It’s about the people: an SMB’s guide to finding the best employees

A CEO’s guide to recruiting talent

Everyone knows a team is only as strong as its weakest link. But when your business isn’t a household name, it can be difficult to attract new teammates. Small businesses face a myriad of challenges when it comes to recruiting talent. Good thing startups have a unique set of benefits to offer potential employees. 

When SMBs try to compete with NASDAQ-listed corporations, they fail. So stop playing by the big guys’ rules (you don’t have their marketing budget, anyway). Lean into your strengths and attract individuals who are just as passionate about what you do as you are. 

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Brand your small business

It takes 20 years to build a reputation, but just five minutes (or a single post) to ruin it. Tweet wisely. 

Employer branding is a trendy new buzzword in the recruiting community, but it essentially boils down to something we all understand: reputation. 

As a small business owner, you may not have the budget or space to install an office slide (leave that to Google), but you still need to actively curate your employer brand. This includes your company values, mission, and culture.

Stuck for ideas? Ask the people in the trenches: your employees. A simple “why do you like working here?” will help you identify the key strengths of your employer brand. 

Once you’ve established your employer brand, it’s time to tell the world. The tightly-knit nature of small teams makes them ideal for social networks like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. In this instance, your SMB has an advantage over large multinationals. Potential job seekers will be turned away by the corporate nature of some big businesses’ social media, so make yours unique and interesting.

Don’t focus on work (that’s what a job description is for). Instead, share content that describes what day to day office life is like. Office decor, team building activities, an employee costume party, even just a silly meme from your #random Slack channel – all of these tiny pieces form job seeker’s opinions of your company. Since you don’t have stiff corporate guidelines, feel free to get creative when showcasing your company culture

As you continue to grow, consider a dedicated channel or hashtag for your employer brand. For example, the e-commerce company Zappos has a dedicated Twitter channel for sharing their #CompanyCulture. It’s filled with behind-the-scenes shots of employees, funny memes, and other stuff their “Zapponians” are up to. 

As you probably already know, social media is a double-edged sword. When it works, it works great, but when it goes wrong, it can go horribly, terribly wrong. A solid company-wide social media strategy is a key tool to ensure everyone is on the same page.

You may think good social media etiquette is a given, but it’s not. Dave in accounting might think that meme was hilariously off-side, but in reality it could be offensive. A clear set of rules and guidelines will ensure you are putting your best (online) foot forward. Remember, it takes 20 years to build a reputation, but just five minutes (or a single post) to ruin it. Tweet wisely.

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Leverage the network effect

Have you ever played the Kevin Bacon game? (Stick with us). Basically, you start with the name of an actor, and you have to connect them to Kevin Bacon through movie titles that both actors have appeared in. For example, if you start with “Jennifer Lawrence”, you could explain that Jennifer Lawrence was in The Burning Plain with Charlize Theron, who was in Trapped with Kevin Bacon. So, Jennifer is two degrees of separation away from Kevin Bacon (lucky guy).

Fun parlor games aside, what does this have to do with recruiting? Well, it may surprise you to know that the average actor in Hollywood is just three degrees of separation from Mr. Bacon himself. That’s the power of the network effect. 

Even if your employees aren’t movie stars, they likely know plenty of people. Statistically, at least some of those people are likely looking for a job. This is called social recruiting or employee advocacy, and it’s one of the most powerful tools in the SMB’s hiring toolbox. 

According to EveryoneSocial (a social recruiting tool), 65% of people would consider a new opportunity if they heard about it through a personal connection on their network, and 79% of job seekers are using social media in their search. Ask your employees to share any active listings among their personal networks. Not only will they likely attract more qualified candidates, they also have the added bonus of a pre-existing relationship. In fact, employee referrals have the highest applicant-to-hire conversion rate, meaning that candidates referred by existing employees are the most likely to actually become team members. 

Ask the right questions

So you’ve built an amazing employer brand, and the referrals are flowing in. Qualified applicants are knocking down your door, and it’s time to proceed to the next step: the (dreaded) interview.

Job interviews are stressful all around: for the applicant, for the hiring manager, and for the people who don’t know who their new team member will be. 

A chart demonstrating the anxiety faced by workers when their 'cool' boss is fired.

Since you’re probably going to spend more time with your coworkers than your partner, it’s important to make sure you’re going to get along. A single toxic employee can ruin your company culture. 

Traditionally, the same tired questions are asked, scored against a sheet, and the candidate with the highest number wins the job. But your company isn’t traditional, so why are you hiring like one?

It’s time to update your interview questions. Asking skills or competency-based questions ensures that you will hire the most qualified individual, not just the most bubbly or friendly. Identify the key skills a candidate would need to be successful and design questions that test their knowledge of those skills. 

Of course, a team isn’t built on skills alone. By the time they’ve reached the interview stage, you’ve likely verified their qualifications. But will they fit in with the team? Do their personal values align with your company values? 

Enter the “a$$hole test.”

Chieh Huang, co-founder and CEO of Boxed, asks every new hire what he’s deemed the “a$$hole test.” Ask a candidate to tell you about themselves, but include a catch: they can’t mention anything already specified on their resume. This forces them to think outside of the box, and demonstrate their creativity and unique interests.

Since many small businesses value agility, you need to make sure you’re not hiring just another cog in a wheel. Plus, the added ability to carry a conversation will undoubtedly contribute to a workplace culture that people actually want to be a part of. 

The second part of the ‘jerk test’ is a test of humility. Ask your candidate to rate their knowledge of technology on a scale of one to 10 (or another suitably vague topic relevant to your industry). According to Huang, everyone who answers with a nine or 10 has failed.

With so many changing elements and new technologies appearing daily, nobody has a perfect grasp of the industry. Anyone who thinks they do likely isn’t a team player. In the eternal words of A. Grande, “thank u, next.”

Another clever way to assess the so called ‘jerk-ness’ of a candidate is to ask reception, security, or other support staff how they were treated. A potential candidate probably isn’t going to be rude to the person interviewing, but if they are short with people who they think don’t affect the hiring process, it’s a clear indicator of their personality and values. You could even delay the interview for five to 10 minutes to see how candidates deal with unexpected circumstances and inconveniences. 

Hire a team, not an individual 

Instead of focusing on your limitations, think about what you are uniquely positioned to offer potential employees. Don’t try to compete for the same talent pool as large corporations: you probably can’t afford to. Plus, employees who are only interested in dollar signs on their paychecks aren’t the type of team members you want on board. Leverage the strength of your network, build your reputation as an amazing place to work, and watch as talented candidates come to you. 

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