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How small businesses can square up against the big guys in the staff poaching game

  • Written by Geoff Cooper, The CEO Institute Australia’s SME Chairman

Covid-19 lockdowns pushed many to the brink but the newest challenge of severe staff shortages and poaching has many at their most desperate point.

From offering salary increases of upwards of $30k to creating roles with more money and less work, big organisations are leaving small business employees with the obvious decision to jump ship to a more cashed-up role at a time when cost of living spikes.

The impact of losing staff on a small business is much bigger than that of a large organisation – these businesses can lose lifeline revenue projects down to lack of staff or struggling to get new junior staff up-to-speed.

One small Australian business owner recently said that he feels as though in the past the big guys understood the importance of smaller business – but it now seemed that this had been lost somewhere down the line.

Another said that one of their teams in the allied health space had gone from 10 staff members to three and recruiting was near impossible – meaning her small business couldn’t grow and the big guys were only getting bigger.

A survey conducted by Di Tapp from World Class Teams a few months ago, posed the question to hundreds, “How to retain & attract staff when you don’t have endless money?”.

Surprisingly, the survey found only 12 per cent of people actually change jobs because of their salary and there was a lot more at play than money alone.

We all know small business owners are some of the most resilient and adaptable people out there and The CEO Institute of Australia’s top SME business owners have shared their best kept secrets in retaining key staff at a time when it feels impossible.

Genuine care for your staff goes a long way

Everyone has a different purpose to getting up each morning and going to work. As a manager, understanding your staffs’ why is everything.

Find out their personal and professional ambitions and the reason they come to work in the first place. In order to retain staff, you have to look at them like a whole person – having a 1 to 1 relationship with them is fundamental and fosters honest discussions around their employment path.

People don’t want to leave a good job, with great colleagues and a manager that knows and understands them.

Naturally, reward and recognition is important but managers who are proactive to staff needs as opposed to reactive retain their people. The narrative is absolutely important and communication with staff cannot be underestimated.

Tied to this is flexibility – staff members are dealing with their own life hurdles and celebrations. One of your staff member’s partners could be sick or another may want to watch their child’s first school graduation – if you appreciate and support this, people remember these things and it links greatly to loyalty.

In the above mentioned survey, 70 per cent of respondents said flexibility was key to staying at a workplace and 75 per cent said the main reason they left an organisation was down to a bad boss.

These are important things to remember. All staff are human and you have to treat them as exactly that.

Enough of the one-size-fits-all progression plans

One thing that small business does have over big business is the ability to have less rigid employment plans. They can offer multi-faceted roles with major development opportunities for staff well before they would be offered at a big organisation.

Employment plans are individually-based, not a one-size-fits-all approach. Look at your staff’s strengths and weaknesses and tailor their employment journey to suit you both.

Everyone must have a real sense of what their role is and the impact they have on the business. Both personal and team achievement is critical.

It’s very difficult to sway people from sizable increases in salary. The best bet is get them in a position they wouldn’t get otherwise and strengthen the team and cultural environment.

When the going gets tough, go international

Tech giant Atlassian recently announced a recruitment drive in hiring 1,000 R&D employees in Australia - posing a major threat to smaller tech companies that poaching or staff choosing to jump at the opportunity was imminent.

During recruitment booms, large organisations can suck the skills and people from the smaller end of town who cannot compete with the salary packages of the big firms.

To circumvent this, some tech companies have looked to overseas recruitment with offices set-up accordingly. They manage teams overseas as they would locally and instill virtual work cultural norms to stay viable.

In other cases, businesses are taking risks with skilled migrant workers looking for permanent residency in Australia. Both paying off with loyalty and flexibility in other ways.

These are great ways to give overseas workers the chance they may have never got, while also landing a loyal and keen employee.

Throw out Gen-Z bias and get that intern

A final tactic that small businesses are finding useful throughout this difficult patch is creating new internship pathways.

Business owners have never been more keen to train people from the ground up, making graduate interns a hugely attractive option.

From 3-month intern stints rolling into full-time employment, many are finding this pathway is creating loyalty and in effect, long-term employees.

With Australia’s unemployment rate particularly low, it fails to capture those university students almost ready to hit the job market and who in the previous years may have been discriminated against for their lack of experience.

Small business owners should make connections with their local TAFE or university and start graduate programmes to give keen local talent their first shot in the job market and get an extra bunch of hands on deck for their business.

Final thoughts

These tips can take small business owners’ a long way, but in some cases, you will still lose that staff member to the big organisations and really feel it.

The key to ensure you don’t lose any more winks is acceptance.

As one of our members once said: ‘It’s like a smaller football club that knows it ain’t going to retain quality players – the biggies will come and snatch.

‘Accept it, plan for it and use all the tricks at your disposal to ensure you have a business that is not centric to running foul when people leave.

‘If you see it as a positive you can attract the right staff early on and impress upon them that you are a gateway for their career progression.


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