Archive for the ‘Down to Business’ Category

Cut Healthcare Costs without Cutting Benefits


Five Signs Your Best Employees May Be About to Leave

According to PwC’s Health Research Institute, medical costs in the U.S. will increase 6.5 percent in 2016. Benefit plan changes, such as narrower provider rangers and higher deductibles, will reduce the increase to 4.5 percent, though many consumers and the companies that employ them will continue to struggle to afford healthcare services. What can you do to continue to provide the health insurance coverage your workers need without devastating your budget? The answer is to do what you can to control healthcare costs. Consider the following strategies to help you do so without drastically reducing the benefits you’re able to offer.

Use a level-funded plan. While traditional fully insured plans involve predetermined and fixed payments per employee per month (with the insurer assuming the risk after co-pays and deductibles), and a self-funded plan lays all of the claims on the employer, a level-funded plan is a hybrid of the two. It’s filed as a self-funded plan but the employer is billed a predetermined and fixed premium per employee per month. However, after a certain period, the employer may qualify for a premium refund (if claims are lower than expected) or premium increase (if claims are higher than expected).

Get serious about wellness. Whether you already have an employee wellness program in place or want to establish one, it’s important to tailor it to individual employees if you want to get the most benefit. Offer a program that encourages each worker’s health goals and supports them with comprehensive resources. Some companies have found that they can increase their employees’ wellness engagement even further with incentives and rewards.

Offer a taxed-advantage program in addition to health insurance. These programs are funded with pre-tax dollars, making your employees’ wages or salary go further. They include flexible spending accounts or FSAs, health savings accounts for HSAs, health reimbursement arrangements (HRAs) and premium offset plans (POPs) and can lighten your company’s rising medical expenses as well as that of your employees.

FSAs are particularly popular, as they allow your workers to save money tax-free to use for the payment of medical expenses. Voluntary and automatic paycheck deductions make FSA deposits convenient for employees. As an employer, you can also make contributions towards your workers’ FSA accounts.

HRAs are also very useful. Funded by the employer, an HRA reimburses employees for their health insurance premiums and qualifying medical expenses. Employer contributions are 100 percent tax deductible when paid out and are also tax-free to the employee. HRAs are a flexible way to supplement the health insurance benefits your company offers and help your team pay for medical expenses that aren’t covered by the insurance plan.

If you’d like to learn more about these strategies for reducing healthcare costs for your business and employees, we’re here to help. Give us a call to review your current benefits plan and explore your options.

Small Business Lawsuit Trends

Small Business Lawsuit Trends

In 2008, U.S. small businesses paid $105.4 billion in tort liability costs according to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.  It’s a number we can assume has continued to grow, with more than 100 million lawsuits filed in our nation’s courts every year. From loss of customers and blemished reputations to devastating financial hardship and bankruptcy, they can cause lasting damage. Fortunately, understanding recent lawsuit trends may help you protect your small business.

Lawsuits by Employees

Employees may file lawsuits when they feel their employer—or a potential employer—has discriminated against them.  According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), retaliation was the most common cause in 2015, accounting for more than 44 percent of all cases. This was followed by race (35 percent), sex (30 percent), disability (30 percent), age (23 percent), national origin (11 percent), religion (4 percent) and equal pay (1 percent).

Your employee handbook is one of the best tools you have to protect yourself against employee lawsuits. It should clearly outline how you classify employees, eligibility for overtime pay and benefits, how employees should request time off, your company’s holiday and vacation policies as well as anti-discrimination, harassment and safety policies and avenues for complaint. If you’re in an at-will employment state, the handbook should explain this as well.

While you should give every new employee a hardcopy of the handbook and have them sign a document acknowledging their receipt and understanding of the materials within, you should also maintain a digital copy for easy updating.

Lawsuits for Copyright Infringement

From the music you play in your lobby and the stock photography you use on your website to the things you share in your company’s social media posts, you could be vulnerable to a copyright infringement lawsuit costing tens of thousands of dollars if you haven’t purchased or otherwise properly licensed the use of any creative property.

