Guerilla Tactics for Winning the Hiring War

SEA Magazine, October 2001
By Mary C. Weaver

In The Wizard of Oz the Cowardly Lion ended his paean to courage with the question, What have they got that I ain't got? (We all remember what the answer was.) If your small businesses has been feeling the hiring crunch and losing the best job candidates to bigger companies, turn that question around: What have I got that they ain't got?

Answer: A small-business environment that can potentially offer employees more flexibility, more fun, more caring, and less rigidity than the larger company down the street. You may not be able to compete on the basis of salary and benefits. But guess what? That's not the top draw for candidates when it comes to taking a new job.

"Every survey since the beginning of time says that people don't change jobs for money," says Andy Birol, president of PACER Associates Inc. of Solon, Ohio. Birol, who consults with and coaches owners who want to grow their businesses, says people quit their jobs for the same reasons they end relationships.

"People stop listening, people stop respecting them, people stop laughing, they stop caring, they stop sharing," says Birol. "Smaller companies have such an unbelievable opportunity to do these things better."

Joan Stewart, a media-relations consultant and the publisher of tips booklets on employee recruitment and retention, agrees. "When people leave their jobs, pay is usually fifth on the list of reasons. They leave because they don't feel appreciated, there's no room for advancement, and the boss is a jerk."

So instead of feeling big-company envy, spend some time brainstorming about what your company can do better and what job applicants would find attractive. Here are some strategies that pay off:

Create a positive, appreciative work environment
"Stress the personal, the way you treat people," advises Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D., author of Bringing Out the Best in People (McGraw Hill, 1999) and a business consultant based in Atlanta. "Many organizations that think they have a positive work environment don't - not because they yell and scream at people but because they don't fully appreciate the contributions employees make day to day, and people feel burdened."

When it comes to getting things done, he adds, they resort to negative consequences such as applying pressure. That breeds resentment. But companies that make employees feel valued and appreciated generate tremendous loyalty.

Make workers feel part of the process. Solicit their ideas for better ways to do things and give them feedback one on one at least monthly, Stewart suggests. Don't wait for annual performance reviews to find out that staffers are unhappy or feeling frustrated.

If your company already has a great atmosphere, it's not difficult to sell it to candidates. You won't convince them by telling them yourself, though: your current employees make the best salespeople.

"Let applicants go to lunch with employees and spend some personal time alone with them," says Stewart. "Don't be afraid to let them talk to your people. If you've got a cozy, family-type atmosphere, they will tell job candidates that."

It's a tactic some large companies have used to their advantage too, Daniels says. "One of our customers is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, and they dominate the health-care market. One of the reasons they do is that when they bring in prospective customers, after they give them the party line, they say, 'We'd like for you to go out into our operation and talk to employees. You choose anybody you want, and ask them how they do their job and how they like working here.' There's no supervisor present. You've got to be pretty confident of your organization. Very few companies can do that, but smaller companies are in a better position to do so."

Offer flexible schedules
The more willing you are to relax the schedule, the more potential employees you can attract. Offering flex-time, job-sharing, part-time jobs and other arrangements makes it easier for you to work with students, mothers of young children, retirees and adults who are caretakers for elderly parents.

"I think flexibility is imperative," says Stewart. "So many people are struggling with work-life balance now, and workers identify this as a key issue they're dealing with. The easier you can make it for them to take time off when they need it or rejuggle their schedule, the better off you'll be."

If the prospect of working out flexible schedules seems too daunting, take a tip from Stewart: let the employees work out the details among themselves. "Most of the time they'll come up with something better than you could have."

Provide opportunities to learn and grow

Don't put employees in a box - make your company a place where they can stretch a little and gain new skills.

"Young job hunters in particular are looking for companies that will help them reach the next level in their careers," says Stewart. "That in itself is a perk. You can train them for a position and let them know all of the ways that the next step or two can take place at your company, with promotions, cross-training, job-sharing. All of those are good ways to sell a job to people."

