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The Art of Employee Poaching: A Guide to Luring Candidates for Your Position

Jada A. Graves

Lake St. Clair in Michigan is considered one of the best fishing locales in the U.S. It's a premier spot for smallmouth and largemouth bass, and serious anglers travel the continent to sport fish in St. Clair's waters. After all, if you're in it to win it and you want a good selection, why would you waste time at some Podunk River? You should cast your rod in water where there are plenty of good fish to pull.

So goes the reasoning behind employee poaching, or the act of soliciting someone to work for you whom you know, or know of, and whom you believe is qualified for a job opening you're trying to fill. The catch -- bad fishing pun intended -- is this qualified recruit is employed someplace else and isn't actively seeking a new job.

There are open-and-shut advantages for an employer trying to recruit this way; the stakes are much higher when hiring an untested and unknown job seeker. And it's flattering for the potentially poached person to receive an out-of-the-blue endorsement of his or her skills. Still ... here be dragons. Professional communities are but so big, highly skilled employees come from a small wading pool and the person you're hoping to hire probably works for a competitor. Or the new person is a valued employee who his or her old boss will smart at having to replace. Or maybe the old boss is an acquaintance who will feel undercut by your under-the-table dealings. Is poaching worth it, and if so, what's the best way to go about it without burning bridges or getting sued?

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Before figuring out how to do it, dig deeper into what it entails. Depending on whom you ask, poaching could mean purposefully trying to hire an employee from a competing firm, or it could mean trying to hire a colleague from a different department within your company. The gray areas are part of what makes the practice seem dodgy. "It's all about intention," says Kim E. Ruyle, president of the Miami-based talent management firm Inventive Talent Consulting, LLC. "For many, poaching implies that you're doing something unethical that borders on illegal. But it's one thing to target an employee and be focused on your organization, and another to target a someone but be focused on their organization." On the other hand, "employees in general are free agents, and as long there's no noncompete agreement, it's aboveboard," he says.

A noncompete agreement, as Ruyle alludes to, is a written contract between employer and employee that states the conditions under which that employee might work in the same industry but with a different company. Its purpose is to prevent the employee from revealing or using confidential information, but not all noncompetes pass muster -- they're rarely enforceable in some states, like California -- and Donna Ballman, attorney and author of "Stand Up for Yourself Without Getting Fired," says those drafted solely for the purpose of preventing competition aren't legal. However, you or the person you hire could face a suit if he or she signed a legitimate agreement with a previous employer, she says.

This means you need to make your intentions known to the object of your recruiting soon, to avoid trouble. "Particularly if you have a relationship with the person you're trying to hire, then you should be very open and frank," says Patti Johnson, author of "Make Waves" and CEO of PeopleResults, a consulting firm that helps organizations and their leaders be more effective and grow. "Tell them: 'There's this opportunity at my company that I think you'd be perfect for, and I'd like to give you a call to discuss,'" she suggests, adding that people who are aware they've signed a noncompete will normally come clean around this time. "Usually there's a time limit on noncompetes, so the person you're considering might say, 'Just so you know, I have to take a six-month break before I can join you,'" she says.

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Seem excessive? Remember that this isn't a regular job candidacy or hiring process, because you're the one doing the chasing. "If the position is extremely coveted and you're reaching out to someone who wasn't looking, you might have to bend over backward a bit," says Janine Truitt, chief innovations officer for the consulting firm Talent Think Innovations, LLC. "It might move slower. The person you're interested in might not be able to come in to interview for three weeks, or maybe they can't interview between 9 and 5."

Also think about what value your offer brings to your recruit, but first -- does your offer bring value? You're the one doing the selling, and that will be much harder if you're hocking a clunker. "Think about the rewards and the challenges of your job, so that you have something truthful to say to a potential employee," Truitt says. "Keep track of what the industry standard is, because that will bring to light the differences, good or bad, at your company. For example, if your company's compensation packages lag the market, what else does your company have to offer that other companies don't?" A savvy candidate will want to know about these things.

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It's a little different if you're hoping to fill a position from within your company, where your employee gain is probably a colleague's employee loss. Hiring practices should always be discreet, but when poaching is done internally you must toe the line between not blindsiding your colleagues and not jeopardizing your potential hire's current standing in the company. "Keep in mind two jobs are on the table, not just one," Truitt says. "If there hasn't been talk among higher-ups about someone being better suited for a different line of work, it can become very sticky."

If both you and the transitioning employee are serious about making a change, then you should agree on a time to discuss this potential move with that person's old manager. Have the conversations separately, but in tandem with one another. And if the move seems definite, then all three parties (you, your new "hire" and that hire's old boss) should meet with human resources to iron out the fine points of the transition. "Try to be understanding of the old manager's point of view," Truitt says. "I've worked with managers who say that the person leaving is the only person who can do a certain type of work. Sometimes, you might work out a deal where for the first month or so the employee will work 50 percent on new projects for the old department, and 50 percent on getting their feet wet in the new position."

The bottom line with any type of employee poaching is to use common sense and have some manners. "Business principles are made up of relationships," Johnson says. "Regardless of whether you're pursuing someone from another company who has a noncompete or even someone from within your own company, think about the fact that you have your own reputation to be responsible for. Make sure that you handle the process with integrity."

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