Illustration: Graham Roumieu

Christine Bell, CEO of Full Throttle Power Sports in Dartmouth, N.S., faces a chronic talent crunch: As college courses for small-engine repair have dwindled, so too has the number of potential hires with the qualifications she needs.

So two years ago, she created a mentorship program that pairs new hires with a master technician, enabling Bell to focus her candidate selection on less skilled, but enthusiastic, learners. “You can’t just run an ad and get applicants with the [right] skills,” she says.

“Hire slow, fire fast” might be good advice, but small businesses—lacking clout, benefits and, crucially, cash—often have to get creative to keep duds off the payroll.

Over the past three years, HomeStars—a Toronto-based company that publishes online reviews of home improvement professionals—has grown from 22 to 53 employees. To make sure only top talent gets through, the company has started pre-interviewing candidates by phone to spot deal breakers, such as a complete lack of familiarity with the brand. HomeStars also developed an interview checklist to cultivate an objective scoring methodology, guarantee candidates are queried on the company’s core values and to ensure managers always check references. “It can reaffirm the strengths of the person,” says Laura Carroll, a recruiting specialist at HomeStars.

Roberta Matuson, a Boston-based business consultant and author of the 2013 book Talent Magnetism, says small firms need not be bound to rigid formal HR processes, which creates the opportunity for more creative hiring practices. University campuses and local association events are great places to find prospects, but she points out that amazing people are everywhere. Looking for someone to add to your sales team? Why not give your card to the woman upselling you at the cosmetics counter?

Finally, Matuson recommends stressing to prospective hires that as employees of a small firm, they’ll have direct access to leadership, encounter limited bureaucracy and get opportunities to wear more than one hat. This will attract self-starters and detract heel-draggers. As Matuson explains, “Many good people would rather work some place where the boss actually knows their name.”

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