Human resources

What HR and recruitment best practices should SMEs be adopting in 2023? The experts share their advice…

The way we work and do business in the UK is constantly changing. People have talked about the ‘Great Resignation’ for the last couple of years, and while it has slowed down, employee turnover remains high. With a shortage of skilled workers, the ability to attract and retain staff has never been more important. Employees are looking for good remuneration packages, long-term career prospects, a clear career path, interesting work and hybrid working. It’s a competitive candidate market, so as an employer, you need to keep up with the times or risk being left behind.

Catherine Daw

Catherine Daw, partner and head of employment at Kent-based law firm Brachers, accepts that, at the moment, it’s a positive yet challenging environment. “There are skills shortages, particularly in the agriculture, hospitality and manufacturing sectors,” she says. “Notably, it’s harder for these sectors to move to hybrid working, which many employers have now adopted long term. When done well, hybrid working can be really effective, increasing employee satisfaction. However, it’s a complex model to manage and we are seeing more employee relations issues and disputes as a result.”

With this in mind, the focus for employers remains on harnessing the hybrid working model’s benefits, while maintaining employee wellbeing and satisfaction. Brachers and its sister organisation Kent HR offer Brachers Connect, a complete HR solution for businesses, encompassing legal services and HR consultancy, including recruitment support. “This includes helping companies design their recruitment strategies and put in place workforce planning,” notes Catherine. “We can assist with contracts, policies and handbooks, as well as advising on employee communications. We also offer an online HR system, allowing employers to access and manage records, documents and precedents all in one place.”

Catherine explains that, to thrive in the evolving business environment, employers need an engaged HR team who possess a clear understanding of what a workforce wants and what the values of the organisation are. “In my view, it’s important to recruit for fit rather than for skill. Employees who align closely with your organisational values are more likely to stay. Be really clear about your company’s culture and values and make sure this is communicated through your recruitment activities, particularly in job adverts. Focus less on the company and more on the individual – explain what it would be like for them to work in that specific role, team and environment.”

Paul McAleavy

The team at Girlings Solicitors, a legal 500 ranked law firm, recognise that pre-pandemic, an interviewee asking a potential employer how often they could do the job from home would have been unusual, but now, it is common. Paul McAleavey, partner in the employment law team, explains: “Employers regularly see this question raised by candidates and home working is viewed by candidates as ranking alongside salary as an important factor in their choice of new employer.”

From Paul’s perspective, the current pace of recruitment is remarkable. He points out that employers are having to move quickly in the market as many candidates will have multiple offers on the table. “Rather than simply inviting a candidate to an interview and waiting for them to turn up, I am seeing an increasing number of employers engage with candidates from the first point of contact through non-traditional channels, such as text message exchanges, to keep them interested in that vacancy throughout the recruitment process.”

Paul’s top piece of advice to SME owners is “have good contracts and policies in place, along with good managers”. He says that managers need to feel empowered to exercise their rights under employment law in managing employees – whether that’s to avoid poor performance, persistent absence that harms productivity or prevent employees from misusing confidential information for the benefit of a competitor.

Employers need good contracts and policies but also managers who are trained and confident in effective management. Girlings regularly carries out training for employer clients. “As well as having a day-to-day benefit for the workplace, this can help employers gain legal protection,” states Paul. “For example, if your business receives a claim of harassment, it is a potential defence to that to show that you took all reasonable steps to prevent it, such as strong anti-harassment policies and regular up-to-date training to your staff on the topic.”

Many employers are embracing the flexibility that comes with hybrid working by making it a permanent change across their business. They are finding this has led to a happier workforce, increased productivity, staff retention and reputational benefits. However, these changes come with inherent risks, including staff becoming less productive and more difficult to manage, especially if they are poorly performing.

Henry Doswall

Henry Doswell, principal solicitor at Doswell Law Solicitors, which specialises in employment law, explains: “Some of the SMEs we act for have faced real resistance to getting their staff back to the workplace and have faced an increased number of flexible working requests which need to be handled with care if they are to be rejected. Badly handled requests can result in successful discrimination claims.”

