JANE APPLEGATE

Web-site designer Tim Glaesemann faced a dilemma common to many entrepreneurs. His client list was growing, and he needed to hire an assistant to help him at Circa New Media, based in Pelham, N.Y.

Glaesemann thought he found the perfect employee when he brought on a young designer who claimed to be schooled in many of the cutting-edge technologies Glaesemann wanted to incorporate into his Web designs. But three months and a lot of headaches later, the employee quit leaving the office keys and a resignation letter on Glaesemann's desk while he was out of town on a business trip.

His departure saved Glaesemann the pain of firing him, which he says he planned to do anyway.

Looking back, Glaesemann admits he didn't have the skills or time to properly verify his former employee's credentials or references. "The employee misrepresented his abilities and could only do half of what I needed him to do," said Glaesemann, who says his mistake was being wooed by the "wow factor" on the applicant's resume and not actually testing his abilities at the computer.

"He knew all this new technology, but he didn't know the basics of HTML (the language used on Web sites)," said Glaesemann. "He didn't really like doing it, and he didn't want to learn."

Finding and hiring competent, capable and quality staff is one of the enduring challenges facing small-business owners. With a strong economy and record low unemployment rates in most parts of the country, it's even tougher today for small companies to compete for talent.

Given how tough it is to find good help, entrepreneurs often succumb to what employment experts call the "warm-body syndrome" hiring quickly just to have somebody filling a position. This often leads to the expensive consequences of a bad hire workplace disruption, loss of productivity and the stress, anxiety, legal and personal complications of having to fire an employee.

"To make the best hiring choice, you need to make a commitment to the importance of hiring well, instead of rushing through it and end up having to fire poorly," said Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles-based psychiatrist and business relationships specialist.

Goulston said business owners also get into big trouble when they hire someone to do the work they don't want to do or can't do well.

"When you hire someone to do tasks that you dislike, that employee really has you over a barrel," said Goulston, author of "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior."

"If you don't take the time to hire the best person for the job, you'll find they actually make that area of your business worse, and then you are dealing with a crisis in your area of weakness."

Noeleta Lacey, owner of Advanced Record Management, an off-site corporate documents and record-management company in L.A., estimates it costs her 13-person company between $6,000 and $8,000 to hire and train each new employee. "It is expensive, but we want people to stay with the company," she said.

Through trial and error, Lacey uses a hiring system that includes a phone interview, then an in-person interview, which gives her a chance to see if the chemistry is right. "I want to know how they handle anger and stress," said Lacey, who asks candidates to discuss their first job and to describe their future goals.

After an employee balked at learning to perform tasks not related to her specific job, Lacey began making it clear that there are no specific job descriptions at her company. Employees are expected to perform a variety of tasks.

"A bad employee can be deadly," said Lacey. "They can tie you up for months. You are afraid to do anything, but at the same time, your needs are not being met."

Glaesemann said his bad hiring experience taught him to be more thorough in checking references. His former employee provided a college professor and a previous employer who did attest to the applicant's ability to work with new Web technologies. The problem was, Glaesemann failed to ask about the applicant's background or experience in more basic skills that the job required.

"References can only answer the specific questions you ask them," said Glaesemann, who admits suffering from another common hiring problem: denial.

"I wanted to believe the best about him," said Glaesemann. "I kept lowering my expectations of what I wanted, and then, when I needed him to do the job, he couldn't do it."

So, how do you find the right person for the job? Goulston and Lacey offer these hiring tips:

? Take time to compose a job description for the position and put yourself in the shoes of the person you want to hire. What qualities would your ideal candidate possess?

? Check references carefully. If the former employer won't answer your questions, find a former colleague, vendor or supplier. Ask questions that pertain to the job the employee will be performing for you.

? Listen carefully. Resist the impulse to spend your interviewing time talking about the position and the company. Let the applicant do the talking. Listen to what he is saying, and don't be colored by your desire to fill the position.

? Ask the person to tell you about his last job. While every situation is different, in general you want to watch out for an employee who speaks negatively of his or her past employers.

? Suggest the applicant tell you something you should know about them. You are looking for honesty and a sign that a person is aware of his flaws and is taking steps to correct them.

? Ask the person what they would do if they got in over their head. An employee who turns to a colleague is a team player. A person who turns to a supervisor has a different mindset. An employee who isolates himself when in trouble can be extremely damaging to your business.

? Ask "Where do you see yourself in five years?" "What are your future goals?" Small businesses need employees who can grow and evolve with the company. An employee who does not have goals or ambitions may resist learning new skills or taking on additional responsibilities.

Not too late

There's still time to apply for a free expert assessment of your business or strategic plan. Just tell us in 250 words or less why you need the help, which will be provided by MBAfreeagents.com. Send your short essay to Jane Applegate, P.O. Box 786, Pelham, N.Y. 10803, or e-mail it to info@janeapplegate.com. You can also fax it to (914) 738-6339.

Reporting assistance by Robin Wallace. Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business." For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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