How to find and keep talented employees in a tight labor market

When the economy crashes, a blindfolded rhinoceros could find good people to fill open jobs. When labor markets tighten, great people are in short supply again. It is a cycle as predictable as the tides. Finding, developing and keeping great people is not complex. It is hard, expensive and time consuming. It means you know what the role requires, what your culture rewards and what your tolerance is for variations.

Tight labor markets mean it is time to think differently. Our organization teaches best and next practices to HR professionals and managers. Here are some tips for small and mid-size employers.

People are human. Every employee eventually reveals their humanity. The key to great hiring is learning what makes this applicant human before you make the hire. Internal hires, promotions, employee referrals, social networks and live networking give you free previews. References will lie, interviews are usually terrible predictors and assessment tools go only so far. Maximize your funnel of applicants that you know something about. Fill that funnel in advance of a need.

Be specific and demanding. Spend as much time screening out as you do screening in. How will you find the best fit if you cave on your criteria early? Look for legitimate job-related reasons to eliminate applicants: not typos on resumes, but a true lack of skills, experience, desire, capacity and fit. You may have time to purposefully modify your requirements later. For now, stick to your guns.

Interview for successful experience. If the role requires experience or judgment, spend interview time on these things. This is not the time to explain your company culture or role requirements. This is the time to test for them. If an applicant cannot describe their solid sales process, it is unlikely they will be an immediate contributor on your sales team. Resist the temptation to overlook serious gaps with the hope that energy and effort will prevail.

Get it. Successful, growing businesses are unique. Their best employees “get it,” embracing that uniqueness. Short of a hostile or illegal environment, each employer still has the right to select people who “get” their uniqueness and their customers. A tech start up has a very different “it” than a drywall contractor. Know the “it” and hire people who get “it.”

Developing people. Your best people want development, on the job experiences, rotations and new assignments. The best employees deserve mentoring and coaching. Training is a good way to introduce new skills. The point is, development is an important retention tool. Good people leave workplaces that offer no growth.

Keep the best. Great people quit for many reasons, both preventable and unavoidable. Managers are surprised to learn these reasons: Unrealistic pre-hire expectations; people will exchange some pay for some flexibility, but it must be real flexibility; and employees who feel ignored by their manager may look elsewhere.

Stop allowing the economy to guide your commitment to talent acquisition and retention. Grab the reins!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit