How big is big enough?

You know the scenario all too well. You and one or two partners spot a niche in the market and decide to start a business.

A year down the line the business has exceeded even your expectations and suddenly you find yourself employing 50 people. But you still don’t have any HR support in the business. Everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to and they seem happy, so that’s fine, right? 

Well, it is until it isn’t. When you’re dealing with people, it’s almost impossible to anticipate or control what will happen. Everyone has their personal stuff that may or may not affect their work; conflicts erupt in the office; people simply don’t pitch up for work or they arrive intoxicated; theft occurs – these are just a handful of examples of issues that keep you from focusing on your core business.

So when is the right time to get HR support? I don’t believe there is a magic number in terms of size, but here are five things to consider when making this decision:

1. Am I being distracted from what I do best?

You started your business because you have a specific skill or service to offer. If you’re spending less time doing what you should be doing (what you love doing), and focusing on people stuff, this should be your first flag that you need HR support. These types of issues are not just emotionally draining but can make you lose focus on what’s really important i.e. your core business.

2. What’s keeping me awake at night?

The things that should keep you awake at night in terms of your business are, again, to do with your core business – your next big innovation, expansion – the exciting stuff. But if you’re stressing over missed deadlines because you don’t have the right (or enough) people in place, or complaints due to poor performance, or threats of CCMA referrals then you definitely need to consider HR support.

3. Is my business at risk?

When it comes to people, the risks are many – loss of business due to non-performance; reputational damage due to an employee’s behaviour; financial loss because you didn’t follow correct procedures when firing someone and now you’re having to pay them two years’ salary; you’ve hired foreign nationals but haven’t adhered to the DHA requirements and now face jail time (yes, you). All of these things can be avoided if you simply have the correct HR support, and at the right level.

4. Do my people seem happy?

A frivolous question, perhaps, but an important one. It’s no secret that people are more productive when they’re happy. Employee satisfaction is not an exact science, and can be influenced by many factors – some of which you can’t control (let’s face it, some people just have a generally negative disposition). But there are certain elements you can control, like work environment, remuneration and benefits, job clarity and, dare we mention it, you’re management style … *crickets*. In these circumstances it may be worth bringing in HR support to assist with analysing the current situation from an objective point of view to assist you in making the necessary changes. Often, the changes don’t have to be massive to create an environment conducive to productivity and, well, happiness.

5. Do I employ or outsource?

Okay, so now you’ve established that you definitely could do with some HR support, but can you afford it? And what is the correct HR support? Often, if you’re still a growing business, it may not be practical to permanently employ someone with the correct level of experience. A common mistake is hiring a junior HR officer who is capable of managing the day-to-day administration, but lacks the experience and ability to address difficult issues or to implement any real change. It may be worth considering engaging an HR Consultant, either on a retainer basis, or to work on specific projects at an hourly rate. This would certainly be more cost effective, and ensure that you are getting the best level of support for your business.

For some reason HR often gets pushed to the back-burner because the operational stuff is more pressing. But it’s the operational stuff that suffers when your people are not dealt with effectively. The bottom line is don’t leave it until it’s too late.

Celeste Dickinson is an independent HR Consultant and CEO of ‘What You Are’ Consulting.

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