How To Tell If Someone Is Poachable

Should you try to steal that perfect candidate from the competition, or keep your distance? Here's how to feel it out.

If you’re staffing up a startup or expanding your team, you already know you can’t just rely on resumes coming over the transom. But if you meet someone spectacular at a conference, how do you know if she’s potentially recruit-able? What’s the best way to plant the idea?

A note of (legal) caution: some companies have agreements with vendors or clients not to solicit each other’s employees. If you’re in startup mode, though, you’re probably not settled enough for all that.

If you are in the legal clear, here’s how to suss out if you should try to poach that seemingly perfect candidate.

1. Be a good listener.

Especially if you think you’d like to work with someone, you want to learn as much about her as possible. Find out how long she’s been with her organization, and ask how things are going. If she says, "Absolutely fantastic," that’s a different matter than if she hedges, and then mentions how difficult the last acquisition has been, or even that she’s tiring of her longer commute that resulted from her company changing offices.

2. Ask about the future.

"Where do you see yourself in five years?" is a perfectly innocuous question for a networking event, but it’s also strategic. Most people won’t say, "I’d like to quit my job tomorrow," but if someone talks of being elsewhere and doing something different in the future, that’s a sign she’d be open to a change earlier, too.

3. Be bold...

Professional recruiters operate from the perspective that "We’re always assuming anyone is interested in hearing about a great opportunity," says Kathy Harris, managing director of Harris Allied, an executive search firm. "We’re just wired that way." So if you have a great opportunity with your company, you can "Put it right out there," she says.

4. ...But don’t put the person on the spot.

It’s awkward to make a hard sell over cocktails. So Harris suggests phrasing your suggestion in terms of the opportunity being great "for you or someone you know." You can mention open positions and ask the person to "keep me in mind if anyone comes to mind." If you’re excited enough as you describe the gig, your conversation partner will pick up on that, and might start picturing herself in that role.

5. Take it elsewhere.

If you’re at a networking event, you can assume this person didn’t come alone. "Someone who’s there with a colleague is not going to want to have a conversation about looking for a new job in front of that colleague," Harris says, so if you really do want to get someone into your office for an interview, common courtesy requires that you "take it from a public place, and move the conversation to somewhere you can have a confidential conversation."

Get her card, connect with her on LinkedIn, and send a follow-up note suggesting a call or coffee. This second date of sorts will give you both more insight into whether a long-term relationship is in the future.

[Image: Konstantin Chagin via Shutterstock]

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