Poaching is an age-old "crime" in business, where one company or organization essentially steals the employees of another--and the act can leave major damage in its wake. Just look at what happened this past May, when Uber lured away forty highly skilled robotics experts from a leading research institute at Carnegie Mellon. The devastating loss, called a "crisis" by The Wall Street Journal, forced Carnegie Mellon to slash its expected annual contract revenue almost in half. Clearly, skilled talent is an incredibly valuable asset, and poaching of any magnitude can cause measurable harm.

You can take steps to prevent your talent from being poached--but you've got to act proactively. I say this because people tend to take a defensive stance and look at poaching as a question of what some other company is doing to your company. That's not how it works. Poached employees aren't abducted at gunpoint--they quit willingly. Granted, today's millennials aren't very likely to stay at your company more than 3-5 years; it's their reality that they need to change jobs to build their career. But you should be able to get those 3-5 years, minimum, from every person you hire. If they're poached before that time, they weren't happy with their jobs. And that's your fault.

So the question, then, is this: What can you do, from day one, to make your employees immune to your competitors' advances? Here are three tips.

1. Compensate competitively.

Research shows that when people select jobs, they base that decision primarily on money. But when they quit, it's rarely due to issues surrounding cash. They quit their bosses, or their company's vision or culture. They quit because, overall, they feel undervalued. That's why it's important to remember that money isn't the be-all and end-all when it comes to compensation.

You absolutely want to provide a salary that matches what surveys reflect for your local market--but make sure you use current and statistically significant surveys, because they're getting outdated fast these days. More importantly, if you want to preserve cash and you're able to consider other options, think about sweetening your compensation packages with equity in the company--employee stock options, perhaps, or (for those especially in-demand positions) restricted stock units (RSUs).

Other offerings can communicate the way you value your employees, too. The flexibility to work remotely is a hot commodity right now. And people always love great work/life benefits--such as an office located near great lunch spots or useful services like dry cleaners or child care. Better yet, be creative and bring some of those services into the office space to make your employees' lives easier. Even standard perks like health care, education credits, and retirement plans can be enhanced attractively if you can't compete purely on cash. Just be certain you're putting together an offer they can't refuse--and that no one else is likely to match.

2. Make the job a good one.

You don't want applicants to send you resumes because they want any job you can offer. You want them to want your specific job and all it entails. And you want them to stay put once you hire them. That's why your job must be a good product that highly skilled job shoppers want to use long after they make the purchase.

What's a good job? It's one that will advance their skills for the job that they'll take 3-5 years down the road, when they leave your company at the anticipated time. It's one that uses the latest tools, software, techniques, and technology. It's one that's dynamic and not static, one that doesn't involve doing the same thing every minute of every hour of every day of every week. But you've got to find that sweet spot, where employees feel sufficiently matched to their tasks. Over-challenging employees makes them anxious; no-brainer jobs make people bored. Anxious and bored employees are poachable.

3. Create a winning company culture.

People ask me all the time what company culture is. My standard answer is that company culture is defined by what your employees say on the weekends when they get together at a backyard barbecue. If they're saying they're excited about the company and its prospects, that it's fun to work there and the company cares about them, that leadership is visionary, that the company values success and winning, then you have a very positive culture. On the other hand, if people are talking about office politics, or how someone got a promotion and no one knows why, how the company isn't doing well--anything that perpetuates a rumor mill mentality--that's a bad company culture.

Top recruiters can sniff out a company's bad culture, and if they do, they'll poach your employees all day long. You have to build a positive culture. Be clear about where the company is going. What game is your company playing and against whom? What is the definition of winning? Think like a coach. Ask yourself what you can do, what the team can work together to do, to ensure you have a winning season. Coaches have to hold people accountable for winning, train people on how to win, and have a strategy in place.

While you can't attend all your employees' barbecues (and I don't recommend getting a drone to help you eavesdrop), there are tools like Tiny Pulse to help you take consistent, anonymous measurement of employee satisfaction. But know this: If you take those measurements, or if you solicit feedback, you have to act on it. The worst thing you can do is have a suggestion box and then ignore the suggestions.

Clearly, these are long-term solutions to the poaching problem. You can't approach this with short-term fix-its. And you have to start early--because by the time employees are agreeing to meet for interviews, it's likely too late to save them.

One final thing: Remember that work is a team sport. Yes, all employees are crucial to a company's success, from the receptionist to the CEO. But at the same time, all employees are indeed replaceable. Business is not, nor will it ever be, an individual sport where the outcome rests solely on the shoulders of some lone hero. So if you've done all you can and an employee is still stolen away, look at it as an opportunity to upgrade your company's talent.

Published on: Jun 25, 2015