You’re not from round these parts – SME & unconscious bias

Putting as many people in a car as possible appears to be a core competence for HR in SMEs

Putting as many people in a car as possible appears to be a core competence for HR in SMEs

Like everyone else I’m pleased to see that the backbone of the country’s recovery – the SME market – is reporting an increase in hiring and confidence seems to be on the up. Small is beautiful seems to be all the rage in HR circles. Hey you get to work in your converse boots, everything seems so damn positive and there’s a slide in the office. What’s not to like ? 🙂

Over in the big, complex beasts of yesterday’s HR world it’s a different picture. Late adopters to change have been forced into efficiency action on the back of declining revenues by grabbing the 1995 Ulrich book of HR solutions and adopting it like the white label solution it never was. Hey presto, big concierge organisations become smaller, leaner and cheaper in what remains the biggest trick since Copperfield made a plane disappear on TV. And in the midst of re-engineering the HR function lies a bigger challenge to provide leadership in reimagining the 21st century organisation out of a 20th century legacy construct whilst keeping the show on the road. Not for the faint hearted but some honourable attempts are underway led by some talented HR people.

Both organizational problems are rich in opportunity, learning and fulfillment for the HR function. They require somewhat different solutions but sadly in our rush for driving simplistic answers to difficult problems I’m increasingly worried by the stench of unconscious bias emerging in the SME world that does nothing for getting this right. The unconscious bias issue has been around forever (thankfully Financial Services is growing out of this trait but was a prime example that banking HR was unique back in its cock sure days) but it’s sad, although not unusual, to see it raise its ugly head again.

Less overt than its predecessor, in the eyes of those sourcing talent for the SME growth agenda, bias against those not from that organisational type who’ve worked in big organisations are characterised as being incapable of surviving without departmental support or network, unable to act at speed, slow and unresponsive, unable to get involved with contrived fun or just be different from those already in post. All frankly poppycock at an individual level but a reality of what is going currently in too many of our high growth SME organisations acting myopically and colluded in by their internal and external recruitment partners. It’s a practice that should be filed away with the nonsense that millenials are workshy and disloyal. Baseless, lazy but evident if you scratch the surface. And like any lie, repeated enough it reaches a reality that seals into the consciousness of everyone doing it until it’s a norm.

Let’s debunk this myth – there is no research data to underpin this nonsense. Damn good people exist in both organisational types as do the under performers, the mediocre and the lazy. The common determinant for success is providing skilled people with the right environment to flourish and to have a supportive environment. Then great things can happen. 

This isn’t rocket science. We are programmed to gravitate to people who are like us but it is as highly damaging to an organisation growth agenda than choosing a wrong new product or market. The immaturity of the new SME market needs challenged for the sake of their own survival. 

So when organisations and their associated Recruitment agents (inside and out) go down the route of sourcing from nothing more than a lazy company name search, they miss at its heart a complex and diverse business agenda calling out for them to work a lot harder in the recruitment process. They are by their nature diluting the potential success of the enterprise at the very time it needs diversity. Through experience, this stage of a burgeoning small organisation is less about being the same as everyone else but having a broad set of skills to tackle the following complex organisational issues :

  1. Supporting the founder in moving from the passionate patriarch / matriarch to CEO choices without interrupting the flow of the enterprise. Focusing on the build out of a leadership team / model that is complementary, diverse and aligned to the values / success of the entity. Keeping this front of mind as the start up reaches new levels of organisational maturity at a rapid rate. 
  1. How to scale the organization quickly to meet the pace of growth, keeping the enterprise true to the values of the organization at a workforce level. Heavy emphasis on a ruthless, well-oiled recruitment machine that avoids the scenario painted above to go down the bias route.
  1. Adaptive people strategies and interventions that are unique to the organization and not lifted off the shelf from elsewhere (I spoke once with a CFO at a Tech startup who wanted to maintain continued control of people through a stack ranking performance management system). Strike a balance between legal compliance to understanding how policies define how it feels to work here – the culture.

Depeche Mode once sang “People are People” and the fact remains that there is no such thing as an SME super gene out there beyond the entrepreneur that kicked off the venture in the first instance. Everything else is a variable and needs hard work to seek out the right ingredients. Getting the right talent in is a fundamentally important part of the growth agenda and too many organisations are taking an amateurish approach to the problem at this stage, limiting talent pools as a result of this bias and failing to bring a talent centric approach to the growth agenda as a direct consequence to the impact scaling up has on the culture and success of the business.

The fact that so many of our HR supply chains are broken in relation to the big corporate market is a growing acceptance in our profession. Not enough light is being shone on the early breaks in the same supply chain in the burgeoning SME market. Racing to get as many people into a mini cooper on a friday afternoon can act as much as an illusory echo chamber as those less flamboyant interventions in our mature organisations.

Are you spotting the dangers in your organisation before it becomes a problem ? Is a bums on seats safe recruitment strategy of hiring likeminded sophisticated enough to meet the growth aspirations ? Perhaps it’s time to have a closer look at the way rapid hiring is potentially diluting the effectiveness of the organisation.

Until next time. Time to take the SME talent agenda seriously.


One thought on “You’re not from round these parts – SME & unconscious bias

  1. This bias – and I’m not sure it’s unconscious in many cases – is endemic throughout all sectors. Private sector firms won’t hire people from the public sector, large corporates won’t hire unless you have experience in the same type of business environment (I was once not shortlisted for a job which I met all the criteria for because “you’ve never worked for a publicly quoted company”); health and social care organisations only want people who’ve worked in that sector, IT people want others with IT experience. I don’t think it’s exclusive to the SME sector, and you could argue it’s learned behaviour – some entrepreneurs will have come from large organisations and simply adopt the same approach in their own companies, while others may have had similar experiences to mine and consequently think it’s the “right way” to recruit

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