Hang on tight

Hang on tight

It's all too common in today's IT&T market -- things are going well with your team and then suddenly you start to lose good people. As more stars leave, you struggle to replace their knowledge, and this begins to impact on your deliverables. You might have stopped to wonder: Is something else going on here?

There might well be something else. And it might not be anything you or your organization are doing wrong. Your company might pay well, provide work/life balance programs, offer training and growth-related career opportunities -- and still be bleeding people.

In today's tight labor market, highly skilled people are in demand globally. Most of your competitors are searching for candidates who can deliver impact and value in a short time frame. This means one of their first stops is -- you guessed it, your place.

In offshore markets where the competition is fierce, it is quite common for recruitment companies to headhunt. In New Zealand, a combination of a booming labor market, where demand for some skill sets is strong and remuneration is in inflationary mode, recruiters with one supply channel are struggling to attract candidates via traditional methods such as career portals. This is exacerbated by the dominance of one particular career portal in New Zealand. It is difficult for recruiters to gain quality response against the sheer volume of ads listed.

These influences will ensure that if your people aren't already being proactively contacted by recruiters, they soon could be.

Recruitment databases in use today mean a number of your staff will already have their details listed. Some unscrupulous recruiters will headhunt candidates they have placed in a role. These behaviors are difficult to stop, especially given the transient nature of some recruitment consultants.

Any high achiever, by nature of his or her personality makeup, is going to consider the options. Isn't that what you did when the recruiter last rang?

To protect your stars from being head hunted, anonymity is the key.

-- Avoid listing all staff on your website, especially when you give out email addresses and DDI or cell phone numbers.

-- Ask staff to consider removing their details from recruitment databases once they have started with your organization. Once requested, recruitment companies must remove candidate details as required by the privacy act.

-- Only give organization charts to those you trust completely. If necessary, provide titles, not names.

-- Provide phone lists and email lists only via the intranet and guard against which outsiders have access.

-- Build a culture of openness where staff will tell you if they have been approached.

-- Ensure there is a punitive non-poach clause in your agreements with recruitment suppliers and clients. Make sure this clause applies for 12 months after cessation of the agreement. This might not stop the poaching, but at least it gives you a charter to open a discussion for damages.

However, if your organization is being targeted, these preventative measures might not be enough. Skilled recruiters, especially those from overseas where the market is a lot tighter and more aggressive than in New Zealand, will have a variety of tricks up their sleeve to apply when the low-hanging fruit isn't available.

The golden rule? Shut down the main portal. Remember, the receptionist is the head-hunter's best friend. You'd be surprised at the stories that get told to get information. Favorites include, "I'm calling from a new magazine called [false but plausible name] and we would like to send everyone in your IT department a complimentary copy. It is mainly aimed at [target species] who are the senior players in that team."

Others your receptionist might have encountered include this one, a personal favorite from a female recruiter: "I met a boy on a course a few weeks ago and I've lost the piece of paper I wrote his name and number on. He said he worked at [organization name] and I would really like to hook up with him. Could you help me? I'm sure I'd remember the name if you could list it out. I think he said he was a [target species]."

These techniques are widely used overseas and will become common here despite the size of the New Zealand market.

So who is at most risk?

Ironically, pure head hunting for CIOs is not as many talented CIOs chasing a limited number of opportunities in New Zealand. Most CIO roles are advertised or the people are recruited internally.

The large number of CIO roles being moved across the Tasman or into Asia means the need for successful operational managers is high. Development managers, technical support managers and professional services managers in services businesses are in demand and at risk of being approached.

Enterprise or solutions architects and lead developers with .Net and Java skills are at risk, either to head to the contracting market (control this by having eight-week notice clauses) or to leave for an opportunity not perceived to be available in your organization.

Project staff such as business analysts, particularly those with RUP, UML/OO skills and a capability to get involved in design, are likely to be approached. These skills can be difficult to source and expensive. Training is time-consuming. For head hunters, all these factors add up to a high-profile skill set.

Technical project managers are in demand for both the contracting and permanent employment markets.

Also on the head hunters, list are qualified networking staff and -- from the believe it or not file - service desk staff who excel and have a strong technical knowledge. If you are in a vendor or services business, it won't come as any surprise to you that salespeople, including pre-sales and sales managers, are in high demand.

Across your organization, those who excel will become more high-profile internally and externally. With that high profile comes more risk of a direct approach. If you haven't, as part of risk mitigation planning, look at who you would rate as being in the top 20 percent of your team. These are the ones you wouldn't want to lose. No doubt you will also have an alternative list -- those you would happily have head hunted!

Once you have your list, work with your people and culture professionals to create a check list that covers aspects you can control.

-- Training. What promises were made at time of recruitment? Have those promises been kept? What else is the organization able to provide in this area in the next 12 months?

-- Remuneration. Has it been reviewed? When will it be reviewed next? How does it compare with responsibilities and what the market is prepared to pay?

-- Work/Life balance programs. Can more flexibility be provided? What level of stress is the person under? Is this sustainable? What effect will this be having at home?

-- Career progression. Is there a development plan in place? Have reviews been carried out? Does the individual understand the big picture?

-- Culture of the team. Are there any ratbags? (Managers included). What effect are they having on your star performers? Is it an enjoyable and positive place to be? What else can be done to enhance this?

-- Remarketing the organization. Most organizations are great at selling the benefits of working for a company at the time of recruitment but poor at selling the reasons for retaining those people on an ongoing basis. What has your organization done to subtly re-sell the benefits of your organization?

If you tick all of these boxes you have given yourself every chance of retaining your stars. If not, be prepared to write a few more checks for recruiters as your risk profile is significantly higher.

Retaining high performers is a difficult but rewarding task. There is no 100 percent method for ensuring all will stay for as long as the organization needs them. People are, after all, the most valuable but ethereal commodity in any IT&T team. They will change their minds, have changes in their lives and develop expectations beyond what the company is able to deliver.

Today's IT&T market is ripe for head hunters, For you, the CIO, this represents risk and opportunity. What side of the equation will you be on?

-- David Newick is manager, IT recruitment, at Global Career Link ( He can be reached at 09-379 1180, or email

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