With the labor market so tight, recruiting the best people from the competition is not only necessary, butalso a smart move, some experts say. But employers need to make sure that they don' t cross legal andethical lines.

"Poaching is the strategy to do because of the low unemployment rate," John Sullivan, the head of thehuman resource management program at San Francisco State University, tells Recruiting Trends. "Whenthe rate is 10%, you don' t have to poach. But if it' s 1%, you don' t have a choice."

But, Sullivan says, there are limits. Employers need to be especially cautious when they are looking torecruit from their key customers or suppliers.

Several companies, most notably Amazon.com and Drugstore.com, have had to defend their recruitingpractices in court. Poaching becomes illegal when a company recruits with "the intention of pulling awayemployees in order to substantially damage a competitor," says Anne Covey, the owner and principal ofCovey & Associates based in Manasquan, NJ.

"Generally we' re talking about employees who have a technical ability or something unique in nature thatyou are seeking which will get at the essence of the competitor," says Covey.

Sometimes it is a smart move to go after the best people in a targeted organization, says Catherine D.Fyock, president of Innovative Management Concepts, a recruiting and retention consulting firm based inCrestwood, KY. "But to rely on poaching as a long-term strategy is really foolhardy."

Is He Yours or Mine?

In some situations it can become a vicious game of employee swapping, which then hurts both companies.At one point, Macy' s and Bloomingdale's "were just trading employees and it got to be totallynon-productive," Fyock says. After developing a gentleman' s agreement, they realized the need tocultivate and bring fresh talent into the industry as a whole.

Human resource directors should take care not to act like third-party recruiters, says Amy Kolodny, an HRconsultant based in Green Brook, NJ. "I feel that HR professionals need to tread lightly in the area because theHR community always tries to forge good relations with the HR departments of their competitors," saysKolodny, who previously worked in HR in the publishing industry. "These relationships come in handywhen you need industry survey information."

Poacher Prevention Strategy

The best way to shield prized employees from the sticky fingers of a corporate raider is to do a survey on who on staff is poachable, says Sullivan. "Most companies have search firms that work for them. Ask them, ' I want you to look at my people and tell me who is vulnerable. Who are the other firmslooking at?' "

Corporate recruiters should take a step back to review the skills and types of employees they are looking to hire and then compare that to who is already onstaff, Sullivan says. "Re-recruit. Sit down with them. Come up with a growth plan so that they will continue to learn and grow."

Sullivan' s tips on reducing turnover are:

  • Reward managers for keeping good people and if possible reward entire teams.
  • Train managers that employees leave when they' re not rewarded, thanked or given opportunities to learn.
  • Keep tabs on people who have a pattern of leaving. If Joe Smith seems to hop to another job every 18 months, approach him at his 17th month.
Fyock says to use humor and creativity when defending against a raider. A few years ago, recruiters fromone organization approached the employees of its competitors and handed out business cards. The competitor offered a $25 bonus for anyone who turned inthe business card.

"It turned the business card not into an opportunity for another job, but instant cash. It changed the whole mood. Concurrently, they said, ' We want to keepyou,' and had created a retention task force."

Smart employers prepare for the turnover. For example, Intel has a great replacement and training program, Sullivan says. "If you have five Michael Jordansand four positions and you lose one, it' s not a big deal."In addition, many of those who leave "boomerang" back, Sullivan adds. Those are the ones who will tell his co-workers what he saw on the outside and howgood they have it now.

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