Recruiting the right team member is always difficult. I start off knowing that I need someone to perform a task, and imagine what qualities that person might possess. How, in a sea of people, can I find my ideal candidate?

In the past, I would have posted job ads on all the appropriate websites and braced for a flood of applications. I’d spend a weekend afternoon sifting through them all, deleting three quarters and writing follow-up emails to the rest. I always mailed a list of questions for each candidate to complete, with a deadline for their return. This enabled me to filter out at least another half who either didn’t reply in time, wrote dud answers or couldn’t spell and didn’t pay attention to details. Finally, I’d have 10 or so interviews. Often, they would all be disappointing.

My problem was that the best candidates all had good positions and were not reading job advertisements. Somehow, I had to find these people and convince them to take a risk by joining our start-up. The only solution seemed to be to hire a recruiter and, as a cash-strapped small business, we just couldn’t afford to shell out a recruitment fee of 20 percent of the candidate’s annual salary.

Earlier this year I signed up to LinkedIn’s Recruiter service. For $2,200 per quarter, I can run detailed searches on exactly the type of candidates I’m looking for and then approach them en masse. I can search by location, previous and current job titles, previous employers, which universities they attended and how long they’ve been in their current jobs. One of my biggest challenges since starting Posse has been the recruitment of high-quality developers: I’m not an engineer, so I don’t have a great network in this area. I know the people who apply through online job ads are seldom the best candidates, but we need to expand our development team.

Some companies, like Google, have a reputation for hiring the best developers. On LinkedIn I can run a search specifically for engineers who have worked or are currently working for Google in my area and have been in their positions for more than two years — so they might be looking for a new challenge. When I did this recently, I turned up around 90 results so I browsed through the profile headlines, eliminated anyone who seemed too senior to be interested, and then sent out emails to the 60 or so who were left. LinkedIn’s Recruiter enabled me to create personalized emails.

At least 60 percent of the people I contacted replied, and about 5 percent were interested in hearing more. I arranged to catch up with them for coffee and — if they were the right cultural fit — try to sell them on our vision for Posse and why they should join our team. I landed some exceptional candidates. In one afternoon, I was able to set up meetings with three senior developers who work at a large competitor of ours. I’ve learned that the more personal I can make the email, the more likely they are to reply. For example, I’ll search for candidates who went to a certain university and now work at a certain company. Then I can contact 50 candidates, but make the email sound like it’s been written just for them.

As a small-business owner, I recognize that building the right team is crucial. We only have room for A-plus players, who will always be in good positions and may require quite a bit of convincing to leave. LinkedIn gives us access to the passive job hunter market that used to be available only through expensive recruiters, and it helps us seek out top quality candidates from within other companies.

There is one catch. If I’m trying to poach the best people from our competitors, I can be sure that they’re trying to steal my best people, too. Once we turned down an acquisition offer from a competitor only to have the company approach all of our staff members individually on LinkedIn. This is almost impossible to prevent, but I’ve come up with a couple of strategies that may help. First, if your business is small, I see little benefit in setting up a LinkedIn page for it. Doing so just enables competitors to find and attack all your staff members at once.

Second, you can try to discourage your staffers from using the platform – although this is nearly impossible. When we relocated team members from Sydney to New York, a recruiter suggested that I ask our engineers not to change their location on LinkedIn because it would highlight them as fresh meat for the hungry New York recruiters.

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Obviously, it’s no fun to get fired. But it’s also no fun to be the one doing the firing.

I have heard it said that the stress of terminating someone’s employment can reduce your lifespan. I certainly know that I’ve awakened in a sweat the night before I have to have “the conversation” with someone. Or worse, I have put off the conversation and let the frustration and anticipation build for months. But no matter how bad it seems, it’s even worse for those being dismissed. The news you are about to deliver is likely to stick with your former employees forever; it will affect their sense of self worth and confidence in moving forward with their careers. Their colleagues and friends all know that someone assessed their value to the team and found it lacking. And after the humiliation at work, they have to go home and tell their families.

We’ve all heard the mantra “hire slow, fire fast.” As I’ve written in my previous posts, I’ve made lots of recruitment mistakes, but one thing I’ve always been good at is knowing when to let people go. I recognize that when someone doesn’t work out, it’s my fault for hiring them, and I try to make the process as pleasant as possible. I don’t want people running around saying what a nasty person I am, and I do feel responsible.

When entrepreneurs get together, we always seem to talk about how, if, and when to fire people. It amazes me how poorly most leaders handle the situation. They either procrastinate and hope people change (they never do), or they let them go in a way that leaves them feeling upset and confused. Getting this wrong can have disastrous consequences for your business. A friend has a media agency in California. He hired too many people too quickly and ended up with office politics and unproductive employees. He made a bold move by letting 40 percent of the team go at the same time. He called them into his office one by one, outlined why it wasn’t working and asked them to pack their things and leave immediately.

