By Nick Soret, Head of Employment Law and HR Consultancy Support, NatWest Mentor

Businesses are worrying about recruitment. Not all businesses but certainly a fair proportion. NatWest Mentor recently surveyed more than 500 firms across the UK and among the findings was the fact that recruitment has been the biggest HR issue among those companies in the last year. And what was identified as being the most likely HR issue over the coming 12 months? That’s right – recruitment.

This is seemingly a source of worry that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. On the face of it however, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If businesses are recruiting, it means they are looking to expand. Also, if businesses are highlighting recruitment as a problem, it follows that they are taking the issue seriously enough to be losing a certain amount of sleep over it.

So what lies behind this being the number one HR issue? There isn’t one single, simple reason, although it could well be the case that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are looking to appoint new staff, have never had to do so before and are simply saying: “where do I begin?”

Therein lies the problem for many SMEs. For example, often the first co-workers in a business are family and friends but as the business expands it needs to go beyond that circle and into “the great unknown.”

Employers can potentially be particularly concerned about getting the recruitment process wrong and may have worries about new recruits not fitting in. For a small business, this can have costly repercussions, withthe Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) estimating that the average cost of recruiting the wrong person is £8,200, rising to £12,000 for senior managers.

On a practical level, if a new employee is in post for a short time – and proves to be the wrong choice – it also leaves an SME short on resource and of course having to go through the recruitment process all over again.

Employers will have also heard negative stories about the pitfalls of alleged discrimination. Employment Tribunal claims can be made against employers by unsuccessful job applicants and are usually based on discrimination allegations.

To avoid getting things wrong, there are a number of steps which SMEs can take as part of the recruitment process. While some may seem to be common sense, it’s not always the case that they are followed – and that’s when the risks begin to grow.

One of the initial steps when recruiting should be to get a job description and person specification right, which ought to include “essential” and “desirable” criteria for the role to help ensure the selection process is objective.

Once the CVs start to arrive, you may be impressed by a well-written and nicely presented one. But if that person doesn’t have the necessary skills, experience or qualifications, they aren’t right for the job. If on the other hand there are a lot of good applicants, use the “desirable” criteria in the job description to narrow them down.

When it comes to interviewing candidates, there are certain things you legally can’t ask – in essence these are the areas where the information provided could be used to discriminate against a potential employee. Strictly off limits are questions about age, marital status, race or medical issues. But you do need to take care to ensure you can make reasonable adjustments to allow an applicant with disabilities to attend an interview.

Interviews also present the right opportunity to check people’s right to work in the UK. Many businesses are now looking to recruit from overseas and of course people from countries within the European Union generally have the right to work in the UK.

All applicants should be asked to bring proof of their right to work in the UK to their interview and a copy of this should be made. This can avoid any possible allegations of discrimination but can also save time and money if the candidate is not legally entitled to work in this country - if such a candidate ends up employed, a business opens itself up to a potential penalty of £20,000.

Finally, once a suitable candidate is found, a written offer of employment should be made. This needs to be conditional on the basis of appropriate references and disclosure checks (where required) being provided.

While the above may seem to represent a minefield for SMEs which are recruiting, the good news is that the UK probably has one of the most flexible labour markets in Europe and it’s actually easier to hire a worker with few risks than employers might think.

There are also a number of organisations, including NatWest Mentor, which can guide SMEs through the process, providing advice and support along the way. So while businesses still think recruitment is going to be a headache over the coming year, there is more than one way to ensure it won’t be.