The economic climate may still be uncertain, but if recent figures are to be believed, SMEs are determined to grow and take on more staff this year. The latest CBI/Harvey Nash Employment Trends survey showed that over a third of employers expect their workforce to be larger in 12 months than it is now – and that it is SMEs who are likely to be behind a significant amount of the predicted job creation.

Pinpointing the right time to recruit is not easy for any business – and can be a particular challenge in an SME where the ‘order book’ is often uncertain, competition for customers is intense and budgets are tight.

How to make that tricky decision is one of the questions I cover in my newly published book ‘Taking on Staff’, a practical guide to help SMEs find and keep the best people for their business.

There is of course no magic formula – and the circumstances and timing will be different for every business. In an ideal world, however, it should definitely be before all the plates your team have been juggling come crashing to earth and you let a client or customer down badly.

Recruiting in a crisis situation is never a good policy. If your back is up against the wall you are more likely to take someone on because they are immediately available rather than because they are the right person for the job. You need to give yourself the space to sit back and take a long hard look at what you do and how you do it – and exactly what difference employing an additional person will make. An applicant tracking system can help ensure you communicate the necessary requirements.

The following questions will help you identify the ‘tipping point’ for your business or team:

  • Is the team struggling with an increased workload caused by a temporary issue (i.e. a season influx or large scale project) or is it likely to be a long term trend? If the former, you might want to consider temporary help rather than an additional, permanent employee.
  • Do you need more people or do you need to do things differently? Could you make better use of technology, for example to help you streamline processes and cut down unnecessary admin in areas like HR?
  • Have you considered whether outsourcing work to a specialist might be a better solution than taking on a permanent employee? This can sometimes be a good solution in specialist areas (such as PR or marketing) where you need expertise but there may not be enough work to justify taking on an additional person.
  • Is there anything you need to stop doing? Are you in danger, for example, of taking people on to maintain a line of work which is time-consuming but actually not very profitable?
  • Have you taken a long hard look at the way work is organised and thought about whether you could distribute tasks more effectively? Is everyone in the business fully occupied – or are there some teams or departments which have capacity and could take some of the load away from their colleagues?
  • Are you clear about what a potential new recruit’s role will be, what skills they will require and exactly how they will help your business grow?
  • What are the financial and practical implications of taking an additional person on? Can the business stand the cost and do you have the space to accommodate them? (This latter point may sound obvious, but you would be surprised how many people turn up to a new job to find they have nowhere to sit and no computer to work on!).
  • What will happen if you don’t recruit? Is maintaining the status quo a viable option?

The key to success is to think about any potential recruitment against the backdrop of your business plan. Make sure you are clear about the skills and experience your company needs to support future growth, what the existing team can realistically manage within their current skill-set and what additional expertise you need to either acquire or develop.

How does your business decide when it’s the right time to recruit? Let us know what strategies have worked for you.

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Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.