To Poach or Not to Poach: Hiring and Retaining within the Startup Community

Just the other day, an entrepreneur I know asked me what I thought of a recent hire going from one startup to another—and the “aggressive” fashion in which that person was recruited.

This is a touchy subject—way more than it ever is within the big corporate community.  There, it’s much more about competition.  When you’re talking about folks you may have started with when your team was just a handful of people, it can easy get personal—both between the exiting employee and their company, and among entrepreneurs. 

I basically follow two rules of thumb when it comes to these situations:

“No one takes your employees from you, you lose them.”

and

“Don’t hire anyone with baggage.”

 

If someone is able to hire away one of your employees, that means you haven’t created an interesting enough environment for them to work in, or one that looked promising enough for them to stick around in.  If it wasn’t that company they left for, they probably would have left for someone else soon enough.  It’s easy to demonize the person who hired them away, in the same way that people who get cheated on tend to hate “the other woman/guy”, but the reality is that the blame starts in the mirror.  At my own company, we had an employee whose background was extremely highly sought after, and I know she got several offers.  I even know which startups made those offers and I can’t blame them.  She was pretty awesome.  However, she stuck with us nearly until the end of our fulltime status at the company, which is more than I ever could have asked for—and I think that’s a testament to the kind of relationship we built over time.  It was a relationship based on a clear shared vision, fairness, and open communication.

At the same time, each employee really needs to do what is best for them—so it’s really not about one company “stealing” from another company so much as it is employees optimizing for whatever priorities they have in their life.  We don’t have guaranteed employment from employers, so employees don’t realistically owe any “extra” loyalty to the people they work for.  This is still business, despite all the blood, sweat, and tears that teams put into their startups.  However, that doesn’t mean a free for all is good either.  We all need to play nicely in the sandbox, because you never know when you’re going to need someone else’s help.

When I say not to hire anyone with baggage, I think you really want to make sure that anyone you bring on has been as forthright as possible in dealing with their current employer.  You should always ask about that if you’re about to hire someone—and insist on openness from the person you’re trying to recruit.  If they’re unhappy, it should come to no one’s surprise.  If they have other goals, they need to be communicated to the employer.  Sure, no one likes to see a good employee leave, but there’s no reason why you can’t know that it’s coming ahead of time and make the appropriate plans around it.  If you know that your top dev is looking for more of a challenge—one you can’t provide—then not only should they be able to tell you, but also you should be supportive of their search.  Not only is the open and honest feedback about their situation helpful and informative to you as an employer, but you want to make sure your company has a supportive, not vindictive, reputation in the market.   People switch jobs.  It happens.  The worse you treat your former employees, the harder it will be to recruit new ones. 

So, when I hear the word “poach”, I cringe a little, because I think it misses the point.  That employee was gone way before the offer was made, but unfortunately, internal communication is often very poor *on both sides*, which often leads to bad blood and negative buzz in the market around your company.