pretax coverage is elected under a cafeteria plan. Otherwise, such amounts are included in their wages, but may be deductible on a limited basis as an itemized deduction.

Disability insurance.  Your premium payments aren’t included in employees’ income, nor are your contributions to a trust providing disability benefits. Employees’ premium payments (or other contributions to the plan) generally aren’t deductible by them or excludable from their income. However, they can make pretax contributions to a cafeteria plan for disability benefits, which are excludable from their income.

Long-term care insurance.  Your premium payments aren’t taxable to employees. However, long-term care insurance can’t be provided through a cafeteria plan.

Other types of tax-advantaged benefits

Insurance isn’t the only type of tax-free benefit you can provide — but the tax treatment of certain benefits has changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act:

Dependent care assistance.  You can provide employees with tax-free dependent care assistance up to $5,000 for 2018 though a dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also known as a Dependent Care Assistance Program (DCAP).

Adoption assistance.  For employees who’re adopting children, you can offer an employee adoption assistance program. Employees can exclude from their taxable income up to $13,810 of adoption benefits in 2018.

Educational assistance.  You can help employees on a tax-free basis through educational assistance plans (up to $5,250 per year), job-related educational assistance and qualified scholarships.

Moving expense reimbursement. Before the TCJA, if you reimbursed employees for qualifying job-related moving expenses, the reimbursement could be excluded from the employee’s income. The TCJA suspends this break for 2018 through 2025. However, such reimbursements may still be deductible by your business.

Transportation benefits.  Qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling, are tax-free to recipient employees. However, the TCJA suspends through 2025 the business deduction for providing such benefits. It also suspends the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.

Varying tax treatment

As you can see, the tax treatment of fringe benefits varies. Contact us for more information.

A Strong BYOD Policy Combines Convenience & Security

It’s easy to understand why more and more businesses are taking a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach to the smartphones, tablets, and laptops many employees rely on to do their jobs. BYOD can boost employee efficiency and satisfaction, often while reducing a company’s IT costs. But the approach isn’t without risk for both you and your staff. So, it’s highly advisable to create a strong formal policy that combines convenience with security.

Primary concerns

As an employer, your primary concern with BYOD is no doubt the inevitable security risks that arise when your networks are accessible to personal devices that could be stolen, lost, or hacked. But you also must think about various legal compliance issues, such as electronic document retention for litigation purposes or liability for overtime pay when nonexempt employees use their devices to work outside of normal hours.

For employees, the main worry comes down to privacy. Will you, their employer, have access to personal information, photos and other non-work-related data on the device? Could an employee lose all of that if you’re forced to “wipe” the device because it’s been lost or stolen, or when the employee leaves your company?

Important obligations

A BYOD policy must address these and other issues. Each company’s individual circumstances will determine the final details, but most employers should, at minimum, require employees to sign an acknowledgment of their obligations to:

  • Use strong passwords and automatic lock-outs after periods of inactivity,
  • Immediately report lost or stolen devices,
  • Install mandated antivirus software and other protective measures,
  • Regularly back up their devices,
  • Keep apps and operating systems up to date, and
  • Encrypt their devices.

The policy also should prohibit the use of public wi-fi networks or require employees to log in through a secure virtual private network when connecting via public wi-fi. You may want to forbid certain apps, too.

In addition, you need to spell out your rights to access, monitor and delete data on employees’ devices — including the types of data you can access and under which conditions. In particular, explain your wiping procedures and the steps employees can take to protect their personal information from permanent erasure.

Protection now

Nearly everyone who works for your company likely has a smartphone at this point. As such devices integrate themselves ever more deeply into our daily lives, it’s only natural that they’ll affect our jobs. Establishing a BYOD policy now can help prevent costly mistakes and potential litigation down the road. We can provide further information.

Prepare for Valuation Issues in Your Buy-Sell Agreement

Every business with more than one owner needs a buy-sell agreement to handle both expected and unexpected ownership changes. When creating or updating yours, be sure you’re prepared for the valuation issues that will come into play.

Issues?  What issues?

Emotions tend to run high when owners face a “triggering event” that activates the buy-sell. Such events include the death of an owner, the divorce of married owners, or an owner dispute.

