Advanced Recruiting Tips for Smaller Firms

Smaller organizations face a vast array of unique recruiting challenges. While some may assume that recruiting in a smaller organization is easier than in a large organization, those who have worked in both would attest that it’s not easier, just different.

While some of the challenges are the same, just different in scale, others are uniquely inherent to the size of the organization and the scope of its product/service market.

For example, smaller organizations rarely have strong employer brands outside their region and are unlikely to employ a team of dedicated, well-trained recruiters. Because recruiting is just one of many things that an HR professional does in a small organization (or a large one employing the generalist model), recruiting approaches are often conservative and incapable of holding their own against well-executed, high-touch recruiting programs operated by larger organizations.

While larger organizations certainly have some selling points, there are a number of compelling reasons someone might opt to join a smaller organization. For instance, smaller organizations often give employees more control over a wider scope of activities. They also afford talent an opportunity to get to know every employee and a chance to be a “big fish” in a little pond.

And advances in technology have brought most tools once only afforded by large organizations within reach of smaller companies, narrowing the gap in benefits even further.

With adoption and execution of advanced recruiting tools, there are few reasons why smaller organizations can’t compete with larger organizations and walk away with their fair share of talent victories. It’s time to learn about effective approaches that can eliminate most, if not all, of the recruiting problems encountered by smaller organizations.

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Common Problems: Recruiting Into Small Organizations

  • Assuming that small organizations have no advantage in recruiting. Many recruiters and hiring managers at smaller organizations assume that they can’t be competitive with large organizations, and therefore forgo even trying to compete for top talent. With that mindset, they lose track of the fact that small organizations have more of a “family feel,” less bureaucracy, and offer a larger chance for one individual to really make a difference. While they routinely talk the talk, recruiters in smaller organizations often fail to package their organization’s value proposition for competition in the big leagues.
  • A conservative mentality. Although smaller organizations generally have few formal restrictions on what you can do in recruiting, the recruiting mentality at small organizations tends to focus on “risk avoidance.” To differentiate yourself from larger organizations, send a message that your small organization really is different and that you have opportunities that would allow top talent to change the game. It is critical small companies update their recruiting approaches to “match” the rapidly changing recruiting marketplace.
  • Failing to emphasize job security. Individuals often view small organizations as having more job security than larger organizations; however, recruiters in smaller organizations often fail to take advantage of that perception. Employees within large organizations periodically face fears of their job being outsourced, eliminated due to advances in technology, or offshored to China or India. While it’s not 100% true that small organizations don’t leverage outsourcing, technology, and offshoring, job cuts attributed to those actions are harder to find in smaller organizations. Small organizations need to emphasize their stability, especially when larger organizations are undergoing mass layoffs or outsourcing efforts.

10 Advanced Tips

Use the following simple but effective list of 10 tips for recruiting top candidates into small organizations:

