How SMEs can win the war for talent

Aug 01, 2018
SMEs might struggle to recruit top talent in today’s tight employee market, but size could be their hidden strength.

With Ireland on track to reach full employment by 2019 and the Brexit-induced migration of large corporations such as Bank of America and Barclays, the challenge facing Ireland’s small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the so-called “war for talent” appears daunting. Stories abound that large multinational companies develop sophisticated people management strategies, are able to offer higher salaries and a myriad of employee perks such as monthly back massages, free onsite food halls and ping pong tables in the boardroom.

Despite some of the advantages that larger corporations inevitably have, SMEs are actually well-positioned to compete with them due to the shifting demands and desires of the workforce. While money is important to people and ping-pong tables are fun, SMEs are able to deliver something greater, something that many workers are looking for today – meaning in what they do. The idea that meaningful work is motivational work has been around for a long time, but research is beginning to identify key workplace factors that help employees find greater significance in what they do. Interestingly, many of the workplace factors that enhance meaningfulness are the bread and butter of SMEs.

In search of meaning 

So how are SMEs positioned to offer candidates avenues to find meaning in what they do? Well, the very nature of work in SMEs requires a different mindset. With less bureaucracy and more autonomy, SME employees have the opportunity to push forward their ideas, programmes and improvements much easier and quicker. With increased autonomy, employees show higher levels of responsibility for work outcomes and this in turn leads to high-quality work performance.

SMEs also require their employees to take on a broad range of responsibilities, using and developing a variety of skills across several business functions. This might include meeting with higher-level clients or presenting recommendations to senior management. An SME employee will not only gain well-rounded exposure to a variety of tasks, but will also be positioned as a serious player at the decision-making table.
SMEs, given their size, also have a great capacity to create a strong and motivational culture. This is important because a strong culture appeals to many job candidates.

According to research conducted by Hays, 61% of finance and accounting professionals said they would take a pay cut for a better cultural fit. SMEs are also better positioned to provide flexibility to employees, as they are less constrained by the need to maintain standard policies for large pools of employees.

Given the above, SMEs provide a fertile greenfield site for employee development. Indeed, Hays note that employees rate career progression and development opportunities as more important than benefits or employer brand when considering a move to a new organisation. Many employees are motivated not just by salary, but in finding a depth of experience in their next role. In that context, SME leadership must engage with job candidates and share with them the benefits and advantages of working at their SME.

The war for talent

When SMEs stop trying to compete with the offers and perks from larger companies and instead engage in communicating the benefits that SMEs inherently have, they will start to attract the talent that is needed.

The first step is to actively advertise and communicate the opportunities afforded to employees in job descriptions, LinkedIn posts and recruitment meetings. Tell future candidates about the variety of work, immediate exposure to significant clients, and projects they will be part of when joining your company. Play to the ambition of these individuals.

The next opportunity is to promote the cultural fit and work-life balance of a smaller organisation where people know each other’s family and interests, and can accommodate requests. This can be done by including the CEO and senior management in the hiring process and designing mentoring programmes that allow individuals to build relationships with key team members. These actions show that everyone has access to top managers – far from the reality faced by many at larger organisations.

A third recommendation for SMEs is to expand access to feedback and develop a culture in which feedback is not just accepted, but asked for. SMEs have the ability to provide feedback that recognises accomplishments and creates areas of improvement for individuals. Employees yearn for recognition and are increasingly looking to employers to offer and provide development opportunities – a feedback culture provides both.

When SMEs take the time to be proud of what makes them a successful organisation and actively promote these characteristics, they will be able to recruit top talent. And just as important, activities that aim to attract new talent are also incredibly influential in keeping current talent engaged. The nature of work at SMEs leaves them well-prepared when combined with a rigorous communication strategy to perform well in the ‘war for talent’.

Amanda Shantz is Associate Professor and Director of the MBA at Trinity College Dublin.

Andrew Clark is an MSc candidate at Trinity College Dublin.