When Culture Matters More than Compensation

Being small can be an advantage in the battle to secure top talent. Out-hire larger firms by emphasizing what your company stands for

Written by Romina Maurino

Just because you can’t promise new recruits corporate retreats or handsome year-end bonuses the way big companies do doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. Startup companies can give the kind of hands-on learning and feeling of ownership that many employees crave.

“Personal growth, professional development is really on the forefront of what employees are looking for,” says Lisa Delorme, co-founder and chief executive of Rent frock Repeat, a Toronto-based startup with nine employees that is currently expanding into Ottawa. “They know they need a lot of tools in their tool kit to keep going. It’s not just salary, benefits and vacation anymore.”

Smart startups are leveraging their unique culture and open, creative work environments to compete with established firms for the best talent, and often succeeding. That’s because “people are starting to see that maybe it’s not so much about work-life balance but it’s about finding work that you really enjoy and not looking at those eight or 10 hours a day as something completely separate from who they are,” Delorme says.

Emphasize close quarters

Employees looking to learn and develop through their jobs can get a variety of hands-on experience at a startup that isn’t possible with a bigger company. They also get the chance to learn how a business runs from the person who built it.

“It’s not uncommon to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the president€¦whereas if you’re in a large corporation, you may work there 20 years and never meet him or her,” says Jeremy Laurin, president and CEO of ventureLAB, a non-profit regional innovation centre that works with entrepreneurs in York Region. “People value that, particularly young professionals who are just starting out in their career.”

Delorme’s employees will often pick training opportunities over any other type of reward. She says the interest in personal growth is something candidates bring up during job interviews. “We get a lot of questions about where do we plan on being, what’s the company mission, what do we do as far as training for new employees.”

Show them they matter

Small companies also give employees a sense of ownership over their work and a sense of belonging, two things many workers-especially the younger generations now entering the labour force-really value. “They want to work in an open-minded environment, where the leadership is open to feedback and to new ideas,” says Brad Poulos, a professor of entrepreneurship at Ryerson University. “The best companies out there codify that as part of their culture.”

Along with that freedom also comes a need to measure their performance, and the small firms with the happiest employees are often the ones that give their staff not only the autonomy to make choices, but also the performance reviews they need to be held accountable for their work.

Offer a culture they can’t resist

Most startups have a unique culture, and highlighting that brand right from the time you post the position can also help small businesses stand out. For Rent frock Repeat, which makes designer dresses available to rent for a fraction of the retail price, it comes through in three lines inserted in its detailed job descriptions: “Must love dogs, anything to do with chocolate and spontaneous dance parties.”

“They’re three lines, but they represent who we are internally,” says Delorme. “Those little things can say a lot, and from the very beginning, help in attracting people.”

A strong focus on a vibrant work environment, work-life balance and an appreciation of each employee’s value will go a long way toward creating the type of culture that will draw employees in, Laurin adds. Even more importantly, it will keep them interested. “That’s critical because attrition is often the killer of an early-stage company.”


How do you beat your big competitors to the best candidates? Share your strategies and tactics using the comments section below.

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