The employees gathered at a bar that afternoon to commiserate. They were angry and hurt. Alcohol-fueled tensions exploded, and they plotted revenge. Several contacted friends in the press and made sexual harassment allegations against the company. My friend’s reputation took a battering, clients jumped ship, and it took months before he could get the business back on track. He could have avoided this by hiring the right number of the right people, and if some didn’t work out, he could have let them go with more empathy. At my first company, I made all of the classic mistakes, including at least 20 hiring errors. That meant it gave me a lot of opportunities to practice what I have learned about letting people go with dignity.

I have gotten better. I’m not aware of anyone leaving Posse feeling disgruntled, and almost all of our former employees remain supportive of the company, come to our events and continue to advocate for the product. This is never an easy process, but here is some of what I’ve learned:

1. Let them save face

Whenever I sit down with people, I make it as obvious as I can what’s about to come. I ask them how they think their role is working out. I never make it about their personal contribution; it’s always about the role and how it fits into the organization. I lead them toward seeing that, in a small company like ours, their role isn’t quite what we need. I ask them what they enjoy working on and where they see themselves going in the future.

By this time, they know they’re about to be let go. I try to make sure they don’t feel as if it’s because they’ve failed, and I focus on getting them to think about what they would rather be doing. I think Posse is a great place to work, but we all have our own career dreams. You may think it’s dishonest not to be upfront and tell them exactly why they haven’t worked out. But by the time we reach this point, we will already have had several conversations about what’s not working and how they can improve. This conversation is about making a tough moment easier and helping ensure they have the confidence to move on with their life.

Once I had a senior employee who wasn’t right for Posse. I could see he was cracking with the workload and felt frustrated with the lack of clear role-definitions that he had been used to in more corporate roles. When I sat down with him, it was obvious he was exhausted. “Is this really what you want to be doing?” I asked. After a 10-minute conversation about his actual dream job (not here!), he decided to quit. He also asked if he could leave straight away and not work out his notice. This was a fantastic result. He felt happy and saved face with his colleagues, and I avoided the appearance of being a mean boss who just fired a member of the family, which always affects the remaining team. And we saved the four weeks notice I had expected to pay.

2. Don’t procrastinate

I remember the first few times I thought about letting someone go in my first business. I contemplated the decision for months, hoping things would improve. I put new reporting processes in place, tried new management techniques and wound up frustrated, procrastinating over what I knew deep down had to happen.

Other employees would be affected too. There’s nothing more demotivating for a team than to have people not pulling their weight and spreading negativity — and a boss who won’t do anything about it. In the lead-up to the big event, I would toss and turn in bed imagining how the conversation would go, how would I word it. When the day finally arrived, I’d be so burned out and angry that I’d fumble my words.

I’ve discovered that when I think someone won’t work out, they won’t. I can recognize when I’ve made a recruitment mistake within the first three months, and I’ll let them go within a week of the realization. I’ve found that the longer I leave it, the more they bond with the team and the worse the impact. It gives the person and the company the opportunity to move on.

3. Stick to any agreements. When in doubt, be generous

All of our employment agreements have probationary periods of three months. If the person is let go in that time, we pay one week’s notice. It’s important that there be no doubt about what the person should be paid. If there’s ever a question, I err on the generous side. It’s not good to look stingy, and I’ve learned that it’s important to do whatever I can to make the person leaving as happy as possible.

4. Be clear about what happens next and help them as much as you can

At the end of our conversation, I lay out the next steps. They’ll usually agree to go back to the office and hand over anything important to another team member, and we agree on how to explain the departure. They always finish up that day – it never works to have someone serve out their notice. We then talk about their plan to find another job. I ask if they’d like introductions to my contacts, and I offer to write them a glowing (but honest) reference. I wouldn’t write anything that’s untrue, but it’s always possible to find positive attributes to fill out the letter and help the person find a more appropriate job.

5. Announce it to the team together and let them say goodbye

We go back to the office and call the team together for the announcement. We almost always paint it as the employee’s decision. I just stand there while the person explains. I thank them for their contributions, and we all go out for a drink. The drinks are usually a bit awkward, but it’s important to let the remaining team members grieve. They’ll all go out and drink together anyway, and I’d rather be there than not. Letting someone go is one of the toughest and most important things entrepreneurs have to do. We know that the business will succeed or fail on the strength of the team, and a team is only as strong as its weakest member.

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