Small-business advice: Evaluate workers and reward performance, even in lean years

Dear Karen: My business is struggling. Must I do performance appraisals this year?

Answer: Most small businesses don't perform employee appraisals often enough. "It seems like a lot of work, but employees want to know how they are doing. It would be smart to have a verbal appraisal every three months and a more formal written appraisal at least once a year," said Ken Keller, president of Business Owner Coaching in Valencia. "Companies that don't hold people accountable tend to underperform."

Some companies are not giving raises at all, and others are giving up to 3% for top performers, research shows. "Employers who are not giving raises would be wise to get employees focused on a pay-for-performance program, where the employees can share in some of the growth of profits, reduction of expenses or improvements in cash flow," Keller said.

Even with high unemployment, great employees are hard to find — and keep. "If employers don't take care of their best employers, they should not be surprised when they leave," Keller said.

• A firm wants to start importing

Dear Karen: A friend of mine in Patagonia grows pears, and I want to import his fruit. Where can I get advice?

Answer: There is help for small-business owners interested in the import-export trade, from federal and state agencies. In this case, start with the El Camino College Center for International Trade Development in Hawthorne, at

Small-business questions? E-mail Karen at

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