Finding and retaining great employees can be tricky for small businesses, especially those that aren't large enough to have a human resources specialist on staff or don't have the budget to pay the highest salaries in town. Still, there are some universal initiatives that small businesses of any size can undertake to attract and keep good employees, whether they have a staff of five or 105.

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As any small business owner knows, good staffing is crucial to a company's success.

"It's the most important thing, because it reflects your business and what you're doing," says Tom Mckellar, owner of Mckellar Homes, a general contracting company in Toronto. "The staff is your business." 

First of all, it's important to hire the right people. And while there are many avenues for recruiting –– from internet job sites, to job fairs to college recruiting –– countless small business owners agree that word-of-mouth referrals from trusted current employees tends to be one of the primary ways of finding new staff.

"The No. 1 way we find our staff is through employee referrals," says Wadood Ibrahim, founder and CEO of Protegra, a 60-person business and technology consulting company in Winnipeg. "An employee won't refer someone who they don't think is a good fit, so it's like that person has already been pre-qualified." 

A good fit

The main quality Protegra looks for in a potential hire is whether or not they will fit in with the company's culture, says Ibrahim. Protegra is an extremely team-oriented workplace where everyone is considered to be on equal footing, he says, and not everyone works well in this kind of environment.

"Someone may be really talented, but if they're not a culture fit, it's really detrimental," he says.


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Shaun Hesse, one of the owners at Kenlin Design Group in Regina, concurs. At his 65-employee drafting company, it's not always the person with the most impressive resumé who gets the job.

"You get a good sense of who the person is when you interview them, and for us, it's really important that they fit in with our team," said Hesse.

Once that "good fit" has been hired, however, the hard work is far from over. To keep great employees from leaving, it's important to make sure they're happy and motivated. Paying adequately is one way to do this, of course.

"Salary is always a factor; you have to be competitive," says Ken Hemphill, director of human resources for Surrey, B.C.-based Back in Motion, a 120-employee rehabilitation, disability prevention and employment solutions company.

"But the top of the pay grid isn't going to keep people happy and engaged, and research seems to support that."


The owners of Back in Motion, a rehabilitation, disability prevention and employment solutions company based in Surrey, B.C. From left to right, Philippe De Clerck Brent Mulhall, Debbie Samsom, Mary McCulligh and Ken Hemphill. (Sooter's Photography)

Indeed, according to a recent survey by staffing, recruitment and HR services company Randstad Canada, "pleasant work atmosphere" came out on top as the most important factor for employees when choosing an employer. High salary came in second, followed by job security. As Hemphill notes, a high salary might attract someone to the job initially, but if they're not happy, the big bucks certainly won't be enough to keep them there.

So, what constitutes a pleasant work environment? To start, Protegra's Ibrahim says his company makes it a priority to assume the best of each employee.

"We begin with the premise that nobody gets up in the morning wanting to do a lousy job," said Ibrahim. "Everybody wants to contribute, to do a good job. That's a belief that we have, and we treat people that way. So, if someone isn't performing, we try to get to the root cause of the problem; we don't just assume he's a lazy employee."

Professional development, perks key

At Back in Motion, Hemphill says, the company promotes from within and provides employees with lots of opportunity for training and further education to support their long-term goals –– both of which seem to lead to higher employee satisfaction. Accommodating work-life balance requests is also important, he says, especially since many of the employees are young, educated women who are now choosing to have children.

"When people come back from maternity leave, they often want a bit of a different arrangement — maybe four days a week, or flexibility in hours, or maybe the ability to telecommute to some extent –– and we support all those things, as well," said Hemhill. 

Many companies also find it's important to provide little perks, such as staff parties and social events. At Kenlin Design Group, for instance, there are no less than six staff events per year, including ski trips, an annual golf tournament, a family fun day, a Halloween poker party and two annual Christmas parties: one for adults and one for employees' children. Kenlin also allows flexible work hours and offers employees a $500 fitness subsidy each year to help them keep healthy.

Such perks are appreciated and can go a long way toward employee satisfaction, but it's important to remember that the day-to-day work atmosphere must also be a good one in order to retain staff. Mckellar of Mckellar Homes says that with his small staff of five, the key to employee satisfaction is constant communication. He makes a point of sitting down with his workers regularly, having a coffee and asking, "How's it going?"

But just asking isn't enough. "You really have to listen when they're complaining," he stresses. Problems have to be addressed as soon as possible, he adds.

'You really have to listen when they're complaining.'  — Tom Mckellar, owner of Mckellar Homes

Back in Motion's Hemphill agrees that communication is key and says keeping communication lines open has been one of the biggest challenges of growing from a five-person company in 1993 to the 120-employee company it is today. Communication methods have had to evolve as the company has grown.

"We now have senior management go to each of our four sites on a quarterly basis and give an overview on initiatives that we're working on, things we're trying to do to fulfill the mission, give them updates about systems and structures –– basically, communicate with them everything that's happening in the company," Hemhill said.

At the end of the day, says Protegra's Ibrahim, ensuring your business is a good place to work is hard work, "because it's about people."

"And people all bring in their own baggage, their own personal issues," he says. "But employees are the most important factor in the company, so you have to put that effort in, day in and day out."