Monday, June 22, 2009

Business Process Improvement for Nonprofits - Part 9: Final Step?

Step 9 – Start Again

This is not like the penalty card in some board game that sends you back to the beginning. Instead, see this as closing a loop and taking the opportunity to circle back through the process in a healthy, endless review and improvement of your business processes.

As one process improves, it may help you identify others that need improvement or even pave the way to improve related processes you could not have changed before. As your staff gets on the BPI wagon, they will start spotting opportunities for even minor improvements in isolated processes. Finding ways to improve the work they do makes the work itself more interesting in some ways and certainly focuses their minds where you want them: thinking about the best way to perform their responsibilities at work.

If you collect your project materials in an electronic folder, review and update them to adapt to each new initiative, and document the baselines before and performance results after your changes, you will develop quite a history of progressive improvement for your department or entire organization. It will become a legacy anyone can be proud of.

Here is the final outline of this series of posts:
7. Monitor the results: “Are we getting the results we sought?”
8. Diagnosis/Assessment: “If no improvement, why?” “If that worked, what else can we improve?”
9. Begin a renewed effort: no process is perfect and no office runs perfectly. There is always room for improvement!
Happy BPI'ing!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Managing Your Reputation Online - Part Two: Protect What You Can

In Part One of this series, I introduced the risks. Here, I want to provide a check-list for small business and nonprofit managers to use as a guide in their efforts to take preventive measures.

1. Register any TMs you want to keep. The United States Patent and Trademark Office has a good page of FAQs to help you determine what type of registration--if any--you need. For most registrations, you do not need an attorney. The PTO has an online Trademark Electronic Application System. For copyrights, no registration is necessary, but some people prefer to do so. The U.S. Copyright Office also has an online registration page.

2. Mark all Copyrights and Marks you claim. Use the "TM" for trademarks and "SM" for service marks for the ones you claim, whether or not you register them. Only after registration can you use the "®" symbol. Copyrights can be publicly proclaimed with a "copyright notice" much like you see in printed materials showing the symbol or word "copyright," the year of first publication and the owner's name (e.g., "©2009 Your Name").

3. Reserve all rights. Although the trademark, service mark and copyright "marks" plainly flag your intellectual property ("IP"), some holders go farther and add--especially on copyrights--words such as "all rights reserved." This tells the world that you have not waived any rights to your IP and want to be contacted for permission before use. It is not necessary and does not really have legal effect, but also does not hurt anything.

4. Provide a process for obtaining permissions and licenses. If you want to help others honor your IP rights and seek permission before using your IP, then avoid the common mistake of failing to provide a way for them to find and ask you. Post contact information in the material, for example. Photographers can register their artwork at sites like The point is to make it easy to find you so they can ask permission and give you a chance to grant it (with or without payment).

5. File for any patents you want. All the above information is NOT applicable to patents. Patent applications are, well, different. Though it is not required, it is highly advisable to seek legal assistance with any patent application or response to PTO questions or challenges. It also surprises people to find out that the information they submit to the PTO becomes public. That is because the very act of getting a patent is not to keep your secrets, but to keep your rights to the unique product or process.

6. Be Consistent with using and labeling your IP. If you have unregistered TMs, SMs or Copyrights, be sure to always tag them with those little symbols. Once per paragraph or page is enough, but always on any exterior text or artwork. You want everyone to know that you know your rights and are intent on protecting them.

7. Educate your staff. When do they use the TM or the ©? What do they do if someone outside your business asks to use the mark? What can be claimed as a SM? If you have to, bring in an IP lawyer to give a quick training class. Some will do it as part of their business development efforts (especially if you at least provide lunch) and others offer it to clients who use their services.

8. Register with third-party problem-solving organizations like the BBB and BBB Online. You can do everything right and still end up with a dispute that can damage your reputation. Register in advance and be prepared to use the alternative dispute resolution services if you cannot resolve the dispute with a letter or phone call. You are not in the business of litigating over customer or IP issues, so the faster you can resolve minor matters, the faster you can return to your primary mission.

9. Take all customer complaints seriously. These days, it takes very little for a disgruntled customer to proclaim to the world how sorry your product, staff or services are. They can email all their friends, post a very descriptive story on their FaceBook or other social media site or go global with a video diatribe on YouTube. In fact, while sitting on hold or standing in line, they can "Tweet their beef" to the entire world with only a cell phone.

10. Make sure you have good quality control systems. The best problem solving system is a problem prevention system. Take QC seriously and make sure your customers know it. Give them an EASY way to provide feedback and suggestions. Invite them into the dialogue with you on how to improve, then listen to what they have to say. It is much cheaper than cleaning up a mess after the fact.

