Employing people – where to start?

Posted on 23rd March 2014

Whether it is the arrival of Spring and the need to grow, or perhaps more likely the fantastic news that the economy is recovering, either way people are recruiting again.  We have noticed that many of our clients are recruiting for new team members, many of them in new roles.  In fact we are one of those doing just that, with a  new team member joining us in June – exciting times!

I therefore thought this was a good time to share with you some of my thoughts around recruitment.  If you are a small business who are about to recruit for the first time, or you have done many times before but with varying success, spend some time reading this blog to pick up some tips.

The average cost to a business of recruiting one member of staff is £1,400, with the process taking nine weeks to complete. With this in mind, there’s mounting pressure on you to spend your money wisely.

Employing people is vital if you want to grow your business, whether it’s creating a new role or filling a position which someone has left. However, I also know from being a business owner and employer – and even more so from my years in HR – that employing people can be a pretty daunting prospect. Especially when you consider all the horror stories you hear about employing people – what if they take you to the cleaners for something you do wrong, whether you meant to or not?!

Recruitment is so much more than remembering to plan some interview questions a few minutes before the person walks in the door. Research (from XpertHR) shows that the average cost of recruiting a general member of staff in 2013 was £1,457, rising to £4,000 for a manager and a whopping £11,000 for a director. I’m pretty sure that if you’re going to spend at least £1,400 on recruiting then you want to spend more than a few minutes planning how to make the most of that money.

The cost is even higher if you get recruitment wrong. If you give someone the job and they turn out to be a bad choice and cause chaos in your business, this goes way beyond simply paying out another £1,400 to do it all again.

Due to the nature of the complexities of employment law, I do also have to say that whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information provided in this article, nothing here should be relied on as a statement of absolute fact. This is especially true of any legal information. In the latter case only an overview is provided and, of course, the law is constantly changing so do take advice before making any recruitment decisions that you feel may be risky for any reason.

So, let’s start with making a distinction between recruitment and selection, because they are two very different activities.

Recruitment is how you go about attracting people to apply for the role and getting those applications in efficiently. It covers everything from designing the job through to how you actually receive applications.

Selection is how you go about choosing who gets as far as any selections tests once you have a good assortment of applications in for the role, and of course ultimately choosing the successful candidate(s) to offer a job to.

The recruitment essentials

Before you can even think about how you are going to attract candidates to apply, you need to be sure about what you are looking for. In the world of HR this is often know as job design and it is just that. If you are replacing someone who has left, it’s important not to just replace like for like. This is your golden opportunity to really review that role and judge whether you are sure you still need it or whether you still need it in exactly the same way.

For example, you may be recruiting to replace a receptionist who has handed in his notice. His role had purely been reception cover and if there was no one there to welcome or the phone was silent he simply sat there. You can take this opportunity to make it a receptionist and administrator role (maybe even add in some marketing as well), with various tasks assigned to the job that can take place when reception is quiet. Alternatively you may save some money and employ an apprentice in this role – if you have the time to train them.

Once you know what you are looking for you can develop a job description which is a document that outlines the key aspects of the role, its responsibilities and ideally how performance is measured. This is usually paired with a person specification that outlines what someone needs to be able to fulfil the role. These two documents take time but will be important throughout the time you need that role, not just in recruitment; they can be used for future pay decisions, performance management and career progression.

Having a person specification allows you to shortlist applications once you have them. The basic principle being if someone does not have at least your essential criteria they do not get invited to the next stage. These things can be related to qualifications, skills, experience or aptitude. Usually a person specification will outline criteria that are essential and some that are desirable. This enables you to shortlist the applicants that are most likely to be employable, and also gives you some protection if you were to end up in a tribunal as you can show how you made those decisions.

The next area is to decide how you are going to get your role noticed and, crucially, by the right people. The options include traditional advertising in the relevant press, using recruitment agencies, web-based recruitment sites and social media. How you choose will depend on many factors, one of which is likely to be cost. My main advice would be to really think about where your ideal candidates are likely to be looking (they might not necessarily read the local paper, for example).

How do you tempt them to apply? Once again think about what is likely to attract them. Is it as simple as money, or is your business known in your local community as a great company to work for that people would want on their CV?  If so make sure your logo is very prominent and jumps off the page or screen. Is training likely to be what attracts them or the chance for career progression? If so make that obvious.

Finally, make sure you make it clear how they apply. All too often I see adverts that do not do this. Give some thought as to whether you just want people to send in a CV and covering letter, or if are you going to develop a formal application form. There are pros and cons to both. I tend to suggest application forms as you can make sure you are asking for all the information you need (as CVs vary hugely), and also if you get a lot of applicants it is much easier to compare and shortlist from an application form.

The selection process

Now you need to select the most appropriate candidates. Take time to do this properly so as not to waste your time, or a candidate’s, by inviting someone who does not have the basic skills/qualification/experience you need.

