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Plusnet Pioneers

Expert HR advice for start-ups from an industry pro

Founder of HR180, Claire Morley-Jones has a wealth of tips and tricks for finding, managing and motivating people. Startups meets the HR professional ahead of her Talent Masterclass discussion…

From sending out handmade felt hearts as thanks to her employees to building a team guided by strong company values, Claire Morley-Jones doesn’t just advise clients on the best HR practices – she lives and breathes great HR within her own business.

Having founded Leeds-based human resource outsourcing and consultancy company HR180 over 10 years ago, starting with three clients and £2,000 in the bank, Morley-Jones has scaled the business to achieve year-on-year growth and impressive retention rates.


In fact, a third of HR180’s clients have been with the company for five years or more – evidence of the business’ ability to deliver results across support services such as training, management, mediation, and health and safety.

Given her success and reputation in the HR field, Morley-Jones was perfectly aligned to become a Talent for the Plusnet Pioneers programme; a series of motivational events, workshops and advice to help start-ups and small business owners created by business broadband and phone provider Plusnet, in partnership with

As part of her role as a Talent Pioneer, Morley-Jones spoke at a panel discussion where she shared insider advice on how to avoid hiring mistakes and how to attract, and retain, talent.

We got Morley-Jones on the phone for an exclusive interview to seize some essential HR advice for start-ups and small businesses.

So, what are you waiting for? Read on for Morley-Jones’ ‘how to’ expert advice!

How to hire someone that’s right for your business

“Start-ups and small businesses are [often] not clear enough about their own culture and who they are.

“What you, as an employer, need to do is to make sure that people are aligned to your business straight away and that you know who you are as a business. [This should be reflected] in the job spec, advertising etc. If you have a standard job advert on a standard job site, you’re trying to find a standard person and if you don’t know what you stand for then that makes it more to find the right employee for your business.

“We do a strength test [HR180’s in-house tool to help businesses increase efficiency] for our clients and it’s eye-opening because some businesses have great processes, set-up and lines of communication but, when it comes to vision – who you are, what employees should believe in – they have no idea.

“If people aren’t aligned to your business objectives then it won’t work.”

Be clear on who you’re looking for but don’t limit your talent pool

“We often find that employers are too fixed on absolute perfection, or they’re not clear on what they’re looking for.

“For instance, one of our clients wanted to hire an office co-ordinator to manage stationery, and they also wanted this person be a PA to the directors, to help with accounts, and to have health and safety expertise. They were setting themselves up to fail on many fronts!

“New business owners think they can get someone to take on lots of different roles – and in a small business everybody does need to roll up their sleeves and muck in – but you need to have specialist people for specialist roles.

“Another example is that we’ll have clients that want the [prospective] employee to have knowledge of the industry the business is in. Say, for instance, a construction company wants an office administrator, they will also say that the person needs knowledge of construction – but, why do they? If they have the skills for the role they will be able to transfer these and learn new skills.”

How to approach the process of recruiting new staff

“These are the first steps in my opinion:

  1. Take your time – Everyone thinks they need someone right now. It does take between eight to 12 weeks to make a hire, and sometimes longer with notice period.
  1. Be clear about who you’re looking for – Most HR professionals like me would advise that you should hire for attitude and train for skill. If the person has the right attitude and behaviour and you can train them [that would be great]. We train up all our HR advisors.
  1. Be totally committed and get the best person that your business requires – Don’t just do one recruitment round and hire the best of a bad bunch. Don’t go straight to the recruitment agency or job board [either]– think more personal. For instance, say you were looking for a part-time local role you could put ads up in your local GP, your local nursery, or try beer mats for certain roles. We were looking for drivers for a local business and printed out beer mats for local pubs and working men’s clubs [and that worked]. It’s about being a bit more creative. The usual stuff gets the usual result and normally a standard person may meet your skills but won’t be a good fit for your culture. LinkedIn is a good fit but often, depending on pay grade, you can only search for people in your contacts so you’re limiting your pool in terms of diversity and availability.”

