Increasingly, aggressive firms mimic sports in stealing their rivals' most valuable players. A brilliant computer programmer, a red-hot sales representative, even an exceptional waiter, increasingly find themselves in the position of former Colorado Diamondback All-Star Randy Johnson - being extravagantly wooed by the Yankees of their industry.
"Sometimes it's much easier to buy the talent than to grow it. Sometimes a business can't grow it," says Jeanine Wilson, president of Salt Lake chapter of Society for Human Resource Management. "Where else are they going to get talented employees?"
Driven by the rise of the high-tech industry, "talent raiding" is becoming a common business model. The public seldom hears about "star poaching" or a victim company's retaliations - until a lawsuit is filed.
"This is an economically rational thing to do," says Timothy Gardner, a Brigham Young University professor who wrote an article on talent raiding published in this month's Academy of Management Journal.
"No one complains about stealing customers from a competitor. Why not compete for the most talented employees?"
Aggressive competition for talent enables employees to get the best pay for their skills, he says, and even consumers benefit because concentrating the best workers should increase productivity, providing better services at lower prices.
Although it might seem unfair, particularly to the victim who trained and nurtured a star, in most cases talent poaching is legal. "The bottom line, the courts say, is that this is a capitalist democracy and an employer can hire from whereever, providing it is not done just to put a competitor out of business," Gardner says.
That, of course, is the dark side of talent raiding. Companies can strategically attack, not to get better workers, but to crush a competitor by decimating his creative work force or by pumping the new employees for company secrets.
In a high profile case, Internet retailer Amazon.com hired away 15 inventory and warehousing experts from Wal-Mart in 1998. The big-box giant fought back and Amazon settled the lawsuit, reassigning the new employees and promising not to recruit Wal-Mart talent for at least a year.
But the line between aggressive talent market competition and predatory practices can be hard to draw because in the purest circumstances, poaching a star employee not only brings that person's skills, but also leaves a gaping hole in the competitor's creative staff.
That is anything but a small problem, says Mark Wagner, a lead employment and labor practice attorney for the Salt Lake City law firm of Van Cott Bagley.
"The cost of hiring, screening, training, and replacing employees is high, not only in dollar costs, but in productivity and opportunity losses that can't be measured," Wagner says. "[Talent raiding] could be one of the most expensive propositions a company can be faced with."
Raiding in its more benign forms is not rare, and some companies have strategies to steal employees from competitors rather than investing in their own training programs. "I have seen numerous incidents of that even locally between companies in highly competitive industries," Wagner says.
The ambivalent status of talent raiding is evident in the terminology used: "raiding," "poaching," "stealing." It is no wonder many companies hire recruiting firms - "head hunters."
"They do your dirty work," says Wilson. "The employer still has to live in the community with his competitor."
And poaching, even under the best of circumstances, puts a raider in a legal and ethical gray zone. Even if a firm has no intention to mine new employees for trade secrets, client lists or other intellectual property (illegal in most states), systematic talent raiding is asking for an expensive lawsuit.
The initial courting period between employee and raider "is the most dangerous period for the unknowing employer," Wagner says. "There's a lot of time then for the company that is talking to an insider to do unintended damage. How much damage depends on the integrity of the employee and the people courting the employee."
Accepting a raider's offer also holds peril for star employees, who most likely are walking databases of confidential company information.
Ideas and inventions created with company time and resources belong to the company - not to the genius who dreamed them up, Wagner says. "Most employees don't have it in their mind that it is not their property to peddle."
Wagner advises both victims and raiders to get signed agreements with the stars promising they won't spill confidential information.
Gardner says an obvious way to repeal raiders is to pay and treat employees well.
Trust and openness, of course, is vital in employee relationships, but it also is extremely dangerous.
"A company that ignores this risk does it at their own peril," Wagner says. "The people the most likely to do you the most harm are the people you trust the most and have given access to confidential information."
Holding on to your stars.
l Have happy employees. It's not just about money - fairness, recognition and freedom to create will hold your talented workers.
l Identify employees whose departure would wreak the most havoc. Develop clear and solid nondisclosure agreements.
l Keep your secrets secret. Limit access to critical information and put in place confidentiality protections.
l Get out of your office and talk to employees. You'll have some idea of who is dissatisfied or job prospecting.
l When you lose a star, use exit interviews to find out what the competition is offering to lure your workers away.
- Glen Warchol It's OK to reach for the stars,
but don't get burned
The pitfalls of talent raiding as a strategy:
l Bad karma. A raider can wind up with a work force of mercenaries who will jump at the next offer - along with company secrets.
l Retaliation. Victim companies often break off business relationships and even counter-raid.
l Lawsuits. A misunderstood confidentiality agreement or questionable pattern of poaching can get aggressive raiders dragged into court.
l Sinking teamwork. Raiding other companies for a "star" can alienate the talent you already have and destroy any hope of integrating the new, and expensive, talent.
l Fizzle. Studies have found that raided stars, more often as not, fail to reach the same heights outside the previous employer's culture, teamwork and other intangibles.
- Glen Warchol