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The Search for Talent: Why You Shouldn’t Worry about Poaching Employees

This article on stealing employees first appeared on December 12, 2018, and was updated to reflect new information on poaching employees on Jul 5, 2021.

Companies want to hire the best talent, but many fear being labeled as a company that disrespects other businesses. The practice of hiring employees who are already working for a company is called “poaching.” Some may even call it “stealing.” The connotation is negative, but it shouldn’t be.

Firstly, what is poaching?

"Employee Poaching" is the act of a company hiring current or former employees from another company. This happens often in growing industries that require specialized skills.

Why do companies poach employees?

"Poaching is when a company hires an employee from another company without going through an official hiring process. This can sometimes happen in the form of an internal transfer or by offering someone more money to leave their current position."

73% of job seekers are passive candidates. That means fear of poaching an employee who has a job but is still open to new and better opportunities could effectively remove a quarter of the job market from your search. That’s not how you find the best talent.

How is poaching different from recruiting passive candidates?
There’s a big difference between poaching and recruiting passive candidates.

Recruiting passive candidates is going after talent that is already employed elsewhere. This could be from your competitors or companies who have the same type of role but just different job requirements (i.e., a larger company with more perks than yours).

Occupational change is a common reason for seeking an employer. Employers who need to hire these passive prospects are missing out on great opportunities if they don't explore their skill sets and seek out the best candidate. Never be afraid to "poach" from other companies or industries as long as you're confident that person will be beneficial for your organization.

Recruiters often find successful, skilled workers through an “active candidate” strategy. But one of the most efficient ways to source a highly desirable employee is with a "passive candidate" approach. Recruiters sometimes refer to this technique as poaching (but we discuss why that's not precisely true down below) when they hire an individual (or team) away from another company.

With 73% of job seekers being passive candidates, you’re missing out on 3/4ths of the best talent if you’re afraid of “poaching” employees. Here’s why @RevealGlobal thinks you should be poaching the best talent no matter what: @RevealGlobal
The phrase, "poaching employees," and the insinuation that recruiters/sourcers are doing something wrong when targeting passive talent has always been the only motivation I need to get on my soapbox about this distorted view.

"Poaching" Employees

Let me first state that I don't necessarily get frustrated when ignorance shows up in this manner. After all, ignorance is simple and benign on most occasions. My soapbox usually allows me the opportunity to counsel someone to another view that they may not have considered.

However, it is easy to get frustrated when someone is overly rigid in a belief system behind language such as this to the extent that their beliefs are designed to serve their interests only (i.e., "don't take 'my' employees but I'll take 'yours'").

This is not only an unethical, unfair approach to recruiting and hiring, it's also a very silly way to do business. Even if employees sign a non-compete agreement, they maintain autonomy and agency, which allows them to choose employment elsewhere when opportunities arise.

So why is the threat of losing employees a good thing?

The threat of being without an employee keeps the labor market healthy and incentivizes employers to treat (and pay) their workers well.

Poaching Connotes Ownership

With that said, let's begin with the fact that employees are not property. “Poaching” and “stealing “ both imply some form of ownership. I'd be willing to bet my next, big client engagement that the very people that make this statement would take offense to the suggestion that they too were owned by their company.

"Poaching" = Taking Without Permission, Right?

In the context of recruiting and hiring, employees are free to solicit other jobs whenever they want. If you have a workplace that is conducive to loyal workers, then turnover should not be an issue in your business.

Allow me to challenge you to offer this logic to the next person that speaks of "stealing" or "poaching" or "raiding". Help them, educate them, and ask them, "At any time during which you have been employed by a company, did you feel 'owned' by that company?"

It's important to note that people don't need permission from their current employer in order to find a better job. Most employees (those likely to be the target of other companies) are extremely intelligent and goal-oriented individuals. They have their own needs, wants, and aspirations which should cost you nothing but appreciation for the fact that they continue to work with your company.

Watch Your Recruiting Language

Another interesting ideology, and accompanying lexicon, is how companies refer to the employees that choose to work for them. "Our people are our most valuable assets'' is an interesting phrase and is often stated by companies as a compliment to the level of talent working with them.

"Our people are our most valuable assets''

This statement also suggests pride by the employer in the belief that they have done well in the business of attracting and retaining talented and impressive people that can serve their customers exceptionally well.

This is a nice sentiment, but I would challenge the maxim on this perspective.