How to recruit senior staff or those at director level

“Always look for passion and entrepreneurialism. A lot of our clients get caught up with CVs and are impressed by the fact that a person may have worked for a big corporate. We have to tell them that this could actually have limited the person’s ability to think outside the box, they may have only had to work in one strict position and they might not be willing to roll their sleeves up as a small business requires.”

Don’t look for your doppelganger

“You can’t expect them to be you. Instead, consider the following:

  • Do they have commercial skills and entrepreneurialism and have they been able to demonstrate this?
  • Can they lead? You want someone who can manage.”

Know their limitations too.

“You should know how they deal with and manage stress which, at director level, there often will be lots of!”

Click the next button for advice on how to build a better workforce ->

How to build a better workforce

“You need to think about the building blocks of your team. We believe in the strength approach; that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and, if your weaknesses don’t impact the ability to do your job then, you can work around that.

“Think about who in your team is an extrovert, an analyst etc. and balance this, and make sure to treat all staff individually but make this consistent. For instance, one member of staff might want more flexibility in their working life, another might want more training – the way you manage each of the individuals should be similar but should be specific to them. I dispute that all staff should be treated the same.”

Develop relationships with staff

“You should show that you really care. This can often be achieved by simply understanding somebody. Make sure you have great relationships with staff; show them that you care as this will then motivate them and they can then invest more in the business.

“We’ve seen a business – who should remain anonymous – advertising that their ‘customers are everything’ but what does that mean for the staff that work for them?”

Listen and learn

“Take on board employee feedback. Most people get up in the morning and want to do a good job, so if you’re listening to them and have good internal processes then you’re helping to ensure that they are motivated. Also, think about coaching your managers to help share the message throughout the business.”

How to retain good employees

“You need to build the relationship. You often need to find out what that person wants from their career and you should do this as early as the interview stage. For retention, career path is important – you need to let the employee know how they can grow and progress.

“Say the person is really ambitious and wants to be a manager within a year, they may be impressive but can you offer them a manager role in a year? I’m not saying don’t employ them but you should have a succession plan in place to counteract that. It could be different position for instance, so you might not have a management role but you could have a consultancy role [to offer them].

“Or you could say that, after a year or so, you’re going to lose them but that’s great for their career and you can sort out a new role for your company and this looks like [x].”

How to deal with staff when there’s a problem

“My first piece of advice here, very controversially, would be to look at yourself!

“You may think the employee is the issue but I think it’s always a good time to take a step back and think ‘Have I set the right objectives? Have I been flexible? Have I managed the employee effectively?’ If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’ then you have done the right thing [but it’s worth reflecting].”

Don’t bury your head in the sand

“Often, businesses find issues here because they don’t address it straight away, they put their head in the sand – or don’t sweat the small stuff – and it becomes this huge, major problem. Yet the employee may have no idea [there’s a problem].

“If you just have an informal chat straight away with the employee and go through the key points, it could be immediately resolved. We probably wouldn’t exist if employers did this!

“Not everyone thinks the same so remember that too – something that bothers one of your employees may not bother the other. It’s about being able to see something from both sides.”

How to avoid common talent management issues

“Here are two common issues you should be aware of:

  1. A big one that we see all the time is people being promoted above their skill set and abilities. For instance, if you have a great sales person you might be tempted to make them a sales manager but the qualities and skills needed for a manager are completely different – they must be able to lead, guide a team etc.
  2. Your processes should have improved as the business has evolved so [it’s not unusual] that someone that had the potential when you started, doesn’t now – as your business has grown, you need a different person.”

The proposed solution? “We’d advise businesses to do a regular gap skills analysis – think about what skills you don’t have [in the business] and then think about whether you need to hire a new person or whether you can upskill and train an existing member of staff.”

