5 Key Points for Staff Retention – SMEs

07 May 2024 | Hannah Brewer

With waves of redundancies and budget cuts happening across Australia, we are currently in what we call a ‘candidate rich’ market.

If your business is turning a profit and you’re ready to make a valuable hire, now is the time to do it! The abundance of quality candidates won’t last forever (trust me!), the market will always turn like the tide.

So, fast forward and you’ve made a successful hire (congrats!). What are the key steps to retaining this talent?

In this article, which is aimed at business leaders and owners of SMEs, I delve into my years of experience as an operations and support staff recruiter and speak to the various hurdles that I have encountered with both candidates and clients.

Retention is not rocket science, do the small things well and the retention rate will follow.

1. Onboarding
2. Transparent feedback & expectations
3. Tailored KPIs, promotions and development plans
4. Benchmark salaries and be aware of your competitors
5. Culture & showing up as a leader

1 - Onboarding

Start as you mean to go on.

The first week is critical for the long-term engagement of your new employee. It’s an insight into the calibre of the organisation you are running. Showcase the business’s values, and ask yourself if they match what you stated in the interview?

We speak to candidates frequently who turn up on day one and their onboarding is nothing short of underwhelming. No tech set up, so they’re sat next to someone to ‘shadow’ for the day, and end up not doing a whole lot.

There is no doubt that the first week is tough as the employee gets to grips with new information, systems, and ways of working. However, they need to complete something that gives them a win and maintains engagement. Maybe you could include them in a few team meetings (even if it’s not their key area of work), ask for their input on a company initiative, take them out to visit a client, anything that will embed them in what you do ASAP.

Always complete onboarding face to face as it allows for open conversation and the ability for the new hire to really see what goes on behind the scenes. One day of training won’t cut it, therefore, if you plan on sending the candidate home on day two with a laptop it most likely won’t support their overall engagement levels. Keep up the momentum with learning / productivity.

During the second lockdown of the COVID pandemic, we saw a vast increase in the volume of candidates leaving roles in under three months because of remote onboarding. Candidates were left feeling excluded from the team, disappointed with the culture (it’s not made at home), and were overall less accountable for their work.

2 - Transparent feedback & expectations on performance

Be clear, be fair, be realistic.

How often do you give both informal and formal feedback as a manager? There is no magic formula, but yearly reviews just aren’t good enough.

Align expectations from the very beginning. As a leader, you need to be clear and lean into difficult conversations when required.

I’ve worked with a whole spectrum of clients over my recruitment career and the ones who notice behaviours / work styles that need some fine-tuning and DON’T say anything, are the ones who are left with performance issues to manage.

The majority of the time, the candidate isn’t aware that they’re doing something wrong, OR will continue to display the same behaviour because they think they can get away with it. This is detrimental to the productivity of your business.

I’ve had various phone calls / meetings that go something like this…

“Hannah I need to hire a new person because my current employee isn’t performing in the way in which I thought, they do things X way and my expectations are Y.”
“Ok, so how / when did you relay this feedback, and how have they taken it?”
“Well, I haven’t had that conversation, they just need to go.”


You have to take accountability if you don’t communicate. You may be the busiest executive in the world, however, if you don’t take the time to set expectations, build trust, and show support, you are partly responsible for these performance issues. There is always more than one side to a coin.

Providing constructive feedback will bolster your relationships, gain you respect as a leader and ensure better productivity.

There are two ways you can look at managing and enhancing performance:

Required performance – the expectations of the business

Inspired performance – the expectations as a collective group of people

As a leader, if you are inspiring performance in your workplace, dipping into the trenches when required and encouraging of collaborations (people respond well to group goals), you are less likely to be pushing performance issues up a hill.

Make feedback a priority and ask for it too.

3 - Tailored KPIs, promotions and development plans

What is the enticing reason for an employee to stay with you long-term?

It’s not just the ping pong table or drinks on a Friday – especially with the younger generations. We see candidates leave junior roles after only 6-12 months all echoing the same line “There was just no room for progression”.

Yes, your business may ‘just’ need a receptionist. But what are you able to offer that person to keep them motivated to perform and not just jump back into the job market when they feel stagnant? It’s costly, both from a time and monetary perspective, to re-recruit positions.

