Why SMEs are magnets for talent

The battle to recruit the best accounting talent is hard, regardless of a company’s shape, size and reputation.

But the scales are levelling, the playing field is levelling. Smaller firms are increasingly attractive to candidates and able to compete with the far larger traditional accounting employers for top talent.

“Over the past few years we have seen an increase in the number of young professionals choosing SME practices as the first step in their careers over the traditional Big 4 route,” says James Brent, business director at Hays Accountancy & Finance. “The chance to be part of the next big thing can be career defining, think of the first accountant who joined Google!”

Debbie Cohen, founder of Streetwise HR and HR manager for Bournemouth-based accountancy practice Inspire, is adamant that smaller practices can compete for talent. “When I tell people the Inspire story, that we have a business academy, we hold a conference every year for entrepreneurs that all Inspire employees can attend; when I describe our culture, the environment, where we don’t expect people to work 60-70 hour weeks and weekends, when I tell people all this, they’re amazed.

“The Big 4 can’t compete with that, we have our own playing field, which is a huge opportunity.”

More opportunities

The pull of SMEs is the direct exposure to the business. “Employees tend to be encouraged early on to take ownership and responsibility for their roles and are often exposed to challenging work at an earlier stage, enabling them to make their mark within the firm. You can get the opportunity to work closely with clients earlier on in your career, giving you the chance to develop key skills accountants need to prosper, including good commerciality and communication,” says Brent.

Also important are company culture, brand values and continued development. Today’s generation want to work for employers with diverse and engaging cultures. “In Hays What Workers Want report 2017, 61% of accountancy and finance employees told us that they would take a pay cut for a job that offered a better cultural fit,” says Brent.

Meanwhile, ACCA’s Generation Next survey found that career progression and the opportunity to learn new skills were more important than financial remuneration for millennials.

But how do you communicate all this when you don’t have the budgets, resources or brand reach of larger firms?

Play to your strengths, be creative and follow through on your word.

“Smaller firms are able to shape a more transparent culture without the added pressure of being a large corporate business,” says Brent.

“Employers need to think about the elements that define the culture of their organisation, such as the values from the leadership team – are these innovative, open minded and inclusive, for example? You can then do the same for the people you employ, what type of personality do they have? And how would you describe the office environment?

“In every stage of the hiring process you need to channel this culture; from the wording and tone of voice in job descriptions, to the posts on social media pages. Think how could you help your audience get a feel for day-to-day life at your company? Get successful members of the team to share their experiences with the candidates. Even use them through the interview process.”

The chance to be part of the next big thing can be career defining, think of the first accountant who joined Google!

Get creative

Conveying culture and values, therefore, can only begin once the culture and values are there to convey. “It’s about respect,” says Cohen. “We don’t put things in a drawer, we do what we say we’re going to do. It’s about being true to who you are and I think the Big 4, though they can offer all kinds of things, they’re not true to who they are. The smaller firms are going to take over.

“People want more than money, they want to progress and be a part of a journey, so we’ve embedded a career plan in all our staff appraisals. We do a yearly appraisal and six-month review, and when we did our recent review it was so rewarding to talk to people and hear them say they’re ahead of their career plan. These are powerful stories that prospective candidates can tune into.”

Creating a company culture

There is a lot to be said for really communicating the company culture, particularly for a firm like ihorizon, which laser targets Old Street’s tech startup community, says Ashley Sainsbury, Operations and Development Manager at ihorizon.

“We have a really good culture, we are different in the way that we look and work. We work in the startup industry, a lot of founders know each other, new business is very word of mouth, but when it comes to recruitment there’s less of that, so we use our social media to show off our culture. For a lot of people, the first thing they’ll do is look on Instagram and Twitter, so our social media is aimed more at recruitment than generating business.

“We’ve been stepping up how we communicate ourselves as employers, we’ve updated our website, we’re doing a lot of advertising to generate noise, whereas before we were mainly headhunting, which is very time consuming.”

ihorizon has also started putting on recruitment events, at which they invite the pool of talent they keep active throughout the year via their communications.

“We get beers and pizza in, we have about 40 people come to see the office, meet the team after hours and we do presentations on the company and Old Street turning into a tech hub. We do an activity where we split people into teams and they design and present their own tech startup followed by awards. This was really good fun and it’s a bit of us, it shows off our character as a recruiter and a company, it generates excitement. We’re still hiring off the back of these initiatives, there are still people emailing us a year or two after an event asking if we’re hiring.”

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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