Have you applied for a business loan lately? Or had some repairs done on your facilities? Maybe you’ve signed a contract with a certain technologically inclined customer or vendor. In any of these instances, you (or one of your employees) probably had to electronically sign a digital document.

So, the next question is: Why isn’t your company using this technology? If the answer is, “We are,” kudos to you (assuming it’s working out). But if your reply is, “We’ve always used paper and don’t want to deal with the expense and hassle of converting to digital documentation,” you may want to reconsider — because it’s not going away.

Why go digital?

For businesses, there are generally three reasons to use digital documents with e-signatures:

1. Speed. When you can review and sign a business document electronically, it can be transmitted instantly and approved much more quickly. And this works both ways: your customers can sign contracts or submit orders for your products or services, and you can sign similar documents with vendors, partners or consultants. What used to take days or even weeks, as paper envelopes crisscrossed in the mail, now can occur in a matter of hours.

2. Security. Paper has a way of getting lost, damaged and destroyed. That’s not to say digital documents are impervious to thievery, corruption and deletion, but a trusted provider should be able to outfit you with software that not only allows you to use digital docs with e-signatures, but also keep the resulting files encrypted and safe from anyone or anything who would do them harm.

3. Service. This may be the most important reason to incorporate digital docs and e-sigs into your business. Younger generations have come of age, if not grown up, with digitized business services. They expect this functionality and may prefer a company that offers it to one that still requires them to put pen to paper.

What about the law?

Many business owners hesitate to dive into digital docs and e-sigs because of legal concerns. This is a reasonable concern. However, e-signatures are now widely used and generally considered lawful under two statutes:

  1. The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act of 2000, a federal law, and
  2. The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, which governs each state unless a comparable law is in place.

What’s more, every state has some sort of legislation in place legalizing e-signatures. There may be some limited exceptions in certain cases, so check with your attorney for specifics.

Is now the time?

To be clear, investing in digital documents with e-signatures, and training your employees to use them, is a major strategic initiative. You need to ensure the return on investment will be worth the effort. We can assist you in evaluating whether now’s the time to “go digital” and, if so, in setting a budget for the software purchase and implementation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Many of today’s businesses employ workers from across the generational spectrum. Employees may range from Baby Boomers to members of Generation X to Millennials to the newest group, Generation Z.

Managing a workforce with a wide age range requires flexibility and skill. If you’re successful, you’ll likely see higher employee morale, stronger productivity and a more positive work environment for everyone.

Generational definitions

Definitions of the generations vary slightly, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation defines them as follows:

  • Members of the Baby Boomer generation were born from 1946 to 1964,
  • Members of Generation X were born from 1965 to 1979,
  • Members of the Millennial generation were born from 1980 to 1999, and
  • Members of Generation Z were born after 1999.

Certain stereotypes have long been associated with each generation. Baby Boomers are assumed to be grumbling curmudgeons. Gen Xers were originally consigned to being “slackers.” Millennials are often thought of as needy approval-seekers. And many presume that a Gen Zer is helpless without his or her mobile device.

But successfully managing employees across generations requires setting aside stereotypes. Don’t assume that employees fit a certain personality profile based simply on age. Instead, you or a direct supervisor should get to know each one individually to better determine what makes him or her tick.

Best practices

Here are just a couple best practices for managing diverse generations:

Recognize and respect value differences. Misunderstandings and conflicts often arise because of value differences between managers and employees of different generations. For example, many older supervisors expect employees to do “whatever it takes” to get the job done, including working long hours. However, some younger employees place a high value on maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Be sure everyone is on the same page about these expectations. This doesn’t mean younger employees shouldn’t have to work hard. The key is to find the right balance so that work is accomplished satisfactorily and on time, and employees feel like their values are being respected.

Maximize each generation’s strengths. Different generations tend to bring their own strengths to the workplace. For instance, older employees likely have valuable industry experience and important historical business insights to share. Meanwhile, younger employees — especially Generation Z — have grown up with high-powered mobile technology and social media.

Consider initiatives such as company retreats and mentoring programs in which employees from diverse generations can work together and share their knowledge, experiences and strengths. Encourage them to communicate openly and honestly and to be willing to learn from, rather than compete with, one another.

