So far in this series on HR
for small business, we’ve been going through all of the important aspects
of human resources and managing employees, from hiring and retaining the best
talent through to building an inclusive company culture.
The goal has been to break the topic of
small business HR down into simple steps that are easy to follow. But as we all
know, real life is not always as simple or straightforward as theory. Things go
wrong. Sometimes, things go badly wrong.
So in this tutorial, we’re going to look at
some of the worst HR issues that a small business may have to deal with. It’s a
little early, but think of it as the Halloween edition of the series. Don’t
worry, though—it’s not all horror. We’ll also be looking at how you can solve
these issues and providing links to extra resources that can help you give Nightmare on Small Business Street a
1. Discrimination and Harassment
OK, let’s jump right in at the deep end. One
of your employees makes a complaint of sexual harassment against their manager.
Or you get accused of discrimination on the basis of race, gender, disability
status, or some other category.
If you’re thinking this will never happen
to you, think again. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission received 91,503 charges
of workplace discrimination in 2016. And just a few months ago, ride-sharing startup Uber held an
investigation into 215 harassment claims that resulted in 20
employees being fired.
Two things are interesting and instructive
about the Uber example. The first is that Susan Fowler, the first Uber employee
to go public with her accusations, said in a blog
post that her complaints were repeatedly ignored or minimized by HR. The
second is that the firm belatedly did the right thing by hiring external
lawyers to do a thorough, impartial investigation. But by then, a lot of damage
had already been done.
So if you want to avoid being the next
Uber, don’t ignore or try to minimize any complaints you receive. Make it clear
that you take them seriously and will investigate them.
It’s true that the
average small firm can’t afford to hire a former U.S. Attorney General as Uber
did, but do what you can, within your budget, to arrange an impartial
investigation by neutral parties—outside the firm if possible. If the claims
are substantiated, take decisive action to resolve them.
An ounce of prevention, of course, is worth
a pound of cure. For tips on fostering an inclusive and diverse workplace
culture in which such incidents are less likely to occur, see our diversity
series, particularly this tutorial:
2. Employee Conflict
Not all problems between employees involve
accusations of harassment. Sometimes, people just don’t get along, or they have
a profound disagreement over how to do something.
Those issues can be serious too, though,
and not just for the employees involved. If you don’t take swift action to
resolve the conflict, it can fester and spread to other coworkers, creating a
toxic working environment for everyone.
In a large company, the HR department will
be the mediator for conflicts like this, but in a small business, that responsibility
will generally fall on the owner. Mediation is a process with some specific
steps you can take to achieve a successful outcome that everybody accepts. For
more information, see the last section of our tutorial on employee
3. Hiring Mistakes
In theory, hiring a new employee should be
a well-thought-out process, starting with careful definition of the attributes
required for the role, progressing through other stages like compensation
research, advertising and interviewing, and ending with the successful hiring
of the perfect fit.
The reality, though, is often different.
Firms often rush to fill a hole as quickly as possible, and they settle for a
candidate who may have the right qualifications on paper, but doesn’t fit the
To find out how to do things right, see our
tutorial from earlier in the series. And if you’ve already hired the wrong
person and need to get rid of them, see the last section of the previous
tutorial to make sure you’re following the right termination process.
4. Anti-Diversity Backlash
If you’ve been following the news at all
this year, you’ve probably seen some mention of the “Google
memo”. It’s a now-famous example of a common problem: resistance to
diversity efforts from those who either don’t see the value of them or object
to the way they’re being implemented.
How you deal with the issue will depend on
many factors, including the content of the criticism and the personalities of
the people involved. But the key is to communicate clearly with everyone
involved, making it clear that you encourage debate about the best way to achieve
diversity, but that the debate must be respectful of other groups and not reinforce
Again, you can read the series on improving
diversity in your business for more on this.
5. Interview No-Nos
There’s an art to conducting an effective
job interview, and you want to be sure you’re using the time most effectively
to gauge the candidate’s suitability.
But, more importantly, there are certain
questions that are actually illegal to ask and can lead to lawsuits. This is
because of equal opportunity legislation that tries to protect job applicants
from discrimination by limiting what information employers can ask them to
disclose. To find out what those questions are, and to get tips on some better
questions to ask instead, see the following tutorial:
6. Inadequate Documentation
Small businesses often do things more
informally than their larger counterparts, and sometimes this can be a positive
thing. But it also has its downsides.
