The Complete Recruitment Guide for Small Businesses

How to Hire Staff the Smart Way

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Introduction

For many business owners, the main goal when it comes to recruiting is simple: find enough people capable of filling the gaps in the rota as quickly as possible, then get back to work.

While this makes absolute sense on paper — after all, the more time you spend recruiting, the less you spend making your customers smile — this approach can create all kinds of headaches further down the line.

That’s why we’re proposing an alternative route for small business recruitment. Rather than focusing on short-term gains, we suggest trying to maximise the quality of your hires in the first place, employing people who will both help your business grow and who will stick with you for years to come, reducing the need for further recruitment.

Over the course of this guide, we’ll show you how to revamp your hiring process to give you the best chance of securing these exceptional employees, without the need for fancy recruitment software or huge sums of cash, covering:

  • The different types of workers and employees (and when to hire them)
  • How to write a job ad, and where to publish it
  • How to shortlist candidates and conduct interviews
  • Making the final hiring decision (and rejecting other candidates)
  • How to avoid discrimination and keep everything fair

...and much more.

Throughout the guide, you’ll find plenty of recruitment resources that you can download, edit, and print, including a sample job advert and templates for interview records, offer letters, and more.

Short on time or prefer to read offline? Click here to download a PDF version of this guide and all the accompanying resources in one handy pack.

Table of Contents

When to Hire and Who to Hire

when to hire and who to hire

Why do you want to hire another employee?

It might be to give your company access to another skillset, help you deal with seasonal demand, or simply to fill a gap in the rota.

Whatever your reasoning, your new employee will play an important role at your business.

"An extra salary to pay can be the difference between a comfortable profit margin and damaging cash flow problems"

But staff also come at a cost. In service-based industries, for example, payroll costs can account for up to 50% of revenue.

For small businesses in particular, the financial impact of hiring another member of staff can be significant. An extra salary to pay can be the difference between a comfortable profit margin and damaging cash flow problems.

That’s why it’s critical to be certain that hiring another employee is the right route to take. You know your business better than we do, but there are some common signs that now is the right time to hire more staff.

10 Signs It's Time to Hire

Unsure if you're ready to take the leap? See how many of these signs sound familiar...

  1. Your staff are working long hours of overtime on a regular basis.
  2. Routine work falls by the wayside — it's delayed or never completed.
  3. You can't maintain your usual levels of customer service.
  4. Your quieter periods are becoming shorter and busier.
  5. You’re confident in your financial position — both your profit and your cash flow.
  6. Your team is missing skills and training current staff isn’t working.
  7. Your business is on the up. Forecasts and projections are positive and you’re confident that strong sales will continue.
  8. You have the space and facilities to cater for another employee.
  9. Your employees are concerned about their workload.
  10. You’re having to outsource more and more tasks.

If you're ready to take on more staff, your next decision is this: what type of employee should I hire?

Types of Employee and Worker: Explained

In today's job market, you have far more options available than just hiring full-time employees. Let's take a quick look at your choices.

Full-time employees

Full-time employees work for at least 30 hours a week and are usually paid a salary rather than a wage. About 74% of UK employees work full-time.

Hire if...

  • You're looking for skilled workers
  • You need to increase your capacity across the working week

Avoid if...

  • You don't have the budget to commit to a salary
  • Trade is highly variable within each day, week, month or year

Part-time employees

Part-time staff are contracted to work less than 30 hours, but their contracts are otherwise very similar to those of full-time employees. Contracts are permanent, but hours of work aren't necessarily fixed each week. Part-time staff often have the option to work overtime when required.

Hire if...

  • You have a small budget
  • Trade is variable but predictable throughout the working week

Avoid if...

  • Staffing requirements are highly unpredictable day-to-day
  • If you hire another part-time worker, the combined cost is likely to exceed that of a single full-time worker

Zero-hours workers

Workers on zero-hours contracts have no guaranteed hours from week to week. They can be rota'd to work whenever the business requires, and are entitled to decline work with no negative consequences. In many cases, staff on zero-hours contracts are workers rather than employees, and therefore have different rights at work.

Hire if...

  • You only know your staffing requirements at short notice
  • You want a flexible, relatively low cost workforce

Avoid if...

  • Your workload is variable throughout the week, but predictable
  • You're looking for employees to play a crucial long-term role in your business

Contractors

Contractors are skilled individuals working either on a self-employed basis, or are employed through an umbrella company (an intermediary that pays the contractor on behalf of the client or recruitment agency through PAYE). Contractors take on fixed-term contracts covering a set time period or project, and expect to change clients on a regular basis.

Hire if...

  • You require a highly-skilled worker in a specific industry (such as IT, construction, or engineering)
  • You need an extra worker for a project, not on an ongoing basis

Avoid if...

  • You aren't hiring for a highly-skilled role
  • You want a worker for the long term

Interns

Interns are students or trainees working on short-term (two week to six month) contracts to gain work experience in a specific field or role. Internships can be paid or unpaid, but unpaid internships are on shaky ground legally in the UK.

Hire if...

  • You want to access talent with potential
  • You need access to certain skills but have a limited budget

Avoid if...

  • You don't have the capacity to train inexperienced staff
  • You're hiring for an unskilled role

Apprentices

Apprentices are trainee workers who gain a formal qualification at the end of their placement. The work element of the apprenticeship is accompanied by off-the-job training carried out by the employer or the main apprenticeship provider.

Hire if...

  • You have the time, resources, and motivation to train inexperienced workers
  • You're on a tight budget

Avoid if...

