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PROFIT’s first annual State of the Entrepreneur Nation survey revealed that finding skilled workers was one of the top three challenges for 43% of respondents and the greatest challenge for 23% of them. Furthermore, 64% of those surveyed claimed the lack of qualified workers was limiting their business results significantly or to some degree. With the economy heating up, hiring and retaining top talent is getting tougher than ever, especially for SMEs competing for top talent against larger employers.

Let’s take a look at five things you can do to become a talent magnet.

1. We Want More People Like You

The most basic tip takes the top spot on our list. Treat your current employees well, with dignity and respect, and provide challenging work and opportunities for them to learn and grow. Sounds easy. If you’ve done this well and your current staff are engaged and motivated, ask them for their referrals. In the same way that you can’t ask a customer for a referral until you’ve earned their trust and respect, so it goes for employee-referral programs.

The rewards do not have to be huge, it can be cash, gifts or draw prizes. A good way to get a referral program off the ground is to launch it with a little friendly competition among departments about who can generate the most referrals or hires in 90 days.

2. Make Some Noise with Social Media

With limited budgets for recruitment advertising, leveraging social-networking websites is the best way to find top talent. Using tools such as LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or blogs, you can build relationships to draw jobseekers and top talent into your orbit.

If you don’t have a company blog or Twitter page, create at least one of them today. To build relationships with jobseekers, post engaging articles on your blog that will set you apart from other employers and allow candidates a window into your company’s culture. It’s like a sneak peak, a chance to “kick the tires”, so they can get a feel for what it’s like to work for you even before a vacancy is posted. Add RSS feeds to your blog so people can sign up for instant updates whenever you post new content. If you have a Twitter account, post a tweet to let your followers know that there’s new content on your website.

3. Fish Where the Fish are (not)

Attend functions that attract the type of people you’re searching for. By this, I don’t mean the fish (active job seekers) but the top talent (passive job seekers, meaning people who aren’t looking but would be open to changing jobs). This is about networking, networking and more networking. And make sure to have lots of business cards on hand.

It’s best to tap into the professional networks and associations of those who currently work for you. Go to business breakfasts, lunch seminars and alumni events, write an article in an industry newsletter, become a keynote speaker or sponsor at events. By networking, you can get your name out there as an employer in a way that differentiates you from competitors who are desperately posting expensive want ads in the classifieds.

If you allow your staff to attend these functions, set a goal for them to return with at least two to three business cards of people they’ve networked with. This will ensure they’re not just there for free food and drinks!

4. CRM 101

You no doubt have a Customer Relationship Management strategy, but what about a “Candidate Relationship Management” strategy? Have you heard your friends’ job interview horror stories? The interviewer was late, he didn’t even have my resumé, he answered his cellphone during the interview, his assistant interrupted us three times…and I never heard back from him. (Would you treat your customers like this? Of course not!)

Think of the applicant and candidate experience you are providing to people. Take a page from your sales, prospecting or business-development tactics and apply them to how you treat applicants. If you’re not using Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) on your website’s career page, this can be a great place to start, as it allows you to organize your hiring process and provide an easy way to communicate with applicants. Remember, applicants will tell their friends about their candidate experience, so treat them as you would a potential client you’re trying to land for a big account.

5. Know Yourself and Be Honest

Have you ever purchased something new, brought it home and taken it out of the box—only to find some pieces missing or that the product didn’t perform as it should? This example applies to organizations (especially SMEs) that promise applicants something in the interview process or sell them on things they can’t deliver. Big problems can result when, after a few weeks, the new hire realizes the job differs from what he was promised.

Be true to yourself as an employer: what do you stand for, what is your workplace culture like, what are your values and what kind of people are you looking for (Hint: You already have them working for you – they’re your superstars, the ones you would clone and hire 10 more of tomorrow if you could find them. Interview your stars and ask them: What do you love about working here? What interview questions should I ask to find more great people like you? What can we improve?)

A final piece of advice is to make looking for top talent a full-time job. You cannot afford to start looking for people when you receive a resignation notice. If you are starting from scratch, the hiring process can easily take six to eight weeks. Like a good salesperson looking for leads, you need to be on the lookout for top talent on a daily basis.

Derek Gagné is president of Vancouver-based talent management consultancy Derekgagne.com. He has been helping organizations with their recruitment and retention strategies for more than 15 years. His areas of expertise include workforce planning, recruitment, retention, leadership development, organizational development and customer service.

More columns by Derek Gagné

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