11. Bolster your reputation with good testimonials BEFORE any bad ones arrive. This is even better than an “ounce of prevention.” Elicit quotable feedback and display the positive comments prominently. It builds your relationship with the quoted customer and helps others see that perhaps their dissatisfaction is not the norm. These must be honest and you must get permission prior to publication, but even customers who decline will be glad you asked.

My next segment in this series will cover monitoring your digital reputation.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Environmental Issues Can Arise In Everyday Life for Small Businesses

How much effort do you put into ensuring compliance with environmental laws? If you think they do not apply to your business or cannot become a risk to your operations, consider this story.

A small business came to me for help with a contract dispute. The business whose assets it was buying filed for bankruptcy before the deal was finished. A party’s bankruptcy can definitely ruin a good deal, but this one took some unusual turns. The bankrupt company had every intention of selling its assets to my client. It was so eager to liquidate, in fact, that the employees essentially loaded everything into trucks in one state and had it all delivered to my client a few states away.

It looked like the only thing left to resolve was payment. That is, until they opened the trucks on the receiving end. To their surprise, there were numerous unmarked barrels of unidentified substances in the trailers and no paperwork to explain them. If you know anything about federal or state laws that regulate hazardous chemicals, you have likely guessed where this is leading.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (42 USC §6901, et seq.) was originally enacted in 1976 to address the growing consequences of municipal and industrial wastes that were causing increasing problems as industry evolved faster than the regulations. Both “hazardous” and “solid” (though not necessarily hazardous) wastes are carefully defined and regulated under different sections of the statute and different regulations.

The key part of RCRA is subtitle C, where Congress fashioned the “cradle to grave” concept to track regulated substances from the creation point until disposal. The Environmental Protection Agency [1] was charged with creating regulations[2] and procedures to accomplish this task.

The federal regulations that applied to those mystery barrels transported across state lines are discussed on the EPA site’s Manifest pages for Transporters. The Hazardous Waste Manifest System is a set of forms, reports, and procedures designed to seamlessly track hazardous waste from the time it leaves the generator facility where it was produced, until it reaches the off-site waste management facility that will store, treat, or dispose of the hazardous waste. The system allows the waste generator to verify that its waste has been properly delivered, and that no waste has been lost or unaccounted for in the process.

The RCRA "Bite"

The teeth in RCRA are in 42 U.S.C. § 6928: violators face civil penalties up to $25,000 per day for violating a compliance order as well as criminal fines of up to $50,000 per day or imprisonment up to two years for the first offense, double for a subsequent offense. If the violator is a person who knows at the time that his actions risk imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to another person, the fines can go up to $250,000 and the prison sentence to 15 years. For a business so convicted, the fine can be $1 million. Note well that these penalties even apply to used oil that is not regulated under RCRA!

Armed with the information above, my client had a significant bargaining chip to use to bring the matter to a prompt, acceptable result. The seller had either knowingly transported or caused to be transported “without a manifest, any hazardous waste or any used oil not identified or listed as a hazardous waste under this subchapter required by regulations promulgated under this subchapter (or by a State in the case of a State program authorized under this subchapter) to be accompanied by a manifest.” (42 U.S.C. § 6928 (d)(5)) Compliance was simple—label the containers and list them on the truck’s manifest—but had not occurred. In disregarding those steps, the seller had thereby put my client into risk of sanctions had it not reported the incident.[3] Had the seller not violated RCRA, the matter may have been protracted in bankruptcy court for months longer and with uncertain results.

Environmental Law Compliance

So-called “environmental law” conjures images that most small businesses cannot envision for themselves. Yet, there is no minimum quantity rule that exempts those who produce, store, transport or dispose of regulated materials.[4] When in doubt, your business should request a manifest before accepting delivery of any substance that you are not certain is unregulated. If you do not know whether your activities are regulated by the RCRA, you should review widely-available online resources to confirm that any substances or materials you produce, including useable products, or discard are not covered.[5] Even though recycling can remove certain materials from the manifest system requirements, materials such as electronic components require special handling to protect the environment, waste disposal workers and your organization.

Compliance is relatively simple unless you are a hazardous waste disposal company or produce huge amounts of regulated wastes that you do not sell. Non-compliance can put you out of business.

[1] The EPA’s website has good resources for understanding which wastes are regulated, what to do in case of an accidental spill, and even a public database of documents and guidelines.

[2] The EPA’s Hazardous Waste Regulations page has links to federal regulations that make up the Hazardous Waste Management System. Regulations that govern non-hazardous wastes regulated under RCRA are described on a separate Non-hazardous Waste Regulations page.

