Take care when luring away a competitor’s talent

Companies need to be creative in a tight labour market.
Take care when luring away a competitor’s talent

Having top talent in your organisation is critical to your company’s competitive edge, but often there is a limited pool of proven performers. One way of tackling this challenge is to hire your competitor’s outstanding talent; they’ve already demonstrated the necessary skills, know the industry, and can bring innovative ideas to your company. But pulling it off isn’t as simple as it sounds.

“The marketplace, certainly for financial services, is so competitive,” said Stacey Nicholl, a principal consultant who specialises in recruiting CFOs at Marlin Hawk, a global executive search and leadership advisory business with headquarters in London. “Everyone is looking for the same talent, and to make yourself stand out you have to do something different.”

However, hiring from a competitor should be handled with caution. You don’t want to be seen as a poacher or get sued for breaching a contract a candidate may have with his or her current employer. But the truth is, companies compete for top talent, and when done well, the benefits can outweigh the risks.

Here are tips from recruiters worldwide to help lure talent:

Be attractive. Top talent already have jobs, and good ones at that, so it takes something special to make them move, said David Perry, a managing partner at Perry-Martel International Inc., an executive recruiting and leadership search firm based in Ottawa, Ontario.

“They will come to an organisation not to make more money but because of what the organisation stands for and what it’s trying to achieve. So right off the bat, they will want to understand the organisation’s business goals, its challenges, its assumptions, and its blind spots,” said Perry, co-author of Hiring Greatness: How to Recruit Your Dream Team and Crush the Competition.

Build an online presence to help potential recruits understand the company culture, what drives employees, and how things get done. Maintaining a strong social media presence can help give candidates insight into your company’s culture. Because talented people will likely vet companies ahead of time — through LinkedIn or Glassdoor, for example — be publicly transparent in areas such as work/life balance or giving back to the community. Encourage current employees to share positive workplace experiences with their digital networks. And expect potential hires to do their homework.

“To attract the best talent, you need to prepare because the best will ask probing questions and you’d better be ready to answer them when they ask,” Perry said. “You don’t get a second chance.”

Be creative. To better connect with talent, Marlin Hawk has used video instead of using traditional briefing packs. For one senior role, for example, the CEO, HR director, and others within that top team put together a video message to share with candidates.

“They [candidates] really felt they were part of the organisation,” Nicholl said. “They got much better insight into the culture, and they got a deeper understanding about the role.”

Ryan Dalton-Narez, a former recruitment consultant for REED, an employment agency based in London, often sends talented individuals personalised messages through LinkedIn that show he’s taken time to learn about them. He doesn’t phone or email people at their workplace out of respect.

“If you can get their personal number, call them up. Get a hold of them any way you can possibly conceive,” said Dalton-Narez, whose focus included recruiting financial professionals in Manchester. “I’ve sent letters to people at home. They can ignore calls, but they’re so much more likely to open a letter and read it.”

Go digital. Companies are using digital marketing to target talent, said Scott MacFarlane, vice-president of client development for global financial markets with Korn Ferry Futurestep, a Los Angeles-based recruitment process outsourcing firm.

“We are seeing a lot of innovative ways where teams are using consumer marketing techniques to target talent from competitors and ensure they are front of mind as an employer of choice,” said MacFarlane, who works from the New York City office.

One way is by geo-targeting, delivering specific content to digital users based on their geographic location, which could be used to reach talent attending an industry conference, for example.

Watch for legal pitfalls. If a candidate you’re pursuing has a noncompete agreement with their current employer, there may be legal repercussions if it’s breached.

“Generally speaking, they typically can’t restrict who you work for, but there may be a noncompete period where they need to ‘sit out’ before commencing their new role,” MacFarlane said.

Workers also may have a nonsolicitation agreement, where they’ve agreed not to solicit a company’s clients after leaving. Whether these agreements are legally binding depends on the jurisdiction. For your protection, Perry suggested reviewing the agreements yourself.

“When in doubt, ask for legal counsel,” Perry said. “Consulting a lawyer before making the final offer could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars and months in court.” 

Timing and patience are key. Knowing when to tempt talent is key, so Perry suggested being aware of when they’re ripe for change: upcoming acquisitions or layoffs, when stock options vest, or a recent change in senior management. “Actively talent scout the best people in your industry all the time,” Perry said.

Dalton-Narez has been recruited himself, but it took three tries over several months. The third attempt came when he was having a bad week.

“That is overwhelming the norm — you just want to catch someone at the right time,” he said. “The candidate that told you they weren’t interested three months ago could be having their worst day today.”

But don’t overdo it either. If you get a no at first, suggest that you will check back in at a later date. “It’s vitally important you don’t pester people, as this will damage your brand in not only their eyes, but they are likely to tell colleagues as well,” said Dalton-Narez, who is currently an internal mobility consultant for Barclays, an investment bank and financial services company headquartered in London.

Don’t recruit a CV. “The majority of organisations overemphasise the importance of technical skills and experience and fail to look at the whole person,” MacFarlane said.

He suggested analysing leadership abilities, traits, and drivers when gauging how talent will benefit your company. Study a candidate’s background and press him or her on what the motivation is for moving to your company. In-depth interviews will help determine if the talent is in line with your company’s goals. Don't underestimate the importance of a good culture fit.

“What is true is that success in one environment does not beget success in another,” MacFarlane said, “and while skill and experience get many people hired, it is their competence, traits, and drivers that will ultimately determine long-term success — or get them fired.”

Consider rising stars. Companies may miss out on talent if they’re focused only on trying to recruit people who are currently in the exact role for which they’re searching. Sometimes your competitor hasn't yet recognised great talent as top talent.

“Certainly from our perspective, rising stars are individuals that should never be overlooked,” Nicholl said. “They will be part of the future succession plan, and actually in many cases you find they’re the ones doing the day-to-day role, not necessarily the individuals above them. Give them that shot, and you will get a lot more from them.”

Nurture your own talent. Don’t forget that recruitment is a two-way street. A rival could be courting your stars right now. Make sure what you offer isn’t beaten by your competitors and that employees know their benefits.

“I’ve heard it happening many times that a candidate was particularly impressed with certain benefits offered by their new company only to find later on that it was actually offered at the company they just left,” Dalton-Narez said. “It’s your job to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at