Business Advice

What we learned when we asked the experts: how do you get – and keep – the right people in your business?

Lana Busby /

workplace culture

Carly Greenwood (SmartCompany) discusses staff hiring and retention with (from left) Performia’s Gareth Jekel, Envato’s Amber Johnson and Culture Amp’s Christian Miran at Melbourne’s breakfast briefing on 13 June.

There is, arguably, no secret ingredient to achieving a strong workplace culture. So how is it that some companies manage to develop and consistently maintain outstanding workplace cultures while others struggle to attract and retain good employees?

With SmartCompany’s recent reader survey finding 67 per cent of small business owners admit to hiring mistakes, and 54 per cent stating they don’t have a strategy to improve the quality of candidates and staff in their companies, we turned to the experts for their insights.

Speaking at SmartCompany’s breakfast briefing in Melbourne this week, Gareth Jekel (Australia and China Director, Performia), Amber Johnson (HR Manager, Envato) and Christian Miran (Director of People Practices, Culture Amp) shared their top tips on how small business owners can identify, hire and retain the right people in their business and – importantly – avoid hiring mistakes.

1. Stay objective

It is natural to gravitate towards people with whom we share similarities but it’s important to not be swayed by unconscious bias when hiring.

Miran recalls a past experience hiring a person referred to him by a former boss who ultimately turned out to be an unsuitable fit.

“Because I was so enthusiastic about the fact they were like me, I hired them without actually testing their ability. Being objective as you go through the [hiring] process is really important,” says Miran.

2. Seek a range of insights

Similarly, Johnson emphasises the importance of hiring people who are diverse in their experience, personality and problem-solving approach.

“One of the important parts is broadening where you do hire from… if you’re just looking at colleagues and referrals, you’re not attracting a diverse group of people,” she says.

“It’s also making sure you have lots of people involved in your recruitment and selection process, and a diverse group involved in that.”

3. Avoid ambiguity

While you want to make your company seem attractive to prospective employees, Jekel warns against embellishing job ads with feel-good platitudes. Early transparency will weed out any candidates who are not realistically suited to a role – think quality over quantity.

“One of the simplest things to do is to work out what your culture is, and put it into your ad. The job ad is the cheapest and easiest way to filter candidates,” says Jekel.

“You’re filtering out the people you don’t want in your company. I can tell you from doing lots of split-ad testing, and then measuring the candidates: it’s amazing how many fewer candidates you get when you get the ad right but all of them, up to 80 per cent, you’d want to hire.”

4. Recognise any red flags early

While unpleasant to acknowledge, some employees may struggle to fulfil competencies and in cases like this, Jekel, Johnson and Miran all suggest honest feedback and constructive performance management may be warranted.

However, small business owners also need to be aware of the immeasurable costs a destructive or disgruntled employee may have on their overall culture and manage them swiftly.

“The question is: how long does it take you to spot the bad hire? Because sometimes it can be three or four years down the track and you realise this person has actually been undermining the company, and been the cause of retention and customer issues,” says Jekel.

5. Building trust breeds loyalty

Envato is renowned for their flexible working setup, consistently making them an employer of choice.

While such arrangements may not suit every business, Johnson says that trusting your employees to manage their work when they’re not physically present or ‘visible’ can engender loyalty and motivation, provided there is in-built structure.

“People love it, people love being trusted… [but setting goals is] a key part of this to work. Because while you can’t see the person at their computer working, you know they’re hitting their goals or not.”

6. Challenge your people

Jekel relates his love of playing sport to his business, and sees the correlation between his employees feeling an overwhelming sense of personal achievement when they overcome the prerequisite “knocks and bumps”.

“As an employer, my job in my company is to create a playing field that actually creates a game and challenge for the players, my staff. It’s got to be a little more challenging than comfortable,” he says.

“In business, we need to set this playing field and challenge people at the right level that’s a little bit outside their comfort zone so that when they accomplish it they really do feel they’re part of team and that they’re winning.”

7. Give employees wider purpose

Small business owners can also enhance staff happiness and productivity by providing context around how their employees make a meaningful difference.

“I think people are looking for companies now that actually add something to society and add something more meaningful than just making a profit,” says Miran.

“That’s perhaps a struggle for a small business, how do you really articulate that? What are we actually doing here? It might be it’s a simple message around that, it’s just that we help our customers in this way. Whatever it is, helping connect that is really important.”

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Lana Busby

Lana Busby is SmartCompany's content coordinator/producer.

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