Once you have a number of candidates to see, you need to consider how you are going to assess whether they are employable. This has to be the first measure because if they are not employable then it doesn’t matter if no one else accepts the role; you would not offer it to them. Equally, if they are employable but not your first choice then you know you can go back with an offer if your first choice declines it.

The standard interview is still the most popular means of selection. Your job description and person specification can help here. Ask questions that allow interviewees to demonstrate the experience they have and how they might use that in your business.  Make sure you use open questions and make sure you give them plenty of time to answer. It seems obvious but in an interview it should be the candidate doing most of the talking, but I have seen it where the interviewer talks more!

It is always a good idea to interview with someone else if possible; it is another person to think of questions and have an opinion, and it can also offer some protection against spurious claims. If you do interview with someone else then make sure you decide beforehand who is asking what, so you don’t look silly and disorganised. Also, keep notes from every interview so that when you get to decision time you can remember who said what and again be able to compare. Notes is also something that can protect you if needs be.

Although interviews can be very effective, they cannot test everything that is on the person’s application. This is why I always recommend some element of testing to be sure they can do what they say they can. Most candidates will not lie on their application but some will, or they may have very different definitions of being proficient in something. A good example is when interviewing with a client last year for an office administration role, IT skills were key. We tested all the candidates on their Word, Excel and PowerPoint skills to the level we would need them to have, and 70% did not have the skills needed despite putting that they had advanced skills in all these packages in their application. If we had not done this then the client would not have found out until they had started which would have been a huge waste of time and resources.

Other examples of skills testing I have used with clients, and my team, are:

• A telephone manner test for reception, with one of the client’s current team ringing in being a difficult customer to see how the candidate reacted and dealt with it

• For a sales role, asking them to sell the product the client sold to the interview panel

• For a HR consultant, giving them a case study to read half an hour before the interview and then asking them how they would deal with the case

• For an assistant in a coffee shop, ask them to take someone’s order and serve them their coffee.

Do I have to offer full-time?

Once you have selected the person you want to offer the role to, you now need to make that offer. Sometimes you might really want the candidate but they cannot work full-time, and there are other options: part-time, job share, annualised hours and term-time only.

As you can imagine the term-time option only really appeals to parents who cannot work in the school holidays. I certainly got one of the best marketing people out there for my team by offering her term-time only, which no other business was willing to do. It takes planning and co-ordination to ensure we have marketing activity going on all year round, but so far it works!

You can also offer a role on a fixed-term basis as opposed to permanent. This means the person has a contract for a set time period and then it comes to an end. This is often used for project related roles. You can always extend a fixed-term contract if it suits both parties, but don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Are there any risks or legal things I need to know?

People have employment rights before they are even employed by you. By this I mean there is the potential for a claim from any point after they show an interest in a role with your business (e.g. the selection process). Therefore, take care at all stages to be sure anything you do is not discriminatory or could be deemed to be.

The main risk comes under the Equality Act which covers all types of discrimination, the most well known ones being sex, race, disability, age and religion or belief.

In relation to age, it is there to protect all age groups. Obviously you cannot refuse to employ someone purely because they are too old, however be careful that the number of years’ experience you are asking for does not discriminate against younger workers. Insisting on 10 years’ experience rules out anyone in the age range of 16-26 for a role. It is not to say you cannot ask for experience, but make sure it is reasonable.

The other key area is the interview – don’t ask discriminatory questions.  The classic example I always give is asking a young lady “do you have plans to have children in the near future?”  If you don’t offer her the role then quite rightly she may claim that the only reason for that was because she said she does plan to start a family and therefore that is sex discrimination. Just use common sense and think through why you need to ask what you are planning to. My general rule of thumb is to not ask anything you cannot justify the need to ask, and if in doubt don’t ask until you have taken some advice on it.

Once I’ve made an offer, what do I do next?

When making the offer you need to be clear what that person’s terms and conditions are.  This covers many areas but the main ones are pay, working hours and location, and any benefits. Make sure you cover all of these so they know what they are accepting.

All offers should be made subject to you receiving satisfactory references for them. I am very aware that getting references is much harder than it used to be as employers are so afraid of saying the wrong thing. However, if you make an offer subject to reference if you do get a poor one you can withdraw the offer.

Once an offer has been accepted in writing then you need to start thinking about an employment contract and an employee handbook. If this is not your first employee then you should have these things, but I strongly advise you get them checked by a professional to ensure they are still legally compliant and protect your business.

Finally, once they have started you need to set up a personnel file for them where you store all relevant documents from their recruitment and then throughout their employment with you.

The problem with recruitment, particularly for small independent businesses, is that with so many other things to do it is often rushed and unplanned, and then employers are surprised when new people don’t work out.

By taking a more planned and measured approach you have a much better chance of finding the right person at the first attempt, preserving your brand as an employer and keeping within whatever budget you set yourself.

NEXT TIME – I will be looking at once you have selected the person/ people to join your business, how do you welcome them in and make the best start; commonly known as induction.


Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director