Robert Cowan's lawyer warned him that his company, American Teleconferencing Services, was an ideal candidate for internal white-collar crime. A case in point helped Cowan see what the lawyer was talking about, so he developed a policy that allows employees to borrow $1,000 interest-free, no questions asked.
The $8-million Overland Park, Kans., company provides teleconferencing services to businesses. Often, operators must stay on the line while clients discuss sensitive information. Cowan scrutinizes the backgrounds of prospective employees, but even the most upright individuals can find themselves in financial trouble and might become tempted to sell valuable information -- a possibility Cowan had overlooked until one of his own employees found herself in a bind.
The employee had signed up for a long-term membership with a health club but stopped going -- and stopped paying -- soon after. Under pressure from a collection agency, she became anxious. Noticing her concern, Cowan stepped in, lending her the money to pay off her debt; soon after, he made such loans a company policy.
Employees needn't explain the purpose of the loan. "That way they don't have to admit to a bad decision," Cowan says. IRS regulations don't limit the term of such loans if they're less than $10,000, but Cowan's accountant advised him to set a term of six months. Cowan says almost all his 75 employees have borrowed money since 1987. No employee has been found selling information, and not one has welshed on a loan. If anyone did, he says, he'd take the loss. "A thousand bucks spread out over six years? It ain't a big deal."
-- Michael P. Cronin