From the April 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

Duty Calls

Business operations don't have to go AWOL when a key employee is called to active duty in the military.

Through the SBA, businesses can get Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loans to cover the cost of hiring skilled temporary workers or consultants to carry the load of a reservist employee who has been called to the front. The loans are typically approved within days, and interest rates don't top 4 percent, says the SBA's Carol Chastang. Entrepreneurs can borrow up to $1.5 million under the loan.

Dave Doherty runs Dataworld Inc., a specialty computer graphics and data firm in Bethesda, Maryland. His in-house tech guru, Jeff Mcintosh, is an Army reservist currently in his second tour of duty since November 2001. In Mcintosh's absence, Doherty took out a loan to cover the expense of hiring consultants to get his office up and running after a move. "We only have eight employees, and everybody's key-but he's especially key," says Doherty. As of mid-November 2003, 126 companies in the same bind as Doherty's had taken out loans totaling $10.3 million.

Book 'Em!

It's something most employees dread: The boss reads the latest hot-selling management book and wants employees to read it, too.

Books are a way to bond with workers and train them at the same time. But while you're eager to have employees read the latest bestseller, they might see it as something they have to do to keep you happy. When this happens, training turns into tedium.

"A lot of [business] books are packed with great information, but they're so boring," says Annette Richmond, principal of Richmond Consulting Group in Rowayton, Connecticut. "And some people aren't readers." Here are tips for getting more out of the workplace reading circle:

  • Show employees how the book applies to their jobs. What do you want them to get out of it, exactly? Teamwork? Productivity?
  • Assign one or two key chapters instead of the whole book. This focuses discussions on one or two particular problems facing your workplace.
  • Build an on-site library where employees can recommend books. They might be more apt to read and share when they have power over the decision-making process.

But why rely solely on books? Movies such as Rudy, Working Girl and Wall Street offer classic lessons in teamwork, ethics, conflict resolution and determination, which you can discuss as a team. Popcorn is optional.

Loyal Treatment

Imagine running a software program that tells you whether a talented employee will quit in the next six months. It sounds futuristic, but now it's a reality.

A variety of sophisticated HR data-mining software packages are coming onto the market that let employers crunch employee data-including age, salary, tenure, department, absences, individual performance reviews and other factors-to calculate loyalty. Software companies Oracle Corp., SAS Institute Inc. and SPSS Inc. are just a few players in this space.

An impending skilled labor shortage will force employers to focus on retention, says Roger Herman, co-founder of The Herman Group, a workplace and work-force consulting firm in Greensboro, North Carolina. "We're going to see a significant pickup in employee turnover," he predicts, adding that HR data-mining software will help employers get a better sense of how many people might be leaving and when-and even who might be leaving.

Small businesses have been stymied by the price tag of HR data-mining products, which can top $100,000. But the software will filter down to small companies over the next few years as new products enter the market and small employers embrace the power of data mining, says DJ Chhabra, vice president of HR management system development for Oracle in Redwood Shores, California. Small companies want "to understand their particular issues and put corrective actions in place," he says. "[Data-mining software] will become a standard."

The software, however, has its skeptics. For example, what if an employee was absent 10 days over the past six months because she was caring for a sick relative? The software may not catch gray areas. Plus, skeptics say, it's always better to speak with employees instead of running software programs behind their backs.

Neil Fleming, senior vice president of Dallas-based 2W Systems Co. Inc., an SAS Affiliate Partner that provides data-mining, analysis and management services, believes data-mining software might be more effective as a means of starting a dialogue with employees and crafting management solutions that can keep turnover low.

But get employee buy-in first, or risk a backlash. "Employees might see [data mining] as a quick road to layoffs," Fleming says. "Say you want to make [your company] a better place to work. Put it in a positive light."

You'll have to balance the software with soft skills, since getting to know employees as people will remain the key to creating loyalty, no matter how much technology comes along. "The software will help you get some metrics to work with," Herman says, "but you still need to be out there with your people."


30%
of employees would leave their jobs if they could.
SOURCE: Watson Wyatt Worldwide

60%
of employees say they read every word of their employment contracts, including the fine print.
SOURCE: Findlaw.com

Joanne Cleaver has written for a variety of publications, including the Chicago Tribune and Executive Female.