What’s a cooperative?

There are a lot of different models available to people to set up their businesses, but one of the most underused is the cooperative model. Frankly, I find it odd that so few startups consider using a co-op, given the shift towards people-centric companies, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, crowdfunding, and the sharing economy. In many ways, co-ops are ideal for these types of ventures, since the primary aim of a cooperative is to benefit its members. It’s up to the members to decide what “benefit” means, so co-ops are often about more than just maximizing profits.

Perhaps unfamiliarity breeds avoidance. The co-operative corporation is an odd beast, and far less common than corporations, partnerships, and proprietorships. A lot of folks don’t even know the co-op exists as an option. Hell, a lot of business lawyers I know have never touched the things, and just gloss it over in the “other” category when talking about business structures. Its weirdness makes it difficult to understand. Co-ops are a mash-up of business and not-for-profit corporations, with partnership-esque decision-making, which are sort of public companies, and report to a separate branch of government than every other business in Ontario.

the-people-dont-know-their-true-power-tc-cartoon-sad-hill-newsIt’s high time we blew the dust off the ol’ girl, and maybe you won’t think co-ops are so weird and scary after all. You might even start to think that your business would do well as a co-op, in which case, we should talk.

There are a LOT of possible variations in co-ops, so I’ll stick to the basics in this article. The goal is to give you an idea of the broad strokes, and I’ll leave the details for later articles. I’m going to talk about:

  • What a co-op is
  • Advantages and disadvantages
  • Types of ownership
  • Types of co-op
  • The basics of financing a co-op, and
  • The basics of decision making

So what is a Co-op Anyway?

Co-operatives are democratically-run businesses governed by those who use their services – their members. Co-ops generally rely on member participation to make the wheels turn. Members pool their money, goods, or services, have a say in decision making, and share in the profits or losses of the co-op’s business. Members can be human people, corporations, and not-for-profits.

cooperative-movementAs we’ll see below, a co-op can be set up with shares, like a business corporation; or without, like a not-for-profit. Co-ops with shares can sell them to members and the general public to raise capital. Co-ops without shares may operate as not-for-profits, and apply for charitable status.

Decision making is one-member, one-vote, so each member has an equal say. Members can be broken down to stakeholder groups, where each group’s votes may be weighted differently, kind of like in a partnership.

Once they reach 35 shareholders or lenders, co-ops become somewhat like a public company, and have to distribute information about the business and its finances to potential investors. The annual financial statements of a co-op must be audited, to ensure that the co-ops accountants are preparing the statements by accounting norms. Ontario co-ops are regulated by the Financial Services Commission of Ontario, rather than the Companies Branch

Advantages

  • Egalitarian – while corporations can allow their stakeholders to participate in ownership through stock option plans and the like, such plans are often carefully controlled to prevent those stakeholders from controlling the company.
  • Democratic – each member has an equal say.
  • Cheaper to set up and run than stock option plans or large partnerships – though the rules governing co-ops can be a bit tedious, many of the rights and responsibilities are written in the law, rather than being custom creations
  • Shared resources – members can get access to more and better equipment or facilities, increased negotiating power when buying/selling, shared marketing costs, etc.
  • Networking and education – members have access to people who face similar challenges, and make contacts up and down the supply chain.
  • Limited liability – a co-op is a “person” in the eyes of the law, which takes on its own liability. Members and shareholders personal assets are protected, and they only stand to lose what they invested.
  • Flexibility – co-ops have a huge array of options on goals, structure, financing, decision-making, and services.
  • Double or triple bottom line – benefits to the members aren’t limited to a share of the profits.

Disadvantages

  • Startup costs – are typically higher than for simple incorporations or partnerships. It takes more legal and accounting work to get ’em off the ground.
  • Offering statements are required to raise money – which takes time and money to prepare, and there are ongoing disclosure requirements.
  • Annual financial statements must be audited – which adds an extra annual operating expense.
  • Decision making can be slow and difficult – especially when there are a lot of members, or stakeholder groups with different interests. Think of how much of a pain in the ass the membership meetings of a condominium can be…
  • Unfamiliarity – because there are relatively few co-ops, compared to other business forms, government and foreign entities may have a hard time wrapping their heads around how to deal with you.

Membership Shares, or Members?

You have two options when incorporating a co-op – ownership through shares, similar to a regular ol’ corporation – or control by members, similar to a not-for-profit corporation. Choosing between the two usually comes down to two things:

  • Whether the co-op’s purpose is to operate like a business and turn a profit, or to provide a service on a break-even or non-profit basis; and
  • How much capital is needed to get started and run the co-op. The greater the need for capital, the more likely it is you’ll lean towards shares.

Consult with your lawyer and accountant before choosing which way you’ll go.

Shares

Shares are just a bunch of rights in the co-op. Most of these rights centre on control (voting), profits (dividends), and ownership (right to a share of the net profit if the business is sold or wound up). Every co-op with share capital must issue at least one type of “membership shares”. Each membership shareholder gets one vote at members’ meetings to do things like electing the directors, setting the rules (bylaws) of the co-op, choosing an auditor, approving annual financial statements, and major business decisions like selling or dissolving the co-op. Different types or membership shares may have slightly different rights.

You also have the option of creating and selling different types of “preference shares” to raise money. Like a regular business corporation, you can get pretty creative with the rights that the preference shareholders have, like priority on dividends, to be bought out or redeemed, to be paid part of the proceeds of liquidation, to receive information, and to receive a portion of the net profits of the co-op each year as a patronage return.

Members

For co-ops without share capital, there are only members, who fill much the same role as membership shareholders, above. The biggest consequence of this type of co-op is that its only financing options are membership fees, loans from members to the co-op, and loans or other debt from outside sources.

Multi-Stakeholder Co-ops

In these bad boys, members are organized into stakeholder groups, depending on what they contribute to the co-op. Each stakeholder group has certain rights as a group, such as appointing directors to the board, or to receive a lower or higher share of the co-op’s profits.

Types

There are four basic types of co-op in Ontario

  • Worker-owned

    Exactly what it sounds like. Only workers can be members of the co-op, and at least 75% of employees of the co-op must be members. An example would be Toronto’s Co-op Cabs, where each taxi license holder is a member of the co-op, and gets a share of the net profits of the company rather than revenues from their specific cab.

  • Consumer

    Businesses, often in retail, which are owned by their customers for their mutual benefit. Resources are pooled to buy in bulk, then the savings are passed on to the members. The most common are credit unions, green energy, insurance, and grocery stores. I’ll lump housing co-ops in here too.