Again, this is something that should be touched on during an interview process however, you should also be exploring this with existing employees. You need to dig deep into their motivators, long-term goals and areas of interest. Feed them with tasks that interest them and give them the ability to form a project on their own (if they’re capable).

No matter the role, KPIs / goals can be put in place. They don’t need to be ‘scary’ or sales-related, but they should support the employee to move a step closer to their career goals. They are unique for every role, so if you need support forming these, we can help.

If you have an employee (who you see as a long-term value add) who is feeling disengaged in their current role, ask them to provide you with a job description that encapsulates what they’d ideally like to be doing. Could the business have a need for that role in the future? If so, create a meaningful development plan that the employee can actively work towards.

So often the promotion path is to a “managerial” role, or team assistant to executive assistant etc. Ensure that promotions are calibrated to the individual, not just a blanket step up for all. If you do see this person in a leadership position, what are you doing to support them with their people management skills?

Again, this comes back to the recruitment process. If you are searching for employees who will grow within your business, look for their levels of curiosity and resilience during the interview stage. Seek those who push themselves outside their comfort zones, without being asked. Put them through a mental toughness test or personality profiling. If you need help creating bespoke interview questions, ask the team at Sprint People.

4 - Benchmark salaries and be aware of your competitors

Are you giving what you are expecting in return?

Are you paying a ‘competitive’
salary? What are your competitors doing that you’re not?

Employees are the most expensive cost of running a business, we get it. We’re also the first to say that you don’t need to overpay to secure quality talent.

However, if you want to find that ‘unicorn’ junior who ‘hits the ground running’ with minimal training and has a strong commercial acumen, for $65-$70k (it may not happen), or a business manager for $100k who acts like a consultant (with 20+ years’ experience) to grow your sales (unlikely), you need to seek advice on market rates.
For example, in a market that is currently more in the employer’s favour, you will likely find top talent potentially under market rate. Just bear in mind that the tables will turn, and you need to be ready to remunerate fairly if you want to retain staff.

Some candidates are currently desperate for work and will take thousands of dollars less than what they were initially looking for, just so they can pay some bills. You might be thinking ‘wow I managed to snag a bargain’ but just know that those candidates will still be looking in the background and will be halfway out the door before they’ve even started.

It might be a case that you entice candidates with a performance bonus, or an increase in salary once they’ve past their probation.

Consult a recruiter – ask what is happening in the market, what your competitors are doing, what things are candidates leaning towards or asking for? Don’t leave yourself vulnerable to negotiating counter offers with current employees who add value.

5 - Culture & showing up as a leader

Your employees can’t be what they can’t see.

The number one reason why employees leave positions is due to poor leadership.
We all know that culture comes from the top and as a leader, you are the driving force and inspiration to your team. Whether you’re a seasoned leader or coming up the ranks as a manager, you have to understand the influence that you have.

Face time with your staff is hugely important. We know of business owners who openly stated that they dislike people management immensely and will do anything they can to actively avoid it (and staff have subsequently left because of it). You can hire professionals to take over the people leadership element of your business and become the softer extension of you, but fundamentally you still have to set the tone for the culture.

Culture is created by the group of employees that you hire into your business and can be destroyed by one rotten apple.

Taking it back to the interview process again, if you are not jumping up and down about someone and your gut is saying don’t hire, then DON’T. Take the time to find the right employee, a few extra weeks of an open role is far better for your current employees and culture, than panic hiring the wrong person.

The headlines have stated ‘by 2030, Generation Z will account for a third of the Australian workforce’.

With a generation who rightly believe that culture is king, what can you as a business do now to attract talent of the future and retain them for the years to come?
Hybrid working is still at the very top of the wish list for most in professional careers. Flexibility goes a long way, and should be earned and reciprocated by the employee. Roles that require an employee to be on-site 5 days per week are becoming increasingly unattractive.

However, for the positions that do require 5 days per week in the office, and juniors who have to be in the office to learn, what incentives do you have in place to motivate employees? For example, guaranteed time with senior staff members to aid development, a safe and inclusive office space, and the ability to have a few laughs at work?

The workplace is changing (read my blog on the Right to Disconnect coming into place this year) so future-proof your business by staying informed.

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