If the company owner is the foundation of any successful remodeling business, then it could be said that the employees are the framework around which the business is built; they are just as important to the shape the company ultimately takes. For this reason, company personnel decisions should be made with the same careful planning and precision that you would use in altering the structure of a client’s home.

“Most of us tend to hire fast and fire slow,” says Orren Pickell, of Orren Pickell Designers & Builders, in Lincolnshire, Ill. “In reality, we should be doing the exact opposite.” Especially, he notes, when it comes to office personnel. “When you’re hiring managers or office staff, you better not make mistakes. We’ll interview someone six times if we’re not completely sure about them,” he says.

Conversely, a prudent owner will know when to pull the plug on a floundering employee — difficult as it often may be.

“I think it’s easy to blame the system first,” says Bob Fleming, owner of Classic Remodeling & Construction, in Johns Island, S.C. “It’s the really nice people that underperform who are difficult to let go. I don’t think anyone would ever say that they’re quick enough to let someone go when there’s a problem.”

Further complicating matters are the employment practices laws surrounding both hiring employees and letting them go. A seemingly innocuous application question (for example, asking an applicant’s age), or a layoff resulting from justified but undocumented disciplinary actions, can land a business owner in legal hot water.

So how can remodelers make sound personnel decisions that strengthen the framework of their company while also taking pains to ensure that they’re not vulnerable to legal recourse? Read on for a list of hiring and firing best practices, compiled by a group of experienced remodeling business owners and legal professionals.

Start Looking Before You Need To

The worst time to start looking for key employees is when you desperately need them. Don’t wait until your company has a gaping hole before you start think about filling it. Look to the future: If you know that in six months you plan to hire another lead carpenter or project manager, get the word out to your employees, subcontractors, suppliers — maybe even to clients with whom you have particularly good relationships.

“The best employees always come from referrals,” says John Tabor, owner of Tabor Design Build, in Rockville, Md. “Nobody’s going to refer somebody who they think might embarrass them.”

Tabor has a referral incentive program in place for his employees. For each referral hired, the referring employee receives $500, paid when the new hire has been on board for six months.

Tabor also advertises in Craigslist.com’s  online classifieds and in the newspaper, the latter of which has been a better source for qualified applicants, he says, but insists that referrals are his preferred method of finding new employees.

For his office positions, Fleming hires a recruiter to help canvass for potentially qualified applicants. Any leads that the recruiter passes to him are considered pre-qualified. “He gets them on the phone and asks them questions about what motivates them, why they’re looking for a new job,” says Fleming, noting that the recruiter also explores non-traditional routes, such as Monster.com, as well as working with other recruiters.

Whatever recruiting methods are best suited for your market, one thing is for certain: It’s better to take a proactive approach to finding quality employees than a reactive one.

Use a Standard Application

“With regard to hiring, the No. 1 [legal] issue of importance is to have an employee application used universally for all hires, and that has been vetted by knowledgeable legal counsel,” says D.S. Berenson, managing partner of law firm Johanson Berenson LLP, in Washington, D.C. “Every [application question] should be analyzed and approved as appropriate for the company.”

There are a number of questions that the law deems inappropriate to ask on an application, among them: an applicant’s marital status, age, child care needs, religion, race, or experience unrelated to the job — “I don’t want to know what clubs you belonged to in college, if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, your sexual orientation, or anything else,” Berenson says.

By using a universal application, you don’t have to worry that applicants not hired will later claim that they were treated differently because of one of the above factors.

But you should go a step further in ensuring that extraneous information doesn’t make it on to potential employees’ applications. “Make sure you have a statement on your application warning the applicant not to submit information that isn’t requested,” Berenson says. A statement to that affect should be in bold-face type on the application, making clear that if extraneous information is included on the application, it will not be considered. “The reason is that it’s not uncommon for people to ‘salt’ an application with extra information that they could later point to as a reason they weren’t hired,” Berenson says.