  1. Referrals are the most effective tool. Employee referrals are always the best source of quality hires, but the process can be less effective in smaller organizations because the network of employees used to generate referrals isn’t large enough. To counter this limitation, smaller organizations should broaden their referral base to include customers, partners, and vendors. Because the customers of smaller organizations tend to be more loyal and knowledgeable about the organization, it is critical that you add your customers to your list of possible referral sources. Because your customers and vendors are also likely to know your culture, their referrals are also more likely to be a better “fit.”
  2. Target your customers. Even large organizations target their customers as potential recruits, but the practice is even more effective at smaller organizations because customers are more likely to know and like the product, as well as the current employees. In food service and retail, hiring customers is a profoundly successful approach.
  3. Make a list of your selling features. Small organizations are often more agile than large bureaucracies. If you’re going to “win” the inevitable comparison between you and the larger organizations, map out the likely points of contention and package your environment to be superior. Some of those areas might include decision-making authority, fewer meetings, less bureaucracy, increased promotion rates, and fewer politics. Survey your employees, especially new hires, to better identify and quantify your selling points.
  4. Use a hiring team. There are many cases where the use of a hiring team is a good idea, and in small organizations it works because most individual managers don’t do much hiring. As a result, they’re less likely to be particularly good at it. When you use a hiring team, the individuals on it are more likely to be up-to-date in the best practices and what it takes to land candidates.
  5. Use peer interviews. Having coworkers or peers involved in the interview process works particularly well at small organizations because these individuals are likely to be both knowledgeable and passionate about the entire organization.
  6. Use local professional events. Professional events are always an excellent place to recruit. Local breakfast, lunch, or dinner meetings might be the best way to meet potential hires. In this informal setting, individuals from “big organizations” might get to know you and over time, might begin to see the value of working with a small organization.
  7. Target downsizing. Current and former employees from large organizations should especially be targeted when there are ongoing rumors of impending layoffs. During actual layoffs, small organizations should “over hire” in order to take advantage of any short-term “glut” in well-trained talent.
  8. Target entry-level hires. One of the best ways to overcome any tendencies to favor large organizations is to hire individuals early in their career, before they develop biases against small organizations. Obviously, if you hire people right out of high school with little experience, you can build both their capability and loyalty over time. This practice is especially effective in developing regions within Asia, where competition to experienced talent is extremely fierce. Because you have invested in them and trained them, these individuals are less likely to see any advantages of shifting over to work at the unfeeling bureaucracy of the large organization.
  9. Trolling for talent at the mall. Because many small organizations are heavily weighted with positions that require great customer service skills, it’s essential that the recruiting effort focus on finding individuals who excel in customer service. Because customer service people are visible to the public, both you and your employees are likely to interact with great customer service talent daily. Ask your employees (and even their families) to identify known individuals with “above and beyond” customer service skills.
  10. Target recent retirees or frustrated workers from big organizations. Individuals who retire from larger organizations sometimes do so because of the stress and pressure associated with managing politics and multiple layers of bureaucracy. In addition, target frustrated employees at large organizations. To identify individuals who might be ready to move to a “smaller pond,” keep your ear to the ground. Monitor promotional announcements in order to identify who did not get a recent promotion, and attend local professional meetings to identify who might be willing to make the move.

Final Thoughts

The advent of the Internet and arrival of a truly global economy have chipped away at many of the benefits that once made larger organizations more attractive to top talent than smaller organizations.

As a result, smaller organizations that opt to step onto the green and compete stand a much better chance at walking away with the next “Tiger Woods.”

Winning the battle isn’t about access to some high-priced piece of recruiting technology, or some practice only big organizations can leverage, but rather about understanding how large organizations go after talent and building a strategy that positions your organization as competitive.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on He lives in Pacifica, California.



6 Comments on “Advanced Recruiting Tips for Smaller Firms

  1. I would like to interject that I disagree with the Assumptions all together.

    The first item Doc John lists is an ‘assumption’ that ‘small organizations have no advantage’.

    This can only be a statement made from the hubris and arrogant perspective of a large Fortune company soldier – not necessarily a widely-perceived assumption.

    According to National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) … which is one of the nation’s most powerful lobbying groups up along with the AFL-CIO, NARP, etc. Some ‘85% of Americans work for small companies’. A small company is defined as one having ‘less than 500 employees’ at which point as a company approaches 1,000 it becomes ‘medium sized’.

    With 85% of all Americans working for small companies .. who ever said large companies have any advantage?

    What Large companies have are huge egos. Egos that cost them tens of millions regularly (read the book Egonomics – its terrific).

    Secondly – Every large corporation today was once a small company. Many millionaires exist who joined those small companies. Back in the 1980’s my wife was offered a job by Sam Walton while his company was ‘quite small’. Many hired back then became multi-millionaires – even truck drives.

    Microsoft, HP, Disney, Apple were all one or two person start-ups. If you want to compare millionaires created – I’d say many more were created by small companies than those created once the company became a Fortune 500.

    Once companies become Fortune 500 – they are hamstrung by their very largesse. SEC rulings, regulatory oversight, EEO issues, etc. etc. require micro-managing every process to the point the entrepreneurial spirit that got them there is squashed and obliterated.

    I see it in our own recruiting practice every decade.
    Companies that were lean, hard working, resourceful and entrepreneurial – become Fortune 500. Soon thereafter, egomania, hubris, corporate arrogance rules the day to day operation than the skills that go them there. It completes the life cycle. Creates a plateau – and if left unchecked – harms the company culture.

    Also, the average company only lasts 12.5 years according to many statistics by government agencies. There is no such thing as ‘security’ unless you are a college professor.