  • You don't want the extra admin involved with training an apprentice
  • You need a worker who can get up to speed almost at once

The Costs of Hiring (and Not Hiring)

If you're still unsure about which type of worker to hire, or whether you should hire anyone at all, it helps to work out how much a new employee might cost you.

Even if you're confident you're going to hire someone, we highly recommend estimating how much you'll be paying out — not just in terms of salary, but other onboarding and facilities costs.

Take into account:

  • Salary or wage
  • Recruitment agency or advertising fees
  • Employer's pension and NI contributions
  • Other benefits
  • One-off costs including a new computer, uniform, and initial training
  • Ongoing costs including office supplies, software fees etc.

There are plenty of online calculators to help you add up all these different costs. Here's one from iCalculator that's a good starting point.

You might balk at these costs, but you have to weigh this figure up against the cost of not hiring an employee. This number is more difficult to estimate. Most of these costs will be opportunity costs — in other words, benefits lost because the business didn't hire an employee.

These might include:

  • Lost productivity through stress and fatigue
  • Increased employee turnover due to burnout
  • Stalled growth because of missing skills and expertise
  • Reduced customer loyalty due to poorer customer service
  • Reduced sales because of lack of stock management, marketing analysis, acting on changing trends etc.

It is a challenge to put a number to any of these costs, but comparing the costs and benefits associated with each pathway (however vague they are!) can still be useful.

Writing a Job Description

If you choose to go ahead with recruitment and know what kind of worker you want to hire, the next step is to note down the duties the new employee will have — in other words, a job description.

Even for low-level roles or contracts of only a few hours a week, it's good practice to write and up-to-date job description so that there's never any confusion about duties and responsibilities.

Your job description should start with the job title of the role and who the new employee will report to. Next, write a sentence or a couple of bullet points describing the main purpose of the role. For example, for a sales assistant role:

To carry out sales activities to meet and exceed sales targets, and deliver an exceptional customer experience both on the shop floor and over the phone.

Next, detail the responsibilities and duties associated with the role. Bullet points will do — just ensure you cover almost everything you think is relevant.

Continuing with our sales assistant example:

  • Carry out retail activities in our store(s) and over the phone
  • Provide exceptional customer service in all areas of the store, over the phone, and online
  • Manage and tidy the displays and wider shop environment
  • Handle payments in accordance with company policies
  • Manage customer questions and complaints in-store, over the phone, and on the company’s social media accounts
  • Assist with deliveries from suppliers, and help with stock takes
  • When required, assist with other in-store duties to support the business

Some experts recommend including key performance indicators (KPIs) in job descriptions, to give additional clarity to the role.

“In small, independent businesses, everything is a team effort. A business development manager might also be involved in event planning, marketing, acting as a receptionist, and doing admin work,” Nabeel Khalid, Head of Digital Strategy at Maven Global told us. “That means that job descriptions may not be well-defined. Including KPIs in a job description [and the job advert] helps candidates determine the priority a particular task should be given.”

In our sales assistant example, we might mention sales targets or customer service goals in the job description to show that these are the main priorities of the role.

Nabeel Khalid bio photo

"Including KPIs in a job description [and the job advert] helps candidates determine the priority a particular task should be given."

Nabeel Khalid, Head of Digital Strategy at Maven Global

Here's a sample job description you can download and print off for reference, as well as a template that you can fill with your own information.

Person Specification

You know what you want the new employee’s duties to be — now you need to specify the skills, qualities and qualifications you want them to have in order to fulfil said duties. The person spec is usually livened up for job adverts, but it’s chiefly used as a tool for comparing candidates in a fair and objective way.

A person specification is usually displayed as a table with selection criteria in the left-hand column and details of the required skills in the other. Sometimes this column may be split into essential and desired skills.

For example, under the qualifications row, our sales assistant might have nothing listed in the ‘essential’ column, but might have C-grade or above maths and English GCSEs listed under ‘desirable’.

For a copy of a template or sample person specification, click the buttons below:

Summary

These initial steps may seem like overkill — after all, you probably knew what kind of person you wanted to hire before you even opened this guide.

However, now that you’ve considered all the options available to you and formalised your choice, the rest of the hiring process will be far less of a headache.

With a job description and person spec presenting clear guidelines of exactly who you’re looking for, it becomes significantly easier to narrow the field, host interviews, and make that final hiring decision.

Key points:

  • Take this opportunity to evaluate the scope of the role you’re hiring for. Have your requirements changed?
  • Estimate the extra value a new employee or worker will bring to your business, and any bottlenecks they’ll help clear.
  • Formalise a job description and person specification to help you later on in the recruitment progress.

How and Where to Advertise Jobs

how and where to advertise jobs

Now that you’ve decided it’s time to add some new faces to your team, you’re probably itching to get going.

You’re probably also full of questions, wondering about the best places to advertise, how long should you keep your ads up, and whether there are any particular ways to present your roles that will really make them stand out and attract lots of applicants.

In this section, we’ll be providing answers to all of these questions, as well as giving you a few tips on how to make the advertising process a bit more straightforward.

But before we get into that, there’s one other point that we need to touch upon: whether or not you should outsource the job of advertising your roles to a third party...

Should you work with a recruitment agency?

Time, as they say, is money. Even if you feel that you’re quite capable of advertising roles and handling the entire recruitment process yourself, you may still decide to use a recruiter purely so that you can remain focused on the day-to-day running of your business.

"Recruiters are usually much more adept at finding new employees the typical business owner could ever hope to be."

And that makes a lot of sense. With their expansive networks, client databases, and years of experience, recruiters are usually much more adept at finding new employees the typical business owner could ever hope to be.