How to react if a good employee tells you they want to leave

“Don’t offer that person more money! Every study ever has shown that money is not a motivator, it is a basic need. Sales is slightly different because they’re being motivated by money but, normally, people are motivated by social factors.

“Once they have already accepted a job for more money, they’ve already made their mind up. If they stay its short-term gain for long term pain.

“Also, make sure you have proper handover notes for contingency.”

Click the next button for advice on how to be a better leader ->

How to be a better leader

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a good leader if you help other people in your team be good leaders.

“The nature of your job as managing director changes over time. Now, I very rarely do anything to do with the [HR services]. My focus now is on managing the team, coaching them on my experiences, and removing barriers.”

Be human – after all, nobody’s perfect

“You have to be good at delegating and compensating for those areas where you need help. Concentrate on your strengths and let go of the rubbishy bits that you feel like you need to take control of because your start-up is your baby.

“Be human – every time you make a mistake you learn a lesson. If you can admit that you have made a mistake, then other people in your team can more readily admit to making a mistake.

“This is far different from a blame culture, you’ll actually have people that join you in finding the answer so if you’re struggling with a question then go to your team.”

How to maintain your company culture, even as the business grows

Company values are essential: “Our first four values that I created when we first started weren’t too bad but we were only three people then. Every year, we’ve reviewed these values and asked the team; ‘Do these resonate with you?’ ‘Do you believe in this?’ Your company values should guide your business.

“Often, businesses think that company values are just words and don’t mean anything but it needs to be far more than that, it should be everything you stand for. If you say your business is honest and transparent then this should be evidenced on your site, your social media, your service.

“We deal with a client who has just two values and they don’t live them, they look like they’re being dishonest and it impacts company culture as it doesn’t reflect trust and transparency.”

The importance of no-blame culture

“You should enable your staff to have responsibilities and you should create a no-blame culture.

“It’s about knowing who you are – are you a Donald Trump or a Justin Trudeau? Do you micro-manage and blame others or do you see yourself as a facilitator, a communicator?

“One of our points is principles. By this I mean we face it, we fix it and then we move on. If something went wrong and I started screaming at staff, I wouldn’t be living the values that I and the business promote.”

How to create an employee benefits scheme that really works

“What are the employee benefits or approaches that are most likely to ensure your employees feel valued, trusted and rewarded? This is what you should consider.

“Employee benefits can’t be a gimmick; we see so many gimmicks like ‘smiley face tick boxes’ that don’t show a desire to value and reward employees.

“It should be about time spent together; not a plan, programme, or schedule. These things can be completely free and don’t have to cost an arm or a leg.

“You focus should be on communication, honesty, and valuing everyone. For example, I recently spent an entire weekend making felt hearts – ‘heart felt thanks’ –  for each member of staff because I really did value the contributions and my time was worth it.

Morley Jones heart felt thanks

Morley-Jones' ‘heart felt thanks'

“I’ve also written personal cards when someone’s achieved something or worked outside their comfort zone, and I’ve baked cakes.

“It’s about showing that because they care, I care. You should pay it forward.”

Ideas to incentivise and reward staff, even on a limited budget

“It doesn’t matter what you do or how much money you spend, it should all be about time spent together as a team. Here are my suggestions:

  • Hold a huddle: We do this. The staff come in with their kids, we eat a lot of food – made by the staff – and have some great conversation.
  • Set up a mini playroom
  • Get a karaoke and go do karaoke at someone’s home.
  • Help a local charity. That’s important for us as we recently helped out and raised over £700 for Leeds Children’s Infirmary Heart Ward by baking lots of cakes and selling them to all of companies on our estate. For us, it’s integral that you balance profit and purpose and help the wider community.
  • Group activity days. We have done afternoon tea and other activities – you can find cheap and easy activities if you know where to look.
  • Most importantly, it’s about the messaging you’re giving out. I would always refer to HR180 as ‘our business’ not ‘my’ and I would never say that I have staff that work for me, instead they work with me.”


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