  • Producer

    Producers of a certain product, or a certain category of goods band together to share common expenses like warehousing, equipment, shipping, and marketing. Most people have seen farmers’ co-ops, which often have warehousing and large equipment, as well as buying farm supplies in bulk. Producer co-ops could work for any business from lumber, to crafts, to booze.

  • Multi-stakeholder

    Here, many different groups of interests recognize that they’re all in the same boat, and band together for common gain. These groups could include workers, producers, service providers, consumers, and supporters of a certain cause. Health care and social services are common areas for this form. There’s a big push towards sustainable food co-ops right now, bringing together farmers, land owners, seed banks, grocers, and restauranteurs.

Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

A co-op model can allow a business to take a fundamentally different path than a regular corporation. The directors of corporations are voted in by shareholders to maximize the value of the shares. Co-ops exist for the benefit of their members, which can far broader than simple monetary gain. That’s not to say that a co-op can’t turn a profit. It’s just up to the members as to how far up the priority list profit falls. The rules on how money comes into and flows out of a co-op are different than regular corporations too.

Money In

Besides profits from the sale of goods, the most common fundraising method is membership fees – an annual fee that members must pay to stay members. In most cases, this isn’t a large sum. Co-ops can also charge fees for use to members or the public – like an hourly rate for use of equipment and facilities, or for sales leads they generate for their members.

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Debt Financing

As with any business, a co-op can borrow money, known as debt financing, from a variety of sources. Co-ops can, and often do, require their members to loan money to the co-op, which is common in agricultural co-ops where production is cyclical. They need the cash up front to float the year’s operations, and the loans are paid back when the harvest comes in. They can force members to re-invest profits earned from the previous year as member loans as well.

Co-ops can borrow from banks, government, and other private lenders, same as any other business. They can also apply for government grant funding.

Equity Financing

Co-ops with share capital can raise money by selling preference shares. The magic number is 35, meaning that if there will be 35 or more people who own securities (shares and debt) when the sale is done, the co-op has to file an “offering statement” with the Financial Services Commission. This is similar to, but less demanding than, what a corporation must do before “going public”. The goal of the offering statement is to ensure that the investors know what they’re investing in. The exact requirements vary depending on the co-op, but the result must be a full, true, and plain disclosure which answers any reasonable question an investor may have. There are a few exceptions which mean you don’t have to file one for small numbers of investors, and small amounts raised.

Money Out

Aside from paying operating costs, wages, tax, and debt, there are rules about how the profits of the co-op are paid out. What’s left after operating expenses are paid, but before tax, is called the “surplus”.

A co-op can set aside some or all of its surplus to create a “reserve fund” of retained earnings for its future expenses, and it can pay out the surplus through dividends and patronage returns.

Dividends

Dividends are paid out of a co-op’s after tax income. The member or shareholder is taxed on the dividend (not as regular income), meaning some tax credits are available to them.

The maximum dividend allowed on membership shares is the prime lending rate +2% per year. There’s no cap on dividends to preference shareholders, so the rate of dividend is what’s set out in the Articles of the co-op.

Dividends may be paid in more shares of the co-op as well, which allows the business to reinvest the profits, and increase the equity holdings of the shareholders.

Patronage Return

This posh sounding term is the profit share a member is entitled to based on how much business they’ve done with the co-op. This is the main way in which members receive their profits. Patronage returns are paid out of the pre-tax income of the co-op, and are taxed as income for the member.

Different rules apply to different types of co-op, but the way patronage returns are calculated is set out in the bylaws. Worker co-ops, for example, pay patronage returns based on hours worked, or total compensation paid each year. Producer co-ops may account for the relative profits earned from different products contributed to the co-op (a ton of strawberries may turn a higher profit margin than a ton of potatoes. No offence to potatoes.)

Non-members may also be paid a patronage return, so long as the return for non-members is the same or less than what’s paid to members.

Decision Making

As with a corporation, co-ops have three levels of decision-making – members, directors, and officers.

Members

Each member, or membership shareholder, has one vote at meetings of the members. Members have to attend a meeting in order to vote – they can’t send a proxy to vote in their place.

Most votes are decided by a simple majority of votes, after a resolution has been discussed. The key decision members are called upon to make is to elect the board of directors, or removing them if need be. They also approve audited financial statements, and vote on resolutions proposed by members.

Members have a say in other major decisions, which require a 2/3 majority to pass. These include changing the articles of the co-op, adopting new bylaws, and approving the sale or merger of the co-op.

5% of members can call a meeting, or propose member resolutions. 10% of members can force a directors’ meeting to pass a new bylaw or resolution.

Directors

Elected by the members, the directors have a fiduciary duty to run the co-op in the best interests of the members. All directors must be members of the co-op, and there must be at least three directors on the board. The board is responsible to set the strategic direction of the co-op, and appoint the officers to manage its day-to-day affairs. They vote on things like approving new members, budgets, major contracts, and expansion plans.

Officers

Appointed by the directors, officers oversee operations, and supervise the lower-levels of leadership. Officers are employees of the co-op, and except for the President and chair of the board, they don’t have to be members. The duties of the different offices are listed in the Cooperative Corporations Act. Most co-ops will delegate a certain amount of decision-making power to officers, such as the ability to sign contracts up to a certain amount, to hire and fire employees, and to do the co-op’s banking.

Conclusion

So, there you have it, co-ops in a nutshell. This is by no means a complete guide to co-ops in Ontario, but I hope it proves to be a useful starting point. If you’re looking at starting a business or non-profit, take a good, give co-ops due consideration.

There are a ton of good resources out there for information gathering, including a whole series of guides from the FSCO, and the Ontario Co-operative Association that can help you to get started.

As always, I’m happy to help you birth your cooperative business baby. Reach out.

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

When do you give employees time off?

One of the more monumental-seeming tasks for a business owner is learning how to deal with employees. In Ontario, most workers are protected by law – mainly the Employment Standards Act, or ESA for short. The ESA sets out the bare minimum for workers’ rights in the Province, including minimum wage, working hours, termination & severance pay, and time off. It’s extremely important to follow those rules, as the consequences for failing to do so can be dire.

In this article, I’m going to talk about the time off part of the equation – namely, when the law requires you to grant your employees unpaid leave, and under what conditions. A few new categories were created last fall, so it’s a good refresher. It’s important to have an understanding of why and when employees can take time off so that you can build leave into your HR policy and business planning.

Not all workers are protected by the ESA, and certain parts of the law don’t apply to people in certain professions. For instance, unpaid internships are illegal in Ontario, unless you’re a professional student like in law or medicine. In that case, you can work ‘em like rented mules and pay them nothing… ever wonder why we lawyers are a humourless lot?

