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How I’ve Learned To Poacher-Proof My Company’s Workforce

With a growing staff of over 150, this CEO can still count the number of employee departures on one hand.

How I’ve Learned To Poacher-Proof My Company’s Workforce
[Image: H A Macpherson via Wikimedia Commons]

Getting poached sounds like just another cost of doing business, until it happens to you.

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My company, a video platform for businesses based in Kitchener, Ontario, was raided by poachers after a new company moved into the region. I soon heard through the grapevine that if their HR department discovered a potential recruit had already received an offer from us, they’d automatically make one of their own with an incremental signing bonus. In other words, they were essentially using us to do their employee vetting for them.

It gets worse. Many of our employees started getting emails offering higher wages if they jumped ship. But not only did they not leave, they even forwarded those emails to me.

We’ve grown from a handful of employees to more than 150 in only a few years, and I’m not going to pretend we haven’t nabbed talent from other firms. In some respects (including something of a Darwinian one), it really is the cost of doing business, but it still hurts when it happens to you. Having trained up a promising junior salesperson recently, only to see them lured away for a more senior role in another company, I can attest to that firsthand.

I’ve learned that companies looking to survive and thrive need to poacher-proof their organizations as best they can, and as early as they can. Here are some of the methods that have already worked for us.

Friends With Benefits

Friends stick together, especially on the job, which is why we encourage employees to refer friends for open positions. In fact, nearly half of the people we’ve hired so far have been inside referrals. By comparison, the average rates at which companies fill roles via referral varies by their size, according to a recent study by the talent solutions company iCIMS, but is typically between 14% and 27%.

On one level, this is almost like a form of insurance. If your best friend is working with you, you may think twice about leaving for a competitor and leaving your buddy in the lurch. Deeper still, having a culture of camaraderie—consisting of people who genuinely like their coworkers as people—translates to them also liking their jobs that much more.

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There are some downsides to consider here, though. If you tap only or even primarily your employees’ existing social circles, your company winds up as diverse (or not) as the types of people they already hang out with–a reality that risks shortfalls not only of racial and ethnic diversity but also of age and socioeconomic background. What’s more, bringing too many prior connections into the office sometimes creates tricky workplace politics.

To guard against that, we use referrals as only one of several starting points in our recruiting process–not as a criteria for extending offers. Diversity, on the other hand, is a key objective in our hiring process, and for starters, we make sure the people doing the interviewing are independent from those making the referrals.

But within the grand scheme of things, I’ve still found that referrals have a role to play. And since our modus operandi is transparency first with a dash of meritocracy, any office politics that comes from adding a social dimension to the workplace rarely finds ground to take root.

Dim The Luster Of The “Bright And Shiny”

The prospect of a new job is always enticing, especially when it comes with higher pay and a better title. But I’ve found that the basic act of sitting down and talking through possible moves with employees is often enough to mitigate that “bright and shiny” appeal.

I’m not alone. One Fast Company contributor recently explained why she’s seen success by sitting down with her staff to discuss their career goals and, in many cases, actually helping them find other jobs outside the company if and when it comes to that. In my experience, a straightforward, one-on-one conversation can help your team members think through choices they often struggle with privately. And it gives me a chance to show them, for instance, how higher compensation elsewhere may be offset by fewer opportunities for advancement or a different type of work culture. Of course, the hard part is building a foundation of trust so employees can and do share their ambitions and concerns before making sudden changes.

Another way to dampen the appeal is simply to showcase people who benefit by staying put. Highlight the successes of employees who stick around, perform well, and are promptly rewarded. The promise of career growth is one of the top differentiators between employees who are engaged on the job and those who aren’t. But a recent survey found that while 60% of HR professionals thought their companies provided clear paths to advancement, only 36% of employees agreed. If you can close that gap meaningfully, consistently, and transparently, your employees will take note–and remain your employees for longer.

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Take The Measure Of Your Culture (Repeatedly)

I’m an engineer by training, so I like to poke around under the hood. We administer quarterly eNPS surveys, a simple tool for measuring the likelihood of employees referring their friends and family to work for us. Quantitative analysis reveals patterns that are easy to miss, even if you’re a vigilant boss. But it’s just as important to act on the results.

For example, if one department is giving us a 35% eNPS score while others are ranking us at 90%, that’s an early warning sign. One powerful way to flesh out these results, and find out why one team may not be as happy with their jobs as another, is through “skip-level meetings”–removing the manager from the equation and meeting directly with her team. It may sound a little Machiavellian, but there are few better ways to get straight, unfiltered feedback than to get the boss out of the room and have an open, honest conversation.

Respect Your Ecosystem

The expression “don’t shit where you eat” applies doubly when it comes to fending off poachers in your own backyard. Especially in emerging tech ecosystems teeming with lots of young companies, it generally doesn’t make sense to steal employees.

Here in the Tri-Cities (of Kitchener, Cambridge, and Waterloo, Ontario), we’re all fighting to establish a thriving, competitive tech sector together. The benefits locally are already evident to most of the businesses here: Less poaching means young companies can continue to afford talent, which means rents and cost of living stay reasonable, even as the area’s high-tech industry develops. Ultimately, communities can avoid the kind of rapid hyper-gentrification that saps so many tech hubs of their vitality.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that these tactics aren’t necessarily for everyone. The dynamic in huge enterprises may mean that compensation is hugely important, whereas culture isn’t as much of a factor. But for startups and new businesses in particular, these tips might just make a difference. The proof for us is in our retention rate. Even in a hot job market, I’m proud to say that I can still count every employee departure from Vidyard on one hand.


Michael Litt is cofounder and CEO of Vidyard, the world’s leading video platform for business.

About the author

Michael Litt is cofounder and CEO of the video marketing platform Vidyard. Follow him on Twitter at @michaellitt.

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