How to Protect Your Best Employees From Poaching

Poaching employees is similar to poaching animals: it’s the taking or stealing of something in a sneaky way. "Sneaky" is another very relevant word here: the poaching is often so crafty that bosses don’t even realize what’s going on until their employees hand in their notice. Do you see the problem there? If you aren’t paying enough attention to realize that your employees are prone to being poached - and your employees aren’t comfortable enough to talk to you about their issues - then it’s time to get out of your comfy office and be more involved. Poaching isn’t as rare as you might think. According to an employee poll, 64 percent of the participants stated that they had been approached by other companies.

See Also: Key Reasons for Job Dissatisfaction and Poor Employee Performance

This article is about the various ways you can make your employees less vulnerable to being poached, but here’s the one main tip: rather than focusing on getting an employee to stay once they’ve already been tempted, you should be making sure you’re an employer whose employees are loyal and satisfied. They say the best defence is a good offence, and that’s true in business as much as in football.

1. Provide Them With Room to Grow

An employee who feels like they’re stuck in a dead-end job with no opportunities for advancement, no real power to change anything, and lacks engagement in the company’s mission is an employee who is practically begging for someone to come and steal them away.

Make sure that every employee understands what their potential is and where they can go in terms of career progression, give them a mentor or other opportunities to develop themselves, and be wary of saying no too often when they ask for raises and promotions; if there really is a reason why they don’t deserve it, then explain it to them. Constructive feedback is much more useful and less demotivating than a simple no.

Employees are most loyal to companies where they feel like they’re making a difference and where they feel invested in the company’s success. Make sure that they get some reward when the company enjoys a success, whether it’s a token of appreciation like a small gift or some kind of bonus. Good employees want to know that they won’t be in the same position with the same responsibilities forever.

2. Counteroffers Are Band Aids

In the words of Taylor Swift, "band aids don’t fix bullet wounds." (Is that stuck in your head now? Sorry.) She does, however, have a point. Band aids are to bullet wounds what counteroffers are to stopping an employee from leaving; not very effective, and if they do work it’s only temporary. Much better to avoid the bad blood in the first place.

First, counteroffers can backfire: if you’re already paying the fair market rate and you offer more, you can be hurting yourself. Then, if everyone else finds out that someone is getting is getting more money, they might want more too and you’ll have an even bigger problem. And if you think about it, responding to "I want to leave" with "here’s more money" almost sounds like you’re rewarding them for it; if they’ve drawn your attention to some workplace issues, then maybe they can be rewarded, but if they’re just abandoning you for a cooler office, then it might be better to let them go.

Rather than throwing out counteroffers, sit them down and find out exactly why they’re tempted to leave. If you find that the issues are things like workplace bullying, a feeling of being unappreciated, or a lack of support from you, then you can improve things for this worker and the others who might follow them - and while a bump in pay might have encouraged them to stay, it wouldn’t have made everything okay.

3. Make Yourself More Attractive

No, not literally you (although if your workforce is mostly made up of the opposite sex...), but your company. 99 percent of poaching is effective because the other company is offering something you aren’t, whether it’s a higher salary or simply a couple of more perks here and there. While it might be easier to compete once you know exactly who the poacher is, wouldn’t it be even better to just avoid the possibility in the first place?

On the other hand, don’t make promises you can’t keep; if you hire based on false promises about pay rises, stock options or anything else that you aren’t completely sure you will actually be able to deliver, you risk pushing them towards the poachers the minute they realize you lied. So, what can you do instead?

  • Get out of the way

If your employees are so good they’re at risk of being poached, then stop interfering. Let them do what they want to do, encourage creativity and new processes, but be there when they need you or if they fail; if you’re going to abandon them completely, then you aren’t really being a boss.

  • Offer perks

Make sure you’re offering perks that allow for a good work-life balance. It can mean less work, but it often means more productivity since happy employees are productive employees. Understand when a parent needs flexibility due to their new family or their children, perhaps by allowing for remote work where possible, or generally offer time off as a reward for having been with the company for a certain amount of time. Stop hoarding the sabbaticals and start offering them to your key employees.

  • Bonuses

If this is done right, you’ll end up with a workforce where the best can’t afford to leave and the worst can’t afford to stay. Compensate fairly and based on performance, and the best ones will be the ones making the most and won’t want to leave. You could have annual bonuses, where employees earn a little every month that goes towards an annual bonus - in that way, they’re less likely to leave partway through the year and miss out on the rest of the money - or a stay bonus that is extended each time a pre-decided length of time has passed.

4. Stay Calm and Don't Panic

If your employee is already very close to leaving, then grovelling and begging won’t change their mind but it will leave them with a negative impression of you. Additionally, if you panic you risk ruining your relationship with that person and damaging any future interactions. Remember, if they really want to go then it might not be possible to stop them, and the change could be good if you bring in some fresh blood.

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Staying on good terms with the leaving employee can be beneficial in two ways:

  1. You can ask them exactly why they’re leaving and act on their grievances to ensure no one else ends up doing the same
  2. If you say goodbye and tell them "I’m sorry to see you go, but I hope you’ll think about coming back" you sound mature and you leave the door open for them to do just that if they find that the grass isn’t really greener. It gives them the reassurance of knowing they have somewhere to go back to and, if they do come back (hopefully to an improved place of work), then they will likely tell people of their adventure and help to discourage others from leaving.

5. Get Social

I know, I know. Dratted employees with all their demands for good money, a work-life balance and a bunch of other perks, and then on top of that they want a sense of community within their team! If you think about it, though, it isn’t such an unfair request: even with a healthy balance between work and fun, we still spend a lot of our lives working and it would be nice to at least get a heartfelt "thank you" every now and then.

Every day doesn’t have to be a party, but there’s no harm in some regular lunches, the odd retreat, or taking the time to get to know each other personally; poachers might be able to offer a lot, but one thing they can’t offer is ready-made friendships. Employees who feel like they’ve made some close connections where they are will feel less inclined to jump ship and leave those friends behind: just make sure they don’t encourage their friends to go with them.

You may have found that most of these points were quite obvious, but that’s the problem with things that are obvious: they aren’t always. Sometimes we overlook them because they’re too simple, or the issue is simply that you’ve had the employee so long that you’ve fallen into a bit of a rut of taking them for granted. A more drastic option would be to include clauses in their contracts that stop them from leaving to work for a rival, but that’s not a great idea when you’re trying to create an environment of trust, and courts don’t necessarily enforce it unless you can prove that the loss of this employee would ruin you.

Are you an employee who has ever been approached by a poacher? An employer who has had to protect someone from being poached? Tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.