Vacation

Employees who are protected by the ESA are entitled to a minimum of two weeks of vacation time per calendar year. Those two weeks must be paid with vacation pay, which is a minimum of 4% of the employee’s gross wages actually earned in that 12 month period. If you’ve granted more vacation time in the employment contract, then you have to honour that amount.

Entitlement to vacation is not reduced by layoff, illness, or leaves of absence.

Unpaid Leave of Absence

Workers who are protected by the ESA, whether part or full time, permanent or temporary, may have the right to take unpaid leave for the following reasons:

  • pregnancy and parental,
  • personal emergency,
  • family caregiver,
  • family medical,
  • critically ill child care,
  • organ donor,
  • crime-related child death or disappearance, and
  • deployment as a military reservist.

An employee may be entitled to more than one of these leaves for the same event. Each leave is separate, and taking one doesn’t affect their ability to take any of the others.

Pregnancy and Parental Leave

Pregnancy leave is up to 17 weeks of job-protected, unpaid time off work. The worker must have started employment at least 13 weeks before the baby’s due date.  The employee is eligible to receive employment insurance during this leave.

Parental leave may be taken by any new parent – birth, adopting, or by relationship – once a child is born or comes into their care. Birth mothers may take up to 35 weeks of parental leave, usually dovetailing in with their pregnancy leave for a total of 52 weeks. Birth mothers who do not take pregnancy leave, and all other new parents can take up to 37 weeks of parental leave, starting within a year of the child coming into their care. Parents may, but don’t have to, take their leave at the same time as the other parent.

To be eligible, the worker must have worked for you for at least 13 weeks before the baby came into their care, and must give you at least two weeks’ notice before starting leave.

Personal Emergency Leave

Personal emergency leave is unpaid, job-protected time off work for up to 10 days per calendar year. It’s only available to employees of companies who have 50 or more employees.

This leave may be taken for illness, injury, medical emergency, or related matter of the employee, their immediate family member, or dependent. The employee should inform you as soon as possible – whether that’s before or after they’ve begun the leave.

The 10 days do not have to be taken consecutively. Part days can be counted as a full day.

Family Caregiver Leave

Family caregiver leave is unpaid, job-protected time off work to care for family members or dependent relatives who have a serious medical condition. A “serious medical condition” is evidenced by a medical certificate issued by a physician, registered nurse, or psychologist. The certificate may have listed on it a period during which the condition is “serious”, or if no time frame is indicated, it’s valid until the endof the calendar year. You may request a copy of the certificate from the employee.

Employees may take up to 8 weeks per calendar year, per family member requiring care. The weeks do not have to be taken consecutively, but taking any one day off in a particular weeks counts as having taken the entire week off.

The employee should inform you as soon as possible – whether that’s before or after they’ve begun the leave.

Family Medical Leave

Family medical leave is unpaid, job-protected time off work to care for family, extended family, or people who are “like family”, who have a serious medical condition with a significant risk of dying within 26 weeks.

A person who is qualified to practice medicine must issue a certificate stating that the individual has a serious medical condition with a significant risk of death within 26 weeks. The employee must provide you with a copy of the certificate. If the person is “like family”, you may request a copy of a “Compassionate Care Benefits Attestation” form

Family medical leave is for up to eight weeks in a 26-week period with respect to each person being cared for. If other people are taking leave to care for the same person, the eight weeks must be shared. The eight weeks of family medical leave do not have to be taken consecutively, but taking any day in a week counts as using up one week.

Again, the employee should inform you as soon as possible – whether that’s before or after they’ve begun the leave.

Critically Ill Child Care Leave

Critically ill child care leave is unpaid, job-protected time off work to provide care or support to a critically ill child. The employee must work for you for at least six months before they’re eligible to take this leave.

A critically ill child is someone:

  • who is under 18 years of age,
  • under the employee’s legal guardianship, and
  • whose baseline state of health has significantly changed and whose life is at risk as a result of an illness or injury.

A physician, RN, or psychologist must issue a certificate stating that the child is critically ill, requires the care of one or more parents, and sets out the time period of care. You may request a copy of the certificate.

The employee must give you written notice that they’ll be taking the leave, and provide a plan in writing setting out the weeks they’ll be taking off. Ideally this is done before the leave starts, but can be done after. The employee must give you reasonable notice before changing the dates in the plan.

Critically ill child care leave can be up to 37 weeks in a calendar year. If the child remains critically ill at the end of the year, the employee may be eligible for additional leaves. The weeks need not be taken consecutively, but taking one day off in a week uses up the entire week of leave.

Organ Donor Leave

Organ donor leave is unpaid, job-protected leave for the purpose of undergoing surgery to donate a kidney, liver, lung, pancreas, or small intestine to a person. Generally, organ donor leave begins on the date of the surgery, but it may begin earlier if specified in a medical certificate.

The leave is for 13 weeks, with the possibility of extension for up to an additional 13 weeks if the employee is not yet able to perform their duties. A medical certificate is required for an extension. If possible, the employee must provide two weeks’ written notice before beginning or extending the leave.

Crime-Related Child Death or Disappearance Leave

Leave is available to employees whose child dies or disappears where it is probable that it resulted from a crime. The employee must have worked for you for at least six months to be eligible for the leave. If it is probable that the child was a party to the crime, the employee is not eligible for the leave.

An employee may take up to 104 weeks after the death of a child, and up to 52 weeks after the disappearance of a child. The employee must inform you in writing that they will take this leave, and provide a written plan indicating the weeks in which the leave will be taken. In most cases, an employee must take the leave in a single period.

Reservist Leave

Military reservists, those handsome devils, who are deployed on an international or domestic operation to assist with an emergency or its aftermath are entitled to unpaid leave for the duration of the operation. For international operations, the leave includes pre- and post-deployment activities required by the military.

The employee must have worked for you for at least six months, and must give reasonable advance notice in writing of the deployment dates when possible.

General Points

  • Leave doesn’t affect the employee accumulating seniority or length of service.
  • You must continue to pay employer contributions to pension, life & health insurance, accidental death insurance, and dental plans. If a benefit plan requires both employer and employee contributions, and the employee notifies you in writing that they will not be making their payments, then you don’t have to pay either.
  • The employee is entitled to come back to the same position they held before their leave, if it still exists, or to a comparable position if it does not.

Simple, right?

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Lawyer Stuff 101 – What Does a Business Lawyer Do?

This is the second in my series of articles on how you, a business owner, can use your lawyer most effectively. The most frequent conversation I have when meeting with new clients is to explain the role of the lawyer in advising a business. Many have never worked with a lawyer before, or worked with one in a different area. Why are we useful, and what the hell do we actually do that adds value to your business? Once you know what we do, it’s much easier to use us effectively – saving you time, money, and heartache as your company evolves.

