Effective Approaches for Attracting Competitors’ Employees to Your Firm

By Dr. John Sullivan and Master Burnett

As the global war for talent continues to manifest itself in an ever-increasing manner of ways, a nasty practice left over from an era long ago continues to handcuff recruiting organizations around the world. The practice we speak of is the gentlemen’s agreement made between two organizations not to poach one another’s employees.

Once incredibly common among strategic partners, suppliers, resellers, and even direct competitors, such agreements can quickly isolate a large percentage of the suitable talent supply needed to fuel growth in an organization outside the direct reach of the companies’ recruiters.

Such agreements were always a nuisance but not a major obstacle impeding organizational growth when talent was in abundant supply, but that isn’t the case anymore. Today the worldwide demand for skilled labor has outpaced supply and the role of talent has changed. From the Industrial Age to the birth of the Information Age, talent was merely a resource, but as knowledge and the ability to continuously innovate have become primary differentiators for companies, the role of talent has significantly increased in importance. Today such agreements stand to do much more than constrain labor costs by preventing bidding wars for top talent? they stand to pre-determine the winners and the losers in the global battle for top talent.

Anti-poaching agreements do not ban the recruiting of employees from other organizations; they merely prohibit recruiters from directly sourcing such talent. If employees in other organizations reach out to recruiters on their own, they are fair game.

So the question arises: are there things that recruiters can do to encourage/convince targeted talent in non-approachable companies to “approach” them seeking employment opportunities? Luckily, the answer to that question is yes.

Tools for Acquiring Candidates Without Directly Recruiting Them

If you are a recruiter or recruiting manager who works for an organization handcuffed by archaic anti-poaching agreements, our first recommendation would be to quit and join a company that truly understands the value of top talent and is willing to fight hard for it.

Recruiting top talent is never easy, but strategizing, selecting tools, and initiating the chase is almost always fun unless you are prohibited from using the best approaches and tools. Recruiting top talent in an organization that doesn’t demonstrate its respect and desire for top talent is frustrating. It’s like fighting in a war where you are not able to plan or execute an offensive maneuver against your enemy. In other words, you’re always fighting defensively, not proactively.

In addition, since most companies do not have a formal retention program, fighting a war for talent in an organization covered by anti-poaching agreements is tantamount to lining your army up in plain site, unarmed, and instructing them to let the enemy do as they please.

However, if quitting isn’t an option, this article covers a variety of tools and approaches that individual recruiters and recruiting leaders can use to garner the attention of a talent competitor’s employees without directly contacting them.

Approach One: Employment Branding

Employment branding has been characterized by some as the science of establishing a velvet rope behind which talent will line up clamoring for an opportunity to be let inside, much like patrons at a hot night club; that’s a great characterization.

Employment branding is a far-reaching set of activities aimed at managing the employment opportunities put forth by a company much like a company manages the feature set of the products/services it produces to ensure desirability, and leveraging PR and marketing approaches/tools to make sure targeted segments of the labor force qualified to buy the products are aware of and desire them. Unlike direct sourcing, employment branding leverages indirect communication designed to influence targeted talent to reach out to you.

To increase the flow of inquiries from employees currently employed in un-approachable firms, consider the following:

  • Have your people-management tools and approaches “talked about” in the media. One of the best ways to get people to approach your firm is by developing and implementing exciting or “sexy” management tools and best practices. However, merely having them is not enough. Make sure that these tools, approaches, and processes are known about by the individuals you want to recruit. Secure mention of them in articles, television programs, and blogs that targeted talent are sure to see. When targeted talent sees that your firm’s practices are routinely written up and celebrated by leading authorities, they will develop a sense of interest that in time will influence them to proactively approach your firm.
  • Build interest by giving presentations at professional events. If you do it right, nothing is more powerful in attracting targeted talent than having an employee tell a compelling story designed specifically to resonate with the captive audience at an industry trade show or seminar. Having your CEO address an audience that doesn’t normally hear directly from C-level leaders is particularly effective. In fact, if you do it right, those speaking will be approached almost immediately following the presentation and throughout the event by some of the best employees currently employed in talent competing organizations provided your public figure doesn’t disappear immediately following his/her presentation. Remember, once they approach you about your firm’s opportunities, it’s perfectly ok to recruit them.
  • Increase interest by winning “excellent place to work” awards. Getting your firm listed as an excellent employer by Fortune, Working Mother, or BusinessWeek is something that is often noticed by everyone in your industry. If your firm’s ranking is superior to that of your talent competitors, you can most certainly expect a significant number of their employees to proactively approach your firm in order to find out how good your firm really is.

Approach Two: Employee Referrals

If you were to examine the social networks of your entire employee population, it is safe to say that your employees are already in direct contact with a significant portion of the population you as a recruiter are prohibited from reaching out to. Those existing connections represent a significant opportunity to influence targeted talent, one most organizations significantly underutilize.

The idea here is not to get your employees to directly source talent you can’t, but rather to leverage their existing connection to influence the targeted talent to ask your employee to refer them.

