Viewpoint: How to Sell Top Talent on Joining Your Small Company

By Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP Feb 22, 2017
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​Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP

My company doesn't have a Ping-Pong table, a dry-cleaning service, free back massages, treadmill desks or gourmet daily lunches (we don't even have peanut butter and jelly in the kitchen for making sandwiches). Name the perk, and we probably don't have it.

Instead, like most small businesses, we run as efficiently and profitably as we can while striving to provide the best products and services to our customers at the most competitive rates. And unlike a large enterprise business, we can't offer giant sign-on bonuses, over-the-market salaries and filtered, organic water service delivered to your home for your dog.

As a small business, it would be easy for us to behave like a victim: "Ugh, I just can't compete with those big companies!" But the truth is, we can compete! In fact, we thrive! Put our team up against any large company, and we would kick the large company's butt, person for person.

How can we do this? We use our size to our advantage.

Big organizations have big organizational problems. If you work for a giant company, you're basically tasked with being a mile deep and an inch wide. This means that large organizations want their employees to focus in on a very small part of the business and be very good at it. Some people love that, while some people hate it. At small organizations, employees are a mile wide and an inch deep, getting involved in almost every aspect of the business.

When my company recruits talent, we sell who we are, and look for potential hires who want to be who we are. What we don't do is search for employees who don't want to be us, and that's key. Most small organizations that struggle to find talent actually don't have a talent attraction problem—they have a talent selection problem. They keep hiring the wrong people for their organization. The employees they target don't want what they have to offer.

What can small organizations do to convince employees to join them instead of their large corporate competitors? Here are some ideas:

Sell freedom. Most large organizations are bogged down with internal politics. Many employees become frustrated with projects getting stalled, canceled or just being left in limbo with no information on what could happen next. Small organizations can't run like this. Communication flows more freely because there aren't levels to filter it through. Employees who move from big to small companies often say that they can't believe the lack of politics in small businesses compared to large corporate structures.

To sell freedom, you must make it part of your culture and employer brand. Your executives and hiring managers must talk about this during the interview process, and your recruiters must truly believe in this attribute. It can't just be talk—it must be how you live. The candidate must feel this freedom in every part of the process from attraction through onboarding and into their development within the role. This approach doesn't cost anything—it's 'just' a cultural shift!

Sell opportunity. The opportunity you're selling in a small business is not necessarily career advancement. We are selling the opportunity to develop in a professional role at a much faster rate than a candidate would ever see in a large corporate environment. It's the opportunity to be involved at a decision-making level with the organization's highest executives. It's an opportunity to not only have a voice but to have that voice be heard.

In small organizations, we need to train our leaders to be "Jerry Maguire" types. Remember Jerry? "Show me the money, Jerry!" We need our leaders in a small business to be talent agents, to manage their teams like Jerry managed Rod's career. All Jerry wanted for Rod was the best possible outcome for his career. He was singularly focused on that success.

This idea scares most small organizations because what it means is that your leaders are actually training and developing their employees to leave! That's what happens when you are focused on developing your employees to be the best. They get valuable. Once they get valuable, they'll leave, right? Actually, some will, but the dirty little secret is that most won't! They won't because what employees figure out very quickly is that working for a boss who cares that much about their career is pretty rare, and most decide not to leave that leader.

Sell family. All that Gallup research isn't lying: Employees like to have a best friend at work. In large organizations, this is really tough to make happen organically. An employee might have a friend or friends who also work at the large organization, but a best friend? That's something special! In small organizations, this is our daily life.

Not only do I have a best friend, I have a family. In a world where most people are disconnected, do not discount how important this is for job candidates. Large organizations are trying every technology possible to get their employees to interact more because they know this will help them retain talent. For small organizations, our ability to create strong, lasting relationships is how we build our businesses.

Again, you sell family to job candidates. You must make your application process feel like something they've never experienced in a large organization. Luckily for you, it doesn't take much to accomplish that, as many large organizations practically trip over themselves to treat each candidate like a number. In small organizations, your candidate experience must be high-touch and very personal.

Applicants need to feel like part of the family from the first interaction. I once had a small organization that I interviewed with, and ultimately rejected, send me a nice gift basket for my birthday. This was a month after I turned them down to join a large corporation. The large corporation didn't even have my workstation and phone ready on my first day. The small company was still treating me like family even though I had rejected their job offer. The result? I kicked myself for not going with the small company. I "felt" their love. The small company felt like family.

Small organizations are not powerless against large organizations when it comes to attracting talent. It's all about the mindset you project and the culture you create. Most people don't take a job for things. They take a job because of all the strengths that a company possesses. It's up to us, as small company HR leaders, to ensure that we are driving the kind of culture that is needed so that employees can thrive.

Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, is the president of HRU Technical Resources, a leading IT and engineering staffing firm headquartered in Lansing, Mich. Sackett will present on diversity and inclusion hiring challenges and explain how to transform a low-functioning corporate recruitment department into a high-functioning in-house agency at SHRM's 2017 Talent Management Conference and Exposition April 24-26 in Chicago.

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