The kind of services recruiters typically offer include:

  • Writing and posting job adverts. Your recruiter should know the best places to advertise your role, and will write, or help you write, an eyecatching job ad.
  • Searching for and reaching out to potential candidates. Rather than simply waiting for people to apply for jobs, many recruiters will take your job directly to them, reaching out to people they think would be a good fit for the role via job sites and social networks.
  • Screening and presenting applicants. Before presenting candidates to you, most recruitment agencies will get in touch with the most promising applicants to learn a bit more about them, and double-check on their credentials, saving you lots of time.
  • Arranging interviews. Let your recruiter know when you ideally want to meet with your candidates and they’ll take care of the admin part, calling them up and booking them in for interview at a time that suits you.

All of this can save you, the business owner, an inordinate amount of time and energy.

There are, however, a number of caveats to using a recruitment agency to find your next member of staff.

First of all, you immediately lose a degree of control when you involve a third party in the recruitment process.

This isn't always a problem; better recruiters will work with you to ascertain exactly what you’re looking for in a member of staff, the key skills they require, and the type of environment they’ll ultimately be working in. They’ll also spend some time learning about your company culture to ensure that they present your business in a manner that’s in keeping with your core values and branding.

Sadly, not all recruiters are this thorough.

Recruitment agencies make their money by filling roles, so it stands to reason that they’ll aim to reach out to as many people as they can, as quickly as they can. This means that, while you might have focused on ensuring that you present your company in a particular light and engaging with a particular type of person, recruiters might not be as cautious.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of cost.

These firms do not come cheap, often charging anywhere between 10–20% of the annual salary of the role you're hiring for in exchange for their services. That’s a lot of money to part with, so unless you’re really struggling for time or have a role that’s particularly difficult to fill, it might be worth hanging on to your cash and doing the legwork yourself.

If you’re still unsure whether a recruitment agency is the right way to go, check out this in-depth article, which explores the pros and cons in more detail.

For now, we'll show you how to handle the recruitment process by yourself, without the need for a recruiter.

Where to Advertise Jobs

Your recruitment process could be failing before it even gets going if the best candidates don't even see your ads.

You've plenty of options available to you, both offline and online. Let's look at some of the most popular choices.

Local Papers and Magazines

Print may be 'dead', but newspaper job listings are still a perfectly viable way to find new employees, especially if it's part-time roles you're recruiting for.

Pros:

  • Relatively affordable
  • Reach candidates in the local area/community

Cons:

  • Limited space (and word count)
  • Limited reach, particularly amongst younger demographics

Online Job Boards

The majority of today’s job seekers turn to job listing sites, or ‘job boards’, as their first port of call when looking for work. Sites like Indeed, Reed, and Monster have a variety of free and paid options available to business owners who wish to advertise roles. Furthermore, it’s possible to categorise jobs in various ways to make them easily discoverable.

Pros:

  • Potentially vast audience
  • Easy for job seekers to search through
  • Easy to amend or update the advert once live

Cons:

  • Can be expensive
  • May receive more poor quality applications
  • Lots of competition — it will be difficult for your advert to stand out

Social Media

No longer just a place to advertise your wares and shout about your achievements, social media is rapidly becoming one of the most common places for employers to advertise roles.

It’s not just ‘professional’ social network LinkedIn where this is happening, either — sites like Twitter, Facebook, and even photo-focused Instagram are now regularly used to find new talent.

Pros:

  • Completely free (though paid 'boost' options are available)
  • Advertise directly to people who already know and like your brand
  • Easy for users to share your advert amongst their own network

Cons:

  • Casual nature of social media doesn't suit all brands
  • Easy to fall victim to unconscious bias if you browse applicants' profiles
  • Your adverts can easily get lost in users' busy news feeds — unless you pay for a sponsored post

Your Network

Sometimes, it’s not what you know, but who you know...

Reach out to your professional networks via email, phone, and social media, and let them know you’re hiring. Tell them a little about the position and the type or person you’re looking for. More often than not, they’ll know someone — or someone who knows someone — who’s a good fit for the role.

Pros:

  • Highly personal — it's easy to trust the recommendations of those you know
  • Doesn’t cost a penny
  • Helps you strengthen bonds with others in your network

Cons:

  • Can be slower than other methods of advertising roles
  • Others might misrepresent your brand or misunderstand the role
  • Risk offending contacts if you reject their recommendations

Once you’ve decided on where you’d like to place your job advert, it’s time to get down to the important business of writing it...

Tips for Writing a Job Advert

The aim of any advert is to get noticed. That’s never truer, however, than when you’re the owner of a small business and putting your ad amongst those of more established or well-known companies.

fela hughes headshot

“Don’t forget to ‘sell’ your company to candidates — SMEs are often more exciting than more established companies!"

Fela Hughes, CEO & Co-Founder at Buengo

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. As a small business, you may not offer the same benefits and perks as a huge company, but there’s plenty in your favour, as Fela Hughes, CEO and co-founder of Buengo told us:

“Don’t forget to ‘sell’ your company to candidates," Hughes explained. "SMEs are often more exciting than more established companies, so play on your vision for where the company will be in five years time.”

The trick is to celebrate what makes your business a unique, interesting place to work while making it clear what kind of person you’re looking to add to your team. Keep the following five points in mind when writing your job advert to ensure that you’re playing to your strengths:

1. Choose your words carefully

The tone of your ad shouldn’t just aim to impress — it should appeal to the exact kind of person you want working for you. If you’re recruiting for front-of-house staff, for example, then choose words that reflect that role (‘professional,’ ‘courteous’, and ‘energetic’ spring to mind) rather than just throwing out generic terms like ‘team player’ or ‘committed’. The description of your business, too, should reflect kind of environment you’re hoping to build.

