Sensitivity to the personal nature of small business relationships

One of the things I noticed fairly quickly after starting work as an HR consultant for small businesses was how personal things are in a small business. When meeting with a potential client to find out about their business, the discussion is often a very personal one; about their own personal journey, especially if they are the business owner. In those cases the business is their baby, something they’ve often started from scratch, perhaps in a bedroom at home, worked hard on, and grown from a tiny start into something successful. They’ve sweated buckets over it and made sacrifices for it.

So how does this impact the realities of advising them on HR issues? It means that they sometimes take things very personally when there are issues with employees. They can have very high expectations of employees in their business (sometimes overly-high), and I have seen them feeling much more personally affronted by grievances raised or similar problems arising with employees than a manager in a bigger business would be.

Even where the client isn’t the business owner, the relationships within small organisations are often closer and that much more personal than in a bigger business. People have often worked in very close proximity for quite a while, socialising together, knowing each other’s families and private lives with work being a much more significant part of life than it might otherwise be. This has its advantages of course, but it also has a negative or potentially negative impact on all sorts of things. It means managers can feel reluctant to raise concerns about performance, conduct or absence, and it means many employees resist raising a grievance until they feel absolutely no choice but to do so, both of which means that issues can get more serious before being addressed than they might elsewhere.

Close personal relationships (and working environment) also mean that any employee issue is likely to affect the whole team. Everyone will know about it, will often feel involved, and the stress of any of the myriad challenging situations HR professionals deal with day in day out will be amplified by this and will be felt by the whole team not just by the employee directly affected.

None of the above observations are scientific or based in any kind of formal research. They are not necessarily always the case, obviously. But these observations are based on my own experiences, and they are important and consistent enough for me to emphasise to our consultants that personal relationships are absolutely key both in terms of how we conduct ourselves with clients and how we market our business.

Small business owners and managers in SMEs need and prefer HR consultants who understand the personal nature of relationships and decision-making in many small businesses and can tailor both their advice and how they deliver their advice accordingly. So that’s exactly what we do.

That’s why we emphasise that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and why I spend time training new consultants in tailoring both their advice and their approach to each client. It’s why we ensure our clients deal with one consultant not a helpline of people who don’t know them.

It’s also why our clients stick with us for years and give us great testimonials and it’s why the vast majority of our new business comes from recommendations.

If you want to work with small businesses, it’s vital to understand and be sensitive to the nature of the relationships within them and to the personal importance of the business and its people to the business owner. It will make giving advice, getting that advice followed and achieving the results your client wants much easier and will be the start of building long-term productive relationships and seeing clients’ businesses grow and develop with your advice and support.

If you’d like to feel you are truly making a difference to the people you advise and having an impact on their business, do get in touch.