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Ways to Hire Top Talent When You Can’t Afford to Pay Top Dollar

January 6th 2022

When faced with a choice between hiring an inexperienced employee and an award-winning superstar, most organizations would prefer to hire the superstar. The hitch is that the superstar’s compensation expectations may exceed what a smaller company can afford.

It may be possible to rationalize bringing them on board and cutting budgets in other areas to afford their high pay rate. Some companies have done this in order to tap into the skills and network of top salespeople, for example. The expectation there is that the employee will more than cover their elevated salary with all the new business they bring in. And in many cases, that is the case. The new hire effectively self-funds their compensation package.

However, with non-sales roles, it may not be possible to tie the employee’s pay to immediate revenue increases. In fact, their job may not be impacting revenue directly at all, if they are in an administrative or research position, for example. 

So, what can you do to attract and retain such high performers when your bottom line can’t afford a big payday right now?

While the annual report, The 2021 Voice of the Blue-Collar Worker,” conducted by EmployBridge, did confirm that pay is the number one factor hourly workers consider when accepting a job—32% claimed it was their top priority—there are a number of other considerations that impact that decision, and may prove equally important in recruiting and retaining workers:

Job security

Twelve percent of workers surveyed indicated that job security was important to them. So how can you convey that the company and their position, in particular, will be around long-term? Can you offer a year-long renewable contract? Can you share financial results company-wide so that all employees can see how the company is doing and what they can do to continue to fuel its success?


Another 12% of respondents reported that their schedule was a big deciding factor. For some workers, that might mean that they want flexibility. During the pandemic, being able to work from home became essential for many employees with children who were being schooled remotely. Many want to continue to have that option. Can you provide it? Other workers may prefer certain shifts, whether that’s overnight or day. Can you offer any flexibility in choosing the timing of shifts?

Advancement opportunities

Some employees—6% in this study—indicated that opportunities to be promoted would impact their employment choice. So, can you design a clear career path or path to promotion for your employees? Your business may have ongoing advancement opportunities, but do your employees understand how to find out about them and be considered? Do you have any kind of mentoring program to help high potential employees get noticed?

Education and skill-building

Five percent of those surveyed reported that the opportunity to receive training, to add or enhance skills, was desirable in an employer. What kind of training can you offer? Can you provide each employee with an annual professional development budget to use for skill-building? Can you partner with a local community college to design a program or series of courses for your employees? Do you offer education reimbursement for employees who want to earn a degree? All of these offerings could tip the scales in your favor.

Other offerings that might also prove desirable could include:

Paid time off

What is your policy regarding vacation time or sick days? Are you liberal with days off? Adding personal days or extra vacation time to a new hire’s compensation package is the equivalent of giving them extra compensation, except that you didn’t need to write an additional check. Some companies even offer unlimited vacation, as long as the work gets done. 

Long-term incentives

Even if your business can’t afford to pay top dollar right now, how about identifying larger goals that could trigger a payout to employees. Sometimes referred to as “long-term incentive plans (LTIP),” these programs can be a way to retain skilled workers, with the promise of a big bonus when a milestone is reached. That milestone could be a sales target, a productivity goal, a corporate buyout, or something else. Make sure you’re prepared to write those checks, however, when the target is hit.

A voice in company decision-making

The more employees feel that they’re part of a company, or have a say in how it is run, the more likely they are to stay. So how about creating departmental advisory boards, to get employees involved in policy-setting? Or hold regular town hall meetings, where employees present recent successes, to raise the profile of your hard workers. Find ways to involve top performers in the company’s operations—it could be a useful way of identifying potential successors to current business leaders.

Social activities

Another big reason that employees stick around is that they like their boss and/or their coworkers. So, what can you do to foster bonding within your company? Even if you can’t afford a big off-site gathering in Europe, how about monthly fun events? Depending on where your company is based, you could have an evening of snow skiing or a day at a local amusement park. Or, even simpler, you could have a Friday night potluck dinner, or a chili or barbeque cook-off. Creating opportunities for employees to get to know each other as people, rather than colleagues, can pay off in terms of retention and loyalty.

If your goal is to attract top performers, brainstorm how to craft a compensation package that you can afford and that will give candidates what they value, even if it isn’t quite as much money as they had hoped for.

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