Job-hunting: the SME perspective

Looking for a job isn’t easy, it’s stressful and time-consuming, but spare a thought for those offering the jobs, there’s a chance the person interviewing you is as nervous as you are.

Finding the right person is fraught with challenges and obstacles, and can also be stressful and time-consuming, as well as expensive and disruptive to business. This can be particularly exaggerated for smaller businesses that might not have the expertise or resources to hire efficiently.

“SMEs are the growth engine of the UK economy and currently two thirds of the workforce work in this sector. They are also a good source of job creation, with positive hiring intentions,” says a research report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) called Recruiting and developing talented people for SME growth.

The challenges

‘Your people are your business’ goes the oft-cited SME mantra, so recruiting the right talent is imperative. But smalls firms often have limited material and financial resources, while one in four say that hiring skilled staff is a barrier to growth. Furthermore, growth can be quick and erratic in a small firm, with busy times of the year requiring temporary staff, while real growth calls for team structures to develop and operational functions to be introduced, which can be very disruptive to company culture.

“Often the reason a company might say that recruitment has been unsuccessful is down to cultural fit,” says the report’s author Dr Jill Miller. “Some people have the expectation that working at an SME is going to be like working in a larger company, but it’s often not. You can have your job role, but you’ll be expected to get involved with other tasks, outside your remit, to get the job done.”

This can be a very positive thing, as it gives you broad business exposure, especially if you’re newly qualified and fresh in the job market. Working for an SME quickly gives you a deep understanding of the business, whereas in large corporates you can be feel removed from the day-to-day workings.

Cultural fit can be easier to develop and maintain earlier in a business’s lifespan. The business owner will likely do most of the recruiting and the they’ll have the right kind of person in mind, going on instinct or a hunch. “But as the firm grows more people will be hiring into individual teams and one of the challenges is making sure they’re recruiting on the same value system and recruiting for cultural fit, people who get what the company’s all about, who identify with what the company’s trying to achieve and feel inspired by it,” says Jill.

How to impress small businesses?

Small businesses can be very informal places and may not suit everyone. It’s perfectly okay to get a feel for a company before even applying; you can call to get a gist of its culture and business. It’s important, in general, to do a lot of preparation for interviews at small businesses. “When you’re meeting an owner/founder, the business is their baby, so you need to make sure you can prove a genuine interest in the company” says Jill.

“A lot of preparation can be done around what you want to get out of an interview, because it has to be two-sided, you need to know if the role’s right for you, before you can prove you’re right for the role,” continues Jill. “Don’t be afraid to ask those questions of the interviewer, because if the person is inexperienced at interviewing, they’ll probably welcome that kind of interaction and discussion about the business and company culture. If you like the role, you could ask for a tour of the office.”

“Researching the company also shows initiative,”says Jill, “which at small businesses is one of the things they’re definitely looking for, somebody who doesn’t need their hand held all the time, because you have to be able to fly straight away. Also you’ll change as the business changes, so be flexible and adaptable enough in mindset.”

At interview it is very effective to highlight to the owner/manager, who may understand little of the accounting function, the value you can add to the business, says Jane. This could be strategic, business insight or operational/process improvements, which suits the ‘all hands on deck’ mentality in SMEs.

Jill’s top tips on impressing an SME

  1. Show an interest in what the business actually does. If it’s something you’ve got no interest in whatsoever and you’re going to be working closely with the product or service, maybe it’s not for you.
  2. Come prepared with the questions to help get you what you want out of the interview. It’s not a one-way street. Ask what the future of the business is, where it’s going. It’s an interesting question as it demonstrates you’re thinking long term, but also to find out what the owner’s intentions for the business are and whether they’re right for your goals and ambitions.
  3. Honesty in the interview: be honest about what you want from a job; does it match your aspirations, values and career goals?

 The industry

  • Small businesses accounted for 99.3% of all private sector businesses at the start of 2015 and 99.9% were SMEs.
  • The combined annual turnover of SMEs was £1.8 trillion, 47% of all private sector turnover in the UK.
  • There has been sustained growth in the total business population, with increases of +55% since 2000 and +3%    since 2014.
  • SMEs account for at least 99% of the businesses in every main industry sector.

Source The Federation of Small Businesses

Photo: Dr Jill Miller, CIPD

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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