A lawyer’s job is to help businesses to understand and manage risk. Full stop.

On Risk

Most entrepreneurs are going into business because they have a great idea – a product or service that they believe they can sell. The act of going into business is risky in and of itself. You’re putting your time, money, reputation, and relationships on the line. The business world is a scary place, especially when you’re the small fish in the pond. Your competitors are constantly working to out-manoeuvre you. Your employees, contractors, investors, customers and suppliers have expectations and problems of their own. The tax man knocks on your loudly and frequently. There’s a maze of regulations to navigate.

Many of those risks are sight unseen for entrepreneurs. Some manage to bob and weave through them by chance, blissfully unaware of close calls. Often in a first meeting I have the unpleasant task of lifting the veil, and giving them a peek at the troubled waters they’re sailing in. Sometimes the business owner walks away with more worries on their mind than they came with. It’s not a fun realization for them, and it’s my least favourite part of the job. It is, however, reality.

The risks exist whether you realize they do or not. Would you rather not know, and be blindsided when something happens, or understand where the risks lie, what the potential consequences are, and be able to make plans to avoid them and minimize their effect on your business?

Keep your head in the sand if you like, but Stats Canada has found that 20% of startup businesses fail within the first year, and 50% don’t survive three years. The businesses that succeed tend to have sound legal and accounting advice from an early stage. If you have sound advice, and the business still fails, you’ll likely end up on more stable ground afterwards – with your personal assets, reputation, and relationships relatively intact.

Lawyers help businesses to manage risk in three main ways:

  • Advising on sound business practices
  • Advising on appropriate legal structures and relationships, and
  • Advising when insurance is wise

Each of these risk management techniques ties in with the others. I’ll talk about each in turn.

Sound Business Practices

The most common, cheapest, and often most effective is to cover your own ass by doing business the right way. Most of these don’t need a lawyer to dream up or implement.

The most common business disputes are about differences between what was promised and what was delivered, billing and payment disputes, employer-employee relationships, and on-premises injuries. Businesses frequently deal with Consumer Protection Act, employee safety, and harassment and Human Rights Code complaints. Complying with government regulation – such as licensing, zoning, Building Code, Fire Code, access for disabled persons, anti-spam, import/export rules, and tax are also sources of friction and risk. It can be a lot to deal with, but there are a few habits that’ll make life easier for you:

  • Do your reading. There is a ton of information out there from government websites, regulatory bodies, accountant and lawyer’s blogs, insurance companies, incubators, entrepreneur groups, and industry publications. Read it all. A responsible business owner knows what laws and regulations govern their industry, and what they need to do to colour between the lines.
  • Put it in writing. If there’s a dispute, what actually happened doesn’t matter – only what can be proved. Written records are more convincing than memory. If you do business over the phone or face to face, keep notes and send a follow up email summarizing what was said and agreed upon. Put employee job descriptions in writing.
  • Keep everything. Having things in writing is useless if you delete it too soon. The limitation period (meaning, the amount of time someone has to bring a lawsuit) in Ontario is two years after the problem is discovered. Do the math, and figure out how long to keep the records after dealing with someone. An IT nerd can burn years and years of data to DVD for you if storage space is an issue.
  • Don’t over-promise. Sometimes the pressure to make a sale can be immense, especially in the cash-poor early days of a business. It’s hard enough to keep people happy even when you do what you say. If you over-promise and under-deliver, or take on work you’re not equipped to do, it’ll come back to bite you in the end. The rear end…
  • Have policies in place. Especially if you have people working for you. There are tons of free resources from the Ministry of Labour, and HR professionals that can get you started. It’s wise to bounce these off your lawyer to make sure they’re current.

As your company grows, your lawyer and other advisors can help to flesh out the practices and policies in a way that suits your business.

Legal Structures

Here’s where I come in. While business practices are a good start, there’s no substitute for on-point legal advice to help minimize business risk. Legal advice costs money, and if you’re in the habit of seeking it before acting, you may wonder what the actual value added to your business is. Legal advice is a bit like bear repellent – the only way you know it’s working is that there are fewer bears around… but if a bear shows up on your doorstep with a lawsuit, the value becomes much more clear. Maybe I went too far with this analogy… I digress…

Sadly, much of what I do is work to clean up my clients’ self-inflicted messes. They try to save money on legal fees by trying to be their own lawyer. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. I’ve watched businesses go down in flames because of vague, improperly drafted contracts. I’ve seen clients held hostage by independent contractors because they didn’t put anything in writing before work started. I’ve seen people’s businesses stolen out from under them because they didn’t think independent legal advice was worthwhile. Even when the business is salvageable, they often end up spending two or three times as much to fix the problem than they would have on legal advice in the first place.

The business lawyer’s role usually falls in one of three categories:

  • Internal relationships. Clearly setting out the roles, responsibilities, and expectations between the founders of the business is essential. Sooner is better – ideally before the business starts to make (or lose) money. No matter what the form of business is, and no matter how good the intentions are at the start, as soon as money is involved, people’s recollection of the deal and expectations can change in a hurry. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
  • The back end of the business. Not only should your business structure make sense from a tax perspective, it should protect the founders, and facilitate long-term growth as much as possible. There are several forms of business available, each with their benefits and obligations. Choosing the right one, and keeping it in good standing with the government and other regulators is critical. Lawyers know what records need to be kept, and what approvals must be secured before taking certain actions. Investors and potential buyers will want to see that the proper decision-making processes were followed in running the company.
  • External relationships. Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, creditors, partners, joint-venturers, government, regulators, landlords, tenants, neighbours, industry associations, and advisors will all be looking out primarily for their own interests, as you should be for yours. Contracts are useful to set out what’s expected of each party, which I covered in detail in an earlier blog. Call your lawyer before trying to enter, break, or change a contract. You may also need help understanding what regulations apply to your business, and help you to colour between those lines.

Insurance

I’m no expert in insurance – my knowledge is limited to knowing when to recommend when it might be appropriate, and how it fits into your overall risk-management plan. I typically recommend insurance options to cover the gaps between your business practices and legal structures, and the risks you can’t hedge against that way.  A few of the common types are:

  • Commercial general liability. This coverage can cover slip & fall and other bodily injury, defamation, emotional pain and suffering, false advertising, medical expenses, and tenant/occupant liability.
  • Disability & key person. As discussed in my articles on contingency planning, these policies can help keep the business afloat if the owner/operator or a key employee is killed or injured and unable to work.
  • Directors & officers. A company can agree to protect its directors and officers in the event that they’re sued for things they did in the course of their duties.
  • Business interruption. Protecting against loss of income in the event of fire, flood, equipment breakdown, and other events beyond the business owner’s control.