If you don’t properly document things like
company policies and employee benefits, you’ll face constant questions from
confused employees, and you may open yourself up to legal problems in the
future if employees claim they weren’t made aware of important company
So make sure you document everything in a
clear, easy-to-read employee handbook. For details on how to do this, and some
free templates and examples to get you started, read this article:
7. Promoting the Wrong People
Just because someone is good at their
current job, it doesn’t mean they’ll be good at management. We’ve all come
across people who were promoted beyond their capabilities. The result is
twofold: the loss of an employee who was skilled at a lower-level job, and the
creation of an ineffective manager.
So instead of using promotion as a reward,
conduct a serious assessment of your employees’ skills to see if they are truly
management material or not. You can find more advice on the skills to look for
in this Harvard
Business Review article.
You can also come up with other ways of
rewarding employees, so that they stay happy and motivated in the role that’s
right for them.
8. Skipping the Performance Review Process
In a small business, you probably give
feedback and have contact with employees regularly, so it may seem unnecessary
to sit down and go through a formal review process with them. After all, they
already know what you think of their work, right?
Wrong. Giving ad hoc feedback is great, but
it’s also important to schedule time on a regular basis for more structured discussion
and assessment of the employee’s performance.
These quarterly or annual reviews
are a great time to step back and look at the bigger picture, deciding
whether the employee’s role within the company is changing, and setting clear
goals and objectives. They also give you data with which to set your employees’ pay
and benefits packages and make sure they’re still competitive.
And if anybody is not living up to
expectations, it’s better to start dealing with it and documenting it in this
formal process than to let the problems linger.
9. Falling Foul of the Law
You may not have a legal team, but you need
to understand and abide by employment laws.
These vary by country and region, so we
can’t cover them in detail here, but generally you’ll need to be aware of
things like workplace safety regulations, workers’ rights to things like
parental leave and union representation, and equal opportunity laws.
For more on this, read this tutorial from
our small business HR series:
10. Letting New Employees Down
Hiring the right people is great, but if
you don’t have a proper orientation or onboarding plan for your new employees,
they won’t be able to live up to their potential.
And, even worse, they may just quit. One survey found that 40% of
employees leave a job within the first year if they receive poor job
So give your new starters the support they
need. Create a proper, comprehensive plan for onboarding new employees, and
constantly examine it and refine it so that it improves with time. You can find
lots more detail in our tutorial on creating training
plans for small business employees.
11. Bad Communication
This is one area where small businesses
have an advantage. Imagine how hard it is for big corporations to keep everyone
on the same page, when they have thousands of employees spread across different
offices in different parts of the world. Compared to that, small businesses
have it easy.
But communication can still be a problem,
especially as you start to grow and take on new employees. The informal methods
that worked when it was just you and two other people may break down as the
Bad communication has real business
consequences. In a survey
by training company Fierce Inc., 86% of respondents blamed lack of
collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures.
So get some tips on communicating the right
12. Firing Without Due Process
In the world of reality TV, it might be OK
just to point a finger at someone and say, “You’re fired.” But in the real
world, that approach can get you in a whole lot of trouble.
In many countries, employment legislation
protects workers from unfair dismissal, and they can sue you if they feel they
were treated unfairly. So it’s important to follow a clear, fair process if
someone is not performing adequately in their job.
That means giving several warnings over
time, giving the employee a chance to improve, and documenting the process
carefully from beginning to end. For more details, see the last section of our previous
tutorial in the series.
13. Social Media Disasters
You’re just a small company, and you trust
your staff members not to do anything stupid online. You don’t need a social
media policy, right?
Actually, social media problems are
surprisingly common. More than 70% of employers have disciplined employees for
on-the-job misuse of social media, according
to one survey. Among other things, employees were using social media to:
- divulge confidential information
- misrepresent the views of the business
- disparage the business
- harass co-workers
So it makes sense to put a clear policy in
place, so that people know what they can and can’t do. Here’s a sample
social media policy that you can adapt to your own requirements.
