How small businesses can compete in a choppy job market

Companies of all sizes are struggling to find workers these days, but the search can be especially difficult for small businesses, which must find ways to stand out from big competitors.

Some smaller players have found clever tactics to help them succeed in this difficult environment. They are attracting and retaining talent by taking advantage of advantages that large corporations do not have and offering attractive lures that large companies cannot necessarily match. Here’s a look at some of those strategies.

Use searchable job titles

In many small businesses, employees have many roles, so they often have more flexibility when it comes to creating titles. But what a role calls, at least externally, can affect its ability to attract candidates.

When Company Folders Inc., a commercial printing company in Pontiac, Michigan, wanted to generate more interest on Indeed.com, the job search site advised the company to change the titles in its job listings. For example, the company began using the easily understood title “sales manager” instead of “account manager,” the company’s internal name for the position. Similarly, the company has adopted the “customer service representative” and abandoned the “print project manager,” says Vladimir Gendelman, the company’s founder and CEO.

another tactic What Company Folders uses is to create multiple postings for the same job, with each description tailored to a particular target audience. For example, when hiring for a customer service position that combines sales, graphic design, and print production, the company would post three job descriptions, one for each aspect of the position. That way, the business can appeal to a broader range of people, who may find themselves in one of those niches, but not necessarily all of them, says Gendelman.

highlight the culture

Small businesses often find it difficult to compete on wages. But they may have other ways of getting on candidates’ radar screens and keeping them happy.

One method is to emphasize the company culture during the hiring process. Small businesses often have an advantage over larger ones in this area: Because of their size, it’s much easier for them to foster a unified, welcoming culture that big competitors may find hard to match.

“As the world rapidly evolves, small business owners have an opportunity to be agile, offer value-driven benefits, create a strong culture and find new talent to take their businesses to the next level,” says Carissa Reiniger, director executive and founder of Silver Lining Ltd., a small business advisory firm.

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Small businesses, for example, have to stay competitive with pay and benefits, but they don’t necessarily have to make the highest bids to attract talent, Gendelman says. When job seekers are convinced of the company, the position and the potential, they are often willing to accept a slightly lower salary, he says. “I wouldn’t take $50,000 instead of $100,000, but I would take $85,000 instead of $100,000 for the right job, especially if you think there’s upward mobility,” he says.

In December 2020, Mobile Outfitters, a Philadelphia-based provider of personalized phone accessories, found that the competition for workers was particularly fierce. The company increased the salary it offered by about 20%, but that didn’t increase the number of applicants, says Dennis O’Donnell, the company’s co-founder. Even when Mobile Outfitters finally found employees, the employees left within three to six months. And they all went to better paying jobs.

The lesson for Mr. O’Donnell was to make work at Mobile Outfitters more related to the company’s culture: a stimulating and supportive work environment. For example, the company employs workers in several different states, countries, and time zones, and they are allowed to do their jobs remotely. The company also asks its workers to set their own 90-day goals and doesn’t micromanage to ensure these goals are met, says Mr. O’Donnell.

The company still includes salary in its job descriptions, but the first line of every post mentions that company culture is the #1 reason people choose Mobile Outfitters.

“If someone is choosing between us and another company and says, ‘I really liked your culture, but the other company offers 10% more,’ our response is simple: ‘Go with the other company,’” he says. “We want people who put culture first; in this aspect, we can really differentiate ourselves, keep our promises and end up with truly happy employees, and happy employees do not go away”.

Refine the interview process

Small companies can also be more nimble than big rivals in interviewing candidates, because they typically don’t have red tape or ingrained methods to handle the task.

Mobile Outfitters, for example, overhauled its interview process to make it more welcoming to candidates. During the initial phone screen, the company began explicitly telling candidates what the process will be like and what topics will be covered. Company representatives also tried to make interviews a more collaborative process, where candidates have space to ask questions about the job, and offered potential employees flexibility to schedule talks in the evenings or on weekends.

It’s a big change from what they used to do. In 2019, when the company was fielding hundreds of applicants, candidates went through numerous hurdles on the application itself, culminating in a 6+ hour interview process for candidates who made it this far, says Mr. O’ Donnell. The company lost several good candidates because the welcoming culture didn’t come through in the interview process, he says.

Once the hiring crisis started in 2021, that same job posting got almost no applicants, so the company changed its approach to make it friendlier. Now the number of applicants is about a quarter or a sixth of what it was originally, Mr. O’Donnell says, but the candidates are generally of higher quality.

“We still turn down 95% of applicants, but the difference is that 95% feel good about the process, and the 5% we want to join loved the interview process, so they trust our culture will be equally welcoming,” he says.

move quickly

When small businesses have a candidate they like, it’s critical that they take advantage of their ability to make quick decisions. So companies should minimize the steps it takes to get people from candidate to employee, because a slow process creates room for other companies to catch that person, says Andrew Whitford, co-founder of Removify, an Australian company that provides monitoring and reputation management. services.

A crucial component of rapid hiring is communicating the company’s interest in a candidate early. “Keeping them in the dark means they can take something safer that’s been offered earlier, while they may be more willing to wait if they know your interest is strong,” says Mr Whitford.

Don’t be too shy, he advises, but directly tell the candidate that the level of interest is high; ask questions about possible start dates and reconfirm the candidate’s level of interest in the position. The trick is to make an offer quickly without sacrificing a thorough vetting process or making the candidate feel like things are being rushed. One way the company manages expectations is to tell each candidate up front that you like to move quickly on everything, including hiring.

It is also important to clearly communicate a schedule. For example, “We will contact you again next week to discuss next steps” is too vague and creates uncertainty; while “We will make an offer for this position on Tuesday” is much clearer and allows candidates to determine all their options and timing, says Whitford.

Consider more entry level hiring

Given how difficult it is to find candidates, small businesses may want to consider changing their focus and hiring interns and entry-level candidates who can grow into multiple roles.

AOA DX Inc., a women’s health biotech startup, has five paid interns each semester, which is more than the number of full-time employees at the company, says CEO and co-founder Oriana Papin-Zoghbi. The company seeks interns who are willing to be flexible and who are open to supporting all the different areas of the business.

Young interns, of course, often require more hands-on management at first, since they’re learning on the job and often getting their first exposure to working in the industry, she says. AOA often recruits interns who appear to be fast learners, based on the interview process and their resumes.

“We spend a little more time training them up front and getting them up to speed, but more often than not, they are up and running independently within a few weeks, and the time spent training them is well worth the quality of their work,” he said. she says.

Ms. Winokur Munk is a writer in West Orange, New Jersey. You can reach her at reports@wsj.com.

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