Written opinions of lawyers, accountants, and other professionals which recommend a specific course of action as being legal or viable can also be a form of insurance. Your business should be able to rely on those opinions to make its decisions. If an opinion is wrong, and the business suffers losses as a consequence, it’s up to the professional (or their insurer) to make it right.

Bear in mind that insurance is a contract as well – so read it. Know what you want to be covered for, and make sure it’s included in the policy. Have an idea of what amounts of coverage you need for each type of insurance. Ensure it covers liability occurring in the places where your products or services will be delivered. Do some research into the reputation and claim denial rate of the insurance company you’re thinking of dealing with. Call your insurance agent when starting a new aspect of your business. Insurance is supposed to provide peace of mind – which ain’t much use if you don’t actually know what you’re covered for.

You probably already know that there’s a lot more to entrepreneurship than meets the eye, if you’re doing it well. Getting legal advice can be a delicate balancing act as far as cost vs. benefit – especially when cash is tight in the early stages. Sometimes you need more work than you think, other times you need less. Each business’ needs will be different, and the only way to know for sure is to ask questions. Know what you don’t know, and get an expert when you need one. I happen to know a guy…. 😉

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Legal Aspects of Business Succession Planning

At long last, I’m celebrating the new year by finishing off this series of succession planning articles. I’ve already talked about the big picture, and how to make sure your business can continue to run if something happens to you. Now it’s time to talk about how you can retire. This isn’t something that should be done in a hurry – it’s wise to give yourself a few months to make the plan and expect it to take years to live out the plan.

There are four main ways that business owners hand over control and operation of small businesses to a successor:

  • Passing the business to a family member,
  • Selling the business to management or employees over time,
  • Selling the business in one fell swoop, or
  • Passing the business in your will (if you want to stick it out ‘til the bitter end…)

Despite the different terms I’m using, all of above except the last are selling the business as far as the tax man sees it. Each of these routes allows you to cash out – or extract the value you’ve built up in the business. Even though the end result of each is similar, the legal path you’ll need to walk to get there is different in each case, with some common elements between them. I’ll talk about each option below. What will work for you depends on what you want, the tax costs, and what is realistic for your business, successor, family, and employees.

Before I dig into the guts of succession, I’ll touch on a few issues that will pop up no matter which way you opt to go – both of them have to do with the almighty dollar.

Valuation

No matter what route you choose, valuing the business will be a pain in the behind. Valuing a business for sale, transfer, or estate purposes can be tricky. As you likely know already, “tricky” is usually lawyer-speak for “expensive,” so brace yourself.

There’s no single formula to value a business. The bigger and more diverse the company, the trickier it is to value. “Tangible assets” – like machinery, inventory, and accounts receivable – are pretty easy to put a price on, while “Intangible assets,” – like client lists, intellectual property, social media influence, or a recognized brand – are more difficult. Equally tough is when you, the owner, are a big part of the business’ worth.

Businesses can be valued by a number of different ways, but the two most common are:

  • Agreement between the buyer and seller
  • Valuation by an accountant, auditor, or certified business valuator

Agreement on price is the cheapest, but the price that you agree to with the buyer might not be the amount that tax is assessed on. You report the sale price, but the CRA will deem the sale to have been made at fair market value. Funnily enough, the CRA rarely finds that the sale happened at a lower value than what was reported. You may end up on the hook for more taxes than you calculated, which cuts into your retirement nest egg.

The CRA and tax courts tend to stick to valuations made by certified business valuators (very expensive), and sometimes accountants (moderately expensive) for tax purposes. Hiring one of those dudes to value your business could cost more than you’re willing to spend… but sometimes the up-front cost of paying a valuator is lower than the potential long-term cost of an extra tax bill. It’s worthwhile to at least have the conversation with your accountant.

Tax Efficiency

Speaking of the CRA, most transfers or sales of businesses can be made cheaper by getting sound accounting advice on how to minimize the tax on the transfer. The more the business is worth, the more likely it is that the transfer will be tax-driven. “Tax-driven” means that your accountant is telling your lawyer how to arrange the purchase and sale so that you (and possibly the buyer) pay the minimum tax possible.

A note of caution on accountants – not all of them know tax. Many small business accountants are good at preparing annual income tax returns, and helping to manage cash flow, but aren’t experts on the tax implications of selling a business. Even if you’ve been with your accountant for years, don’t be afraid to shop around. Moral of the story? Get accounting advice early in the succession planning process.

With that out of the way, here’s the rub:

Four Ways to Transfer Your Business to a Successor

Passing to Family

Selling or passing all or part of the business on to a family member can be a sale, gift, or some combination of the two. There are a number of ways to work this, but what’s best for most small businesses is a gradual transfer of operational control and profit share.

On the operations side, a gradual transfer of responsibility gives your successor a chance to get up to speed on how the business works, build relationships with key customers, advisors, and suppliers, and allows you to pass on the lessons and values you’ve picked up along the way.

As far as profit sharing, if the business’ cash flow can stand it, you may want to continue to draw some sort of income from the company. If not, an incremental buy-out by the next generation or the business itself – usually 5-10% of the value of the business per year – might give you 10-20 years of “income” out of the value you built in the business. That incremental buy-out is usually good for the successor as well, as they don’t have to come up with all the money to buy the company right away. It could also be done as an incremental buy-in, where some of the successor’s pay is in shares, which dilutes your ownership of the company over time.

So long as you own shares in the company, you should consider life insurance. The more your stake is worth, the more this makes sense. Insurance policies pay out directly to the beneficiary – your successor or the company itself – to buy back the shares, and keep those shares out of your estate.

The typical legal documents involved in a family succession include:

  • Unanimous Shareholders’ Agreement – which can set out the terms of any buy-out or buy-in, valuation, insurance, and your continued role in the company, if any. Each shareholder signing it should have independent legal advice.
  • Share Freeze – is a fairly complex transaction where the value of the company “freezes” at a certain date, and you’re issued shares that reflect that frozen value. The successor gets new shares which will capture any further growth in value. The company then buys back the freeze shares over time and cancels them. Your freeze shares could have dividend and voting rights that allow you to continue to share in the profits and management of the company.
  • Trusts – where your shares are managed by someone else on behalf of your successor. These are useful when one or more of your successors doesn’t yet have the age or experience to run the company completely. Trusts are also useful if you’re separating ownership and operations of the business between two or more people.
  • Will – if you pass away before the transfer is complete, you can set out how your shares are to be dealt with. Ensure that the terms of your will match with the terms of any shareholders’ agreement, trust documents, and so forth.
  • Powers of Attorney – if you’re incapacitated before the transfer is complete, who will oversee the management of the company, and manage your shares? Any requirements or restrictions on how the attorney is to act should be set out. This must jive with all the other documents.

