Beat the Big Guys at Hiring the Best

Last Updated Sep 8, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

Chances are your small business can't compete with the big guys when it comes to compensation and benefits. But that doesn't mean you can't compete for -- and win -- the best employees. Many, if not most, people will trade some income for job satisfaction, opportunity, work environment and other intangibles.

So make your company a fantastic place to work, and when it comes to benefits, be creative.


At Skooba Design, we have a pretty simple philosophy: We will do anything we possibly can for our people, period. Unfortunately, the reality of small business (read: money) doesn't allow us to do everything we wish we could. The really big stuff is often out of our reach. The biggest of these, of course, is medical coverage. One of my dreams and goals is to provide 100% coverage for everyone here. But the nature of insurance -- especially in Rochester, N.Y. -- makes this impossible right now. We do pay a portion, but we simply can't cover it all. So we can't compete with corporate America on some big money stuff... what else is new? Yet we still attract and retain incredible, talented people. Here are some ways to win the David-and-Goliath game against deeper-pocketed companies:
Create an outstanding work environment. Your people spend a third or more of their life working. Don't make them dread and regret every minute. There are endless ways to make your workplace one that keeps people happy and satisfied (most of the time... after all, work is still work and it's not always jellybeans):
  • Make the physical environment as pleasant as possible. Comfy chairs and personal space are not unimportant. Don't waste money you don't have, but don't be a tightwad either.
  • No politics or other corporate BS. Keep hierarchy, meetings, wasted time and effort to an absolute minimum. If you need meetings, you need them. Just be mindful.
  • Be 100% honest and open about everything. The second you think honesty is not the best policy is the second you cross a very dangerous line that's hard to cross back over.
  • Don't be a clock-watcher. if your people are truly good, you should never have to think about the time they're putting in. We don't have time clocks or sheets anywhere -- and I never give it a second thought. Closed tomorrow for a holiday and things are quiet? How about letting everyone go a little early?
  • If people need time flexibility and you can find a way to accommodate, do.
  • Always be fair. You can find the "fair" in everything if you really want to.
  • Give as much responsibility and autonomy as people can handle. And praise what should be praised.
  • Create opportunities for growth.
  • For cripes' sakes, have a personal and collective sense of humor. Be human and run a business built around humans. Very few big companies can beat small ones at that.
Find anything and everything that can be turned into a benefit, no matter how small. Maybe you can't throw lots of money around, but do something. There are always things you can do, and little things do add up.
  • Keeping the kitchen full of free stuff isn't up there with full dental. But it's a relatively inexpensive way to show people you love 'em. Having an employer who doesn't make you dig for coffee coins is a nice thing.
  • Buy lunch whenever you have an excuse-birthdays, milestones, or no reason at all.
  • Offer generous employee discounts.
  • A basic life insurance policy (covering one year's salary, for example) is very affordable and gives people a little bit of extra security. We provide this to everyone at no cost.
  • Don't go overboard with big brother rules. Set necessary policies and guidelines, do what you have to do to protect your business and avoid liability. I am not suggesting being naïve, reckless or stupid; you have a business to run. But accept, for example, that people browse the Web at work, and be tolerant to the extent that it is possible in your business. If you have genuinely good people, it shouldn't matter. Like working hours, it's a trust issue. And if you don't trust your employees, you have bigger problems.
  • When times are tough, find ways to help. When gas prices went through the roof a while back, we gave out prepaid gas cards a few times. Not to win any hero awards, just because it helped. People were paying 50% more to get to work, and it was a small way we could ease some of the pain until prices came down.
  • If you really get creative, you can come up with all kinds of other things. For example, everyone here has an annual allowance to use our shipping account for approved personal packages. Again, may not seem like much, but put yourself in the shoes of an hourly worker who has to find time to go out (in a blizzard, if you're in our neck of the woods), wait in line with a pile of holiday gifts, and get ripped off by a shipping store.
These things may sound trivial or even quaint, and no arguing they are relatively small benefits in dollars, but the signal they send to your people about the kind of company they work for is bigger than the sum parts. When we sold our last family business -- and that was a much bigger company than Skooba, with more substantial benefits -- one of the most common things we heard was "we're going to miss the turkeys you gave out every Thanksgiving."

Still, pay as well as you can. Money may not be the final reason an employee chooses one job over another, but money is still why most of us have to work. So even if you can't pay as much as they do in the glass castle downtown, pay as well as you can. Don't nickel and dime your employees because you think you can get away with it. Do the best you can for them. And that includes things like personal days, vacation time, any savings or retirement plans -- again, no matter how modest -- that you can afford, and so on. Be as generous as you can be. People can smell a cheapskate a mile away, and cheapskates stink. You can give me the "saving money is critical in small business" argument, and my answer will be that it is, but that investing wisely in good people is worth every penny.

I'd love to hear other creative ideas and practices you or your employer have put into place to make your business a more attractive place to work than MegaJumboCorp.
  • Michael Hess On Facebook»

    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at www.businesswithclass.com.

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