“Poaching” Employees: How To, When To

A talented young executive (let’s call him “Ralph”), having had, perhaps, a bit too much to drink at a business function, admitted to the manager of a different division of his company that he was not entirely happy with his situation and was unsure about his future. Within a week, the manager approached Ralph and encouraged him to “consider” moving over. The manager didn’t feel that he was doing anything wrong. “Ralph was probably going to leave anyway,” he told me. “I felt I was saving him, not taking anything away from my colleague.”

Of course, the manager whose employee was being solicited didn’t see it that way. He felt betrayed. In his view, his colleague was stealing a very valuable corporate asset — a potential superstar in whom he had invested tens of thousands of dollars and years of training. I was a bit annoyed at everyone — the poacher for being a poacher, Ralph for taking advantage of the situation, and the poach-ee for not having been aware of Ralph’s discontent.

Encouraging employees to defect is a bad policy. It is obviously bad for the victim — the executive whose invested time, expertise, and money have been stolen from him. It is also bad for the thief, who, for the sake of some potential talent, creates an enemy. It’s bad too for the employee who, in betraying the loyalty that he owes his mentor, establishes a habit and a reputation to go with it that will eventually undermine his future. Poaching is a kind of stealing, and, like stealing, it violates the “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you Golden Rule.

This idea — that we should act in such a way that we would be OK with others acting the same toward us — is the basic principle of all longstanding ethical principles. And for good reason: It works. It links the interest of the individual with the interest of the community. Imagine how you would feel if, having spent 18 months teaching and coaching and sharing all your best business secrets with some smart young person, you were to discover that a colleague or competitor — someone you were amiably doing business with — had been secretly talking to him about leaving you and joining him? You’d probably want to retaliate in some way. I understand that — but I don’t recommend it. Doing so wouldn’t do anybody — including you — any good.

Here’s my general take on this subject:

1. Don’t steal employees. If you meet someone that you’d like to hire, tell him how much you like him, how impressed you are with him, and so on. But do not offer him a job. When you cross that line, you do something that can’t be excused and probably won’t be forgiven. And it’s not necessary. If the individual is half as smart as you think he is, he will interpret your praise as an open invitation to see you should he decide to leave his current employer. That’s the objective: You want to offer him a job after, not before, he’s decided to leave.

2. If someone is stolen from you, don’t take any immediate action. You may do something you’ll later regret. Contact the parties involved and attempt to understand what happened as well as you can. Refrain from making accusations or criticisms. Once some time has passed and you’ve come to a conclusion about who did what and why, you can decide whether you want to do absolutely nothing about it or execute some sort of low-key “if you can do it to me, I can do it to you” reprisal.

3. If you are unhappy with your current employer, tell him so before you actively solicit other work. Don’t say anything foolish — speaking to your boss in a way that could get you fired — but do let him know that you are unhappy and why. You need to do this not only to be honest and ethical but also because you might provoke a positive change in your working circumstances. Treat the good employees you have like gold by providing them with slightly higher than market salaries, sincere and relevant praise, heartfelt advice, and plenty of working freedom, and they will stick with you. When you need new employees, don’t pick from your neighbor’s garden.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]