Don’t Blame The Headhunters — Get Better at Keeping Your Employees

Jan 29, 2013

iStock_000016676143XSmallWhile working in-house as a headhunter (the real market-mapping and cold-call headhunting “headhunter”) I often got asked the question about the ethics of direct headhunting from competitors. When I was giving a talk on the value of in-house headhunting at the 2012 Fall ERE conference in Miami, someone in the audience actually asked me this very question, “Do you think it’s ethical to headhunt from competitors?”

Naturally I smiled because I don’t consider it a question of ethics at all. I would go so far as to say it’s unethical to prevent companies from headhunting directly from competitors, because companies don’t own people. People just have a contractual obligation to work there until the time comes for them to decide that it’s time to move on. Choice and freedom are fundamental human rights in most developed countries!

Don’t just take my bullish pro-direct sourcing word for it though. As many of you will have read previously, in September 2010 The U.S. Justice Department settled with Google, Apple, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, and Pixar over claims they colluded to not “poach” from each other (cold call each-others staff). Yes, the U.S. Justice Department pursued these companies for agreeing to not cold call each other on grounds that it was anti-competitive for the labor market.

In a statement released by the U.S. Justice Department on September 24, 2010, Molly S. Boast, deputy assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division said, “The agreements challenged here restrained competition for affected employees without any procompetitive justification and distorted the competitive process.” “The proposed settlement resolves the department’s antitrust concerns with regard to these no solicitation agreements.”

In a blog post, Google Associate General Counsel Amy Lambert said: “While there’s no evidence that our policy hindered hiring or affected wages, we abandoned our ‘no cold calling’ policy in late 2009 once the Justice Department raised concerns, and are happy to continue with this approach as part of this settlement.”

Now in July of last year a group of individuals have filed a similar case against some of the same companies and this time the trial is going ahead.

People outside of the recruitment industry, and even some inside the industry who don’t understand headhunting, use the word “poaching” which to me conjures up images of fishermen under the cover of darkness stealing fish from a private lake. If this word correctly described both practices, you would have headhunters doing all of their recruiting in the winter months when it was dark by 5 p.m., so they could hunt the unsuspecting competitor employees under the cover of darkness as they were innocently leaving their place of work.

Headhunting is not poaching. Poaching implies that the target prey or in this case employee, is taken against their will, or is illegal.

But no senior exec leaves a firm because they were bullied and pestered by a headhunter to move. Good professional headhunters approach potential senior candidates, call them, and in that first conversation establish first of all if they are open to a conversation about a potential career move at the moment. If they say they’re not, the headhunter may ask permission to tell them a bit about the role to establish who else may be in that person’s network to call, at which point the target may reconsider his or her response based on the information they just heard. That’s it! Consent to enter the discussion is sought and if not given, the conversation ends there. Whether that’s done by a direct competitor or through a third party, it’s all the same thing.

If it is so unethical for corporate firms to go and headhunt themselves from their competitors (and the U.S. Justice department disagrees with you!), why is it therefore ethical for almost every single Fortune 500 company to still engage senior-level headhunters to find their executives? Is it more ethical because a third party is doing the calls that your firm has instructed them to make?

In the criminal world, you’re still considered as bad as the person who pulled the trigger if you hired the hit man to do it. The person who hires the hit man can’t just stand there in court and say, “well I didn’t do it your honor, I paid this man to do it so it’s all his fault.” Isn’t the hirer just as guilty as the hitman himself because he ultimately instructed “the hit” in the first place?  So why after 70+ years of professional headhunting, when we do look to take the initiative in-house, are we all of a sudden dealing out the ethics card?

The healthy way to deal with the threat of headhunters coming to poach your staff is simply by creating the best possible work environment for your employees. That responsibility falls with every single employee in the company, starting at the top, inspiring people to want to not just join the firm, but to stay there. Good people are always going to be pursued by other companies. Smart headhunters either in-house or external, will know their market very well and know where the best people are, and will come knocking if your company has the star employee(s).

The in-house recruiting teams can play a huge part in creating that work environment, starting with the candidate experience.

  • Train the actual hiring managers how to interview and how to best represent your brand. Not just training, but sitting in on interviews and giving constructive feedback.
  • Having a structured end-to-end interview process in place where candidates aren’t faced with countless repeat interviews where too many people can’t reach a consensus on a hiring decision.
  • Having a clear and well-defined feedback policy for all candidates who come to interview with a service level agreement that hiring managers must adhere to in terms of providing feedback.
  • Having a first class onboarding process with adequate feedback channels to be able to track in real time, the effectiveness of them, and the satisfaction of the newly onboarded candidates.
  • Working with your own recruiters and suppliers to maintain accurate and up-to-date competitor salary and benefits information and leaning on the business to take action to maintain a competitive environment.

Obviously it takes a lot more than the in-house recruiting team doing a good job to keep your employees, but ultimately good people should be able to decide their own career fate, not their captor employers. Your company will no doubt have benefited at some point in the past few years from a star candidate being approached at another firm to come and work for yours, so it works both ways.

Rather than trying to fight off the headhunters, we can all be doing a lot more work to improve our internal processes and be more attractive to potential employees and our existing employees. The more we work on this, the less chance there is of your good employees leaving. So let the external and competitor headhunters come knocking. If your employees are leaving in droves, don’t blame the headhunters; your competitors just want to take better care of your employees.

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