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(Stockbyte/Getty Images)
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EXPERT ADVICE

Is a mentor helpful, or a waste of time? Add to ...

DEAR GURU:

I’m fresh out of university and in the midst of starting my own business. Someone suggested I find a mentor, but I’m not sold on the idea. Do you think it will be helpful, or a waste of time?

THE ANSWER:

 A waste of time? All those hours you spent playing hacky sack on the quad was a waste of time. Finding a mentor isn’t. In fact, it will probably turn out to be a crucial asset.

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“It’s imperative,” says Peter Stewart, a business adviser with Invest Ottawa’s iProfit Small Business Mentoring program.

Have you ever built a marketing plan? Resolved supply chain issues? Negotiated a bank loan? Dealt with the hundreds, if not thousands, of issues that small business owners face? No? Well, do you know who has? Your mentor. Just having someone to bounce ideas off of can be hugely important.

“It gives you a second set of eyes for your business. You’re so busy running from one fire to the next that you don’t always step back and see the bigger picture,” Mr. Stewart says.

There are a lot of programs like Ottawa’s out there, which will match you with an established professional for a set period of time, usually for a small fee (the iProfit program costs $450 and typically involves six sessions over three months).

“If you have a large company, you have a board of directors who are always looking at the bigger picture and making sure you’re going on the right task. As a small entrepreneur, you don’t necessarily have that advisory panel, so you need somebody to make sure you stay focused,” Mr. Stewart says.

Mentors will often act as cheerleaders, Mr. Stewart says. You’ll appreciate the encouragement, especially at a time when you’re just starting out.

But you don’t have to go the formal route. You could always reach out to someone you admire, someone with a proven track record, and ask them to take you on as a mentor. That could mean as little as meeting for coffee once a month.

“Most people when they’re asked, they’re flattered,” Mr. Stewart says.

DEAR GURU:

Help me out of this awkward situation. One of my employees has worked for me for years, but his work is just not cutting it, and hasn’t for a long time. I want to let him go, and I think I have cause, but I’m worried about how to proceed. What’s the best way to get rid of this guy?

THE ANSWER:

First, let’s assume the employee is not unionized or in a federally regulated industry, since both can make dismissal much more complicated. Now, know this: It’s not going to be pretty. Putting someone out of work never is, unless you’re Donald Trump and you love telling people they’re fired.

But what’s even harder than mimicking the Donald’s ruthlessness? Trying to prove just cause, which has a very high threshold, and the onus is on you as the employer to prove it. It’s “the capital punishment of employment law,” says Karen Zvulony, an employment lawyer based in Toronto.

Oh, but this guy’s phoning it in lately? It probably doesn’t matter. “There’s a distinction between having a reason to terminate somebody versus having just cause,” Ms. Zvulony says.

Besides, even if you’re certain you have just cause to fire this person, you’re more or less asking for a big headache. “You’re almost inviting for them to go and see a lawyer, because they have nothing to lose,” Ms. Zvulony says.

So what should you do? Sit this person down and explain in detail that his performance has not been up to snuff of late and that he has 30 days to get his act together. Be polite, but firm.

And if the problem still exists at the end of 30 days?

“Offer him some sort of package,” Ms. Zvulony says. The terms will depend on such things as how long the person has been on staff and his seniority, obviously. And you may not like it, but it won’t be as frustrating as fending off a lawsuit, especially when employees can be entitled to significant sums under the common law.

How can you limit your liability in the future?

“Probably the best way to protect employers, especially small business owners, is to have a good employment agreement in place in the first place,” Ms. Zvulony says. That agreement will spell out what employees are entitled to upon termination.

Yes, the situation you’re in is awkward. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

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