You can reduce your lawsuit risk by checking the original source of anything you want to publish or repost. If you don’t see a copyright notice, it’s still wise to request the permission of the author/artist. Get written consent or license the work. A simple credit is generally not enough.

Lawsuits by Customers and Vendors

Your employees are not the only parties who can sue you for discrimination; your customers can as well. Fail to provide adequate disabled access and facilities or refuse to serve a customer due to his or her race, religion or sexual orientation and you may quickly find yourself facing a discrimination lawsuit.  Personal injury lawsuits are also a hazard for any small business that welcomes customers or vendor representatives onto its premises.

If you stay abreast of the latest laws and avoid practices that could be classified as discriminatory or put your employees or customers at risk, you reduce your chances of a small business lawsuit. However, investing in general liability insurance is essential for greater peace of mind. To explore your options, give us a call today.

Keeping Your Marketing Emails Out of the SPAM Folder

Keeping Your Marketing Emails Out of the SPAM Folder

Do you use email to advertise your business? If so, those messages are subject to rules established under the CAN-SPAM Act. Signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003, it applies to all commercial email messages that advertise or otherwise promote a commercial product or service.

Should the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) find you in violation of the CAN-SPAM law, your business could face a penalty of up to $16,000 per email sent. However, the FTC isn’t the only one looking at the emails you send. Many email and internet service providers (ISP) use SPAM filters to keep unwanted messages out of their customers’ inboxes. In fact, according to ReturnPath, an email data services provider, one out of every five legitimate emails never makes it to its destination. It’s either swept up by a SPAM filter or blocked by an ISP.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to ensure you don’t catch the eye of the FTC as well as increase your marketing email deliverability.

  • Require subscribers to opt-in to marketing emails.Blacklists are used by email providers and ISPs to reduce delivery of malicious and SPAM emails. Your email address, IP or domain may end up on one or more blacklists if multiple parties report your emails as SPAM. These reports are most likely when you add customers to your email campaign without asking them to “opt-in” or give their permission. If you suspect you may be blacklisted, you can find out here. Getting yourself removed from a blacklist can be complicated and time consuming.
  • Don’t get clever with your subject lines. Under the CAN-SPAM law, your email subject line must accurately communicate the content of the message. SPAM filters also look for emails that use all caps or lots of exclamation points in their subject lines.
  • Make unsubscribing easy. It’s better to make it simple for your customers to unsubscribe from your marketing emails than to get lots of SPAM reports and wind up on blacklists. The easiest way to do this is to include a clearly labeled opt-out button or link at the bottom of all marketing correspondence.
  • Include a plaintext version. While most people are able to receive HTML emails these days, many SPAM filters will still send your messages directly to the trash if you don’t include a plaintext version. You can learn more about using multipurpose internet mail extensions (MIME) here. Avoid including video, Flash or JavaScript in your marketing emails as well.
  • Don’t use large images or images alone. Images take longer to load than text does. If you fail to balance your images used with text, your customers may get tired of waiting for the message to load and wind up reporting it as SPAM.
  • Avoid common SPAM filter trigger words. These include free, no-obligation, guaranteed, buy, order, limited time and more. HubSpot has put together an excellent, comprehensive list of common trigger words here.

Pros and Cons of Employee Feedback Surveys

Pros and Cons of Employee Feedback Surveys

Every business owner knows it’s important to give his or her employees feedback regularly. In fact, doing so can reduce turnover rates, increase engagement, improve productivity and motivate workers to do a better job. However, not all employers recognize the importance of soliciting feedback from their employees, even though the benefits of doing so are much the same.

Employee feedback surveys are probably the simplest way to get the lowdown on what your workers see as the good, bad and ugly aspects of their jobs and your workplace.  But before you sit down and put one together, consider their pros and cons.