On the tax side of things, transfers of property to family members are not at “arm’s length”, and are taxed differently than sales to non-family members.

Selling to Management or Employees

Long-term managers and employees can often feel like family, and a transfer to them can be done much in the same way as to a family member. It can also be done in concert with transfer to a family member – perhaps 51% control of the business will stay in the family, while 49% will go to the employees who will continue to run it. If the employees or managers have the funds available to buy right away, it can be a one-and-done sale, or a phased buy-out or buy-in. These transfers are typically done over 3-5 years, and are “arms-length”, meaning that different tax rules apply than to transfers to family.

Assuming that you’re being bought out, rather than simply giving the shares to the employees, this process will be more formal and legalistic. You should insist that the buyer get independent legal and tax advice so they can’t come back later and say that they didn’t get what they bargained for.

Before writing anything up, you should hash out with the buyer the broad strokes of how the transfer will be structured, and how the buyer will finance the purchase. It can be any combination of:

  • Employee stock option plans – where employees are paid shares as part of their pay, and your ownership and control of the company is diluted over time.
  • Purchase and sale agreement – a contract between the buyer and the seller that sets out all of the key terms of sale. It can include employee stock options, or it can be a straight up purchase of the assets or shares of the company.
  • Shareholders’ agreement – as above.
  • Service agreement – especially if it’s a one-and-done purchase, the buyer may want your services and advice as an employee or independent contractor. They may want you to continue to sit on the board, or to serve as an officer of the company.
  • Indemnity and releases – where the company agrees to protect you for the consequences of legitimate actions you took while a shareholder, officer, or director of the company, and release you from any liability for actions taken after you transferred ownership or control. These are often included in the purchase and sale agreement.

The buyer should conduct due diligence before buying, particularly if you’ve been the one to handle the back-end workings of the business such as dealing with lawyers and accountants. It’s important that the buyer knows what they’re buying, the financial history and projections of the company, and that the books and records are in good order.

Lastly, you’ll want to make sure that your will, trust documents, powers of attorney, and domestic contracts jive with the deal you’ve made.

Selling to Third Parties

If you can’t find anyone in your family or business who’s willing or able to take over from you, it may be time to prepare your business for sale. I won’t go in to too much detail, as I’ll cover sale of business in a separate article, but it will require some legal work to prepare for due diligence.

Due diligence is when the buyer digs through the corporate records to make sure that they know what they’re buying. You should be proactive to make sure that the minute book, employee agreements, accounting records, lists of assets and liabilities, leases, real estate ownership and mortgages, intellectual property, debts, shareholder relations, taxes, and licenses are in good order.

Passing the Business in your Will

Many business owners approach is “I’ll just pass everything in my will.” This is a mixed-bag approach that chooses to duck the costs of preparing and implementing a succession plan, while sacrificing certainty and control.

The upside to this approach is that there’s minimal headache and expense for you in the here and now. It can work very well when your successor is clear – perhaps an only child who’s been working in the company for years, and knows what you know.

The downside is that you may handicap the next generation’s ability to run the company. If the business is asset-rich, but cash-poor, the tax bill on the estate might cripple the company. You will have no control over what happens after you’re gone. Your beneficiary will be stuck with making the tough decisions you’ve abdicated from. It also risks infighting between beneficiaries, or with the company controlled by people who don’t know or care about the business.

I’m not saying leaving the company in your will is a bad decision – just know what risks and benefits you’ll be passing on to your successor before you make the choice.

Phew, that was a long one… I promise I’ll write something more entertaining soon…

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

New Anti-Spam Law and your Small Business

For almost every small business, Canada’s new anti-spam law will be a game changer. Unfortunately the changed game will be tedious and more expensive for most of you. It started out as a law to stop people and companies from spamming Canadians with unwanted messages. The way the law turned out, however, is using a hand grenade to get a squirrel out of your bird feeder. It will have a huge impact on the way your company can do its business online.

ImageThe law covers almost any electronic messages you send for business purposes – including email, text messages, and direct messages on social media, but not phone or fax. The basic premise of the law is that businesses must get the recipient’s consent before sending business messages to them. Simple enough, right?

The rest of the law is a rats-nest of exceptions, conditions, and legal grey areas. This blog will map out said rats-nest, without taking too much of the magic out of what I do. Practically speaking, your two main concerns are getting consent to send messages to the recipient, and having the right content in the message itself. That’s what this blog will focus on.

The penalties for businesses that ignore or break this law can reach up to $10,000,000, so it’s kind of a big deal. It’s also an offence to aid someone in breaking this law – so social media marketers, IT, and CRM dudes, beware!

The law will come into effect in three phases:

  • Most parts of the law will be in force on July 1, 2014
  • Parts dealing with the unsolicited installation of computer programs – January 15, 2015
  • Right for individuals to sue for damages caused by spammers – July 1, 2017

In this blog, I’m only going to talk about the parts of the law that come into force this year.

 

 1. Consent

The recipient must actively and voluntarily give consent to you sending them business messages. This consent can be express or implied – which I’ll tackle below. You don’t need consent:

  • from friends and family
  • from employees, representatives, consultants or franchisees of your organization
  • from foreign recipients – though your message must comply with that jurisdiction’s anti-spam laws
  • if you’re
    • answering an inquiry, request, or complaint
    • giving notice of a legal right or obligation
    • giving them factual information about an ongoing relationship like a subscription, membership, or loan
    • providing information about an employment relationship or benefit plan that they’re in
    • delivering updates or upgrades
    • a charity or political party
  • if the message is solely an inquiry about the products or services the recipient provides

 Express Consent

This is when the recipient takes a positive action to approve of you sending them business messages. Once given, express consent remains valid until withdrawn. More on withdrawal below. The guts of express consent are:

  • The message or form asking for consent must:
    • explain why you’re asking for consent
    • give the name of the organization or person seeking consent (or identify who you’re getting consent for, if it’s not you)
    • give valid contact information – including at least one non-electronic means
    • let them know they can unsubscribe at any time
  • If consent was expressly given before this new law, you don’t have to go back and re-confirm
  • The recipient must “opt in” (as in, checking a box), rather than opt out (unchecking a box), or the consent isn’t valid
  • Keep a record of who consented, when, and how – as it’s up to you to show that you got it, not the other way around

 Implied Consent

This is a little trickier, as most types of implied consent have an expiry date. Express consent is more practical for you to get, because it doesn’t expire, and is easier for you to keep track of. That said, if your contacts aren’t big on clicking through links in email, implied consent may still cover you. Implied consent can be found:

