Small and medium businesses play an increasingly important role in improving the employment prospects of South Africa’s youth, currently employing approximately 60% of the labour force. However, small business owners often don’t realise the importance of the role that they play for impressionable young first-timers.

Larger businesses and government employers have active HR departments which govern through strict employment guidelines and policies. They have the resources to train and mentor new staff, helping them understand what is required of them and ensuring that they are fairly treated. All too often, this is not the case in small businesses.

It’s time now to invite SMEs to step up to the challenge of improving their employment practices. They need to understand the extent to which a first job can make or break a young, inexperienced employee’s future prospects. Doing so doesn’t require an HR department, it requires time, planning and consideration.

The four key responsibilities of the employer are:


The first rule of employing staff must surely be to ensure that you can afford them, especially in terms of cash flow. Whilst business people are able to understand and accept the risks inherent in a small business, especially a new one, entry-level staff can’t be expected to have the same understanding. You need to be sure that you can afford staff before you hire them.


It’s a great idea to bring an employee into your business beacuse you never seem to have enough time to get everything done…but often the details of what they will do are a bit fuzzy. You need to be very clear about what you want them to do. Before an employee starts, make a work space and necessary equipment available to them to perform the tasks required. No one can meet your expectations if they (and you!) don’t know what is expected of them. From the outset you’re going to be investing money and time in your new employee. If you get your planning right you can provide long-term stable employment which enables them to become really useful as they grow and develop, in the process giving you a good return on investment in terms of loyalty and efficiency.


We know that SMEs and entrepreneurs often work long hours – it goes with the territory. However, expecting staff to do the same, often without compensation, is unacceptable. For employees who earn below a certain threshold, all overtime is voluntary and may only be worked by mutual agreement. Maximum permissible overtime is three hours on any one day or 10 hours in any one week. Payment must be at 1.5 times the normal rate except for Sundays and public holidays when it must be twice the normal rate. Many employees welcome an opportunity to work extra hours for extra pay, just take care to stay within labour law. You’ll find more info here.


As an employer of entry-level staff, the extent of your influence is enormous. They come to you as a blank slate and you will likely influence their career for life. If you set the bar low, you teach an impressionable young person that quality doesn’t matter; in the process you’re also teaching them that they – and their work – don’t really matter. Whether you like it or not, you are their mentor. It’s worth acknowledging that and putting the effort into developing a stable, loyal, rewarding staff member. After all, it is the people who make a business.

Harambee has been placing entry-level employees in the SME sector for three years now. From the beginning we recognised the recruitment challenges small companies face; we know it’s a delicate balance between what both party needs. This is why we provide a great deal of guidance, including a free HR Toolkit for SME employers.

Written by Alex Hadfield, SME Sector Lead, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator


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