Employee Feedback Survey Pros

A good feedback survey can have a positive impact on your company’s culture. When you give your employees the opportunity to voice their concerns, you may learn about issues of which you were previously unaware. You may also discover that known issues are having a bigger impact than you thought. Regardless, you can now address the situation/s causing the problem/s and find appropriate solutions.

Feedback surveys can increase your workplace’s transparency. Studies have shown that employees are happiest when they have the opportunity to communicate openly and honestly with their managers, supervisors and other company leaders. However, many are hesitant to do so face to face. A feedback survey—especially when submitted anonymously—allows them to speak their mind without worry that their comments will have negative results.

This opportunity to communicate how they feel about their jobs is important for employment engagement. Unhappy workers are less likely to be engaged, so addressing the issues that arise and increasing the general level of satisfaction in your workplace will naturally increase engagement.

Employee Feedback Survey Cons

You have to ask the right questions if you want to get the most from your survey efforts. In addition to the standard questions you’ll find in most survey templates online, you need to include queries tailored to your particular set of employees and their workplace issues. Of course, you also need to keep it short (more on that later), so you may want to focus on one area—from managers and communication to job duties and compensation—at a time.

Depending on how you decided to conduct your survey, it may require a monetary investment. While there are low-cost options available (like SurveyMonkey) it may be worth it to work with a company that specializes in employee feedback surveys—especially if you’ve never asked your workers for feedback before.

Creating a survey takes time. So does responding to it. You don’t want your employees to have to spend too much time away from their duties answering an endless list of questions. That means you need to keep your survey short. But it also means you might have to conduct more than one to cover all the bases.

Whether you decide to use a feedback survey to get your employees’ thoughts on the workplace or use an alternate tool such as casual conversations, a suggestion box, or a group meeting, it’s essential that you show your team you’re serious about their responses. Take action on what you learn as soon as possible and make sure your employees see that you’re making changes. This will encourage them to be even more honest the next time around.

Do You Need Employment Practices Liability Insurance?

Do You Need Employment Practices Liability Insurance

Also known as EPLI, employment practices liability insurance is designed to protect small businesses in the event an employee files a lawsuit claiming harassment, discrimination or another such wrongdoing. It’s a worthwhile investment; employment practice lawsuit settlements can cost businesses millions of dollars. Even cases that are unsuccessful result in expensive legal defense fees—and, more often than not, damage to your company’s reputation. As such, an EPLI policy should be part of every small business risk-management strategy.

Employment Practice Liability Insurance Basics

An EPLI policy will protect your business—including your directors, managers and employees—from lawsuits filed by prospective, current or former workers. This type of policy has fewer limitations than the typical directors’ or officers’ insurance policy. Covered claims generally include sexual harassment, slander and libel, invasion of privacy, emotional distress, discrimination, wrongful discipline or termination, negligent hiring, breach of employment contract, and mismanagement of employee benefit plans. Common exclusions include property damage, bodily injury and intentional/dishonest acts.

Your annual premium for an EPLI policy depends on a number of factors including your company’s size, the industry you’re in, your turnover rates and a risk profile. The insurer you choose may ask to review your written personnel policies before providing you with an EPLI quote.  If your company has been sued over employment practices in the past or has policies deemed to be risky, you will pay a higher premium for coverage.

Your employment practices liability insurance policy will include a deductible that you must pay out of pocket before the remainder of any claim is covered. Once you’ve met the deductible, the policy will reimburse your company for costs incurred defending a lawsuit in court as well as any judgements and settlements—up to the policy limit. EPLI policies generally do not cover punitive damages or civil or criminal fines. Depending on the policy you choose, you may have limited coverage during events such as mass layoffs, mergers or acquisitions.

Coverage will generally be limited to a predetermined amount between $1 million and $25 million depending on the amount of coverage you’ve chosen. Legal defense costs, judgements and settlements all contribute to the limit. Your insurance agent can help you determine how much EPLI coverage you need based on the particulars of your business.

Your policy may require you to allow your insurance company to choose the attorney you use should a claim ever be filed. If you prefer to work with an attorney of your own choosing, you must make sure such a clause is included in your EPLI policy.