2. Provide context

If you want people to get excited about the role you’re advertising, they need to know not just what they’d be doing from day to day, but what your business is trying to become. Talk a little about what you’ve achieved so far, why you’re recruiting now, and how they’ll help you grow — you want someone who’s excited to be a part of your business specifically, not just pay their bills.

3. Be realistic

You might need someone who possesses certain skills or qualifications, but try not to get too bogged down in requirements when writing your job ad. Every skill that you list as ‘essential’ will narrow the field of applicants by several degrees, so think long and hard about what your must-haves are before potentially putting off dozens of people.

4. Use keywords

There’s no point putting an ad online if job seekers have to scroll through dozens of similar adverts to find it. Be sure to use plenty of relevant keywords in both the body of your advert and its title — that way they’ll be picked up on by search engines like Google and job sites’ internal search functions and your ad will get plenty of views.

5. Know your audience

Don’t make the mistake of using the exact same advert in multiple places — the ad you write for a newspaper or shop window won’t work anywhere near as well online. Even if you’re posting on a couple of different online job boards, be sure to consider how each presents its ads, and tweak yours to maximise its impact.

For more info, check out our detailed article on how to write a job advert that gets results.

Grab a job advert template below:

Hit or Miss?

Once your ads have gone live, it’s important that you keep track of which are and aren’t working, and to what degree.

It’s easy to forget about this step once you start getting a handful of applications, but this information will prove very useful in the months and years to come when you find yourself looking to add even more people to your team.

Here's how to measure success...

If you're using online job boards: Sites like Indeed and Reed provide business owners with a variety of stats, such as the number of times their ad appeared in searches, and the number of clicks, views and actual applications received.

For social media-based adverts: All the major social networks give business accounts access to detailed stats about the posts they share. If you pay to sponsor or 'boost' your post, you'll see even more useful information about how your posts perform.

Newspaper and other offline ads: It's obviously trickier to monitor the success of offline ads, but by making a habit of asking your applicants where they first heard about the position, you'll be able to build up a picture of which of your print ads are working.

Summary

There's a lot to consider when it comes to advertising your roles, so don’t take this step lightly. The places and way in which you present the position you’re hoping to fill will inevitably have an effect on the type of people you attract, and will form the foundations of your working relationship going forward.

Key points:

  • There’s more to advertising roles than just online job boards. Consider the kind of people you want to hire and the places they might frequent.
  • Your job ad is your best opportunity to sell your company to prospective employees and attract the best people — make the most of it!
  • Tracking your ads’ performance can provide you with valuable data to base future recruitment decisions on.

Shortlisting and Interviewing

shortlisting and interviewing

Slowly but surely, you should start receiving applications.

If you're hiring for entry-level or unskilled roles, expect to receive dozens of applications — if not hundreds! Even if you're using fancy applicant tracking software (ATS), it's difficult to keep track of all those candidates.

But your next task is to create a shortlist of candidates that will proceed to the next stage of the hiring process — usually this is the 3-10 candidates who you want to interview.

"Cutting down applications from dozens to a handful takes time; a lot of time."

Cutting down applications from dozens to a handful takes time. A lot of time. If you’re a busy manager, it’s tempting to take shortcuts with shortlisting to save your valuable time.

However, to get the best results when recruiting, it’s wise to invest some time at the very start. Once you’ve done this, you’ll save time throughout the rest of the process and whenever you hire staff in the future.

Detailed here is just one way you can approach this daunting mountain of paperwork.

Build a spreadsheet

Yes, as with many aspects of business, building a spreadsheet is a good place to start.

Using the spreadsheet software of your choice, create a blank spreadsheet. This'll be where you'll track the progress of applications for current and future vacancies. Each row will store a candidate's details.

Include columns for contact details, application source, and the current status of their application. Download an example applicant tracking spreadsheet, which you can use as a template, below.

From now on, whenever you receive an application or make any shortlisting decisions, enter or amend the candidate's record in your spreadsheet.

If you receive applications through a site like Indeed, you'll find that they have their own built-in tools to manage applications — by all means use them. However, if you're accepting applications from elsewhere, it's best to create your own central spreadsheet to keep applications from multiple sources all in one place.

If you want to manage applications directly, set up a Google Form as your application form with the responses automatically sent to a Google Sheet, saving you time on data entry.

Initial screening

The first pass of screening should discount any candidates who don’t meet your essential criteria. Mark these candidates as ‘Rejected’ on your spreadsheet. If that leaves you with no candidates at all, relax the criteria slightly and repeat the process.

Next, it’s time to weigh candidates based on your desired criteria. Assign scores for each criterion (you can double the value of criteria you deem more important), and count up the scores for each remaining candidate. Rank applications and choose the top 3-10 to proceed to the next stage. You can skip this step if you only have a handful of applications remaining after the first pass.

Social media screening

One of the most significant changes to the screening process in recent years is the use of social media. Nick Riesel, Founder and Managing Director at FreeOfficeFinder, explained: “Social media now plays a big part in allowing recruiters to screen applicants based on the information they find about the candidates online,” Nick told us. “It’s been one of the most noticeable shifts in the recruitment process since I started the business in 2002.”

It’s easy to see why so many recruiters and employers use this screening method. LinkedIn lets you check a candidate’s qualifications against those provided on their CV. Facebook and Twitter profiles might warn you off hiring a candidate who’s previously moaned about their job or coworkers, or even promoted criminal activity or hate speech.

