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Two common business myths that could get you sued

(EDITORIAL) Two misconceptions in the business world can either make or break a small business.

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When you’re an entrepreneur with a small staff, you may be in the habit of running your team casually.

While there’s nothing wrong with creating a casual environment for your team (most people function better in a relaxed environment), it’s wise to pay close attention to certain legal details to make sure you’re covered.

It’s easy to misinterpret certain aspects of labor law since there is a lot of misinformation about what you can and cannot do inside of an employee-employer relationship. And since labor laws vary from state to state, it can be even more confusing.

As an entrepreneur, it might be strange to think of yourself as an employer. But when you’re the boss, there’s no way around it.

Here are two employment myths you might face as an entrepreneur along with the information you need to discern what’s actually true. Because these myths carry a lot of risk to your business, it’s important that you contact an attorney for advice.

1. Employees can waive their meal breaks without compensation

It’s a common assumption that any agreement in writing is an enforceable, legally binding contract, no matter what it contains. And for the most part, that’s true.

However, there are certain rights that cannot be signed away so easily.

For example, many states in the US have strict regulations around when and how employees can forfeit their unpaid meal breaks.

While meal breaks aren’t required at the Federal level, they are mandated at the state level and each state has different requirements that must be followed by employers. While some states allow employees to waive their meal breaks, on the other end of that the employer is usually required to compensate the employee.

For example, in California an employee can waive their 30-minute unpaid meal break only if they do so in writing and their scheduled shift is no more than 6 hours. In other words, when a shift is more than 6 hours, the meal break cannot be waived.

Additionally, when an employee waives their unpaid meal break, they must be paid for an on duty meal break and be compensated with an extra hour of pay for the day.

Vermont, on the other hand, provides no specific provisions for meal breaks and according to the Department of Labor, “Employees are to be given ’reasonable opportunities’ during work periods to eat and use toilet facilities in order to protect the health and hygiene of the employee.”

As you can see, some states have specific regulations while others have general rules that can be interpreted differently by each employer. It’s best not to make any assumptions and contact a labor law attorney to help you determine exactly what laws apply to you.

2. You own the copyright to all employee works

So you’ve hired both an employee and an independent contractor to design some graphics for your website. You might assume you automatically own the copyright to those graphics. After all, if you paid money, shouldn’t you own it?

While you may have paid a small fortune for your graphics, you may not be the legal copyright holder.

Employees vs. independent contractors:

When your employee creates a work (like graphic design) as part of their job, it’s automatically considered a “work made for hire,” which means you own the copyright. An independent contractor, however, is different.

While any legitimate work made for hire will give you the copyright, just because you created a work for hire agreement with your independent contractor doesn’t mean the work actually falls under the category of a work made for hire.

According to the Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 101) a work made for hire is defined as “a work specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work, as a part of a motion picture or other audiovisual work, as a translation, as a supplementary work, as a compilation, as an instructional text, as a test, as answer material for a test, or as an atlas.”

This means that unless your graphic design work (or other work you paid for) meets these requirements, it’s not a work made for hire.

In order to obtain the copyright, you need to obtain a copyright transfer directly from the creator, even though you’ve already paid for the work.

The boundaries of intellectual property rights can be confusing. You can protect your business by playing it safe and not making any assumptions before consulting an attorney to help you discern the specific laws in your state.

Larry Alton is an independent business consultant specializing in social media trends, business, and entrepreneurship. When he's not consulting, glued to a headset, he's working on one of his many business projects. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Opinion Editorials

How strong leaders use times of crises to improve their company’s future

(EDITORIAL) We’re months into the COVID-19 crisis, and some leaders are still fumbling through it, while others are quietly safeguarding their company’s future.

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Anthony J. Algmin is the Founder and CEO of Algmin Data Leadership, a company helping business and technology leaders transform their future with data, and author of a new book on data leadership. We asked for his insights on how a strong leader can see their teams, their companies, their people through this global pandemic (and other crises in the future). The following are his own words:

Managers sometimes forget that the people we lead have lives outside of the office. This is true always, but is amplified when a crisis like COVID-19 occurs. We need to remember that our job is to serve our teams, to help them be as aligned and productive as possible in the short and long terms.

Crises are exactly when we need to think about what they might be going through, and realize that the partnership we have with our employees is more than a transaction. If we’ve ever asked our people to make sacrifices, like working over a weekend without extra pay, we should be thinking first about how we can support them through the tough times. When we do right by people when they really need it, they will run through walls again for our organizations when things return to normal.

Let them know it’s okay to breathe and talk about it. In a situation like COVID-19 where everything is disrupted and people are now adjusting to things like working from home, it is naturally going to be difficult and frustrating.

The best advice is to encourage people to turn off the TV and stop frequently checking the news websites. As fast as news is happening, it will not make a difference in what we can control ourselves. Right now most of us know what our day will look like, and nothing that comes out in the news is going to materially change it. If we avoid the noisy inputs, we’ll be much better able to focus and get our brains to stop spinning on things we can’t control.

