Recently, I was watching a nature program on bowerbirds. When it’s mating season, these industrious little creatures build elaborate nests (bowers) to draw in female bowerbirds. They decorate with colorful bits of trash (some are particularly partial to blue items) and steal bottlecaps and feathers from their competitors’ bowers. They even use optical illusions within their bower designs to make themselves appear larger to their would-be mates. When at last a male draws a female bowerbird into his bower, he struts and dances and sings just long enough to convince her to mate. She heads up into the trees to build a nest for her eggs, and he’s back in his bachelor pad looking for his next mate.
I couldn’t help but draw parallels to modern-day recruiting rituals.
Picture, if you will, the college career fair. The elaborate booths and posters. The employer-branded pens and magnets. The HR sales pitch. The recruiter with the song-and-dance who never calls.
Okay, maybe it’s a stretch. But all this talk of birds and recruiting does lead nicely into my headline: poaching prevention. Not wildlife poaching, of course, but so-called talent poaching. Renegade recruiting. Enticing the rock stars of one company to jump ship for another.
For many companies, it’s an ongoing problem. But I’m going to argue that it’s more a symptom than anything else—a symptom that your company has lost its appeal to those inside it. Let’s take a look at some probable causes.
Loss of freedom
For many of today’s brightest workers, i-deals are the new norm. They expect (and get) to negotiate their own terms for a new job. They want freedom to do their jobs as they see fit and be accountable for results. They want flexibility in their roles, room to grow, and a job that truly fits them. When a knowledge worker is pulled away from an employer, it’s often because another company had the vision to give them the freedom they lacked with their current role.
Lack of meaningful growth opportunities
A known problem in most organizations, nothing frustrates many workers more than knowing their only opportunity for rising up the corporate ladder—in terms of both respect and money—is to enter the world of middle management. The trouble is, many of our most promising colleagues have skills and interests that fall outside of the people-and-project management box. It’s not that these folks lack leadership skills; in fact, many are natural leaders. They simply find their fulfillment in roles where management isn’t a formal requirement. Advanced positions outside of management are often scarce, and when the opportunity presents itself elsewhere, they’re quick to move on.
Lack of self-awareness
In Douglas McCracken’s groundbreaking HBR article Winning the Talent War for Women, he remarks that although his company noticed a large exodus of women, they assumed it was because they left the workforce to care for their children. They were wrong. Many of these women perceived a lack of opportunity for themselves within the company, and they left to start their own (successful) businesses.
Many of the factors that pushed them out of the company required self-discovery:
A typical scenario would have partners evaluating two promising young professionals, a woman and a man with identical skills. Of the woman, a partner would say, "She's really good, she gives 100%. But I just don't see her interacting with a CFO. She's not as polished as some. Her presentation skills could be stronger." The conversation about the man would vary slightly, but significantly: "He's good. He and I are going to take a CFO golfing next week. I know he can grow into it; he has tremendous potential." Beginning with these subtle variations in language, careers could go in very different directions. A woman was found a bit wanting, and we (male partners) couldn't see how she would get to the next level. As one woman summed up, "Women get evaluated on their performance; men get evaluated on their potential."
A distaste for balance
Cultural barriers affect men, too. Many companies harbor an unspoken belief that the ideal worker is the one with no familial responsibilities and no needs outside of work. But the reality is, between Boomers with aging parents and dual-income parents, that ideal is a thing of the past. And by pushing workers with responsibilities into the grasp of competitors who are more understanding, companies are losing far more than they would if they simply offered more flexibility.
Jeffrey Pfeffer has written a lot about toxic companies and work environments. According to him, a toxic company says, "We're going to put you in a situation where you have to work in a style and on a pace that is not sustainable. We want you to come in here and burn yourself out--and then you can leave."
In other words, a toxic company is the kind of place where people come to work so they can make enough money to leave. When your employees tell you they’re leaving because they’re burned out, take a good look at their colleagues. Are you operating a toxic company?
The final contributor to talent loss is one rarely mentioned: the power of internal politics. For many workers, knowing what to say, when to say it, and who not to say it to is an ongoing, exhausting game. Eventually, the possibility of starting fresh somewhere new, or the promise of less political maneuvering draws serious consideration.
We have to ask ourselves: if none of these factors were a problem, would companies be so threatened by talent poaching attempts? If our work environments are great, will that many people leave?
And if the answer to these questions is “no,” maybe it’s time to stop emulating the bowerbird, who builds impressive structures that serve only to draw in females--and then makes them build their own nests up in the trees! Maybe it’s time to build a workplace where people want to work.