While these methods are certainly enlightening, it does run the risk of discrimination. For example, it’s easy to find out a candidate’s age or location from their social media profiles. Skip down to the final section for details on how to avoid this.

Many employers carry out social media screening as soon as applications are received, but it’s often fairer to leave this stage until after the interviews.

Nick Riesel

"Social media now plays a big part in allowing recruiters to screen applicants based on the information they find about the candidates online."

Nick Riesel, Founder and Managing Director, FreeOfficeFinder

Phone, video, group and in-person interviews

Depending on the number of applications you receive and how quickly you want to hire your new employee, you might choose to use several rounds of interviews to help you narrow the field.

Let’s look at the different types of interview and how they’re best used.

Phone interviews

Phone interviews are quick and relatively informal. Whether carried out as a traditional phone call or over a platform like Skype, phone interviews remain a popular option with many businesses.

Best for...

  • Creating a candidate shortlist
  • Assessing candidates for roles which require strong verbal communication skills and confidence when speaking over the phone

Avoid if...

  • You require long, in-depth interviews
  • Body language and people skills are key criteria for the role

Live video interviews

This type of interview is conducted over the internet using software like Skype or Zoom, but in all other respects is the same as a traditional in-person interview. Questions may be asked by one interviewer or a panel, with the candidate also given a chance to ask their own questions.

Companies sometimes use live video interviews to shortlist candidates, while others may use them to make the final hiring decision.

Best for...

  • Companies with many long-distance candidates on the shortlist
  • You're planning on holding in-person interviews after, or you're happy to hire without meeting candidates in person

Avoid if...

  • You don't have a reliable, moderately fast internet connection
  • You want to limit the length of the recruitment process and would rather hold in-person interviews.

Recorded/on-demand video interviews

In this style of video interview, candidates are sent over a list of questions (either in an email or through specialist interview software) and must record their answers to each question. You can then review candidate answers at a time that suits you.

Bear in mind that recorded answers are likely to be heavily rehearsed, so be sure to pair this style of interview with in-person interviews for your final shortlist.

Best for...

  • Companies that are short on time
  • Shortlisting candidates when there's a high volume of quality applications

Avoid if...

  • You only want to use a single set of interviews to make a hiring decision
  • You don't have specialist software or the technical expertise to manage and store dozens of videos

Group interviews

Often used by larger businesses to quickly narrow down a selection of candidates into a more manageable shortlist, group interviews usually consist of similar questions to solo interviews, but asked to a group of candidates at the same time.

There may also be additional activities that aim to test teamwork and leadership skills.

Bear in mind that group interviews tend to reward the strongest personalities, so introverts will struggle. It can also be a challenge to conduct these interviews and make sufficiently detailed notes to make a decision.

Best for...

  • Situations where you need to produce a shortlist from a high volume of candidates
  • Roles that rely on teamwork and interpersonal skills

Avoid if...

  • You're hiring for a highly-skilled role
  • The employee's work will be mostly solitary or remote

Individual in-person interview

These are the traditional type of interview that we’ve all been through. You know how they work: a single candidate meets with a panel or an individual interviewer, and the candidate gets the chance to ask their own questions at the end of the interview.

Best for...

  • Helping with final hiring decisions
  • Skilled roles

Avoid if...

  • You have many candidates on your shortlist
  • You don't have much time to conduct interviews

How to Conduct Effective Interviews

Before planning any interviews, think about the information you need to get out of the process. This might seem obvious — but one of the most common mistakes inexperienced interviewers make is failing to plan their questions, meaning they miss out key information.

Therefore, if you’re new to interviewing, we highly recommend using a structured approach — in other words, asking the same questions in the exact same order for every candidate — to make sure you stay on track and get all the information you need.

For those with more experience with interviews, starting with an unstructured segment could help candidates relax, whilst also giving them the opportunity to reveal their personalities.

"If you’re new to interviewing, we highly recommend using a structured approach — in other words, ask the same questions in the exact same order to every candidate."

Once you’ve decided on the structure of your interview, it’s time to write your questions. Refer to the person specification you created at the start of this process. Now try to write 1–3 questions covering each of the criteria.

Aim to keep your questions:

  • Open-ended
  • Neutral, non-leading
  • Fair, non-discriminatory
  • Short, clearly worded

This’ll give you the best chance of receiving accurate, honest, useful responses from candidates.

Here are some examples of questions you might ask:

Which aspects of this role most appeal to you — and which are you concerned about?

Can you explain [relevant technical concept] to me in simple terms?

What kind of working environment do you excel in?

Give an example of when you resolved a challenging situation at work.

How did you contribute to your previous company's success? Explain with examples and figures.

You can see more ideas for interview questions over on our blog.

Your Interview Conduct

Remember: candidates will be judging you and your business, too. The way you conduct the interview will tell candidates a great deal about your company.

  • Is your body language (or phone manner) open and friendly or cold and distant?
  • Is the interview room (and any other parts of the workplace candidates will see) clean and tidy, or dirty and cluttered?
  • Are you and the other interviewers organised? Have you read the applicant’s CV and cover letter?
  • Do you show a genuine interest in the candidate’s answers?
  • Are you honest and open when answering the candidate’s questions, or do you try to hide information to protect the company’s interests?
  • Do you provide next steps for applicants without being prompted?

Try to see the interview from the candidate’s perspective, and adjust your interviewing process and technique accordingly so that you give the best possible impression of your company, and an accurate portrayal of your brand values.

Portfolios, competency tests, and trial shifts

For technical or creative roles, an interview alone isn’t enough to see if a candidate has the right skills for the job. It’s safest to ask candidates to provide proof of their abilities by asking them to complete a short competency test, and/or provide a portfolio.