Some of the best referral-related approaches to accomplish this include:

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  • Develop a story inventory. As recruiters, you spend a good portion of your day figuring out new and effective ways to approach possible talent and position your organization as the best employment option. But for the most part, the rest of the employee population in your organization doesn’t. A survey conducted by us in 2007 that reached more than 15,000 employee referral program participants in a number of organizations found that more than 72% were uncomfortable and ill-prepared to talk to potential referrals about joining their company. If the idea is to influence others to approach you, they need to hear stories that lead them to believe what you can offer far exceeds what others can and what they already have. For that to happen, your employees need to be sharing stories within their network on a regular basis. If you aren’t working to make sure that “wow!” stories develop in your organization and are shared in a non-propaganda-like way, shame on you. For example, the question isn’t have you heard of a little company called Google, but rather how many stories have you heard?
  • Create “ask me!” buttons. One of the cheapest and most powerful tools for convincing a competitor’s employees to approach one of your employees is an “ask me about my firm” lapel button, t-shirt, backpack, etc. If you can convince your employees to wear them while traveling or attending a professional event, you’ll find that can be all it takes to get individuals to take the initiative to approach your firm. The phrases on the buttons can vary, but samples include “I’m proud to work at ______”; “I love my job at______”; “We’re hiring at ______”; or “Ask me about working at ______”. Incidentally, it might also increase your product sales opportunities. Increase the number of employees who are willing to wear these buttons by reminding your employees that it’s every employee’s job to be a 24/7 talent scout, and that anyone they introduce could earn them a referral bonus.
  • Refresh your referral program. Almost all employer referral programs lose their effectiveness within 18 months if they’re not periodically refreshed. If you are not hiring at least 30% of all external hires via your employee referral program, either your organization or your program needs serious work. One of the areas to focus on is educating your employees on the acceptable and unacceptable ways of approaching your competitor’s employees and communicating candidly about what talent is needed, how finding top talents benefits them, and what top talent might need to know to adequately be influenced.
  • Use referral cards. If your organization has a relatively loose anti-poaching agreement, encourage your employees to hand cards directly to individuals they run into whom they feel may make good additions to the company. Even if your organization is more conservative, referral cards are great sales tools. The key is to design them so that the individual receiving them feels special and unique when they are handed one. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD A REFERRAL CARD POINT SUCH TALENT TO THE WEBSITE TO FILL OUT THE SAME PAINFUL APPLICATION ANYONE COMING TO THE SITE UNINVITED WOULD FILL OUT. REMEMBER, THEY IMPRESSED US, SO WE SHOULD IMPRESS THEM.
  • Have former employees plant the seed. Many firms find that their former employees are more than willing to help in recruiting if only provided an opportunity and an incentive to do so. A corporate alumni group can encourage these individuals to either talk positively about your firm or to make direct referrals (with or without receiving a referral bonus). Because former employees are not recruiters or even employees, they can (in many cases) approach competitors’ employees without violating any agreement.
  • Have your vendors plant the seed. The employees of vendors who sell services and products to both you and your non-approachable talent competitor are a great resource. Influence them to spread the word about how great it is to work at your firm by making sure they hear the same “wow!” stories your employees hear. This effectively creates a Trojan horse capable of spreading your stories behind enemy lines, thereby influencing targeted talent to line up behind your velvet rope.

Approach Three: Web Attraction

Competitors routinely visit each other’s websites, and if they find your corporate site exciting, they might take a minute and flirt with your careers or jobs website, assuming that it allows flirting (i.e., the ability to interact in a personalized way without going all the way.)

Unfortunately, most corporate websites are pretty dull and do nearly everything possible to chase valuable talent away. There are a few sites demonstrating a new perspective, such as those operated by Google and Microsoft. Some of the Web-based approaches you should consider include:

  • “People like you work here” profiles. Almost every employee from a competitor wonders whether they would fit in at your firm. Demonstrate on your website that a significant number of people like them work for you. By providing names and profiles, you give visitors an opportunity to contact these individuals to find out more. If you provide compelling profiles of the success of these individuals (whether narrative or video), you can also excite them and convince them that they too would have an exciting future at your firm.
  • Wow!” them with a video. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a “moving picture” (a video on the Web) must be worth 10,000 words. If you really want a potential recruit to “feel” the excitement and passion at your organization there is no better approach than offering them an opportunity to view a video of your employees and what it’s like to work there. When you put these videos on your corporate site or on a popular site like YouTube, you will find that they are powerful attracting tools. Some of the best are offered by Google, Microsoft, Deloitte, and the U.S. Army.
  • Use blogs and social networks. Because most blogs and online communities allow visitors to comment, they provide an opportunity to engage in a real dialogue and to build relationships with a competitor’s employees. Google, Microsoft, and even Ernst & Young are excellent examples of firms that effectively use blogs and social networks to communicate their message.
  • Use a “friends of” newsletter. It’s only natural that a competitor’s employees would wonder about what’s going on at your firm. By offering visitors a chance to keep in touch and to learn more about the firm (even as a competitor), you can provide yourself with an opportunity to build a relationship with this person over time. The best mechanism for that is an e-newsletter (Google has one) which talks about products and things that are happening at the firm. In addition, once they have approached your firm and asked to receive more information, you can now actively recruit them under many anti-poaching agreements.
  • Research “answer guy” sites. The very best employees at your talent competitors are constantly seeking out best practices and answers to current problems. If your corporate website contains information that allows them to improve themselves, they will visit regularly and over time, begin to consider working there. As an alternative, you can sponsor an external “neutral” answer guy site or just develop a process to ensure that your best practices appear regularly on websites, chat rooms, and listservs that the best regularly visit.

