What it’s really like to work for a small business

With tight-knit teams, a flat structure and less bureaucracy, small businesses can be great places to work. Employees can cut their teeth on different jobs across the business, and it’s easier to form meaningful connections with everyone working together to get the job done. But this tight-knit, all-in culture also gives rise to common misconceptions. Sometimes, SMEs come with connotations of having underpaid, overworked staff that have to manage all parts of the business.

Resourcing issues are often to blame for these impressions: it’s true that some SME employees wear many hats, manning the till and ordering stock one minute, managing stocktake and paying invoices the next. It’s also true that coordinating leave in a small team can be difficult during busy times of the year. Tales of unscrupulous operators underpaying staff are also well-publicised, and give many SMEs a bad wrap. So what’s myth and what’s true about working for a small business?

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Are employees are underpaid?

A quarter of SME employees believe they are unfairly paid, according to research conducted by Employsure in partnership with Roy Morgan. In many small businesses budgets are tight, and owners can’t always pay their hardworking staff as much as they’d like.

That doesn’t mean that employees should ever be underpaid, and Australian law offers many rights and protections to workers. Once filed, underpayment claims can go back six years, and require the business owner to repay employees the amount underpaid plus interest, as well as any penalties the court decides.

The stiff fines that accompany underpayments, as well as industry watchdogs like the Fair Work Ombudsman, exist to keep businesses compliant.

Do employees have to be the jack of all trades?

Small businesses provide a great training ground for employees looking to learn the ins and outs of running a business. Employees can hone their skills in a supportive environment with exposure to many different facets of the organisation, but that doesn’t mean they have to take on every role.

The last five years have seen a trend towards small business owners outsourcing generic work to freelancers, while hiring employees with specialist skills to work in their business doing what they do best.

Are employees are overworked?

SMEs create tight knit teams that give small business owners a chance to support their employees on a personal level. This personal rapport means bosses can encourage open communication about stress and anxiety in the workplace, allowing employees to voice concerns and share when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Is there any work-life balance?

Encouraging leave is crucial for small business owners to maintain the wellness and work-life balance of their employees.  

It’s also often necessary for SME employees to take regular breaks throughout the year to manage staffing during peak seasons like Christmas.

Many businesses have processes in place to properly manage absences while ensuring their people have adequate time to recuperate and rest. The key to managing leave requests in a small team is setting and managing expectations with transparency.

Working in small businesses means that high expectations are placed on small teams, but that doesn’t mean employees should ever feel underpaid or overworked.


Australia has one of the most difficult workplace relations systems in the world. Employsure is here to help employers navigate the complexity. Employsure is the largest provider of employment relations and work health and safety services in Australia — servicing more than 24,000 clients nationally. More than 300 advisers and consultants provide independent advice to business owners on their workplace relations and health and safety obligations. Every day Employsure gives business owners the confidence that their workplaces are safe, fair and compliant.

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