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A dedicated and innovative staff can propel a business to profitability and success, so it’s important that even the smallest firm has the best talent.

The positive news is that now is a good time to be hiring, and the recession is leveling the job recruiter's playing field, according to Glenn Fox, a former vice president of executive recruitment at America Online and a founder of Microsoft’s executive recruiting team.

“Because of recent events in the economy, nothing is certain," says Fox, who recently started Ashburn, Va.-based BusinessElite – a social recruiting platform geared toward executive level positions. "Smaller companies can compete just as aggressively, probably in a way now that they haven’t been able to before.”

Here are some hiring tips to help you find better workers:

1. Use Networking to Recruit
Fox recommends that small firms rely on the network of people associated with the company to reach out to prospective employees. “A small firm is probably not going to have a recruiting department," says Fox. "But the owners or employees will have a circle of professionals who have a vested interest in the success of the firm.”

A business owner should reach out to partners such as its law firm or accounting firm and to friends who work at other companies. “The best candidates often are only one or two degrees separated from the people within the company itself."

Example: CAL Insurance and Associates' most recent hire is a roommate of another employee, according to Scott Hauge, owner of the 30-employee, San Francisco-based outfit.

2. Don't Pretend to be Bigger than You Are
Once a small business executive decides to reach out, it’s a pretty easy process, according to Fox who recommends a “simple, straightforward and honest” e-mail. “Many people are very responsive to non-recruiter e-mail,” he says.

But it’s not always the skill set that makes for the best talent. Smaller firms need to be cautious that a new recruit will fit in.

“If you’re looking at someone who spent their entire career at a large company, make sure that they’ve worked on smaller teams, launched a new product or did something that’s entrepreneurial,” advises Fox.

As Fox points out, it can be a big culture shock when making the migration from a large to small firm. “It’s a whole new story ... they shouldn’t expect all of the trappings that they once had,” he says. “You just can’t go to the supply cabinet and take out a couple of pads of paper.”

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3. Seek Out Career Changers
Small firms looking to hire may also benefit because the recession is prompting people to re-evaluate themselves from a professional and career perspective, says Fox. He’s talked to plenty of Fortune 100 executives recently who are saying it’s time to look at doing something different, including working at smaller firms.

4. Promote From Within
Hauge of CAL Insurance and Associates encourages promotions within his company. One of their account executives started at the firm while on welfare and without a high school diploma. She showed intelligence, enthusiasm and loyalty and received training, education and promotions at the firm.

“What we’ve always tried to do is put ourselves forward as an organization that cares about employees,” Hauge says, adding that about 25% of his team members have each been there for 15 to 20 years. “It’s important to show a firm has opportunities for growth and education.”

5. Always Check References
When a business does manage to line up a prospect, it’s important to be judicious about selecting the right person, advises Fox. It’s key that even the smallest shop do background checks. Also conduct “back channel” references by talking to people who’ve worked with the individual.

Picking the right person at a small shop can make a huge difference. Although Fox is a veteran recruiter and now the CEO of a startup, he recently hired someone for a management position and didn’t listen to his own advice. The person was not a fit for the company, and Fox concedes that he didn’t do a background check that was as thorough as it should have been.

“Small companies can’t afford to make a hiring mistake,” says Fox. “Other people at large companies can often pick up the slack when something like that happens, but ... you can’t afford to make a colossal blunder when you’re a 10-person shop.”

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