Few hiring managers consider the significant costs of making a bad hiring decision. And in today’s market, success in hiring may be the single most important lever you have to making your business more successful.

Sure, our economy might be in a tough spot right now, but thousands of companies are still hiring in nearly every market and vertical industry. Those companies (and you’ll be one of them either now or soon) are facing a record number of applicants for a finite number of positions.

Unfortunately, this makes hiring the right people even harder and more critical to the health and success of your business this year. Yes, there are more applicants to choose from, but you can ill afford to make a bad hiring decision right now. Choose the wrong person for the job, and you’re at minimum wasting the organization’s time training that individual and managing them through mediocre results.

Worst yet, that mediocre hire is likely affecting the productivity and success of others around them. Ultimately, there’s the cost of replacing that role and going through the entire hire & train cycle all over again.

Growing your business in 2009 is hard enough, don’t let a bad hire make it every harder. Here are nine recommendations for making every hire in 2009 and beyond a superstar for your organization well into the future.

1. Spend time interviewing
Most interview cycles give hiring managers and other interviewers 30-60 minutes to determine whether an applicant is right for the position. Is that really enough time to get to know whether someone can truly help your business? Is that enough time to determine whether their resume is puffery, or if they truly have the innate ability to excel at your company?

I know you’re busy, and there’s never a great time to take a break from “productive” work to interview a prospective employee. But failing to take the time today can cost you countless hours and days of frustration down the road.

Spend a minimum of two hours with a candidate before making a hiring decision. Bradford D. Smart, author of the book Topgrading, would say that’s still not enough – that you should spend at least four hours getting to know prospective employees. Even if you do this with 3-4 well-chosen candidates, think about the impact that right person can have on your business, your own productivity and success down the road. Aren’t a few extra hours today worth that investment?

2. Ask for work product
Don’t just ask to see past work done, ask candidates to provide you with something new. Give them an assignment or challenge you’re currently grappling with, and ask them to come back to you with some great ideas and suggestions.

This isn’t about getting them to work for free. You’re not asking for a 20-page presentation on your new product launch. You’re simply asking for a demonstration of how smart, creative and productive this prospective new employee could be, with something that’s far more relevant to your own business than what’s currently in their resume.

Hungry candidates, especially in this market, will do this for you. Those who won’t do it probably aren’t right for your business anyway.

3. Demonstrate creativity
Every employee, at every level of your organization, will need to demonstrate creativity to be successful. Few projects go as planned, and even the most menial of tasks often require employees to make countless decisions on their own, every day.

Will your new employee have the chops to make those decisions on their own? And will they more often than not make the right decision for your business?

Think about interview questions that can demonstrate how creative each candidate is, relative to the role they will soon have. This can be related to the “work product” described above, or can be a handful of case study questions that help you literally watch how the candidate thinks.

Don’t worry if they get answers wrong, at least based on how you currently think about the business. Determining their creativity and problem-solving at this stage is more about how they think, rather than necessarily where they end up. Training and more intelligence about your unique business will improve their critical thinking skills. But you want an ideal candidate to be creative at their core.

4. How badly do they want it?
You want an employee who’s hungry. Not just hungry for a paycheck, but hungry to help your organization grow. Throughout the hiring process, how do your candidates demonstrate that hunger? Are they following up before and after the interview? What’s the content of that follow-up? Is it me-centric (“please give me this job”) or you-centric (reiterations of how they can help you succeed – new ideas, follow-ups on interview conversations, etc.).

There is, of course, a line between tenacity and annoyance. Someone who’s following up too often might be high maintenance on the job. But equally, a candidate who doesn’t follow up likely won’t have the tenacity and initiative on the job that you need.

5. Grace & inspiration under pressure
Resumes have been carefully crafted well in advance. Work samples carefully chosen, references vetted and prepared. Good job candidates work hard to put their best foot forward before they walk in your door, and the level to which they’ve prepared can itself tell you a lot about each candidate (good and bad).

But how that prospective hire reacts to impromptu questions and challenges gives you an altogether different and important perspective. Most interviews feature the same questions – tell me about your past, talk about a challenging situation you worked through, where do you want to be in five years, etc. Often times, even bad candidates will anticipate these questions and have great answers prepared.

But make sure you get a sense for how those candidates think on their feet, and how they react to pressure situations that put them on the spot. How they react – independent of how they answer the direct question – will give you an important glimpse into how they might react to real-time situations every day in your organization.

One of my favorite interview tactics is to ask a candidate if I can get them a drink, then leave them with a real-time challenge question as I walk away. I come back after 3-4 minutes and ask for the answer. The challenge should be unique to your organization (think “work product” if you want), but will demonstrate how the candidate thinks, and acts, under pressure.

6. Look behind the references
Every candidate has a handful of people from their past teed up to provide strong recommendations from their past work. You can pretty much guarantee you’ll hear the same thing from those they’ve listed or provided you. But even in that list, you can learn something the candidate may or may not have meant to imply.

Who are there references? What stage of the candidate’s career are they from – their most recent job, or a job 15 years ago? What level are the references – peers, mentors, managers, partners or customers?

I recently came across a resume for a salesperson where four of the five listed references were his past customers at a past job. His success is based on delighting customers, and his past customers were there with endorsements to prove it.

When looking at references provided, look for and explore the holes as well. If their immediately-past job isn’t reflected as a reference, and their search isn’t confidential, that’s a path worth following.

7. Check the online footprint
Smart hiring managers use resumes largely to get a sense for a candidate’s professional history, but use their online footprint to get a sense for the individual and personality they may be bringing into the workplace.

This starts with a Google search, but should extend to some of the other “usual suspects” where candidates typically lay their true personalities bare – Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more.

What do you find there? Any skeletons or red flags? Any signs that the individual may not live up to your company’s values? This gets to the issue of a candidate’s character, and it’s important. There’s no way character and personality separates itself from an individual when they walk into the office door. You need to know who you’re hiring beyond the resume.

8. Focus on the future, not the past
When it comes to a candidate’s professional experience and success, the best it can do is give a hint to what’s possible from the individual within your business. It’s critical that you translate that past experience to expected future performance by ensuring, during the interview & evaluation process, that the candidate can still speak to and exhibit the skills, insights, creativity and drive that made them successful previously.

Too many professionals, for whatever reason, lose their focus and drive at some point in their career. Past success, for them, doesn’t always predict future performance. By asking candidates about their real-time ideas, what they’ll do for you, how they would approach a new situation or challenge, you get a sense for how they think and act now, not back then.

And by doing this in the contexts described above (longer interviews, asking for work product, etc.), you’ll have a better sense up-front for whether the candidate can truly live up to what they’ve accomplished in the past.

9. Make sure compensation is correct
It’s a buyer’s market for new hires right now, but that doesn’t mean you can get sloppy with the compensation package. Today’s compensation trends are more dynamic than ever. In many industries and for many common roles, compensation growth trends have slowed. For other industries, however, compensation has actually accelerated.

Best to know for sure which is which for your new positions (and all positions in your organization for that matter). Use compensation data, surveys and tools to help you ensure the price you offer is the right price, possibly saving you on labor costs this year and beyond.