Are you confident your current small business insurance package will protect you from employment practice claims? If not, give us a call to review the policies you have in place today.

Email Marketing Basics: Cleaning Up Your Mailing List For Success

Email Marketing Basics: Cleaning Up Your Mailing List For Success

Despite the rise of social media, email is still the marketing mainstay of many businesses—and the numbers show us why. According to the Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, worldwide email accounts will increase 27 percent between 2014 and 2018, from 4.1 billion to more than 5.2 billion. Additionally, the number of worldwide email users—both business and consumer—will increase 12 percent during the same period. Whatever your industry, chances are excellent that most of your customers are on email and willing to subscribe to communications from your company.

Of course, any email subscriber list you use—whether prospects you’ve purchased from a vendor or generated from your current customers—is only as good as the data it contains. If it’s outdated—leading to repeated emails sent to bad or non-existent email addresses—it’s more than a waste of time; it can potentially damage your reputation with email service providers. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help you keep your email subscriber list in great condition. Consider these three ways to clean it up today.

1. Eliminate any distribution email addresses. These are generic addresses that distribute received emails to multiple parties within an organization. They often begin with “sales,” “support” or “questions” and are rarely beneficial from a marketing standpoint because they distribute your message to individuals who did not ask for it and who may report it as SPAM.

2. Review your bounce reports. Emails may “bounce” for numerous reasons. A “non-existent” bounce may be due to an email address that no longer exists or has a typo within it. Go through the emails with this designation in the report and see if there are any you can correct. If not, discard them.

An “undeliverable” bounce means that the server that houses the email address is either temporarily down or not found. A “blocked” bounce means that the server that houses the email address is not allowing the email to enter. Review your bounce report for emails with undeliverable and blocked designations. If the report repeatedly labels them as such, discard them.

3. Look at your email “opens” and “clicks.” If you’re sending communications through an email marketing service, you should be able to review a list of the prospects or customers who opened your latest missive as well as those who clicked on links within it. If you notice individuals in your list who consistently fail to open or click links within your marketing emails, consider reaching out to them with a special offer to encourage re-engagement.

You might extend a special discount, a free eBook or anything else that’s of value to the reader of this “We Miss You” message. Make sure your unsubscribe link is prominently displayed so those who are truly no longer interested in your product or service are prompted to opt out.

Before you abandon your email marketing efforts in favor of social media, try cleaning up your subscriber list. The minimal time spent is likely to be well worth the results—according to McKinsey & Company, a global management-consulting firm, email is almost 40 times better at acquiring new customers than Facebook or Twitter.



Start Blogging in 2016

Blogging 2016

January is a great month to start new habits, especially habits that can grow your business. According to HubSpot, an inbound marketing software company, nearly 40 percent of U.S. businesses have a blog for marketing purposes. If you’re not among them, it’s time to think about joining the ranks of business bloggers. Not only will it provide a vehicle for sharing engaging stories about your business, products and services, a well-maintained blog can also improve your search engine ranking and ultimately lead to more customers in the form of inbound leads. Consider the following steps to get started:

1. Identify your business blog goal and purpose.

While your ultimate goal will be to promote your business, you need to do so subtly. The best blogs are not overtly promotional but instead provide readers (customers and potential customers) with articles and tips they will find helpful. The purpose of your blog should be to present your company as the best source of information in your industry. This purpose will drive your content creation strategy.

2. Choose your blogging platform

There are many platform options available for building and publishing your business blog—from free programs to fee for service platforms. WordPressBloggerTumblrSvbtle and HubSpot frequently appear on lists of the best. To maximize your results, experts recommend choosing one that you can install on your domain and integrate with your website.

3. Commit to blogging regularly.

You should fill your blog with relevant content, updating it with new posts regularly. Once you’ve brainstormed a list of suitable topics, create an editorial calendar that includes who on your team will write each blog post, the date the content is due, and the date you intend to publish it.