  • in an existing business relationship, meaning that you and the recipient have
    • in the past two years,
      • bought, sold, or leased goods, services or land from each other
      • were bound by a written contract with each other
      • bartered goods, services or land with each other, or
    • in the past six months, made an inquiry about doing any of the above
  • an existing non-business relationship
  • if the recipient has published or disclosed their email address, they have not stated that they don’t wish to receive unsolicited messages, and the message is relevant to their business or role

 

2. Content

So once you’ve got consent from all of your adoring fans, and you’re dutifully keeping accurate records of who has consented, your work is still not done. From July 1, 2014 onwards, every business message you send must have certain content, except messages

  • to recipients you have a personal or family relationship with, or
  • which are an inquiry about the business products or services the recipient provides

All of your business messages must contain information that:

  • identifies the sender, or on whose behalf it’s sent
  • sets out contact information for the sender, including at least one non-electronic means
  • has a way to unsubscribe or withdraw consent

The unsubscribe mechanism must:

  • operate at no cost to the recipient
  • allow the recipient to unsubscribe by the same means the message was sent, or give another electronic means to unsubscribe
  • give a link to a webpage that allows them to unsubscribe

Once they unsubscribe, you’ve got 10 business days to take their name off the list, or else.

 

3. Conclusion

Like I said, game changer… though how it changes the game will differ from business to business. There are a few best practices that I’d recommend you start implementing now:

  • Vet your contact lists now to determine who you will need consent from
  • Before July 1, 2014, send a message to your existing mailing lists asking them to opt in, and create a new mailing list of those who do
  • After July 1, 2014, you’ll have to get consent the old fashioned way – by mail, phone, or other non-electronic means
  • Keep records of information showing consent
  • Put together a new email signature that meets the content requirements
  • Build an “unsubscribe” link into your website, and make sure the unsubscribe mechanism works

Most IT service providers should be CASL-compliant by now, and companies like my friends at Response Magic have developed simple and thorough systems to help you colour within the lines. Of course, every business and every situation is different, and applying a general rule is no substitution for consultation with an intrepid lawyer. You know where to reach me if you’ve got questions.

There. I just saved you $10,000,000. You can thank me later.

 

 

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Unanimous Shareholder Agreements

This can be a confusing topic. There’s a whole lot of stuff written about it, utilizing an abundance of excessively Brobdingnagian verbiage, but it’s usually a lot of talk about what a unanimous shareholder agreement (or “USA”) is, rather than why you might want one for your corporation. Here I’ll give you the basics of what it is, why you might want one, and what’s in it.

What is it?

A USA is a contract between all the shareholders of a corporation that limits the power of the directors to supervise or manage the business of the company. It could even take all management powers away from the directors. Without one in place, the directors can exercise all of the powers they’re given by the corporate laws, at the director’s discretion. Back in the day, if directors started running the company in a way that the shareholders didn’t like, there wasn’t much that the shareholders could do about it until it was time to vote for the directors again. Nowadays, the USA gives shareholders an out.

The rights, powers, and responsibilities that are taken away from the directors are then assumed by the shareholders. The shareholders will also take on the liabilities that go along with the powers – such as liability for unpaid employee wages, tax remissions, pension, environmental protection, etc. Some liabilities can’t be opted out of, such as the ones in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Make sure you know the risks before signing on the dotted line!

A USA is a “constating document” of the corporation – like its articles and by-laws – that deals with the inner workings of the company. It is important to make sure that it doesn’t conflict with the articles or by-laws.

Once a USA is in effect, any new shareholders are deemed to be a party to it, and they should be given notice that it’s in place.

Why would I want one?

USA’s are most common in companies with a few shareholders, who own roughly even percentages of the company. They’re typically used to modify or supplement the rules in the Business Corporations Act:

  • Set out a Succession Plan: I’ll blog about succession plans soon, but a USA can be used to hand off the ownership and management of your corporation so that the business can continue after you retire, or if something bad happens to you.
  • Change Default Corporate Law Rules: such as the % of directors required to vote in favour of certain material decisions, such as paying dividends, buying or disposing of major assets, entering into joint ventures, non-arms-length transactions, mortgaging or liening property, or changing the business of the Corporation.
  • Protect Investor Interests:  venture capitalists, angel investors, or banks may want a USA in place to ensure that they can control things that directly affect their investment – such as amending the articles or by-laws, mergers, issuing new shares, or the sale of substantial company assets.

USA’s can also be used to do a few tricky things, which aren’t guaranteed to work out the way the shareholders intended.

  • Foreign-owned Corporations: the law requires at least 25% of directors to be resident Canadians. A USA can take all the powers away from the directors, and let the foreign shareholders do the decision-making. This may work for some purposes, but courts will ignore this sleight of hand in certain situations, particularly to do with tax liabilities.
  • Protecting Directors: where the shareholders own their shares through a holding company. Those holding companies assume the directors’ liabilities, and in theory, the people who own those holding companies are protected. It’s likely that a court would look right through this technicality though, if there wasn’t enough to pay out the creditors.

What’s in it?

Like any contract, the contents are up to the people making it. Typically, a USA may cover many of the following topics:

  • Decision making process
  • Quorum for meetings
  • Restrictions on share transfers, and how to deal with involuntary share transfers on death, bankruptcy, or court order
  • Special rights of minority shareholders, or special restrictions on majority shareholders
  • Process to amend the USA
  • Funding considerations – from existing or new shareholders, or
  • If the directors aren’t stripped of all of their powers – representation on the board, or a right to appoint someone to observe board meetings
  • Dispute resolution
  • Right to dissolve the corporation

There are plenty of templates out there that can get you started, including this useful one from the Law Society – but as I said above, it’s incredibly important to understand the risks before fiddling with the way your corporation is run…. like using a game of Operation to prepare for open-heart surgery.

If you need a lawyer, I happen to know a guy

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
Email: mike@intrepidlaw.ca
Twitter: @MikeHookLaw

Why does my corporation need a minute book?

In the hustle and bustle of running your business, record keeping often falls by the wayside. Most small business owners put corporate record keeping somewhere below “eating gravel” on their to-do list. The corporation’s minute book is often never even created in the first place, let alone kept up to date, even though the consequences of failing maintain one can be severe, and incredibly expensive.

Why do I have to?

Incorporating brings a lot of benefits – limited liability and tax being the biggest – but also comes with increased responsibility. The government has said, through the laws it has passed, that if you want the good stuff you’ve got to deal with the additional administration that comes with it. Whether you incorporated federally, or in Ontario, you must prepare and maintain corporate records. Trust me, it’s worth a little hassle and expense now to avoid greater hassle and expense later.