Henry adds that in the highly competitive war for talent, traditional methods of attracting the best candidates, such as offering higher salaries, don’t always yield results. For example, it is well-known that younger workers are often looking for non-financial benefits, such as prioritising workplace equality, diversity and inclusion, a well-structured and supportive working environment, and a focus on their wellbeing, including mental health. “Offering innovative benefits that address not just financial but also work-life balance or mental and physical health can help employers attract and retain high-quality talent,” he says. “Investing in these types of benefits will also help to reduce the amount of time spent by employers handling stress-related claims and absenteeism.”

With the current skills shortages and cost-of-living crisis, we are still experiencing turbulent times. Despite this, there is a huge amount of business opportunity in the South East. Sussex solicitors firm Mayo Wynne Baxter is witnessing a great deal of ambition, innovation, creativity and resilience across the region.

Tom Biddle

Recruitment adviser Tom Biddle recognises that businesses need to ensure that offers are competitive to be the employer of choice. “Here at Mayo Wynne Baxter, we have been able to do this by offering our employees great benefits, including hybrid and flexible working options which allow for a better work-life balance, training, opportunities for progression, healthcare benefits and more.”

An effective recruitment campaign, he says, saves time and cost in the long run and offers a higher chance of recruiting the best candidate to add value to your business. There are many different recruitment tools and support available, so it’s important to research what will work best for your organisation. “LinkedIn is a popular tool to recruit, and you can tailor it to your needs,” suggests Tom. “You can get such a wide reach by sharing through your networks and find some really great talent.”

Tom recommends getting involved in local careers fairs with schools and universities to promote your company brand. “Even if there isn’t an immediate need or hire, you can build great talent pipelines for the future, as well as promote your business generally,” he says. “Work placement schemes can give students and graduates a feel for what it is like to work for the organisation, and hopefully in the future, they will come back when looking for permanent employment. Moreover, the apprenticeship scheme enables businesses to invest in their people by attracting new talent and by giving existing team members the opportunity to study for a qualification. Apprenticeship providers will often be able to run an initial recruitment campaign and provide you with a shortlist of candidates for apprenticeship roles, thereby saving time in the recruitment process.”


71% of professionals open to returning to pre-Covid employer

Almost three-quarters of professionals (71%) have stated that they are open to returning to their pre-Covid employer, with half admitting that the reasons as to why they left are no longer applicable in today’s market.

According to a recent poll from recruiter Robert Walters, 45% of workers who had left their job after lockdown did so for better pay, with a further 35% leaving for a better workplace culture or more purpose/fulfilment in their role.

Fast forward two years later and 48% of professionals admit that their current employer is no longer meeting their needs, with a third stating the cost-of-living crisis and hybrid-working fatigue (24%) have changed how they feel about their most recent employment situation.

82% of those surveyed admitted to staying in some form of contact with a previous manager, with almost a third stating that this was for the primary purpose of keeping the door open for future job opportunities (29%).

A quarter of professionals have admitted to reaching out to a previous employer in the past year regarding job opportunities, with a further 11% stating that they have not done it yet but intend to this year.

Whilst the sentiment may be there from professionals, it seems the same cannot be said for managers. 44% admit to being hesitant in allowing an old employee back into the team, with just a fifth stating that they would only consider it if they had been an ‘exceptional employee’.


Investing in HR tools

Canterbury-based WhosOff.com is an award-winning staff leave planner that is used by more than 2,500 businesses to manage company holiday online. CEO Reg Groombridge has seen a noticeable shift in the way companies are managing essential HR tasks like coordinating staff time off.

The pandemic, he notes, accelerated the remote working and hybrid working movement. “The switch to hybrid working is driving investment in HR tools like WhosOff because there’s less face-to-face interaction between employees. You can’t just lean across the desk and ask someone if they’ve booked next week off; you need online systems that your whole team can use to see accurate information, wherever they’re located.”