In Marketing Benchmark’s study, HubSpot found that companies that blog 15 or more times each month got five times more traffic to their website than those that don’t blog at all. Companies that increased their blog frequency from three to five times a month to six to eight times a month almost doubled their leads.

4. Create a plan for generating blog traffic.

Your blog will be of little use if your customers and potential customers don’t know about it or cannot find it. Great ways to generate blog traffic include:

  • Search engine optimized blog posts.
  • Promotion on your company’s social media pages (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+).
  • Weekly email blasts to your database with excerpts from recent posts.
  • Eye-catching links to the blog from your company’s home page.
  • Including links to your blog in your staffs’ email signatures.

According to Social Media Today, an independent online community for professionals in public relations, marketing and advertising, small businesses with blogs generate 126 percent more leads than those without. Why is this so? The answer may lie in the popularity of blogs with U.S. consumers. In fact, surveys have found that 81 percent of them trust the advice and information they find on blogs. Sixty-one percent have purchased a product or service based on a blog post. Starting your business blog will require a time investment; however, the new customers you gain will be well worth the effort.

Maintaining a Psychopath-Free Workplace

Maintaining a Psychopath-Free Workplace

When you think about psychopaths, individuals like Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Dexter likely spring to mind. However, most employees who fit the psychopath profile are not serial killers, mass murderers or notorious criminals—though they share a number of similar characteristics, all of which can make them nightmares to work with.


What is a Psychopath?

Simply put, a psychopath is someone who is unable to feel guilt, remorse or empathy. Experts estimate one in 100 men and one in 300 women have this personality disorder, though spotting them can be a challenge. Most tend to blend into society without attracting undo attention. Many mask their antisocial nature with superficial charm and gregariousness, while others are almost inhumanely calm. Still, psychopaths can’t hide all their unsavory traits. Warning signs such as unreliability, dishonesty, insincerity, arrogance and egocentricity eventually give them away.


Digging Deeper

The best way to maintain a psychopath-free workplace is to avoid hiring them in the first place. Pre-employment screening—including a criminal background check and credit check—is essential, as always. However, not all psychopaths have criminal records or a history of credit mismanagement. Digging deeper into each candidate’s past is necessary for due diligence.

Consider the following tips:

  • Start with the interview. Behavioral interview questions may cause even the most charismatic psychopath to stumble. Try, “Tell me about a mistake you made at your last job” and “How did that mistake impact your coworkers?” A reluctance to admit errors and an inability to address the feelings of others could indicate you’re dealing with a psychopath. Other warning signs include describing ordinary duties as amazing achievements and inconsistencies between information given verbally and that contained in the resume.
  • Never skip the reference check. If the candidate worked for another company for any length of time, it’s likely someone there noticed his or her psychopathic tendencies. Speak with every former supervisor and—for good measure—call the main company number instead of the one listed on the resume. This will eliminate any chance of subterfuge. While most employers are limited in what they can say—confirming dates of employment and salary, for example—a simple question like “Would you hire this employee again?” can reveal volumes.
  • Check out military history as well. If your candidate was in the military, ask to see his or her DD-214—also known as a certificate of release or discharge from active duty. A separation code of E4 is normal for non-officers. If you find an E1, consider it a red flag. Experts advise that this indication of bad behavior while in service is a good predictor of future behavior in the workplace. Similarly, an RE-4 re-entry code indicates the veteran is ineligible for enlistment in any military body—another possible warning sign.

The Danger of First-Impression Bias

As humans, we form first impressions of others quickly. For example, within the first minute or two of a job interview, most hiring managers have already decided whether they like a candidate or not—and psychopaths can be very likeable. First-impression bias comes about when we’re resistant to changing our opinion of a person once we’ve received additional information. Give in to this bias and you may hire that charismatic jobseeker regardless of the negative details revealed during the screening process. Share the facts presented with another manager who has not met the candidate. If they’re enough to cause alarm, move on to your next candidate.