A competitive advantage

Having a multigenerational workforce can be a competitive advantage. Your competitors may not have the hard-fought experience of your older workers nor the fresh energy and ideas of your younger ones. Our firm can help you develop cost-effective strategies for hiring, retaining and maximizing the productivity of employees.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

All complaints will be swiftly and thoroughly investigated.” No doubt this sentence, or something similar, appears in your company’s employee handbook. Unfortunately, there will likely be a time when you’ll have to put those words into action. Whether an employee alleges discrimination or harassment, or reports a coworker for theft or fraud, you’ll need to handle the complaint appropriately.

Keep these five best practices in mind to avoid unnecessary legal complications:

1. Maintain confidentiality. Take every precaution to keep details of the allegation private — especially the identities of the accused and the accuser. Remind managers that they need to have all conversations behind closed doors, store all meeting notes securely and speak only to those people who are necessary to the investigation. Assure workers involved in the investigation that it will be held in strict confidence and inform them that they aren’t free to talk about any part of the process.

2. Conduct productive interviews. Be prepared with an opening statement that describes what’s being investigated, then ask open-ended questions that encourage employees to say more than “yes” or “no.” Ask all interviewees the same questions so that you can compare answers, identify patterns and uncover discrepancies. Also, have a witness present to verify what occurred during the interviews.

3. Avoid bias. Keep an open mind while gathering facts. Just because an employee has a reputation around the office as a “troublemaker” or “crank,” doesn’t mean that person is lying or guilty of an impropriety. Consider hiring a third-party investigator, such as a fraud expert, to handle interviews. This can help preserve impartiality and show all parties that the investigation is being taken seriously.

4. Document activities. Make detailed notes on all the steps of your investigation. Include the dates and times of workspace searches, computer forensic activity and conversations. After every interview or action taken, review your notes to ensure they capture all relevant information.

5. Close the loops. Even if an investigation turns up no evidence of misconduct or criminal behavior, you need to follow up and close the loop with those involved. When complaints are found to have merit, take appropriate action as quickly as possible. You may be able to handle some minor issues with in-house personnel. But consult your legal and financial advisors — and possibly law enforcement — in more serious cases.

Contact us if you need help investigating a fraud allegation.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business decreased by one-half cent, to 57.5 cents per mile. As a result, you might claim a lower deduction for vehicle-related expense for 2020 than you can for 2019.

Calculating your deduction

Businesses can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to business use of vehicles. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle. However, in many cases depreciation write-offs on vehicles are subject to certain limits that don’t apply to other types of business assets.

The cents-per-mile rate comes into play if you don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. With this approach, you don’t have to account for all your actual expenses, although you still must record certain information, such as the mileage for each business trip, the date and the destination.

Using the mileage rate is also popular with businesses that reimburse employees for business use of their personal vehicles. Such reimbursements can help attract and retain employees who drive their personal vehicles extensively for business purposes. Why? Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business mileage, on their own income tax returns.

If you do use the cents-per-mile rate, be aware that you must comply with various rules. If you don’t, the reimbursements could be considered taxable wages to the employees.

The rate for 2020

Beginning on January 1, 2020, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 57.5 cents per mile. It was 58 cents for 2019 and 54.5 cents for 2018.

The business cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually. It’s based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the fixed and variable costs of operating a vehicle, such as gas, maintenance, repair and depreciation. Occasionally, if there’s a substantial change in average gas prices, the IRS will change the mileage rate midyear.

Factors to consider

There are some situations when you can’t use the cents-per-mile rate. In some cases, it partly depends on how you’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past. In other cases, it depends on if the vehicle is new to your business this year or whether you want to take advantage of certain first-year depreciation tax breaks on it.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider in deciding whether to use the mileage rate to deduct vehicle expenses. We can help if you have questions about tracking and claiming such expenses in 2020 — or claiming them on your 2019 income tax return.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

What can AI do for my business?

You’ve no doubt read articles or heard stories about how artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing sweeping change to a wide variety of industries. But it’s one thing to learn about how this remarkable technology is changing someone else’s company and quite another to apply it to your own. Here’s a primer on what AI might be able to do for your business.