[3] Most states with environmental regulations have mechanisms for voluntary reporting of discovered violations that provide a window for penalty-free remediation to regain compliance.

[4] To find RCRA compliance guidance on a state-by-state basis, use tools like the ones in this gateway from the Environmental Compliance Assistance Platform (a project of the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) with support from the U.S. EPA).

[5] For a better understanding of environmental regulations that may apply to your business, try the National Compliance Assistance Centers portal (also supported by EPA).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

When Hiring, Consider Firing First

Beginning With the End in Mind

When hiring new staff, few managers think about the possibility they may have to fire or lay off that employee. Yet, as with prenuptial agreements, the best time to prevent problems at separation is when the relationship begins.

Even though you hire someone without an employment contract (known as “at will employment” in many states), you can still have other agreements that are enforceable but do not change the nature of the employment into a contract. Some companies actually go to the extent of having employment contracts with everyone for two-week terms, renewable every two weeks unless and until a violation or termination event occurs. For the purposes of this article, I will use “employee agreement” to mean terms other than length of employment.

Your employee agreement should address issues such as those that may arise before, during or after employment. Make the agreement a condition of hiring, to be clear to everyone how important the terms are. Get existing employees to sign one, such as to continue employment at their anniversary, upon promotion or to receive a raise. That satisfies the need for “consideration” unambiguously.

A Checklist

1. Acknowledgement that employee has received and agreement that the employee will read and adhere to policies and procedures. Can you show an auditor that your employees actually received their policy manuals? This is an annual agreement in many places, coinciding with the delivery of updates to the organization’s written policy manual. Get a signature that establishes the employee received his or her copy and promises to read and abide by them. It is not essential to proving those facts, but it helps.

2. Agreement that the employee will not violate criminal laws while performing job duties or on worksite or using employer property. It seems like this would be unnecessary. Why do you need someone to agree to avoid actions that are already illegal? Yet, as many international businesses know, it is essential that the organization show that illegal behavior was not permitted, condoned, promoted or implicitly rewarded. How would you show that? Start with policies that expressly prohibit illegal behaviors, from outright bribes down to cutting regulatory corners, then continue hammering the message with periodic compliance reviews and training on the rules applicable to their jobs. Together, these will help your organization defend itself should someone go astray.

3. Agreement that the employee will keep employer's and customers' secrets. This provision deserves careful drafting. You may have additional responsibilities to accommodate on confidentiality due to professional standards or customer contracts. “Secrets” is a term that means different things in different contexts. Try to define it anyway. Be specific AND general. Supplement with training and periodic reminders of how easily secrets are leaked and stolen, as well as the potential damages that can result.

4. Agreement regarding ownership of intellectual property rights for works created during the course of and term of employment. It is as old as artistry itself: the debate over who owns works created by someone while in the employ of another. Laws attempt to clarify the matter, but sometimes do the opposite. Even worse, some contracts applicable to the organization may contravene local laws where the employee is working or the organization’s agreements with its staff. Do not limit your concern to patents, for copyright is the most common protection and applies to more work than others, especially in today’s “information age” organizations. And keep in mind the growing blur between work and non-work areas of your employee’s lives. What about ideas or blog posts written at 2 a.m.?

5. Agreement that the employee will cooperate in compliance reviews and investigations of compliance issues during and after employment. Get this one up front and remind every hire how important compliance is to you and your organization. Nothing positive is gained from being unclear here. By stating expectations and values at the beginning of the relationship, you will be more likely to see those values throughout the term.

6. Agreement that the employee will submit to additional screening deemed necessary by employer to perform job duties or enter certain work sites or work on certain projects. More and more employers require pre-hire drug screening. Those in sensitive industries have policies for additional screenings after start date. You generally want everyone on notice that you may require an individual to submit to screening upon ANY indication that his or her performance may be impaired. Whether you ever need to use this or not, put them on notice at the outset and help avoid problems later.

7. Agreement regarding use of company property and facilities. What happens if the employee loses his or her company-provided smart phone? What if client files disappear the last week of employment?

Important Notes

This article is not intended to give legal advice to anyone. It is merely to serve as a discussion-starter. You should consult with qualified legal counsel regarding the specific laws in your area, because they vary extensively from state to state. If your employees have a collective bargaining unit, of course, other rules and limitations will apply, but the guidance above may still be within your reserved management powers if not specifically addressed in the union contract.

For a guide when settling employment law disputes, read this article by Robert B. Fitzpatrick: Although published in 2003, it serves as a good starting point in the event your efforts to prevent employment issues are not completely successful.