Idealpeople Blog: How to prevent your staff from being headhunted

Sunday, October 7, 2007

How to prevent your staff from being headhunted

There isn't a business we know which is totally recruiterproof. Getting your people 'stolen', 'poached', 'pinched' or otherwise taken by a competitor, or even a non-competitor, really really sucks.

This is possibly a strange set of tips for a Recruitment Company to give away. We aren't here to make excuses for what we do, or even re-bottle and perfume it as 'Executive Search'. We are here because we feel business often fail to recognise and implement simple steps to stop people from soliciting away your top performing, A-player people.

Why are you telling us this?
Well, even we get headhunted - the shortage of good recruiters is a serious one. But we also have a *unique* insight into how to stop Headhunters from taking people away.

Estimates from the likes of the CIPD (That's the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) are that it costs a whole bundle of money to replace someone, and we aren't just talking about the Recruiter Fee to replace (typically 25% of base salary component) but also the Management time spent devising the new job specification, screening CVs and interviewing - all of which adds up to lost productivity. Then there's the intangibles such as 'emotional attrition' - AKA blows to morale - from key or popular people leaving. Some estimates suggest that when really key people leave, the loss can be as high as 150% of a candidate's base salary component. Think about a seriously high-performing salesperson who manages your major accounts and 'owns' the relationship, a CIO or even a CEO. And let's be honest - the majority of Headhunters and Recruiters won't be chasing your average or lacklustre performers, they will be after the top 25% - the people who are most aligned to your profit margins and who drive your success. Worse still, the more visible your business is, either through great PR, Reputation or just plain old size, the more open you are to approaches from the Poachers, Recruiters, Headhunters, or believe it or not Staffing or Recruiting Managers at Competitors who are under instruction to "go and find the best".

With this in mind, welcome to our tips on how to avoid Headhunters.

Train the Gatekeeper
Sounds obvious, but training the receptionist to act as a true gatekeeper against Sourcing Consultants isn't often done properly. A good Sleuth will be smart enough to use clever, vague, and even downright deceptive techniques to hurdle over the person who picks up the main switchboard. Many companies, perhaps the majority, already have no-names policies, no direct-line, no-email policies - but this alone isn't enough.

Train your receptionist to be smart and vigilant. Train them to do all of these things:

- No names policy (In defence to "what's the name of your X Manager")
- No email policy (In defence of "I have an important email for Ms X but I don't think I have written down her mail right...can you please tell me what it is")
No direct lines policy (In defence of "what's the direct line for Ms X?" )
- Tell them to maintain their apparently pleasant demeanour to all callers but be inwardly wary that they might not be all they appear to be.
- To be resistant to angry people, and always be calm, sticking to protocol. (It's not unheard of for a recruiter to call under such pretexts as acting like a customer or potential customer).
- To be on the lookout for the same person calling, say, more than 3 times in an hour and asking for more than 5-7 names.
- To be especially suspicious of people who call for people who used to work for your company years ago.
- To always, even when the board is lighting up with calls, ask the name of the person, and the reason for their call before putting them through. An inexperienced recruiter may lose bottle and look for an alternative method.

Engage with your People
Employee Engagement is a favourite HR buzzword of recent years. However, it's the most important means of keeping your people motivated, and IN your business. Engagement is achieved by managing people in an inclusive fashion, aligning your business drivers and objectives with their own aspirations and goals.

It sounds like an impossible vision, but many companies (look at any of those with very low attrition and/or unusually high profits) do manage it. This issue will be discussed in more fitting space, as it's a heavy topic, but even if you think it's unrealistic or simply aspirational to achieve, think again, and make your first priority being an 'inclusive', 'enjoyable' and 'engaging' business.

People who are bought into your business, who are treated fairly, who know you care, who are well managed, developed, empowered and challenged usually won't be tempted to leave.