3 technology types

AI generally refers to using computers to perform complex tasks usually thought to require human intelligence — such as image perception, voice recognition, decision making and problem solving. Three primary types of technologies fall under the AI umbrella:

1. Machine learning. This involves an iterative process whereby machines improve their performance in a specific task over time with little or no programming or human intervention. It can, for example, improve your forecasting models for determining which products or services will be in high demand with customers.

2. Natural language processing (NLP). This uses algorithms to analyze unstructured human language in documents, emails, texts, conversation or otherwise. Language translation apps are among the most common and dramatic examples of NLP. Communicating with business partners, customers and prospects in other countries — or simply people whose first languages are other than English — has become much easier as this type of software has improved.

3. Robotic process automation (RPA). Using rules and structured inputs, RPA automates time-consuming repetitive manual tasks that don’t require decision making. For instance, an RPA system can collect data from vendor invoices, enter it into a company’s accounting system, and generate an email confirming receipt and requesting additional information if needed. This functionality can help you better time vendor payments to optimize cash flow.

Chat boxes, data sensors

A couple of the most common on-ramps into AI for businesses are chatbots and data sensors. Chatbots are those AI-based instant messaging or voice-based systems that allow users to ask relatively simple questions and get instant answers.

Today’s customers expect to find information quickly and chatbots can provide this speed. However, it’s important to implement a system that enables users to speedily connect to a human customer service rep if their questions or issues are complex or urgent.

Data sensors generally don’t have anything to do with customers, but they can be quite valuable when it comes to your offices or facilities. AI-enhanced building systems allow for real-time monitoring and adjustment of temperature, lighting and other controls. This data can drive predictive analytics that improve decisions about the maintenance and replacement of systems, lowering energy and repair costs.

Upgrade prudently

Precisely how AI might help you run your business more efficiently and profitably depends on the size of your company and the nature of its work. You don’t want to throw dollars at an AI solution just to keep up with the competition. Then again, this technology may offer enticing ways to sharpen your competitive edge. We can help you perform a cost-benefit analysis of any technological upgrade you’re considering.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

As you’ve probably heard, a new law was recently passed with a wide range of retirement plan changes for employers and individuals. One of the provisions of the SECURE Act involves a new requirement for employers that sponsor tax-favored defined contribution retirement plans that are subject to ERISA.

Specifically, the law will require that the benefit statements sent to plan participants include a lifetime income disclosure at least once during any 12-month period. The disclosure will need to illustrate the monthly payments that an employee would receive if the total account balance were used to provide lifetime income streams, including a single life annuity and a qualified joint and survivor annuity for the participant and the participant’s surviving spouse.

Background information

Under ERISA, a defined contribution plan administrator is required to provide benefit statements to participants. Depending on the situation, these statements must be provided quarterly, annually or upon written request. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking providing rules that would have required benefit statements provided to defined contribution plan participants to include an estimated lifetime income stream of payments based on the participant’s account balance.

Some employers began providing this information in these statements — even though it wasn’t required.

But in the near future, employers will have to begin providing information to their employees about lifetime income streams.

Effective date

Fortunately, the effective date of the requirement has been delayed until after the DOL issues guidance. It won’t go into effect until 12 months after the DOL issues a final rule. The law also directs the DOL to develop a model disclosure.

Plan fiduciaries, plan sponsors, or others won’t have liability under ERISA solely because they provided the lifetime income stream equivalents, so long as the equivalents are derived in accordance with the assumptions and guidance and that they include the explanations contained in the model disclosure.

Stay tuned

Critics of the new rules argue the required disclosures will lead to confusion among participants and they question how employers will arrive at the income projections. For now, employers have to wait for the DOL to act. We’ll update you when that happens. Contact us if you have questions about this requirement or other provisions in the SECURE Act.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

A significant law was recently passed that adds tax breaks and makes changes to employer-provided retirement plans. If your small business has a current plan for employees or if you’re thinking about adding one, you should familiarize yourself with the new rules.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (SECURE Act) was signed into law on December 20, 2019 as part of a larger spending bill. Here are three provisions of interest to small businesses.

