What's your Problem?

I'm nervous about poaching staff from a rival.

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: Is there an etiquette to trying to recruit from the competition - someone we have in mind that we believe would work well in our company and raise our profile?

I'm nervous about poaching anyone from a rival company, but management here are sure this executive would be great for us. I don't know how to go about approaching her without creating ill-feeling between us and our closest competitor.

A: Poaching always seems to me to be an unnecessarily pejorative word. In its original meaning, it's a criminal offence. Offering a job to someone from a competitive company isn't: in fact, it helps the world go round. It's possible to argue that not offering someone a job is denying them the chance to advance their career and to improve their life.

But without being too prissy about it, I do think there are a couple of moral obligations that you should try to be true to. Always remember that offering someone a job can be a very unsettling thing to do; particularly if that someone is extremely happy where they are. So never go into it without some serious thought and without being as certain as you can be that the job you have to offer is in every respect potentially more rewarding than the job your prospect is already doing.

Whatever you do, never lead anyone to believe that a glittering offer is about to be made - and then fail to follow up. That's unforgivable. If you take the initiative - and unless there's an insurmountable problem over money or title, for example - you should be prepared to follow it through.

In this particular case, and if you want the initial approach to be at arm's length, you might ask a recruitment consultant to make the first move on your behalf. It would cost you a bit, of course, but you'd learn quite a lot from your prospect's first reaction without your own identity being revealed.

You say you know this person (or maybe you just know of her?), so your simplest course of action may be to ask her to meet you for a drink. She'll have a shrewd idea of the reason for your invitation, so her decision as to whether to accept or not will be your first clue.

Within half an hour or so, you should have a pretty good feel for just how interested she might be in making a career move. And always be prepared for people to evince apparent interest to start with, only to back away again later after their existing employer has made a tempting counter-offer.

You may see this as a calculating ploy: the deliberate flaunting of a job offer for bargaining purposes when there was never the slightest intention of taking it up. Well, it might be, but it doesn't have to be. Sometimes, even the person concerned may not be absolutely certain. Bosses often realise just how much they value their people only when they're being seriously wooed by a competitor.

- Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Address your problem to Jeremy Bullmore at: editorial@managementtoday.com. Regrettably, no correspondence can be entered into.

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