Find out why people are quitting - and listen
It makes me ashamed to say that a only a slight majority of businesses conduct even the most basic of exit interviews. It's not just sensible from a legal perspective - it's pretty damn important. So do them.

Dig deeper into why they are quitting and you have a means to address the problem. Further still, if appropriate - get the leaver to give you the name of the firm who bought the person, the name of the company they are joining, what they will be doing etc. Find out the name of the Headhunter and the name of their Company.

OK, so they won't always tell you but it doesn't hurt to ask, now that they are leaving they might feel they have little to lose by talking, especially if they have some residual loyalty. I have read about a company who did this, and saw a pattern of people leaving via a staffing firm one manager in this FTSE company was actually using! Now, we are certain this was an isolated case of disgusting malpractice, but had they not asked the question of the leaver, recording the results - they might never have known.

Get to know the Headhunters in your Sector
We're not talking about the ones you already give work to. We are talking about the bad ones with your business in their sights and a laser beam, telescopic, infra-red, super megapixel image renderer attached for 100% accuracy. You won't ever know all of them, but Search people tend to work specific (sometimes niche) markets and by knowing the names, and firms, you can at least 'be prepared'.

Don't make counter-offers - pay people what they are worth
Making a counter offer might seem like a good idea in some business-critical situations involving a key member of staff. With only rare exception, the best policy is never to make a counter offer. They only breed resentment from staff who feel abridged that they weren't paid that before, and colleagues who hear gossip that X has had a payrise will spread like wildfire. Soon lots of people will threaten to leave, with silent demands for a hike in salary. Paying people what they are worth might also sound like a tough, although noble objective, but there are ways and means of ensuring you are competitive payers.

Create an environment of confidentiality - beware the insider
The best headhunters obtain qualified referrals, and not always from people outside of the company, but sometimes from within. This is very dangerous and can lead to poaching of entire teams in the worst cases. This can spell disaster - so to prevent this, don't just contractually bind them to keep company secrets and identities of individuals from headhunters - emotionally bind them by reinforcing the notion that the competitiveness of the business - and ultimately this influences their take home pay, career prospects, training budgets lies within the loyalty and ultimately discretion of all the staff. Ensure that discretion is a norm in your business. Keeping secrets is good. It's not enough to just create a policy document, it's important to keep it's visibility high to both existing staff and new starters.

Incentive Schemes - "Report the Headhunter"
One tactic to try is the "report the headhunter" incentive scheme. This involves offering some sort of incentive to anyone who reports names of Headhunters who have been calling them back to HR. We came across one company who offered money for every confirmed contact (they set it up so that the employee would have to provide e-mail or other written proof of the contact) with a Headhunter. The found out quite a lot about what was going on - and managed to identify a number of their own suppliers who were trying to Headhunt people out.

Be aware of - but don't ban, Social Networks
Facebook, Bebo, MySpace, and perhaps most significantly Linkedin, are regularly harnessed by Headhunters looking for talent. Be aware that they exist and are a very real channel for losing staff who are 'extra visible'.

Ask them not to do it
Despite some of the prevailing negative assumptions about the ethics of Headhunters, the majority are just people at the end of the day, and may respond positively to a request to "Just leave us alone" - especially if the request is a call to the Headhunter. We suggest that the majority would simply stop after a letter or a polite phone call from a senior manager at your company.

Voicemail & "Out Of Office" logic
Don't get people to leave their mobile numbers on their voicemail. Even more importantly is not to give too much away on bounce 'out of office reply' on emails.

1 comment:

Jon Mell said...

I think this is a great post, and a fantastic Enterprise 2.0 idea for a recruitment company to come up with it!

I especially agree with your points around exit interviews. Time and time again I have been them either not happen, or conducted very badly from both sides of the fence. Not only does it prevent the employer from understanding what went wrong, but there are several cases of employees returning to companies that they have left, but this is less likely if they feel the company never took their reasons for leaving seriously in the first place!