Is it possible to use “ethical” and “poaching” in the same sentence? These days, the hunt for qualified talent is ruthless. Many businesses think nothing of covertly recruiting employees of choice away from competitors. For TAB Members, dedicated to running their companies as honestly and transparently as possible, the issue is more complicated. Is there a way to poach a gifted employee from another organization and emerge with your reputation for integrity intact?
Here are factors to consider before embarking down this path:
Certain limits shouldn’t be breached. First off, it’s unwise to poach another company’s employee when the negative consequences outweigh the benefits. “If an employee works for a business partner or vendor, you’ll likely find the lost business connection is far more costly than losing the great employee,” notes digital media consultant John Boitnott, who concludes that “you’re smarter not to hire someone who will cost your business more money in the long term.”
The most clearly unethical tactics include going after an employee to whom you were introduced by others in that person’s organization, thinking the introduction would help your company to work together. That’s a betrayal of trust that’s very hard to live down—as is the tactic of actively smearing a competitor in order to entice a desirable employee away.
Look for non-compete agreements. Before pursuing a targeted employee from a competitor, make sure he or she is legally permitted to work for you. Some employees sign non-compete agreements that forbid the individual from working for a competing business for a set period of time. If you suspect such an agreement exists (or there’s an brief anti-poaching clause in that person’s contract), consult your attorney before doing anything else.
Explore the “employee referral” option. For business leaders bent on conducting themselves honestly, another option is promoting employee referrals within their organizations. An employee who refers the name of someone working for another business can’t make any promises or commitments, and is only raising the possibility of considering a new employment option. No ethical breach is involved.
“An employee asking a good friend or colleague is considered ethical by most companies,” notes HR strategist Danny Kellman. “The employee referral method is more ethical than using recruiting agencies with bad value systems.”
Enlist the services of a reputable search firm. Of course, most recruiting agencies don’t resort to underhanded recruitment techniques. By hiring a reputable search firm to locate your ideal candidate, you maintain an ethical distance from any association with poaching.
Spread the word in your professional network. Another option is letting everyone in your professional network know that you’re seeking candidates with particular skills and have those individuals contact you, rather than the other way around.
If such a person steps forward—and happens to be employed at a colleague’s company—you can approach that colleague and respectfully request permission to explore new opportunities with the individual in question. Should your colleague agree to let the process continue, then everything’s above-board and transparent. If your colleague objects, probably the wisest move is to abandon further discussions with that individual.
You still need to make a persuasive case for a candidate to leave. Even engaging in an ethical approach to poaching doesn’t guarantee a desired outcome. You still need to sell your company to the prospective candidate. Obviously, writes Hilary Johnson at Inc., that person’s first question is, “why should they leave their job and join you? You need to make your opportunity sound more attractive than what they’ve already got.”
One final cautionary note: Remember that, as you consider the pros and cons of poaching employees from others, many organizations are contemplating the same approach towards your top performers. Of course, it’s impossible to control the actions of the people who work for you, but if you’ve created a culture that promotes career development and personal achievement, you probably have less to worry about than companies with a dysfunctional environment.