The departing owner (or his or her estate) suddenly is in the position of a seller who wants to maximize buyout proceeds. The buyer’s role is played by either the other owners or the business itself — and it’s in the buyer’s financial interest to pay as little as possible. A comprehensive buy-sell agreement takes away the guesswork and helps ensure that all parties are treated equitably.

Some owners decide to have the business valued annually to minimize surprises when a buyout occurs. This is often preferable to using a static valuation formula in the buy-sell agreement, because the value of the interest is likely to change as the business grows and market conditions evolve.

What are our protocols?

At minimum, the buy-sell agreement needs to prescribe various valuation protocols to follow when the agreement is triggered, including:

  • How “value” will be defined,
  • Who will value the business,
  • Whether valuation discounts will apply,
  • Who will pay appraisal fees, and
  • What the timeline will be for the valuation process.

It’s also important to discuss the appropriate “as of” date for valuing the business interest. The loss of a key person could affect the value of a business interest, so timing may be critical.

Are we ready?

Business owners tend to put planning issues on the back burner — especially when they’re young and healthy and owner relations are strong. But the more details that you put in place today, including a well-crafted buy-sell agreement with the right valuation components, the easier it will be to resolve buyout issues when they arise. Our firm would be happy to help.

Contemplating Compensation Increases and Pay for Performance

As a business grows, one of many challenges it faces is identifying a competitive yet manageable compensation structure. After all, offer too little and you likely won’t have much success in hiring. Offer too much and you may compromise cash flow and profitability.

But the challenge doesn’t end there. Once you have a feasible compensation structure in place, your organization must then set its course for determining the best way for employees to progress through it. And this is when you must contemplate the nature and efficacy of linking pay to performance.

Issues in play

Some observers believe that companies shouldn’t use compensation to motivate employees because workers might stop focusing on quality of work and start focusing on money. Additionally, employees may feel that the merit — or “pay-for-performance” — model pits staff members against each other for the highest raises.

Thus, some businesses give uniform pay adjustments to everyone. In doing so, these companies hope to eliminate competition and ensure that all employees are working toward the same goal. But, if everyone gets the same raise, is there any motivation for employees to continually improve?

Two critical factors

Many businesses don’t think so and do use additional money to motivate employees, whether by bonuses, commissions or bigger raises. In its most basic form, a merit increase is the amount of additional compensation added to current base pay following an employee’s performance review. Two critical factors typically determine the increase:

  1. The amount of money a company sets aside in its “merit” budget for performance-based increases — usually based on competitive market practice, and
  2. Employee performance as determined through a performance review process conducted by management

Although pay-for-performance can achieve its original intent — recognizing employee performance and outstanding contributions to the company’s success — beware that your employees may perceive merit increases as an entitlement or even nothing more than an inflation adjustment. If they do, pay-for-performance may not be effective as a motivational tool.

Communication is the key

The ideal solution to both compensation structure and pay raises will vary based on factors such as the size of the business and typical compensation levels of its industry. Nonetheless, to avoid unintended ill effects of the pay-for-performance model, be sure to communicate clearly with employees. Be as specific as possible about what contributes to merit increases and ensure that your performance review process is transparent, interactive and understandable. Contact us to discuss this or other compensation-related issues further.

Close-up on the New QBI Deduction’s Wage Limit

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) provides a valuable new tax break to non-corporate owners of pass-through entities: a deduction for a portion of qualified business income (QBI). The deduction generally applies to income from sole proprietorships, partnerships, S corporations, and, typically, limited liability companies (LLCs). It can equal as much as 20% of QBI. But once taxable income exceeds $315,000 for married couples filing jointly or $157,500 for other filers, a wage limit begins to phase in.

Full vs. partial phase-in

When the wage limit is fully phased in, at $415,000 for joint filers and $207,500 for other filers, the QBI deduction generally can’t exceed the greater of the owner’s share of:

  • 50% of the amount of W-2 wages paid to employees during the tax year, or
  • The sum of 25% of W-2 wages plus 2.5% of the cost of qualified business property (QBP).