Reg identifies that the remote working movement has also affected recruitment, making vacant roles available to a wider geographical spread of people. While this is good news for applicants, it means South East companies are working harder to retain their top talent. “There’s more pressure on companies to provide a good employee experience,” he explains. “When recruitment is a challenge, you can’t afford to lose your most valuable people, and a basic mistake like miscalculating someone’s holiday allowance or not logging their time off request can have a huge impact.”

Reg adds: “Likewise, it’s important to protect the health and wellbeing of your workforce to mitigate the risk of someone going off long-term sick. We’re seeing more companies using WhosOff’s absence management feature to track staff sick leave so they can identify people who may be struggling with their physical or mental health and offer appropriate support.”

Ever-rising employee expectations have created a stronger business case for investing in HR technologies. “When WhosOff launched in 2007, it was one of the very first online staff leave planners, and most businesses still used paper forms or spreadsheets to track time off,” says Reg. “Now, however, companies of all sizes are modernising their operations to help them attract and retain the best people.”


HR offers vast business benefits

Sejal Koria

A lot of businesses are facing challenges when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff – especially if they don’t offer flexible working or working-from-home opportunities. This is something that Speak to HR, a Kent-based human resources specialist, has witnessed post-pandemic.

Managing director Sejal Koria explains: “There has been an increase in the jobs available with the benefit of hybrid working. If the role carried out by employees within your business allows you to provide the flexibility of hybrid working, it comes with many advantages and opportunities, and can widen the talent pool for new recruits.”

In the current climate, Sejal emphasises the importance of having a well-planned HR strategy and effective practices. HR, she says, is essential for all-sized businesses as it supports the recruitment, development and retention of talent. On top of this, it supports promoting employee engagement, ensures compliance with employment laws and regulations, and contributes to strategic planning and organisational development.

“Investing in HR support – whether it’s through an HR consultant, in-house or outsourcing HR – can significantly benefit SMEs by enhancing their competitiveness, productivity and long-term sustainability,” states Sejal. “At Speak to HR, we know what matters to you. It goes without saying that growing your business and taking care of your employees go hand in hand, so we’re here to help you look after both.”

Speak to HR offers practical advice on all HR-related matters, helping businesses stay informed with employment legislations and best practice tips to ensure legal compliance. The team of consultants pride themselves on “cutting through the jargon” to deliver SMEs the most relevant HR information, saving them time and money.


Law firm witnesses 100% increase in Sussex businesses looking for workplace immigration

Brighton-based law firm and HR business Loch Associates Group has seen Sussex clients needing workplace immigration support double this year, with companies being forced to look overseas due to a shortage of suitable candidates in the region.

Loch Associates Group, which helps clients in all sectors successfully apply for sponsorship licences and migrant worker visas, noted that a growing number of local business owners are now conscious of the need for overseas recruitment as access to local talent has declined.

“Whilst tensions rise in the UK government around migrants and migrant workers, there is limited government direction on how businesses can tackle the shortage in available staff here in the UK,” says Joe Milner, partner and solicitor advocate of Loch Associates Group. “Regardless of this, we anticipate continuing to see an increase in all sectors turning to migrant recruitment.”

There were 267,670 grants given for work visa applications in 2022 nationally – 95% higher than in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Of this, sponsored full-time worker visas saw an increase of 161% within the same period and made up 62% of all visa applicants last year.

Joe warns that Sussex businesses are losing out due to visa limitations, with many companies being unprepared. “A lot of employers are not aware of the preparation time required before they can hire potential talent abroad,” he says. “This has meant that overseas workers are being snapped up by businesses who already have their sponsorship licence. Once you have been awarded a sponsorship license, it remains in place for four years, enabling employers to manage their recruitment process abroad as and when required.”

Joe explains that the application process needs to be started well in advance if employers want to ensure they can guarantee long-term success with their recruitment. It can take anywhere between six to 12 weeks for a sponsorship licence to be approved, due to current government backlogs for immigration applications. This makes it vital for business owners to have a long-term strategy for whether migrant workers will be needed in the future and, if so, apply for their licence sooner rather than later.

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