Set assessments that reflect the nature of work that candidates will be working on in their new role, with a focus on tasks that you’d expect them to complete on a regular basis.

When assessing a portfolio, we recommend paying particular attention to the variation in each candidate’s work as well as its quality, so that you can be confident their skills are flexible enough to be applied to whatever projects you have in the pipeline.

In the hospitality industry, short trial shifts are commonly used to assess a candidate’s competency.

Candidate tiebreakers

Most of the time, recruitment decisions are easy. One candidate stands head and shoulders above the rest, or there’s only a single candidate that you think meets the essential requirements for the role.

However, sometimes you’ll have to choose between two (or more) candidates that you’d be more than happy to hire. If you can’t hire them both, you’ve a difficult decision to make.

First of all, double-check that they’re both equally qualified. Refer back to your person specification and see if one candidate edges the other.

Assuming that they’re equally qualified, you now have to look at other factors to make a decision. These could include:

  • Long term potential. Consider each candidate’s ambitions and where they might fit into your company in three, five or ten years time. Look at their leadership potential, and any other skills they have that might be applied elsewhere in your business in the future.
  • Enthusiasm. While we all try to seem enthusiastic at interviews, in many cases this interest in a role is exaggerated. Favour those candidates showing real enthusiasm and interest in the role. For example, they might have asked you more interesting questions at the interview, or followed up quickly afterwards.
  • Cultural fit. In this context, by cultural fit we mean suitability for the working environment and way of working on the team that your new hire will have to slot into. For example, if a copywriter you’re hiring prefers to work in a quiet environment and you have a noisy open plan office, they may struggle to reach their full potential.
  • Motivational fit. Do the candidate’s values align with the company’s values? Will this alignment motivate them to achieve more at your business?
  • Highly specific experience. Your company may use software or operate in a sector that’s so specific that you didn’t even list it on your person specification as a desired criteria. If it turns out that one of your top candidates does have this super-specific experience, offer them the job.
  • Your top criterion. If you really had to decide, what would be the number one requirement for your new employee? Weigh up your remaining candidates using this criterion only. Delve into the details, and if necessary, contact the candidates again for more information.

Key Points

  • Keep track of applications (and their progress) in a spreadsheet
  • Shortlist candidates based on their score against the criteria in your person spec
  • Interviews are a chance to impress candidates and ‘sell’ the role and your brand
  • Consider candidates’ potential, not just their experience

Making Job Offers

making job offers

After a thorough search and deliberation, you’ve decided who to hire.

This section of the guide details what happens next.

The Verbal Job Offer

In most situations, it’s good practice to phone (or email) the successful candidate as soon as possible after the hiring decision has been made. You can offer the job to the candidate over the phone, but be sure that the offer is conditional (ie. subject to reference checks etc.) rather than unconditional. This means that there’s no binding contract and you can withdraw the offer later on.

The Written Offer

Legally speaking, a verbal job offer (if it’s unconditional) constitutes a binding contract, but it’s always wise to send across a job offer in writing to make things clear.

You can keep the formal offer letter relatively short, but it’s best to cover the following:

  • Job title
  • Salary/wage
  • Working hours
  • Annual leave entitlement
  • Offer conditions (reference checks, right to work in the UK, proof of qualifications/certifications where applicable)

Send the letter by first class post as soon as you can, and chase the candidate if you haven’t heard a response within a few days of receipt.

Here's a template for an offer letter to help you get started.

Pre-Employment Checks

Pre-employment checks vary depending on your industry and the role you’re looking to fill.

However, all UK employers must check that employees have the right to work in the UK. To do this, you need to ask employees for original documents such as their passport, check the document’s validity in the presence of the employee, and make a copy of the document. Some companies choose to do this at the interview stage instead of when the offer is made. You can see a full list of the various documents you can accept here [PDF].

It’s also a good idea to check the candidate’s references before proceeding — just in case there’s something the candidate hasn’t been completely honest about...

You might also want to carry out additional checks like criminal record checks and medical checks (where the law allows it), and other document and qualification checks to ensure the candidate is actually qualified for the role.

The Employment Contract

Once the pre-employment checks are complete, it’s time to send across the contract. It’s not actually a legal requirement to issue a full employment contract in writing, but you must make sure you send across a written statement of employment particulars within the first two months of employment.

You can send this across in advance of their employment, or wait until they’ve started work.

This written statement contains many basic contract terms that you might have already including in your job offer letter, but doesn’t need to contain info on most company policies and procedures (like sick pay, social media etc.). Nonetheless, it’s wise to send new employees this info as soon as you can.

Communicating With Unsuccessful Candidates

Receiving no response to a job application is extremely dispiriting for job seekers, but if, as an employer, you receive dozens (if not hundreds) of applications, it’s difficult to respond to every unsuccessful candidate.

But at the very least it’s worth your while to get in touch with candidates who made it to the interview stage but didn’t land the job.

Send a short letter informing them of your decision, and do your best to include some personalised feedback.

Your goal here is to reject the candidate without turning them off your brand for good — you may want them to apply for another role in the future, or at least talk about your business fondly for years to come.

Here’s a letter template you can send to unsuccessful applicants.

Key points:

  • Don’t give unconditional offers until you’ve carried out pre-employment checks
  • Do your best to contact as many unsuccessful candidates as possible
  • Send successful candidates their contract and any other paperwork as soon as possible

Recruitment, Discrimination, and Data Protection

recruitment, discrimination and data protection

Your hiring decision has a huge impact on the lives of both successful and unsuccessful candidates, so it’s understandable that there’s plenty of legislation that ensures the recruitment process is fair.

