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A Ju-Jitsu Attack on Headhunters

By Liz Ryan Headhunting is a strange business, isn't it? Employers pay search folks big fees to find candidates, fully aware that even as they do other recruiters are invading their own kingdoms. Human-resources people love their treasured search partners at the same time they curse the sketchy characters who poach their best talent.

Some years back I took a ceramics class with some older ladies, one of whom said: "A man called me at work today about a different job. Is that legal?" Yes, it is: There's nothing to stop a search guy from going where he pleases.

As a business leader, you could go crazy wondering how much time your employees waste chatting with search people. During one particularly competitive hiring period in my corporate HR days, headhunters were killing us. Our company became known as a gold mine for talented employees, which we began losing at an alarming rate. Stop them! cried the line managers. I'm trying! I replied.

ENLISTING EMPLOYEES. We trained our receptionists to spot callers who weren't really the friend-of-a-friend-of-an-employee they claimed to be. "I need to speak to Mark," a caller would say, "but I've forgotten his last name. He's a programmer, I met him at a party and I lost his number. He wanted to look at a car I'm selling." Yeah, right. We stopped putting calls through for people who didn't have their party's last name and department. But we were swimming upstream.

Finally, we realized that receptionists couldn't erect a Great Wall of China around our talent pool. Employees would hear about other jobs anyway. Clearly, we needed to glue people to their seats, in a manner of speaking, by making life at our company too rewarding to abandon.

Further, we decided to enlist our employees in a campaign to subvert headhunters. The subtext of a recruiter's call usually was: "I, the search dude, and my client, the employer across town, value you more than your current employer ever will. We see the greatness in you that your boss takes for granted. Forget those guys you're working for -- they don't know what they've got. This new job is far better. Let's meet soon -- it'll be our little secret."

INSIDE DOPE. To destroy that mystique, we devised this plan: Take the calls, we told our employees -- and take notes. Earn cash for every headhunter conversation you report to HR. As in Kung Fu, we'll use the headhunters' own calls against them.

Three great things happened during this counterattack. First, we gathered competitive intelligence -- about the projects at our competitors, about the salaries, stock options, and other benefits they offered. We learned which exciting products were in development, all thanks to the headhunter's pitch to prospective hires.

After a few months, we realized that we could construct organization charts for our competitors by splicing together what we had learned. We discovered something else, too: A few of our trusted search partners were violating their agreements with us by calling our own guys, even as they worked on filling our assignments! That's a big no-no, enough to get you blacklisted for years.

IMPORTANT REMINDER. We also forged a closer bond with our best employees. Every time the phone rang with a headhunter's call, they got a check for $50, a reminder that we valued them more than those outsiders did. Suddenly, simply being valuable brought recognition. It took a while for the headhunters to catch on -- some never did -- and some employees made a bundle in the meantime.

The third advantage was that once we started this program, we expended zero energy trying to wall off our valued employees. You want to talk to Paul, in Product Management? I'll put you right through! Paul had his notebook and pen ready. "Really? Who's the client? What sorts of skills are they looking for? What are they paying?" I'd have Paul's summary in my hands about half an hour later. Ka-ching! Paul was happy. The company was happy.

We spent a few thousand dollars -- a fraction of the search fee for one midlevel hire. And if we didn't know already, we learned that people like to be valued -- it was a reminder to tell employees more often how essential they are.

WORTHWHILE EXPENSE. We always wondered whether our "go ahead and listen" strategy might backfire by encouraging a conversation that would lead to a key employee leaving us. It never happened. Rather, we ended up reminding our employees that we trusted them enough to encourage them to talk freely with anyone.

Of course, once they knew what the rest of our industry was paying, we couldn't very well claim ignorance and underpay our own folks. So we gave up a little leverage. But isn't that what trust is all about? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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