NEW YORK -- When David Winters' staffers ask for financial help, advice or to borrow a company car, the answer is yes.
"We have single working mothers, single working fathers, folks with four and five children," says Winters, owner of a Screenmobile franchise in Charlotte, North Carolina. "If you don't support the team, what's the point?"
Winters has helped his 20 staffers pay for car repairs and veterinary bills and assisted them in filing income tax returns or getting child support. He gives interest-free loans — which he often forgives.
For many small business owners, being a boss means helping staffers when they struggle. Owners do it out of compassion and concern, and also to return the loyalty they get from employees. Owners realize staffers are more productive when they feel supported and aren't worrying about personal problems. And helping staffers can make a small business better able to compete for workers in a tight job market; large companies with hundreds or thousands of employees are more regimented and often won't bend the rules when employees are in need.
Winters helps his staffers, who repair window and door screens, out of kindness but he's also aware his help reduces their stress and makes it easier for them to be cheerful with customers and provide better service.
Trivinia Barber knew that one of her staffers with young children was worried about driving them in a car with worn tires. Barber spent $300 to buy new ones.
"That $300 was a drop in the bucket for me to give her peace of mind," says Barber, CEO of Priority VA. "Her fear was taking away from her performance at work."
Barber, based in Savannah, Georgia, but with five employees and dozens of freelancers who work remotely, knows the structure of her company can create feelings of isolation, another reason to be responsive to staffers' needs. When they've lost relatives, Barber has helped with practical matters.
Owners who are empathic and help employees can foster a great deal of goodwill, but they should think about any problems their assistance might cause, says Rick Gibbs, a consultant with human resources provider Insperity. For example, if a boss is very selective about who gets help with financial problems.
"It may feel good in the short term but it could create issues with other employees who become aware of those gifts," Gibbs says.
Bosses also need to be sure they'll get their money back — some employees have gotten loans and left before repaying them, Gibbs says.
At Foresite Commercial Real Estate, owners Bethany Babcock and Chad Knibbe have been generous with time off when staffers are ill, even one who needed major surgery right after joining the San Antonio-based company. They've helped pay moving expenses for a staffer with domestic problems, and bought a plane ticket for an employee who wanted to visit a nephew on life support. The rest of the staff has also pitched in, for example, with donations of frequent flyer points
But Babcock and Knibbe have learned some staffers might try to take advantage of them. They've had new employees who "seemed to develop an expectation that the company was there to solve and prevent any and all personal financial challenges," Babcock says.
She and Knibbe have learned not to offer extraordinary help until they become familiar with a staffer. But, Babcock says, "I would rather get burned 10 times than miss the one time that might have been legitimate that impacts someone's life."
Some companies help staffers out of a business need. Reboot Online, a digital marketing company based north of London, helps staffers who emigrate from countries like Romania, Russia and Slovakia. The company recruits outside Britain because it struggles to find staffers with skills it needs. The newly arrived workers need help getting settled.
"They often don't have the credit rating to rent a house, buy a car," Managing Director Naomi Aharony says. "So financial guarantees and personal references from us as U.K. company directors are needed."
But the company's efforts don't guarantee employees will stay.
"In the past we have leased cars and acted as guarantors for employees and have been left to foot the bills when the employee decides to go back home after six months," Aharony says.
For Dr. Kenneth Rothaus, giving advice when staffers ask is the right thing to do. Giving advice on health is natural for the Manhattan plastic surgeon, but employees also seek Rothaus' wisdom about apartments and cars. He'll listen to personal problems, but doesn't offer suggestions unless the staffer specifically asks.
"There are certain boundaries you shouldn't cross," he says.
Danielle Roberts and her husband and business partner, David Kunkle, have helped staffers struggling with some of the worst things that can happen — in one case, supporting and listening to a mother whose son committed suicide.
"When it was clear she was struggling to cope I helped her research support groups for grieving parents of children who committed suicide," says Roberts, whose insurance agency, Boomer Benefits, is based in Fort Worth, Texas.
They've helped in smaller ways, advancing money so a staffer could go to an urgent care clinic, and paying for a car service for another whose car had a flat tire.
"All employees were appreciative but the outcome or the gratitude is irrelevant. We have sometimes just done what felt right as human beings and we never regret it," Roberts says.
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