"With the GDPR now in force, it's more important than ever to take care of candidates' personal data."

Very few of us actively discriminate against others, but almost everyone is prone to unconsciously and unfairly judging others occasionally! This can lead to significant problems during recruitment — you could be accused of discrimination. To avoid this accusation, and the difficult legal wrangles you could encounter, make sure you understand where discrimination might crop up during recruitment.

And with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now in force, it’s vital that you take care of your candidates’ personal data.

This might sound tedious, but don’t skip this section! Getting this wrong will cost you more than the rest of the recruitment process combined.

Let’s start with the job adverts.

Avoiding Discrimination in Job Adverts

Discrimination can creep in from the very beginning of the recruitment process. While most employers know that adverts that are directly discriminatory are illegal, there are some less obvious ways your job advert might be discriminatory.

First, wording. Avoid words like ‘mature’, ‘dynamic’, or ‘youthful’, or phrases like ‘recent graduate’ or ‘school leaver’. These words and phrase are potentially discriminatory on the basis of age. This language alone may not be enough for rejected candidates to successfully claim they were discriminated against, but the wording coupled with other aspects of the application process may allow them to build a case against you.

There’s also a risk in stating that candidates must have x years of experience within your job advert, given that you’re effectively excluding young candidates from proceeding with their application. Instead, phrase your search in terms of achievements and responsibilities.

But it’s generally fine to ask for a certain number of years or months of experience so long as you can reasonably justify it. This is far more difficult (if impossible) to do when you start to ask for anything more than two or three years of experience. Is a candidate with only five years’ experience really any less capable than a candidate with seven or eight?

It gets even more difficult to justify requiring a period of continuous employment. At this point, you don’t only risk age discrimination, but sex discrimination (women are more likely than men to pause their career to raise children).

Finally, be extra careful when you require employees with specific language skills. Never say ‘native French speaker’, instead say ‘fluent French speaker’. It’s discriminatory to discount candidates of a certain nationality if they are just as fluent in the language you require as a native speaker.

There are some instances where you may favour one group of candidates over another — this is called positive action — but you need to be extremely careful and read up on the rules before going down this route.

Social Media and Discrimination

Increasingly, social media is being used as a recruitment tool by businesses of all sizes, and for good reason: it can be an incredibly effectively method of advertising your vacancy.

"The built-in targeting options on social media platforms are very powerful — but if you use them, you could be discriminating against certain groups."

The built-in targeting options on social media platforms are very powerful — you can advertise to audiences based on their age, gender, location, job title, whether or not they’re married, as well as countless other variables.

If you target your job ad in this way, you could be discriminating against certain groups. For example, if you only show your ads to people aged 16-25 (because you think they’ll be most interested in your role), you are discriminating against older people by not even letting them see the vacancy.

Several companies recently ran into problems after using Facebook’s targeting options in this way, and in response the social network introduced some new ad targeting restrictions to try to prevent discriminatory job adverts.

However, it’s still worth being aware of the risks of targeting job adverts on social media in this way.

Avoiding Discrimination When Reviewing Applications

The information candidates typically provide at the application stage opens the door for more discrimination. After all, you know their name, and by extension, their gender. Certain names may also be associated with a specific race or other group. Even though you can’t ask for an employee’s date of birth (unless the role requires employees to be over a certain age), it’s easy to figure out their age through other parts of their application — such as the dates they attended university or school.

Of course, few employers would admit that they discriminate based on the information provided in CVs and applications — but unconscious bias still occurs.

In the workplace, unconscious bias is when an individual unintentionally favours others because they’re alike. We tend to be drawn to other people who look like us, or share our values.

In recruitment, unconscious bias can spell problems when it involves protected characteristics like race or age — you may end up discriminating against certain applicants.

These pointers can combat unconscious bias:

  • Be aware. Knowing that unconscious bias is a real phenomenon is the first step to minimising its impact.
  • Never rush selection decisions or rely on gut feelings.
  • Reject applications based solely on evidence
  • Sift through applications with a colleague (preferably of a different age, background, or gender), instead of by yourself.

Some companies are going one step further and introducing anonymous hiring practices, also known as blind recruitment.

What is Blind Recruitment?

Blind recruitment involves removing personal information from applications and CVs. At a basic level, no names are used — but depending on the scope of the policy (and the types of bias you are trying to eliminate) you might also remove education, interests, company names, and personal statements.

Usually blind recruitment only applies to the opening stages of the application process, because it’s more difficult to anonymise phone or in-person interviews. But blind hiring can certainly help you create a shortlist of candidates without unconscious bias interfering.

In practice, it can take some work for a small business to implement blind hiring, as you’ll need to create your own application system which lets you temporarily hide personal details, or ask a third party (an individual or a software provider) to anonymise applications for you.

Still, it’s an option that’s available to you if you’re looking to reduce bias.

Social Media Screening

Using social media to screen candidates can be both helpful and risky. While many businesses use it to check qualifications and look for any criminal (or other damaging) behaviour, the mass of data you find can lead to discrimination.

You’ll find out information that the candidate would otherwise not disclose during the recruitment process, such as their religion and sexuality. You could find out about disabilities, or whether or not they have kids.

Once you’ve seen this information, it will probably influence your selection decisions — at least on an unconscious level.

To avoid accusations of discrimination, you must be able to show that the reasoning behind every shortlisting and selection decision has nothing to do with information about protected characteristics that you uncovered during your social media search.

If possible, have another member of staff with no authority over the hiring process (or a third party) look at candidates’ social media information and redact any information that points to protected characteristics.