Approach Four: Miscellaneous Approaches

  • Sponsor a professional event on your campus. If you can get your competitor’s employees on your campus, the number of opportunities to successfully WOW them increases dramatically. You can accomplish that goal by convincing local profession associations to hold their monthly meeting on your site, by sponsoring a learning event on your own, or by holding a “bring a colleague to work” event. Learning-focused open-house events often attract the curious from your talent competitors.
  • Wine festivals and social events. Cisco pioneered the process of “non-recruiting” at wine festivals and social events. Because your competitor’s employees attend these social events, they provide an opportunity for them to approach you without expecting to be recruited. Instead of recruiting, you have your employees build relationships. This relationship-building makes it more likely that one of these individuals will ask during the next day, week, month, or year “what it’s like to work at your firm.”
  • Trade fair booths. It’s quite common for your talent competitor’s employees to visit your firm’s booth at trade shows. Obviously, this is an opportunity to begin to build relationships. However, it’s also possible to provide a box for business cards which states “yes, I’d like to learn more about ______”. Once they put their business card in that box they have “approached” you and are now fair game. Offering a prize drawing can significantly increase the number of individuals who put their cards in your box.
  • University alumni events. Because most competitors recruit from the same schools, university and alumni events are great opportunities to run across your competitor’s employees. Use these events to build relationships, or encourage your employees to use them to find employer referrals. These events can include learning events, social events, or even sporting events.
  • Benchmarking opportunities. Individuals who contact your firm directly to learn about your best practices are considered by many firms as having “approached” your firm. If you have exciting practices to share, you will increase their interest in applying for an opportunity at your firm.
  • A “friends” program. If you want individuals to approach your firm, make it easy for them to find someone to contact. By posting on your website the names, titles, email addresses, or even the phone numbers of your professional employees who have volunteered and are willing to answer questions, you increase the likelihood that a competitor’s employee will call. In addition, you’ll find that an employee in a similar position is much more persuasive than any recruiter. If you have difficulty getting volunteers, offer them a referral bonus if the people they talk to are eventually hired.
  • Magnet hires. Targeting and hiring a single well-known star from a competitor can send a clear message to others that this is a place worth exploring.
  • Mentors. Continuing a mentoring relationship with college students who don’t actually join your firm can help convince them to someday approach you about joining your firm.
  • Praise their work. Sending brief comments to individuals praising their ideas (that are found in publications and on the Internet) can lead to future inquiries.
  • Reward those who interview. It’s difficult for individuals who work at a competitor to interview at your firm because it can cost them their job. If you reward those who come in for an interview for targeted professional positions with a dinner for two or a great bottle of wine, the word will spread rapidly throughout the industry. You can also help break down the barriers to interviewing by scheduling interviews at night, on weekends, or at professional events where most of the targeted individuals are already attending.
  • Contests to identify and build relationships. By holding contests (usually on the Internet), you can attract competitive individuals who wouldn’t normally consider applying for another job. Use the contest results to identify the best performers, and because they approached you, you can begin building a relationship with the best in order to eventually convince them to formally apply for a position.
  • Target a competitor’s “former” employees. If you’re super conservative (actually you shouldn’t be in recruiting if you’re super conservative) you can avoid almost all criticism if you target individuals who are leaving, or have already left, your competitor. These individuals were still trained by and still know the best practices at your competitor but because they’re not current employees, no one can accuse you of poaching. You can use social networks like Linkedin, Facebook, or MySpace to identify these individuals. Or ask successful hires from your competitors “who left recently?” and “who else is good?” that we should subtly target.

Final Thoughts

Great recruiters tend to be extremely competitive people and often find it unbelievably frustrating to work in an environment that handcuffs their ability to build the best organization possible.

Organizations that continue to forge or honor anti-poaching agreements are doing themselves a great disservice and sending a message to everyone that acquiring the best talent really isn’t important to them. Maybe they fear they can’t compete in an open talent market, or maybe they are still operating under the insanely asinine belief that containing labor costs a few percentage points is more important than securing top talent capable of delivering 200% to 300% more return.

Regardless, such leaders should be asked to step aside. We know it’s unlikely that people with engrained beliefs will step aside regardless how antiquated their thinking may be. So the question becomes how to manage in spite of the restrictions. We hope these thoughts help and encourage you to share your own with others.

Dr. John Sullivan

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.