This month, Miss Conduct (Elaine Sternberg) offers guidance to troubled readers on headhunters and mission statements.
Dear Miss Conduct
A headhunter has suggested that I poach a team from a rival firm, but my chief assistant claims that 'poaching' is immoral. Who is right?
Wondering of Wimbledon
Unlike cultivated game birds, employees are not someone else's private property. Nor does winning them over by offering improved terms constitute 'capture by illicit or unsportsmanlike methods'. So don't let the metaphor of 'poaching' mislead you: in business, getting staff to change jobs is evidence of a competitive labour market, not stealing.
Historically, of course, firms in some industries have had informal agreements not to hire staff away from each other. Cosy though such arrangements undoubtedly might be, they are, however, illegal when they prevent competition and immoral when they stop businesses from maximising long-term owner value. Remember, the duty of loyalty you owe is to your shareholders, not to your competitors. So there is nothing intrinsically unethical about luring staff away from rival firms.
Your assistant's pious protestation may well reflect fear of being displaced by the newcomers. That his grousing is unjustified, however, doesn't mean that the headhunter is right. Ask yourself: 'Why is the team on the market?
Do you really need a whole team? Would they fit well into your organisation?' And most importantly: 'How would they earn their keep?' When you're poaching, make sure you don't get stuck with a bunch of turkeys.
Dear Miss Conduct
Our new chairman wants to commemorate the New Year and his appointment by introducing a company mission statement. What do you recommend?
Challenged of Chalfont
Don't panic. While it's true that most mission statements expose their sponsors to risk and ridicule, they can, at least in theory, be both sensible and useful. Remind the chairman that unrealistic claims are dangerous even if they are just for show. Though not intended seriously, they may nevertheless be taken as such. If the bogus commitments are believed, expectations will be raised and then cruelly dashed. But if they are not believed, the perceived hypocrisy is likely to provoke contempt and justify cynicism. Either way, the company is unlikely to benefit.
Perhaps your chairman has a serious moral agenda: to put stakeholders above shareholders, or 'social responsibilities' before profits. If so, you should remind him that the board merely directs the corporation, it does not own it. If your chairman avoids the conventional dangers, however, a mission statement can be beneficial. Formulating the statement can force the board to identify and clarify the company's objectives. Making those objectives explicit can improve their chances of being achieved. Implemented intelligently, mission statements can strengthen both corporate performance and corporate governance. If that's what your chairman intends, he deserves your full support.