The pros and cons of headhunting employees

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THE practice of ‘poaching’ employees from other companies and matchmaking people with employers can be traced back to fourteenth century Germany. Headhunting in the modern-day corporate jungle however, only showed significant growth in the early 1990s when conventional recruitment methods were deemed neither quick nor effective enough to find top talent.

Employers and recruitment specialists increasingly began combing the offices of their competitors and contemporaries, tracking and luring people with scarce skills, particularly in the fields of information technology, engineering, accounting and senior management.

Today, with the implementation of EE and BEEE programmes, headhunting or ‘executive searching’ has become even more prevalent in South Africa, sometimes even evolving into ‘bidding wars’.

Some sources however, say that often the best wars are the ones you avoid and that companies should remember this when they consider how heavily (or generously) they will fight for top talent.

The practice of headhunting, according to the South African Human Capital Management Guide, is based on the belief that somewhere out there is an individual with rare skills not currently available in the company. This person, it is hoped, will make a significant contribution and it is worth making a real effort to ferret him or her out.

Headhunting is usually out-sourced to specialist executive search companies that have the required resources, contacts and expertise to do the detective work and initiate discussions. The most effective headhunting assignments, say specialist headhunters, begin with a good brief from clients.

“Headhunting is often the best way of finding specific talent for clients,” says André Wehmeyer, consulting partner for Johannesburg recruitment company, DMA People. “Where companies provide detailed specifications of their needs, it is usually a much more effective method of locating the right candidate than placing a recruitment advertisement, which can attract more than 100 unsuitable applicants.”

Wehmeyer concedes however, that there are potential pitfalls to headhunting.

To begin with, because in most cases headhunting involves individuals who are not necessarily looking to change jobs, there is usually a premium to be paid for this talent. Employers are likely to pay more for these candidates than they would for people recruited through traditional methods.

Another potential negative is that new talent is lured only by the promise of greater financial gains and does not give enough consideration to other employment needs.

“If people move only for better remuneration, chances are they will soon grow dissatisfied and regret accepting the position. This suggests that they will not be as effective in their new position as the employer had hoped,” comments Wehmeyer.

He says that employers need to ensure that candidates who are enticed from other organisations are offered “holistic employment packages”. Talent, however good, needs to be managed effectively for maximum results and the new position should offer appropriately challenging and fulfilling career development and learning opportunities.

Of course, there is always the risk that new stars move on to another employer a couple of months later – being sufficiently desirable to be headhunted first. In the worst case, it might even appear that individuals are simply biding their time until the next (better) offer comes along. Then, like any other employee introduced to companies, the ‘chosen one’ may turn out to be the wrong person altogether.

Another potential problem with headhunting is that can create workplace tension. In some cases, employees feel resentful towards ‘headhunted’ individuals, because of their premium earnings and the fact that they are often – particularly in the early stages of employment – treated as “special”.

“Certainly, where headhunting is conducted carefully and professionally, and talent is managed effectively, it is an excellent method of matching employer and employee. It is not, however, foolproof,” says Wehmeyer.

(First published in Business Day.)

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Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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