The Best Defense: Part 2

How to headhunter-proof your company.

Wayne Outlaw, 52, a writer, consultant, and speaker based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, spent the mid-1980s running a search firm that placed engineers and programmers at high-tech companies desperate for their services. In other words, he was a headhunter. “If a company asked me to find a programmer from a specific competitor, I could do it without batting an eye,” he says. Why? “Ego,” Outlaw explains. “People like to be wooed.”


These days, Outlaw advises companies on how to keep their best people. He’s also the author of a forthcoming book, Smart Staffing: How to Hire, Reward, and Keep Top Employees for Your Growing Company (Upstart Publishing Co., September 1998). “It’s impossible to insulate people from the marketplace,” Outlaw says. “But you can make a headhunter’s job more difficult.”

We asked Outlaw, as well as Peter LeBlanc, 44, a principal at Sibson & Co., a consulting firm in Princeton, New Jersey, for techniques that can headhunter-proof a company.

1. Information is power.

Outlaw suggests that companies limit the distribution of org charts and directories – – crucial guides to company talent. And watch out for employee Web pages. Sure, people love to communicate with the outside world. But personal Web pages are “a headhunter’s dream,” warns Outlaw.

2. Trust but verify.

Companies can train receptionists to identify headhunters and prevent them from getting through to employees. “Lots of headhunters troll for people,” Outlaw says. “Smart receptionists can screen out those calls.”


3. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

One of the best ways to keep headhunters from poaching your talent, argues LeBlanc, is to put them on retainer: “Work with the top five or six headhunting firms in your sector. Make deals with them that say, ‘In exchange for my business, you can’t touch my employees.’ “

4. No secrets.

Finally, LeBlanc adds, encourage people to be open with you when they do communicate with headhunters. “I used to work as a senior manager at Nortel,” he says. “My boss told me, ‘Take every call you get. If you get a better offer, let me know.’ Who would want to leave a place like that – – where there’s openness and trust? If a company is doing all the right things, it doesn’t need to be concerned about headhunters.”