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Definition: The practice of having certain job functions done outside a company instead of having an in-house department or employee handle them; functions can be outsourced to either a company or an individual

Outsourcing has become a major trend in human resources over the past decade. It's the practice of sending certain job functions outside a company instead of handling them in house. More and more companies, large and small, are turning to outsourcing as a way to grow while restraining payroll and overhead costs. How can you make it work for your business?

First, make sure the company you're hiring can really do the job. That means getting (and checking) references. Ask former or current clients about their satisfaction with the client. Find out what industries and what type of workload the firm or individual is accustomed to handling. Can you expect your deadlines to be met, or will your small business's projects be pushed aside if a bigger client has an emergency?

Also, make sure you feel comfortable with who will be doing the work and that you can discuss your concerns and needs openly. Ask to see samples of work if appropriate (if you're using a graphic design firm, for example).

One outsourcing option is to hire independent contractors. Instead of hiring an in-house bookkeeper, for example, you might outsource the job to an independent accountant who comes in once a month or does all the work off-site. Independent contractors can be more flexible and lower in cost than outsourcing firms. As with outsourcing firms, however, before hiring an independent contractor, make sure the individual you use can do the job.

If your outsourcing needs are handled by an individual, you're dealing with an independent contractor. The IRS has stringent rules regulating exactly who is and is not considered an independent contractor. The risk: If you consider a person an independent contractor and the IRS later reclassifies him or her as an employee, you could be liable for that person's Social Security taxes and a wide range of other costs and penalties.

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