    I’ve interviewed tens of thousands since 1987. I’ve met many that have obtained great wealth (Millions) from joining the right small company at the right time.

    Conservative? (item two) I know of no small company that is conservative. By sheer laws of survival they must be resourceful and flexible to succeed and thrive.

    I have one question for you Doc – when was the last time you worked for a small company and actually contributed to the bottom line?

  2. Another common issue with small firms is that they don’t have lots of money to post their job opening on many different job boards. If the online job posting becomes free, I think small firms will be able to compete better. Is this possible? It all depends on new technology and how the market is shaping itself. I’m applying semantic web technology to this problem, which is definitely feasible. The more challenge part is to figure out what market force is required.

  3. Size is largely irrelevant, unless someone is specifically seeking a firm of one size or another. What is relevant is the candidate’s experience during the hiring process- a quick and simple process where the candidate is made to feel appreciated and special will tend to produce good results.


  4. Not only is size irrelevant as it pertains to company size whether it be revenue, sales, or net employees … I would add that industry rankings, and awards, positioning, are also irrelevant.

    Let me explain – There’s one investment brokerage firm that continuously boasts and touts its rankings by JD POWERS as being ‘Top in Customer Service and Satisfaction’.

    This while it was steering my family in purchasing lackluster funds that were later being investigated (Fortunately I was smart enough to not listen and limit my investment).

    Another regularly promotes the fact it receives high rankings as ‘Among the Top Ten Best Places To Work.’ in various publications.

    Ironically, just as one of these articles was being featured last year, several individuals from several offices of that same company complained to me (I get to hear things some priests don’t even hear in confessionals) of the work conditions, lack of support, training, etc. causing them to make a move. I placed two of them the month the article was printed.

    In the first case – That company that touted its ‘JD Powers’ ranking was cited the following year by the SEC for ‘Steering customers to revenue sharing funds and investments that might not have been in the customer’s best financial interest’.

    For me – I’m already working for the best company in the entire world: That which I created on my own. Working for Frank has been great for 20 years and I promise to never fire myself. I can take off any day I like at any time I desire.

    As I’ve said before all these awards, rankings, praise, boastings mean little in the great American landscape as they fail to take into account 85% of American Workers who work for small companies with less than 500 employees who never are included in such rankings, ratings, surveys, etc. etc.

    It’s all different ways for the companies to generate free P.R. – and little of anything else.

    We have serious, serious problems in this country. some 42% of American workers have no health insurance (I do but pay for it on my own). Those that do are being pressed to pay more and more out of pocket. I personally pay just under $15,000.00 out of pocket to provide family coverage for the Risalvato family. While I’m fortunate to be able to afford good coverage … I’m in the minority.

    Most could not pay that amount on their own. The average coverage is now about $12,500.00 for a family of four.

    That my fellow recruiting colleagues, is what everyone here at ERE should be working on.

    As John Lennon once said:


    Imagine if this forum became the impetus and momentum for correcting the health insurance crisis.

    49% is a staggering figure. It means everyone of us knows a friend, co-worker or relative that is somehow surviving with no insurance.

    It is one of the most disgraceful and abysmal failures of our society.

    The heck with JD Powers, ‘Best Company to Work’ rankings, and all that meaningless bragadoccio.

    Instead of daily bickering over little inconsequential minutia, this ERE forum holds potential to do great good.

    Health Insurance should be our next national fix.
    And no – it should not be a burden imposed upon companies. Companies began providing insurance as an incentive in the 1940s … its was never intended nor should it be a requirement that companies dish out the cost.

    However companies (and the executives reading this forum) have clout with their bosses … congress and the senate and when large companies speak senators listen.

    No one should have to sell their house and live in a box or trailer under a bridge to take care of their daughter’s cancer. I don’t have the solution … but I know the status quo is unacceptable.

  5. Dr. Sullivan,
    I am a new recruiter in a small financial firm parented by a large financial firm. We face some of the small firm challenges, and based on the suggestions in your article I am doing the right things. I am trying to creating an ‘official’ marketing plan but am struggling with creating a template. Do you know of any good recruiting marketing plans that would serve as a good base for me to build on?

    Thank you for your help.
    Carol Sexton

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