Question: My employees enjoy sharing YouTube videos via e-mail and iPod. I find some of the "funny" material risque. Should I worry about sexual harassment?
Answer: Your question is timely. The explosion in new media and portable digital devices has business owners scrambling to establish relevant and sensible management policies. The technology presents wonderful communications and marketing opportunities, but it also can be a time-wasting distraction or even set up an actionable sexual harassment claim on the job.
Companies need to make it clear that employees who download pictures or videos at home cannot bring them into the office via a cellphone or laptop unless they are relevant and appropriate, said Karen A. Ward, attorney and principal of Newport Beach-based General Counsel, a legal firm. "Companies should limit employee use of company computers and e-mail to work-related issues."
Company policy should specifically prohibit employees from viewing sexually explicit or offensive material on company computers or mobile devices.
A recent state Court of Appeal ruling granted Santa Clara, Calif.-based Agilent Technologies Inc. immunity from liability for the threats an employee made to two people using the firm's computer and Internet services, Ward noted. "However, another company may not get the same protection if it doesn't have a written policy about employee computer use," she said. "In order to provide themselves the most protection, the policies not only have to be on the books, they should also be enforced and monitored."
Good, objective research can quell start-up fears
Q: I want to purchase a franchise operation, but I'm worried that I will be unable to run it profitably. How can I reassure myself during the business-plan process?
A: A business plan is not necessarily going to reassure you, but doing good, objective research for that plan just might.
The problem that most would-be entrepreneurs have in writing a business plan is that they don't know where to get accurate financial projections. What will their start-up expenses actually be? What about ongoing operating expenses? How many employees will they hire and how much revenue can they count on?
One of the benefits of purchasing a franchise operation is that you should get clear expectations for cash flow and profit, said Kylon Gustin, president of Austin, Texas-based SMR Services, a business-plan consultancy and software provider.
"A good franchise should be looking out for the best interest of its franchisees by providing realistic expectations. But you are the final deciding factor and should consider your personal abilities and market conditions when developing your own projections," he said.
Before you estimate your financial projections, Gustin recommended that you start by developing your business model, which is the written portion of your plan. Identify your market, its demands and environmental conditions (technology, government, demographic trends) and your marketing strategy.
"This process will not only better qualify you to make financial assumptions but will help answer the question about whether you can make a go of your business," Gustin said. "The process will force you to think through the important issues, identify what you don't know and foster an atmosphere of learning more."
There are many business-plan resources, such as the Small Business Administration, www.sba.gov, and Gustin's firm, www.businessplanadvice.com. You also can hire a business-plan consultant, but you should participate directly in the writing and research. Digging into the details can help determine whether your dream of entrepreneurship is a realistic pursuit or something better left to fantasy.
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