There’s a “sweet spot” when it comes to unemployment. It’s where there’s enough competition for jobs, and enough jobs to allow the unemployed to find a good position.

New Zealand’s unemployment is currently at a very low 4%.  Mary Anne Merriott, who runs Openleaf Recruitment and HR in Auckland, might argue that it’s a little too low.

“Our economy’s doing pretty well comparatively, with a lot of activity and growth in certain sectors,” she says. “But the borders are closed, which means we can’t bring people in for either skilled or unskilled roles.”

Mary Anne specialises in helping SMEs scale their operations without losing the human focus that makes them special. She says the current climate is especially tough for these business owners, who are struggling to compete with bigger companies when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

To make matters worse, Australia continues to aggressively recruit Kiwis and although it’s now more difficult, people are still leaving New Zealand to work overseas.

“Usually, it flows both ways, but now we’ve got talent flowing out and zero coming in.”

It’s still possible to hire good people, but business owners need to change their mindset. It’s no longer enough to offer a good salary, development opportunities, and benefits such as health insurance and superannuation. Workers want more.

“I do think the crunch will get worse before it gets better, probably for another year. Protecting your existing staff by being a great place to work is the best thing you can do right now.”

Mary Anne says every time you have to replace someone, it costs between six and 12 months’ salary in lost knowledge and productivity. Her advice to SMEs falls into three categories: Marketing, Culture and Flexibility.


In addition to marketing your business to potential customers, you need to market your business as an excellent employer.

“Position your business in the way it deserves to be seen in the market. I’ve worked with some companies that are great to work for, but they don’t know how to market their uniqueness.”

Employer branding encompasses everything from how you write your job ads to what your Google reviews say. Many larger companies also feature on Glassdoor where employees can leave anonymous reviews.

Mary Anne knows of some businesses, particularly in the property sector, that have relied on word-of-mouth referrals for their general marketing and now find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring because they don’t have an online presence. If candidates can’t see anything about a business, it may look less interesting or credible compared to others they may be applying to.


Get your house in order in terms of culture and lifestyle.

If people haven’t had their pay reviewed in 18 months due to covid, or you have some management or culture issues, address them now. You’re more likely to keep the staff you have and when you do need to recruit, your business looks more attractive.

 “A lot of business owners haven’t prioritised these things because they see it as fluffy stuff, but it’s essential now,” Mary Anne says.

Management issues may take time to resolve but there are some simple things you can do right now:

  • Conduct pay reviews to help people feel valued and ensure all staff are at least on market.
  • Provide plenty of feedback and lots of praise, again to ensure your staff feel appreciated.
  • Organise regular social occasions such as drinks on a Friday night. These events build a strong culture and help retain staff, as they’re less likely to leave if they have a good bond with their team.


People want to work somewhere they’ll love, with flexibility to work the hours that suit them. Places that can provide a great culture and flexible work arrangements are doing very well even in this competitive employment market.

Mary Anne suggests deciding right now how flexible you’re prepared to be, or what you could try out if someone’s interested. At a very basic level, families should come first and your staff should feel comfortable heading or staying home when they need to.

Covid facilitated a way of working that’s been talked about for years. While some businesses need their staff on site, others can allow people to work from home at least some of the time – even if they previously thought this was impossible. 

One of Mary Anne’s clients is a manufacturer and although they need the warehouse staff to be on site to do their jobs, they are looking at ways to be more flexible. For example, a staff member who is running out of sick leave may have the option to take the extra days they need and then come in on a weekend instead of losing a day’s pay.

Businesses need to strike a balance between what’s right for their teams and what’s commercially sustainable.

Optimism and resilience will help businesses negotiate the tight labour market and make the most of the strong economy. Mary Anne encourages business owners to get excited about who they are, because that’s what culture is all about.

“Focus on your people so they love being part of your team; that’s fun and it’s how you go about presenting your best self. Before we know it, it will be two years down the track and those who have done the work will be thriving.”

Mary Anne is passionate about making sure businesses get the help they need and is always happy to point people in the right direction, with no obligation. You can find her at Openleaf.