  1. Employers that are unrelated will be able to join together to create one retirement plan. Beginning in 2021, new rules will make it easier to create and maintain a multiple employer plan (MEP). A MEP is a single plan operated by two or more unrelated employers. But there were barriers that made it difficult to setting up and running these plans. Soon, there will be increased opportunities for small employers to join together to receive better investment results, while allowing for less expensive and more efficient management services.
  2. There’s an increased tax credit for small employer retirement plan startup costs. If you want to set up a retirement plan, but haven’t gotten around to it yet, new rules increase the tax credit for retirement plan start-up costs to make it more affordable for small businesses to set them up. Starting in 2020, the credit is increased by changing the calculation of the flat dollar amount limit to: The greater of $500, or the lesser of: a) $250 multiplied by the number of non-highly compensated employees of the eligible employer who are eligible to participate in the plan, or b) $5,000.
  3. There’s a new small employer automatic plan enrollment tax credit. Not surprisingly, when employers automatically enroll employees in retirement plans, there is more participation and higher retirement savings. Beginning in 2020, there’s a new tax credit of up to $500 per year to employers to defray start-up costs for new 401(k) plans and SIMPLE IRA plans that include automatic enrollment. This credit is on top of an existing plan start-up credit described above and is available for three years. It is also available to employers who convert an existing plan to a plan with automatic enrollment.

These are only some of the retirement plan provisions in the SECURE Act. There have also been changes to the auto enrollment safe harbor cap, nondiscrimination rules, new rules that allow certain part-timers to participate in 401(k) plans, increased penalties for failing to file retirement plan returns and more. Contact us to learn more about your situation.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The end of one year and the beginning of the next is a great opportunity for reflection and planning. You have 12 months to look back on and another 12 ahead to look forward to. Here are five ways to strengthen your business for the new year by doing a little of both:

1. Compare 2019 financial performance to budget. Did you meet the financial goals you set at the beginning of the year? If not, why? Analyze variances between budget and actual results. Then, evaluate what changes you could make to get closer to achieving your objectives in 2020. And if you did meet your goals, identify precisely what you did right and build on those strategies.

2. Create a multiyear capital budget. Look around your offices or facilities at your equipment, software and people. What investments will you need to make to grow your business? Such investments can be both tangible (new equipment and technology) and intangible (employees’ technical and soft skills).

Equipment, software, furniture, vehicles and other types of assets inevitably wear out or become obsolete. You’ll need to regularly maintain, update and replace them. Lay out a long-term plan for doing so; this way, you won’t be caught off guard by a big expense.

3. Assess the competition. Identify your biggest rivals over the past year. Discuss with your partners, managers and advisors what those competitors did to make your life so “interesting.” Also, honestly appraise the quality of what your business sells versus what competitors offer. Are you doing everything you can to meet — or, better yet, exceed — customer expectations? Devise some responsive competitive strategies for the next 12 months.

4. Review insurance coverage. It’s important to stay on top of your property, casualty and liability coverage. Property values or risks may change — or you may add new assets or retire old ones — requiring you to increase or decrease your level of coverage. A fire, natural disaster, accident or out-of-the-blue lawsuit that you’re not fully protected against could devastate your business. Look at the policies you have in place and determine whether you’re adequately protected.

5. Analyze market trends. Recognize the major events and trends in your industry over the past year. Consider areas such as economic drivers or detractors, technology, the regulatory environment and customer demographics. In what direction is your industry heading over the next five or ten years? Anticipating and quickly reacting to trends are the keys to a company’s long-term success.

These are just a few ideas for looking back and ahead to set a successful course forward. We can help you review the past year’s tax, accounting and financial strategies, and implement savvy moves toward a secure and profitable 2020 for your business.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If your marketing budget is limited, there may be ways to make that money go further. Smart strategies abound for small to midsize businesses. Let’s look at a few ideas for stretching your marketing dollars a bit further.

Check out the big guys

Look to larger companies for ideas on how to improve and amp up your marketing tactics. Big businesses use many different types of campaigns and sometimes their big-budget approaches can be distilled down to lower-cost alternatives. Think of it as a “competitive intelligence” effort with the emphasis more on “intelligence” than “competitive.”

