Three strategies to recruit reluctant workers

Re-sign staff who left during the ‘great resignation’

A historically low labor pool and the “great resignation” have taken a toll on Whatcom County’s small businesses. Here are three tools to help you meet your staffing needs in 2023:

  • Understand and respond to worker reluctance
  • Recruit and retain with non-monetary benefits
  • Find candidates with guerilla recruiting

Let’s examine each in more detail.

Understanding and responding to worker reluctance.

This means getting employees excited to return to work. A good place to start is understanding why workers lost interest in the status quo.

First, work-from-home setups during the pandemic lockdowns did not result in widespread lost productivity. This was despite workers generally having no training, limited resources, homeschooling responsibilities, health anxieties, and connectivity and relationship challenges. Right or wrong, many workers feel that the case for greater autonomy already has been made.

Second, the pandemic pause gave the workforce time to reassess priorities. This is not unique to Whatcom County or the United States. Business journals in China lament the workforce abandoning hustle culture and “lying flat.” In India, a press report found that 75% of workers are reluctant to return to pre-pandemic workplace models.

Polls of reluctant workers in the U.S. note three particularly objectionable aspects of returning to work that have the potential to impact your recruiting efforts:

  • Arbitrary attendance and the daily commute. After regaining personal time lost to a daily commute, few eagerly seek to return to the car 250 days a year. Add the savings of lower vehicle costs, fewer trips to day care, and fewer lattes and lunches out, and returning to the workplace five days a week seems like undeserved punishment. Most agree that workers need to spend time with peers and leadership to learn and gain experience. Today’s challenge for leadership is to create those opportunities with the burden of mandatory daily office attendance.
  • Obsolete technology and inflexible tech policies. Working from home during the pandemic meant getting the job done without tripping over antiquated tech and oppressive information technology. Most work was done in the cloud during the pandemic, and workers now expect modern resources and accommodating support.
  • Hierarchical leadership. Top-down leadership and policies are out, and collaboration and trust are mandatory. Working during lockdowns flattened organizations and distributed responsibility. Workers appreciated that and are drawn to firms that maintain an egalitarian structure.

Look at your firm from a candidate’s perspective. Are your opportunities truly enticing, or is your offer yesterday’s news?

Recruiting and retaining with non-monetary benefits.

Many firms already offer certain non-monetary benefits by virtue of a desirable work site, flexible personnel policies or other unique intangibles. Unfortunately, too many firms completely forget to promote these benefits when recruiting.

Rather than depending on happenstance to support your non-monetary benefit portfolio, take an intentional approach to this opportunity. It’s long been said that money is the third reason people work, after recognition and personal growth. After taking an inventory of what you have, take some time to learn where you could gain affordable goodwill.

Here are four tactics to get your own non-monetary benefit program going:

  • Make it inclusive and ask your employees what they prefer (and what they don’t).
  • Hang posters up, send emails, start a chat thread, etc. to share what the employee incentives are and what the program entails.
  • Lead by example with management.
  • Personalize your employee incentives.

Employers are already trying out-of-the-box ideas like these:

  • Company-provided benefits such as subscriptions to publications, streaming services, educational products and other digital content
  • Commuting, parking, internet and cellphone service stipends
  • Ride sharing and package and meal delivery service credits
  • Membership dues for fitness programs, service clubs or public facilities
  • Access to leadership through dedicated meetings, meals or off-site activities
  • Grassroots opportunities to recognize and reward employees
  • On-site, off-task activities to soften silos

After you get some ideas of your own, review them with your tax preparer. Some of these benefit ideas can have additional tax benefits for employers.

Guerilla recruiting — or, look where candidates are, not where they aren’t.

Now that you are thinking like candidates and can envision ways to make your workplace more attractive, it’s time to reach out. Few good candidates are actively looking for work these days, so traditional channels could be reaching no one. There are plenty of potential team members out there who are not in love with their current job, but they’re not actively looking.

Drop the job boards and advertise on pizza boxes, morning drive radio, church bulletins and club newsletters and at fishing derbies, car shows and high school football games. Use social media contests and polls to collect contact information from groups likely to yield candidates. In other words, try to get in front of people who aren’t looking for work but who might be open to persuasion.

Some employers are finding success using small scholarships to get access to candidate leads in high schools and colleges. It’s a channel that can help you reach high school seniors who later decide not to go to college and who are wondering what to do next.

Final-term small scholarships are also a great way to reach college-graduating seniors who are thinking about employment. For college students, it’s a more familiar process than job hunting. After a scholarship is awarded, the firm can reach out to applicants periodically with job offers. It’s like advertising on pizza boxes — just one more way to get in front of people.

Make the three R’s of 2023 be respond, re-imagine and recruit.

If these ideas interest you and you’d like to know more, reach out to your Western Washington University Small Business Development Center. Certified business advisors are available at no cost to you, thanks to our local funders. Call 360-650-7232, email or visit to  connect with this trusted and confidential resource.