14. Chaotic Record-Keeping
As an employer, you have a responsibility
to keep certain records about your employees, such as contracts, pay details,
performance reviews, and so on. You also have to make sure you file all the
appropriate tax forms, make the right deductions, and run payroll accurately.
None of this is exciting stuff, but it’s
very important. You can read more about doing it right in these tutorials:
Small BusinessWhat Are the Important HR Requirements for Small Business?
PaymentsHow to Run Payroll (Systematize Your Process)
15. Insufficient Training
A small budget doesn’t mean you can’t train
people properly. With a little creativity and some use of free or low-cost
resources, you can provide your employees with all the help they need to get
better at their jobs. Some of the benefits are:
- greater productivity
- happier staff
- lower turnover
- more uniformity
- staying up to date with the latest trends
To find out how to put together a
comprehensive training plan on a small-company budget, read this tutorial:
16. Inadequate Safety Provision
Your primary responsibility as an employer
is to provide a safe place for people to work. It’s a serious matter: In the U.S. in 2015, 4,836 employees died from
injuries sustained in the workplace.
Your business may be
based in an office and not seem very dangerous, but you still need to assess
the risks and put controls in place to minimize the dangers to which employees
are exposed. The first section of this tutorial
on HR requirements for small business gives more information on how to do
17. Uncompetitive Pay
When was the last time you did some
If the answer is “Never” or “What’s that?”,
don’t worry. It can be difficult to know how much is the right amount to offer
a new employee, and how much of a raise you should give each year.
And benefits are also part of the equation.
If you don’t offer good enough pay and benefits packages, you’ll struggle to
hire and retain the best employees—but on the other hand, if you offer stellar pay
and benefits, it can really help you punch above your weight.
Find out how to do the right research and
stay competitive in this tutorial:
18. Payroll and Benefits Snafus
Offering useful employee benefits is great,
but it also adds complexity to your business. From losing track of people’s
vacation days to failing to contribute the right amount to a retirement
account, there’s a lot that can go wrong with employee benefits.
And then there’s payroll, which is easier
to mess up than you might think. If you pay people late, or pay the wrong
amount, or fail to withhold the right amount of tax and national insurance
contributions, you’ll make your employees very unhappy, and you may even end up
in legal trouble.
19. Unclear Job Descriptions
We touched on this back in “Hiring
Mistakes” earlier on, but it’s a slightly different issue. Unclear job
descriptions extend beyond the hiring process and can affect your employees’
ability to do their jobs properly.
Startups and small businesses are often
more fluid than larger companies, with everyone pitching in to do all sorts of
different tasks. That can be good, but it can also lead to confusion and
inefficiency. If responsibilities are not clear, people will end up gravitating
to the more interesting and fun tasks, while neglecting the boring but
important ones. It’s also hard to judge someone’s performance if it’s not clear
what they’re supposed to be doing.
So be sure to write proper job descriptions
for every staff member, both new and existing. They don’t have to be exhaustive
or limiting, but they should cover the basic responsibilities of each employee.
You can still encourage people to get involved in new things as well—the job
descriptions can always be updated!
20. Losing Your Best People
Last on the list is a situation no small
business owner wants to come across, but most will at some stage—your key
employee wants to quit.
People change jobs frequently these days,
so sometimes the situation is unavoidable. But there are things you can do to
improve your retention of key employees and reduce turnover. Many of the things
we’ve talked about in this
series will help, such as providing good training, better communication,
and competitive pay and benefits. Also use your performance reviews with
employees to make sure you’re giving them enough motivation and new challenges
to keep them happy.
If you’ve done all you can, and a key
employee still wants to leave, at least you can handle it in the best way
possible. To find out how to do that, read our tutorial on what to do when a key employee wants to quit.
As you’ve seen, a lot of things can go
wrong for small businesses! We’ve looked at some pretty serious HR issues you
may end up facing, from conflicts and harassment through to uncompetitive pay
and inadequate safety provision.
But you’ve also seen that there are
solutions for all of these issues. Because this article has covered a lot of
ground, we haven’t looked at any individual issue in great depth, but I hope
that this article has given you some food for thought, and that you enjoy diving
into the other linked resources for more information.
Small Business HR Guide isn’t finished yet! In the next installment, we’ll
look at some of the best HR software solutions you can use in your business.