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Blog: Game-changing recruitment tips for SMEs

It’s fair to say both hiring businesses and job seekers alike have had a volatile 18 months.

Between Brexit, pandemic-related business closures, employees being furloughed, redundancies, travel restrictions for international workers, and shifts in consumer and employee demands, it’s been a slog – both for those recruiting and for those applying.

Access to talent still an issue

As we start to come out of the other side it’s clear that nothing has really changed.

There are still huge skills shortages in certain sectors and in specialist areas; competition for the best talent is still fierce; and expectations from employees are still pretty high.

In a recent survey of MPA clients, 28% said recruitment of new employees, lack of knowledge and skills, retention of existing talent and other workforce issues were likely to be their biggest challenge in the next 12 months, topped only by financial concerns like attracting and retaining customers, managing cash flow, and investing in R&D.

If you’re an SME like many of our clients, how can you differentiate yourself from the big names in your sector in order to attract the skills you need to grow?

Here are our top tips.

  1. Be authentic
  2. Think about benefits differently
  3. Broaden your horizons
  4. Recruit for impact
  5. Don’t compete with market leaders
  6. Showcase how you can support
  7. Adapt your processes and thinking
  8. Support recruitment with additional funds


1. Be authentic

Employees are increasingly looking to work somewhere that shares the same values and principles as them, and who support the same causes.

The difference-maker here is authenticity.

Putting authenticity at the heart of everything you say and do could be key to not only attracting great talent but to retaining it.

For example, Newcastle City Council (NCC) was recently ranked number one in the Stonewall UK Workplace Equality Index. The Index helps companies see how they’re doing on a range of diversity and inclusion matters, benchmarking YoY improvement.

NCC goes beyond just saying they’re an LGBT-inclusive employer by actively participating in raising awareness of LGBT issues through conferences, training, education and community outreach activities. NCC leadership are vocal in their support of LGBT communities and the passion for these subjects flow through everything, from policies to internal comms to recruitment practices.

2. Think about benefits differently

The range of benefits offered between companies varies massively by size, sector, location and culture, but there’s no denying that employee expectations in this area have changed over the last few years.

The world of employee benefits is even more complicated for SMEs, as flexible working hours and locations don’t have the same sparkle as ‘benefits’ as they used to, and everything from sick pay to free parking to company laptops is expected as standard by most.

According to Aviva, 43% of SMEs said that they didn’t have enough staff demand for competitive benefits, 37% said they didn’t have the staff and resources to implement them, and 63% said the cost to implement was too high.

Ultimately you need to decide how much money and time you can give to a benefits strategy, but our top tip, if you can offer them, is to put people at the heart; offer what’s important to them, and not what’s important to you.

Aviva say that wellness and mental health support, duvet days, and interest-free loans are some of the most popular new benefits on offer, while Prospects say that training and development is most important for graduates.

Who are your people and what do they want – advertise those things, and stop focusing on the things you have to provide – legally, competitively, or in order for jobs to get done!

3. Broaden your horizons

This is a simple one but something that’s easy to forget when you’re on the recruitment hamster wheel; stop doing what you’ve always done just because you’ve always done it.

This is particularly important for graduate positions, and those where specific kinds of experience are traditionally sought.

Unless you have very strict obligations to run university-leavers schemes/recruitment, alternatives like apprenticeships might be just as viable. Moreover, an apprenticeship requires a level of commitment to the company as well as to the worker, and turnover in those career paths vs graduates may therefore be lower.

According to a recent survey by Prospects, 80% of apprentices declared themselves to be ‘very’ or ‘fairly certain’ about their career paths, vs 65% of university students, or 74% of those in employment.

And of course, with more and more people looking to shift career path, think beyond qualifications and your usual talent pool.

4. Recruit for impact

Stop thinking about what tasks you need to be delivered and start thinking about the qualities you need your business to be built around.

If a new hire person could help, change, stop, start, improve, decrease, share or show everyone else in the team or business five things, what would they be? Probably not technical skills.

Does your team lack a little motivation? Do you need a personality that can bring people out of their shells? Would it be great to have someone with a great network who can eventually learn the required skills?

5. Don’t compete with market leaders

The biggest challenge that small businesses have when it comes to recruiting highly skilled graduates in particular, is in the value of a name.

In certain sectors, starting a career in or working for a market leader is an almost guaranteed launchpad to success.

What you can’t do is compete with that, so don’t even try.

Highlight the benefits that someone will have in working for your SME instead. For example:

  • Access to a safe and nurturing environment where people can practice and learn skills for the future
  • The option to work cross-functionally with individuals from all levels and teams
  • The ability to shape brand and business visions in a practical, meaningful way
  • Shared success and ownership – perhaps you even have share schemes or similar things that incentivise or encourage loyalty
  • High visibility internally and externally – will they have time with the board, can you highlight their career journey with you

It’s unlikely you’ll tempt away those who are dead set on working for a dream company, but there will be plenty who are finding the pressure and expectation to do so really overwhelming, not to mention others who are finding themselves in the marketplace for the first time in decades due to redundancies and business closures.

6. Showcase how you can support

In a survey by Prospects, a surprising number of people said they either felt ‘not at all’ or just ‘somewhat’ prepared for getting a job.

It was highest among university students (45%) but still relatively high within those not in employment or education (33%), and amongst those already in employment (29%).

Showcase how you can support new recruits to build trust and confidence in your employer brand.


A poor onboarding process is damaging for everyone involved. New joiners don’t know what’s expected of them, who to speak to, what company processes and policies are, and even who people are (let’s not mention how, on this author’s first day, I boldly asked the MD and owner of MPA what his role was because I hadn’t checked my welcome pack properly!).

On the flip side, onboarding a new hire without planning adds extra stress and work for people who are probably already very busy.

Tips for onboarding:

  • Share expectations of new recruits’ first few days and weeks before they officially start
  • Give them a rundown of company systems and processes so they don’t feel like a nuisance asking basic questions
  • Outline objectives, personal development and training plans as soon as possible, that way if there’s ever downtime, they have something self-sufficient to work on
  • Think about how they can quickly integrate into existing teams – does it have to be 1-2-1 intro meetings, or could their whole team spend 30 mins with another team doing a quiz or something more relaxed at first?
  • If you can, brief out a project for them to work on – one that is actually required and not just made up to fill their time – and give them guidance on how to go about delivering it; who to speak to, what format you want information delivered in, timelines, and where the information you already have is available

Giving people complete understanding from the get-go ensures that you’re the right fit for them and they’re the right fit for you, and it may give someone unexpected the confidence to apply.

7. Adapt your processes and thinking

Again, the pandemic has shown us that the old ways aren’t just the only ways, or even the best ways.

If interviews can and will be conducted in a variety of settings, are you making that clear enough – for inclusivity, but also to encourage diverse personalities and age ranges to apply?

Advertising a telephone interview as a first stage might instantly turn off younger candidates who are much more comfortable in video calls, for example, whereas video calls might be an issue for someone who doesn’t have reliable technology at home.

All of the decisions you make, from when and how interviews are conducted to which communication channels/media you use to onboard new recruits, add to the perception job hunters have of your brand…and there’s really no reason you can’t adapt, like they’ve had to.

8. Support recruitment with additional funds

If cash is a particular barrier to recruiting the right talent, then consider how unexpected funding could help unlock a bit more money.

Research and development activity is undertaken by many businesses, some of whom have no idea they could be owed cashback from the government for doing so.

R&D Tax Credits allow companies to claim tax relief on costs incurred during projects that seek scientific or technological advancement.

In the real world, these kinds of projects are things that adapt existing processes, products and services, or developing new ones – a common occurrence if you deliver bespoke solutions for unique client briefs.

On average SMEs making R&D tax relief claims receive £63,000, and claims can be backdated two years.

It can be a relatively quick process to submit a claim if you work with an expert advisor like MPA who can uncover eligible projects and costs by asking you a few simple questions.

What’s more, if you are eligible to claim but need your cash quicker, we also offer an R&D Advance Funding service, which could give you access to funds for new recruitment, fast.

Plan for the future

Build a team that can see you through your next phase of growth, and work with a professional services company like MPA who can unlock the funding, creativity and time you need to get there.

Contact us today