In fact, go ahead and take out your LinkedIn search tool and see if you can find any companies that advertise job openings with the words "our people are our most valuable assets''. Not only are you not likely to find those terms used together (as they don't go together), you will not find the word "people" used at all.

Granted, there are some companies out there that do consider their employees as assets (and would admit to it.) However, for every one of those companies, there are 10 that would never consider using this language if a job opening was being advertised.

By now, you should see the issue with how we use language in relation to our employees and how they are valuable to us as employers.

I think this phrase was actually born out of benevolence but the incremental effect is almost imperceptible (brainwashing) and amounts to many employees being lulled into the same language and associated beliefs about how "taking talent" is somehow wrong.

Human Capital & Other Problematic Phrases for Talent

"Human Capital'' is another not-so-benevolent phrase that doesn't really bother me (or many others). It's almost short-hand for the "our most valuable assets" version.

However, it does have an impersonal smack of debits, credits, balance sheets, P&L, and let's go ahead and throw in, "bums in seats''. Again, the incremental effect here is that large employers, in particular, are experts at programming us without even intending to do so.

I spent 15 years recruiting and sourcing conventional and leadership roles for a corporation. I've said all of these, and more, including the dreaded (by some...but not me) "Talent Acquisition".

You see, these phrases are probably just harmless buzzwords and lingo you're familiar with. However, your employee might be offended by your use of this language.

Employers should avoid language that connotes ownership of people. Employers are not entitled to their employees and this is especially true when they use the following phrases: "our people are our most valuable assets" or "human capital".

Language like this programs us without even intending to do so; it lulls employees into a sense that taking talent from another company is wrong. It's an incremental effect where many employers, in particular, have become experts at programming us with words such as 'people' being associated with being owned by a company (or feeling owed something) instead of someone who chooses to work for them.

Extending Offers to Passive Candidates

I'll also confess that, as sure as you are reading this article, I will most certainly use these phrases again but you'll never hear me say "stealing employees'' unless it's intended to be a punchline.

At the risk of contradicting myself, there is an emergence of alternative terms that are accurately describing the realities of technology and strategy coming together in a very cool fashion.

Those responsible for Talent Communities, Employer Branding, Talent Strategy, and Talent Management, to name a few, are doing very interesting work and their titles reflect the actual work being performed without appearing to sidestep potentially sensitive language.

They are using more objective and accurate terminology that is a reflection of how we live, work, and play.

Poaching employees, though sometimes frowned upon, is actually one of the best ways to find passive talent. In their latest article, @RevealGlobal explains why “poaching” is not to be feared.@RevealGlobal

Is Poaching Employees Illegal?

Let's first examine the policies in place to discourage poaching employees. If you have been in recruiting/sourcing for any length of time, you've heard the phrases, "hands-off policy" or "off-limits policy" with regard to companies from which one should not directly recruit. Again, the intent behind these policies is often coming from the right place.

When the term "no-poaching" came to prominence in 2010, it was a result of an investigation into major tech companies who were suppressing or attempting to suppress the recruitment and movement of their highest-profile employees.

The investigation found that these companies had agreed not to solicit each other’s employees, a practice known as “cold calling.” These companies subsequently agreed to stop enacting recruitment agreements with their competitors.

Today, the avoidance of poaching is usually about a customer-supplier relationship that would be jeopardized if the customer, for instance, recruited from the supplier. Consider the example of a large corporation and its audit firm. It's simply poor judgment to recruit an auditor of that firm directly into the internal audit department of the corporation they are auditing.

At times, the fact that this is poor judgment is discussed so often that people actually believe there is a legal barrier in place when this is simply not true. So, the informed recruiting/sourcing professional knows to ask the question: "Is there an actual, legal policy or are we talking about poor judgment?"

There is a fine line here between intent and impact. If the intent is truly to maintain a healthy customer-supplier relationship, this is understandable. However, if the impact on a free labor market is controlled by compensation levels, an acceptable resolution becomes more than complicated.

Sensible Passive Recruiting Solutions

The best attempt at a reasonable solution, albeit far from "perfect" is perhaps in practice amongst some of the same companies spotlighted in the articles (and others not mentioned).


Poach Away!

With a little more perspective, I wish you much success in "poaching" as many employees as you can, acquiring the "most valuable assets" of another company, and taking their "human capital".

By the way, please don't poach “my" employees at Reveal!

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