So what if I don’t?

Worst case scenario, your corporation could be found guilty of an offence under corporate law, and liable for a fine of up to $25,000.

Aside from the official penalty, there’s a great deal of business risk involved if your books are non-existent or out of date. I’ve often found myself playing CSI: Minute Book, going back several years to piece together the company’s history. It can take a fair bit of time and money to get it all figured out – neither of which small businesses have in spades.

There are a few common situations where your minute book will be in demand:

  • If you’re selling part or all of your company, the buyer will want to see the books as part of their due diligence – so they know exactly what they’re buying. Poor record keeping can drive the purchase price down, and the delay to get your books in order could put the whole sale at risk.
  • Most banks and other lenders will want to see your minute book before lending money to your business. They want to know that its affairs are in order, and the people they’re dealing with are authorized to act for the corporation.
  • Your accountant may want to see the minute book in preparing its tax returns. Without it, she’ll be forced to make assumptions on how to characterize the income, and may end up mis-reporting.
  • The Customs and Revenue Agency is entitled to inspect your books, and may do so as part of an audit of your personal taxes or the corporation’s taxes. This is more common if you’re paying yourself by dividends, or you’ve lent money to the company. The CRA could characterize money coming to you as personal income, tax the hell out of it AND deny the corporation the right to deduct it as an expense. Talk about lose-lose…
  • Shareholders, as owners of the company, have a legal right to inspect the minute book to know what decisions are being made.

OK then, what is it?

A minute book is really just a binder that holds the important documents of your corporation.

If a lawyer incorporated your business, they probably provided you with a minute book to start. If not, then you’ll have to prepare one yourself, including:

  • Certificate of Incorporation;
  • Articles of Incorporation;
  • By-Laws;
  • Consents to Act as Directors;
  • Director and shareholder resolutions
  • Minutes of director and shareholder seetings;
  • Registers of  the officers and directors;
  • Register showing the number of shares issued of each class of shares;
  • Record of the debt obligations of the corporation;
  • Stated Capital – the number of issued and outstanding shares;
  • Documents filed with government departments;
  • Share certificates, if used; and
  • The corporate seal, if used.

Then you’ve got to maintain the minute book, by keeping it up to date as the corporation does its business, including:

  • Resolutions from the annual meetings of shareholders and directors;
    • Electing directors each year;
    • Appointing accountants or auditors for each year;
    • Approving financial statements;
  • Records of loans to or from shareholders
  • Declared dividends;
  • Management bonuses paid;
  • Issuance or transfer of shares;
  • Changes in directors or officers;
  • Changes to how the corporation is run;

Can’t you just do it for me?

What’s tedious and boring to you is an adrenaline-fuelled rollercoaster ride of awesomeness for me. OK, maybe that’s a little extreme, but I’m happy to take the tedium off of your hands.  I can’t emphasize enough that it’s far far far far cheaper, easier, and less stressful to stay on top of this stuff than it is to go back and piece it together in an emergency – like when an investor or potential buyer wants to inspect your books.

Some clients like me to hang on to the record book and keep it updated when things change.  Others want to keep it themselves, and have me send them the updates when they make changes. Either way, this is one of those things that you shouldn’t waste your time doing…

Hey, you just read this blog,
and this is crazy,
but here’s my website,
so call me, maybe.

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

Termination Pay – Firing Without Cause

Firing employees is among the least comfortable tasks that face business owners. Whether it’s a result of poor quality of work, conduct in the workplace, budget cuts, or restructuring, dismissing an employee is rarely a decision that’s made easily.

Employees can be let go for a reason – poor work quality, dishonesty, fraud, disciplinary issues – known as dismissal “for cause.” I’ll cover dismissal for cause in another article.

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act, 2000, or ESA, sets the minimum standard for employee rights. It protects workers from unfair actions by employers. It is a “one size fits all” law, meaning that it imposes the same rules on small businesses as it does on Fortune 500 companies. On top of the complexities in the written law, the courts have fleshed out certain “common law” rules. Breaking those rules can mean paying big financial penalties for bad faith conduct, and a whole lot of time and heartache spent fighting lawsuits.  You should always consult with a lawyer before letting an employee go, just to make sure you’re not exposed to extra risk. You may pay more to the employee and your lawyer up front, but you can avoid a costly court case.

Dismissal Without Cause

If an employee is being let go without cause – due to the sale or merger of the business, budget cuts, or in a restructuring for example – the ESA requires employers to give a reasonable notice period. The employer may:

  • give written notice of dismissal and require the employee to work through the notice period while allowing them to search for new employment, or
  • terminate them immediately and pay their salary and benefits for the length of the notice period

Fixed Notice

Some employment contracts, particularly for management, will dictate a specific amount of notice that is required, such as:

The employer shall be entitled to end the employment relationship at any time, without cause, and at the employer’s discretion. Should the employer dismiss the employee without cause, the employee shall be entitled to payment of four months’ notice or pay in lieu of notice, including benefits.

If the employee is let go without cause, the employer must pay this amount without conditions such as requiring a release. A failure to pay, or an attempt to reduce the amount payable could be seen as bad faith, and could result in a big damages award against the employer.

Even if the employee mitigates their damages by finding another job right away, they’re still entitled to receive the full amount of damages.

ESA Minimum Notice

Many employment contracts state simply that:

The employer shall be entitled to end the employment relationship at any time, without cause, and at the employer’s discretion. Should the employer dismiss the employee without cause, the employee shall be entitled to the minimum notice or pay in lieu of notice, including benefits, required by the Employment Standards Act, 2000.

The general rule of thumb is one week of notice for every year of service is the starting point. Bear in mind, however, that this is only a minimum. Courts can award additional notice based on age, long-service, or their duties (managers or supervisors are often entitled to more notice) based on the common law, below. This is where your lawyer earns his keep – looking at the circumstances, and helping you to determine a reasonable notice period.

Bonuses and other discretionary benefits are tricky, and must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Common Law Notice

If there is no notice provision in the contract, or a court finds that the ESA minimum would be unfair in the circumstances, the common law will apply. What a “reasonable” notice period is depends on the circumstances. Courts will decide the appropriate notice period based on a number of factors, including the employee’s age, length of service, and their role and responsibilities at the company. Again, this is where your lawyer earns his keep in helping you to determine what a reasonable amount of notice would be.

The above is a big picture view of what the law requires employers to consider when letting an employee go without cause. As usual, it’s for your information only, and no substitute for a discussion with a lawyer. I happen to know a guy…

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
@MikeHookLaw