We also recommend pushing social media screening to the end of the recruitment process, when a conditional offer has been made, instead of using it at the application stage. If you uncover anything worrying during your social media search, contact the candidate and ask them to explain it. You’ll find out the wider context of the remark and how the candidate regards it now.

Avoiding Discrimination in Interviews

The final stages of the recruitment process are important to get right. Remember: rejected interviewees will be more likely to bring a discrimination case against you than candidates who left the process at any earlier stage.

It’s relatively easy to stay on track here, particularly if you opt for a structured interview where you ask candidates the same questions in the same order. You’ll also need a clear set of selection criteria, and to keep a record of candidate responses. You can use our interview record template to track and compare answers.

When drafting your questions, make sure to avoid these...

  • What country are you from?
  • Are you religious?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you plan to have children in the near future?
  • How old are you?
  • When do you plan to retire?
  • How often do you take time off sick?
  • Do you have any health problems?

We hope it should be obvious why you shouldn’t ask the above questions, but if not, it’s simple: these questions are related to protected characteristics, not the candidate’s ability (or inability) to do the job.

For example, you might want to ask about religion to find out if you have any candidates who won’t work on the Sabbath. Instead, ask candidates if they’re available to work on all the days specified in the job advert. There’s no need to bring religion (or childcare) into it.

The Final Decision

If you’ve followed these guidelines, you should have a near-complete understanding of all remaining candidates’ suitability for the role. You should able to directly compare their skills and experience so you can make a hiring decision backed with evidence.

And if you do get taken to an employment tribunal, presenting paperwork from every stage in the recruitment process will certainly help you make your case.

Data Protection Considerations

You collect plenty of personal data (contained in CVs and application forms) throughout the recruitment process, which means that you need to follow data protection regulations, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The GDPR is intimidating — but in terms of recruitment, there are only a couple of major pitfalls you need to avoid.

First of all, ensure that you’re transparent about data collection. Make sure that your business (or the recruitment agency you use) is clearly identified in the job advert, and state on your advert or application form that you’ll use data for recruitment purposes only.

It’s OK to collect personal data for “specified, explicit and legitimate purposes” — in this case to review and process candidates' applications. However, you can’t then use the data for another purpose (such as marketing) or keep the data once it’s no longer required for recruitment.

You also need a candidate's consent if you want to process sensitive personal data.

And if you use any kind of software during the recruitment process (such as applicant tracking software), it’s your responsibility to check that the providers are compliant with GDPR rules.

Don’t forget that candidates now have increased personal data rights. For example, you need to be able to provide candidates with a copy of all their personal data that you hold, and resolve any inaccuracies.

Finally, if you use software to automatically screen candidates’ CVs or application forms, you may fall foul of the GDPR. You can’t discard applications “based solely on automated processing”, as many larger employers have been guilty of in the past. At the very least, a human must review flagged applications before they are rejected.

Key points

  • Be aware of unconscious bias and how it affects decisions
  • Be careful with language you use in your job advert and at interviews
  • Don’t collect any more personal data than you need to, and delete it as soon as you’ve finished using it

Final Thoughts

final thoughts

You’ve made it to the end of the hiring process.

All being well, you’ve chosen a new employee who’ll soon become a valuable part of the team for months and years to come.

What Happens Next

Recruitment is only the first step towards gaining a model employee.

Onboarding, training, and development are all required for your new employee to reach their full potential. There’s also staff engagement, motivation, and wellbeing to consider.

As a manager, there’s always more you can do to improve your workplace — but there’s no doubt that finding the right people to work for you makes everything else far easier!

Through this guide, we hope we’ve shown you how to carry out a high quality recruitment process on a small budget.

Here are five key takeaways that every business can learn from:

1

Tailor your approach based on results. From where you advertise and how you advertise, to how you screen candidates and phrase the offer letters, every part of the recruitment process should reflect what’s been most effective at meeting your goals. What works for one business won’t necessarily work for another.

2

Always be consistent within the process. Once your recruitment efforts are underway, every candidate entering the process should be treated equally. Always ask the same questions at the interview, don’t let certain candidates skip stages in the process, and make decisions based on evidence and numbers, not hunches.

3

Don’t expect perfection. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a candidate that meets all the role’s criteria — be prepared to compromise, particularly if you need to hire quickly.

4

Draft a timeline, and make sure everyone understands what comes next. Communicate timelines with your current staff and the candidates so that there’s never any uncertainty about next steps.

5

Remember that candidates will use the recruitment process to judge your business. Every applicant (even those that don’t make it far) will change their view of your company based on their experience of your recruitment process, so make sure it's positive!

We’ll leave you with one last thought. It’s easy to cut corners with recruitment; to opt for the first half-qualified candidate that comes your way, or to make do with the other manager’s son instead of looking further afield.

These shortcuts will get boots on the ground quickly. They’ll fill the gaps in your rotas and reduce your recruitment admin.

If you choose to go for this approach, that’s fine — but you have to be aware of the risks.

The new employee might be unable to carry out basic duties, or misunderstood the scope of the role.

They might have no interest in your brand — and it shows in their work.

They might view your job only as something to pay the bills before a better offer comes along.

A full recruitment process, as we've detailed in this guide, should prevent any of these unfortunate situations from occuring, leaving you with a new employee who will excel in their role.

Thanks for reading.

About RotaCloud

RotaCloud is online rota planning software for SMEs, designed to make managing and communicating staff schedules a breeze. Ditch the clunky spreadsheet-based rota for easy-to-use specialist software to manage shift swaps, leave requests, and employee availability all in one place.

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