Small Businesses: Don’t Put Your Data at Risk


Small Businesses: Don't Put Your Data at Risk

Cyber criminals love a good holiday spree! In the midst of 2013’s holiday shopping season, they stole the personal data of more than 70 million Target customers. Around the same time, a data breach at Neiman Marcus compromised the credit and debit card information of more than 1 million customers.

These particular crimes involved large retailers and a website that reportedly earns more than $14 million in profits each year, but if you think your company is too small to be an attractive target, you’re wrong. A 2012 investigative study into data breaches found that 71 percent occur in businesses with 100 or fewer employees. And according to cyber security company McAfee, almost 90 percent of small and medium-sized U.S. businesses don’t use any form of data protection.

Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to prevent the theft of your small business data—and much of it won’t cost you a dime. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Protect every computer with appropriate software – Install an antivirus and antispyware program on every computer connected to the Internet or your internal network. This includes any laptops you allow to connect wirelessly.
  • Install software updates promptly – When software vendors discover vulnerabilities in their products, they release updates with fixes that prevent cyber criminals from exploiting them. Configure each computer to download and install such updates automatically.
  • Secure your Wi-Fi network – Require a password for Wi-Fi access. For even more protection, hide your Wi-Fi network by configuring the wireless access point or router to prevent broadcasting of the network name.
  • Secure computers and network components – Require passwords for login on all office computers, and change those passwords regularly. Keep your network server in a locked location, and lock up any laptop computers when not in use.
  • Establish cyber security rules – Teach your employees what they need to do to protect your small business data. Create and document clear guidelines for computer, network, database, email and Internet usage as well as penalties for violating those guidelines.

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, cybercrime costs our nation $100 billion each year. Implement the suggestions above and minimize your chances of contributing to that statistic. For additional financial protection, talk to your insurance professional about a comprehensive coverage package that includes cybercrime.



Don’t Skip This Critical Part of Your Business Plan

Don't Skip This Critical Part of Your Business Plan

You’ve poured your heart and soul into your business—shouldn’t you protect it? Evaluating your insurance needs is a critical part of business planning, one that will help you protect your investment by minimizing risks, liabilities and losses. Of course, it’s also a difficult road to navigate alone. Whether you’re just starting up, hiring your first employee, or planning for future growth, enlist the assistance of a reputable insurance advisor. He or she will help you review a number of factors to select the right insurance for your company structures, activities and locale.


Business Profile

The types of commercial business policies you need depend on your unique business profile. Your insurance advisor will consider factors like whether you rent or own your office space, your number of employees, whether you ever use temp workers or contractors, whether you produce goods or provide services, if your company leases or owns vehicles, if your business involves large quantities of cash, and how quickly you could resume business if your office were destroyed in a fire or flood.

Some types of insurance are required by law (such as employer insurance), while other policies are just a good idea.


Employer Insurance

If you have employees, state laws require you to pay for certain types of insurance. These include workers’ compensation insurance, unemployment insurance and disability insurance (depending on your location).


Commercial Business Insurance

While structuring your business as a corporation or LLC will protect your personal assets in the event of business liabilities, it will not cover losses your business may incur in the event of a lawsuit, natural disaster or other unfortunate event. Commercial business insurance policies include general liability insurance, product liability insurance, professional liability insurance, commercial property insurance, errors and omissions insurance, key executive insurance, business continuation insurance and home-based business insurance.


Unexpected Events

You and your insurance advisor should discuss your business risks in regards to unexpected events including the death of a business partner, an injured employee, a customer lawsuit or a natural disaster. Any of these misfortunes can destroy an uninsured business. The amount of commercial insurance your company needs depends, at least in part, on how aggressively you want to manage those risks.


Reassessing Coverage

As your business evolves, your liabilities change. Meet with your insurance advisor annually to ensure disaster does not strike while you are underinsured. If you hire additional employees, invest in new equipment or expand your operations, contact your advisor as soon as possible to discuss the implications for your insurance coverage.

While you need to include insurance premiums in your budget when planning your business, many policies are actually quite affordable, especially when you consider the potential losses your business may incur if you choose to operate unprotected.



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