And this may be the only time I would advocate for more meetings. If you don’t have at least a daily standup with your team, you should. And encourage everyone to have a video-enabled setup if at all possible. We may not be able to be in the same room, but the sense of engagement with video is much greater than audio-only calls.

We also risk spiraling if we think too much about how our companies are struggling, or if our teams cannot achieve what our organizations need to be successful. It’s like the difference in sports between practice and the big game. Normal times are when we game plan, we strategize, and work on our fundamentals. Crises are the time to focus and leave it all on the field.

That said, do not fail to observe and note what works well and where you struggle. If you had problems with data quality or inefficient processes before the crisis, you are not fixing them now. Pull out the duct tape and find a way through it. But later, when the crisis subsides, learn from the experience and get better for next time.

Find a hobby. Anything you can do to clear your head and separate work from the other considerations in your life. We may feel like the weight of the world is on our shoulders, and without a pressure release we will not be able to sustain this level of stress and remain as productive as our teams, businesses, and families need us.

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Opinion Editorials

Declutter your quarantine workspace (and brain)

(EDITORIAL) Can’t focus? Decluttering your workspace can help you increase productivity, save money, and reduce stress.

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It’s safe to say that we’ve all been spending a lot more time in our homes these last few months. This leads us to fixate on the things we didn’t have time for before – like a loose doorknob or an un-alphabetized bookshelf.

The same goes for our workspaces. Many of us have had to designate a spot at home to use for work purposes. For those of you who still need to remain on-site, you’ve likely been too busy to focus on your surroundings.

Cleaning and organizing your workspace every so often is important, regardless of the state of the world, and with so much out of our control right now, this is one of the few things we can control.

Whether you’re working from a home office or an on-site office, take some time for quarantine decluttering. According to The Washington Post, decluttering can increase your productivity, lower stress, and save money (I don’t know about you, but just reading those three things makes me feel better already).

Clutter can cause us to feel overwhelmed and make us feel a bit frazzled. Having an office space filled with piles of paper containing irrelevant memos from five years ago or 50 different types of pens, has got to go – recycle that mess and reduce your stress. The same goes with clearing files from your computer; everything will run faster.

Speaking of running faster, decluttering and creating a cleaner workspace will also help you be more efficient and productive. Build this habit by starting small: try tidying up a bit at the end of every workday, setting yourself up for a ready-to-roll morning.

Cleaning also helps you take stock of stuff that you have so that you don’t end up buying more of it. Create a designated spot for your tools and supplies so that they’re more visible – this way, you’ll always know what you have and what needs to be replenished. This will help you stop buying more of the same product that you already have and save you money.

So, if you’ve been looking to improve your focus and clearing a little bit of that ‘quarantine brain’, start by getting your workspace in order. You’ll be amazed at how good it feels to declutter and be “out with the old”; you may even be inspired to do the same for your whole house. Regardless, doing this consistently will create a positive shift in your life, increasing productivity, reducing stress, and saving you money.

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Opinion Editorials

How to ask your manager for better work equipment

(EDITORIAL) Old computer slowing you down? Does it make a simple job harder? Here’s how to make a case to your manager for new equipment to improve your productivity.

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What is an employee to do when the work equipment bites.

Let’s be frank, working on old, crappy computers with inefficient applications can make the easiest tasks a chore. Yet, what do you do? You know you need better equipment to do your job efficiently, but how to ask the boss without looking like a whiner who wants to blow the department budget.

In her “Ask A Manager” column, Alison Green says an employee should ask for better equipment if it is needed. For example, the employee in her column has to attend meetings, but has no laptop and has to take a ton of notes and then transcribe them. Green says, it’s important to make the case for the benefits of having newer or updated equipment.

The key is showing a ROI. If you know a specific computer would be a decent upgrade, give your supervisor the specific model and cost, along with the expected outcomes.

In addition, it may be worth talking to someone from the IT department to see what options might be available – if you’re in a larger company.

IT professionals who commented on Green’s column made a few suggestions. Often because organizations have contracts with specific computer companies or suppliers, talking with IT about what is needed to get the job done and what options are available might make it easier to ask a manager, by saying, “I need a new computer and IT says there are a few options. Here are my three preferences.” A boss is more likely to be receptive and discuss options.

If the budget doesn’t allow for brand new equipment, there might be the option to upgrade the RAM, for example. In a “Workplace” discussion on StackExchange.com an employee explained the boss thinks if you keep a computer clean – no added applications – and maintained it will perform for years. Respondents said, it’s important to make clear the cost-benefit of purchasing updated equipment. Completing a ROI analysis to show how much more efficiently with the work be done may also be useful. Also, explaining to a boss how much might be saved in repair costs could also help an employee get the point across.

Managers may want to take note because, according to results of a Gallup survey, when employees are asked to meet a goal but not given the necessary equipment, credibility is lost.

Gallup says that workgroups that have the most effectively managed materials and equipment tend to have better customer engagement, higher productivity, better safety records and employees that are less likely to jump ship than their peers.

And, no surprise, if a boss presents equipment and says: “Here’s what you get. Deal with it,” employees are less likely to be engaged and pleased than those employees who have a supervisor who provides some improvements and goes to bat to get better equipment when needed.

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