Maybe you can’t develop an app with a robust rewards system like coffee giant Starbucks. But you could still come up with a loyalty reward campaign using punch cards or some other mechanism.

Think local

If your company is one that depends on local customers or clients, make sure you’re doing everything possible to target that audience. Get hyperlocal! This approach tends to be particularly well-suited to businesses that rely on foot traffic, but it can work for any company capable of leveraging the distinctive aspects of its local community.

Don’t neglect the value of location-driven advertising, such as signage on vehicles that travel locally. Increase your presence on social media apps or pages focused on local communities. You may not want to blatantly advertise there, but you could participate in discussions, answer questions, and respond quickly to complaints or misinformation.

Go guerilla

This is perhaps the most creative way to engage in low-cost marketing efforts. In short, guerilla marketing is putting your company’s brand in the public eye in an unconventional way. It doesn’t always work but, when it does, people will recognize and remember you for quite a while.

One example is using vacant space, generally in urban areas, to put up marketing “graffiti.” (Obviously we’re talking about doing so legally.) You might engage a budding art student to create an eye-catching display featuring your logo and perhaps one of your products to draw attention. There are also ways to execute digital guerilla marketing, such as creating a viral video or humorous social media account. Just be careful: such campaigns can often misfire and result in embarrassing public relations incidents. Get plenty of outside advice, including legal counsel.

Try some variety

Many businesses get so focused on one marketing approach that they miss out on many other ways to attract the attention of new customers and maintain visibility among existing ones. Remember, variety is the spice of life — and it may not be as expensive as you think. We can assist you in assessing the potential costs and likely success of any marketing effort you’re considering.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Device policies pertaining to smartphones and other technology tools continue to frustrate business owners as they try to balance their needs for security and functionality against employees’ rights to privacy and freedom. At some companies, loose “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies are giving way to stricter “choose your own device” (CYOD) or “corporate-owned, personally enabled” (COPE) policies.

CYOD: Their device, your data

A CYOD policy lets employees buy a device for combined personal and work purposes from an approved list of products. Generally, the employee owns the device with the business retaining ownership of the SIM card and any proprietary data. Many employers pay for the accompanying mobile plan. Sometimes, high-performance devices are made available only to “power users,” while employees with fewer tech-related job requirements must choose from lesser models.

Under a CYOD policy, you can:

  • Ensure device compatibility with your systems,
  • Require security protections on the devices, and
  • Conduct ongoing security monitoring.

It also makes maintenance and support easier for your IT department, because IT staff will know exactly which devices they’ll need to handle.

Some employees may be unhappy with their choice of devices, which can undermine morale and productivity. Then again, many workers appreciate the improved functionality and flexibility of owning a device that connects them to work.

COPE: All yours

If you’re looking for even greater control and security, look into a COPE policy. They’re most common at large companies or those with heavy compliance burdens.

Here, you buy and own the device, which is intended primarily for business purposes. Most policies do allow for limited personal use — such as phone calls and messaging, approved non-work-related apps and some settings customization.

COPE policies are like CYOD policies in that you can configure employees’ devices for maximum security (including blocking certain features or apps and activating remote wipe capabilities). But they go one step further by minimizing personal use and allowing you to retain possession after an employee leaves the company. Another upside: Many employees will view an employer-provided device as a valuable perk.

One downside is you’ll incur higher costs in covering both the purchase price and mobile plans, though you may be able to lessen the hit through volume discounts. In addition, employees may have concerns about their employer-provided devices inevitably containing some of their own information. “Containerization” tools can help alleviate such worries by segregating business and personal data.

A matter of priorities

The right move for your company comes down to priorities. To tighten security and control costs, a CYOD policy may be a reasonable upgrade to an existing BYOD approach. But if you need absolute security, a COPE policy could be necessary.

Bear in mind that you can always customize a policy to best suit your needs. For example, you might apply different requirements to different departments based on the type of work performed and data accessed. Our firm can help you analyze the potential costs of any device policy and make the right choice.

© 2019 Covenant CPA