Give little perks that don't cost a lot
Providing the fun factor can pay off handsomely: it helps build loyalty and camaraderie among employees, it gives them evidence of your great work environment to sell to prospective candidates, and it can generate buzz in the community that's far more effective than any classified ad.

Stewart's tip booklet on retention offers numerous suggestions: Sponsor visits from an ice cream truck, hold an office Foosball tournament, stage a talent show, give away football tickets, hand out movie passes (and let employees see the show on company time), hold a chili cook-off.

"One company I talked to recently had a bowling party in the afternoon, on work time," she says. "It only cost them $250, but people have been talking about it ever since. But ask your employees what they think is fun. If they think bowling is nerdy, don't have a bowling party. When employees help plan the activity, it becomes more fun."

If you do something truly unique in the pursuit of employee happiness, you may even generate media coverage. "Another consultant in town told me about a company that held a 'human bowling tournament,'" Stewart says. "They put employees inside a big round cage that served as a bowling ball and rolled it down an alley where they'd set up gigantic bowling pins. It was just a hoot. You want to talk about creating a buzz!"

Keep in mind that newspaper stories about your company reach many more people than classified ads. The goal is for the whole community to know your company's name and to think of it as a great place to work.

Creative recruiting
No matter how much publicity your company generates, you can't count on applicants to magically appear the moment you have a vacancy. You still need advertising to reel them in - but don't stop with newspaper ads. Market your job anywhere and everywhere potential employees might be.

  • Advertise in your church bulletin, Stewart recommends, and let the pastor know that you're hiring. Ministers are often the first to hear about parishioners who have lost their jobs.
  • Place ads in community newsletters published by schools, libraries, garden clubs, senior centers and fraternal organizations.
  • Post fliers in health clubs, grocery stores, libraries, day-care centers and senior centers.
  • Make contact with social-service organizations that work with immigrants, seniors, welfare mothers, people with disabilities and others who need jobs.
  • Call downsizing companies and ask to speak to the director of human resources. Their rejects may be winners for you.
  • Hold an open house and serve punch and cookies. Tell visitors what you do and what kinds of employees you're looking for.
  • Take part in local job fairs sponsored by the chamber of commerce or other civic and business organizations.
  • Stay in touch with good former employees. Maybe they're not happy in their new jobs - or perhaps they can recommend friends who are looking for work.
  • Hire local college students as interns, and get to know college professors who teach in areas related to your business. Ask them about bright students who need part-time work or new graduates who are job hunting.
  • Offer a referral bonus to employees and their family members and friends. Give them half the bonus upon hiring the referred employee and the rest after the employee completes six months of service. If you can't afford to give cash bonuses, offer gift certificates or your business's services.
  • Always carry business cards. When you meet someone who offers exemplary service, Stewart says, "Give them your card and write on the back, 'We're hiring and we'd love to talk to you.'"
  • Finally, when good people apply, show them an interest and a swiftness that no large company can match. "Contact them immediately, tell them you're interested, and try to get them in for an interview as soon as you can," Stewart says. "Some big companies string candidates along for months, and they lose them."
Keep the good ones

When your business is expanding, hiring is a necessity, not a luxury. But if you're hiring because good employees keep leaving, it's crucial to find out why and to address any problems you discover.

"Most small businesses don't realize what it costs to replace somebody," says Daniels. "It's much higher than people think. Owners look at how long they'll be without a person and what it'll take to get somebody in and train them, but there's also an impact on customers and quality and other employees. Employers think, 'I can replace that person.' Well, you're going to lose a lot of experience that you've paid for, and somebody else will get the benefit of it.

"Your first priority is to do the best job you can with the people you already have," he continues. "It's like the difference between battlefield medicine and preventive medicine. At some point you've got to ask why you're continuing to have to attract people. When you've got your house in order and you're doing things right, attracting people is not a problem because people want to come to work for you."

Mary C. Weaver is a freelance writer and editor living in Knoxville, Tenn.


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