When the wage limit applies but isn’t yet fully phased in, the amount of the limit is reduced and the final deduction is calculated as follows:

  1. The difference between taxable income and the applicable threshold is divided by $100,000 for joint filers or $50,000 for other filers.
  2. The resulting percentage is multiplied by the difference between the gross deduction and the fully wage-limited deduction.
  3. The result is subtracted from the gross deduction to determine the final deduction.

Some examples

Let’s say Chris and Leslie have taxable income of $600,000. This includes $300,000 of QBI from Chris’s pass-through business, which pays $100,000 in wages and has $200,000 of QBP. The gross deduction would be $60,000 (20% of $300,000), but the wage limit applies in full because the married couple’s taxable income exceeds the $415,000 top of the phase-in range for joint filers. Computing the deduction is fairly straightforward in this situation.

The first option for the wage limit calculation is $50,000 (50% of $100,000). The second option is $30,000 (25% of $100,000 + 2.5% of $200,000). So the wage limit — and the deduction — is $50,000.

What if Chris and Leslie’s taxable income falls within the phase-in range? The calculation is a bit more complicated. Let’s say their taxable income is $400,000. The full wage limit is still $50,000, but only 85% of the full limit applies:

($400,000 taxable income – $315,000 threshold)/$100,000 = 85%

To calculate the amount of their deduction, the couple must first calculate 85% of the difference between the gross deduction of $60,000 and the fully wage-limited deduction of $50,000:

($60,000 – $50,000) × 85% = $8,500

That amount is subtracted from the $60,000 gross deduction for a final deduction of $51,500.

That’s not all

Be aware that another restriction may apply: For income from “specified service businesses,” the QBI deduction is reduced if an owner’s taxable income falls within the applicable income range and eliminated if income exceeds it. Please contact us to learn whether your business is a specified service business or if you have other questions about the QBI deduction.

Finding a 401(k) that’s Right for Your Business

By and large, today’s employees expect employers to offer a tax-advantaged retirement plan. A 401(k) is an obvious choice to consider, but you may not be aware that there are a variety of types to choose from. Let’s check out some of the most popular options:

Traditional. Employees contribute on a pre-tax basis, with the employer matching all or a percentage of their contributions if it so chooses. Traditional 401(k)s are subject to rigorous testing requirements to ensure the plan is offered equitably to all employees and doesn’t favor highly compensated employees (HCEs).

In 2018, employees can defer a total amount of $18,500 through salary reductions. Those age 50 or older by year end can defer an additional $6,000.

Roth. Employees contribute after-tax dollars but take tax-free withdrawals (subject to certain limitations). Other rules apply, including that employer contributions can go into only traditional 401(k) accounts, not Roth 401(k)s. Usually a Roth 401(k) is offered as an option to employees in addition to a traditional 401(k), not instead of the traditional plan.

The Roth 401(k) contribution limits are the same as those for traditional 401(k)s. But this applies on a combined basis for total contributions to both types of plans.

Safe harbor. For businesses that may encounter difficulties meeting 401(k) testing requirements, this could be a solution. Employers must make certain contributions, which must vest immediately. But owners and HCEs can maximize contributions without worrying about part of their contributions being returned to them because rank-and-file employees haven’t been contributing enough.

To qualify for the safe harbor election, the employer needs to either contribute 3% of compensation for all eligible employees, even those who don’t make their own contributions, or match 100% of employee deferrals up to the first 3% of compensation and 50% of deferrals up to the next 2% of compensation. The contribution limits for these plans are the same as those for traditional 401(k)s.

Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE). If your business has 100 or fewer employees, consider one of these. As with a Safe Harbor 401(k), the employer must make certain, immediately vested contributions, and there’s no rigorous testing.

So, how is the SIMPLE 401(k) different from a safe harbor 401(k)? Both the required employer contributions and the limits on participant deferrals are lower: The employer generally needs to either contribute 2% of compensation for all eligible employees or match employee contributions up to 3% of compensation. The employee deferral limits are $12,500 in 2018, with a $3,000 catch-up contribution for those age 50 or older.

This has been but a brief look at these types of 401(k)s. Our firm can provide you with more information on each, as well as guidance on finding the right one for your business.