Hiring To Hurt: How It’s Done (Part 2)

As we saw in Part 1 of this two-part article series, many HR professionals in general ó and recruiters in particular ó act as though they are isolated from the competitive battlefield of business. All too often they act like socialists instead of capitalists. But fierce competitors hire away a competitor’s talent:

    1. Because it’s a great source of trained, experienced talent


  1. To hurt the competitor!

The remainder of this article focuses on who to target when undertaking a “hire to hurt” recruiting program. Who You Should Target When Hiring To Hurt? Most recruiters are satisfied with just hiring whoever happens to be available when they have an open position. But if you have decided to turn up the competitive juices and start playing a key role in building your firm’s battle for success, you must specifically target “high negative impact” individuals and positions at your competitors. These are the best hires any firm can make because they have the biggest business impact (positive for your firm; negative for your competitors). Target the following positions. (NOTE: These positions are listed in descending order of business impact.)

  1. The top sales manager
  2. The CEO “in waiting” or successor CEO
  3. The salesperson that beats your top salesperson in head-to head-competition
  4. The head of product development
  5. The heads of their “critical best practice” functions (marketing, advertising, design, supply chain management, etc.)
  6. The top manager from their fastest growing division
  7. The top manager from their most profitable division
  8. The individuals in the competing firm’s succession plan who do not have a designated successor
  9. The well-known individuals who, if they left, would clearly hurt the image of the competitor among customers, suppliers, shareholders, and stock analysts
  10. The top manager from the business unit that consistently outperforms your key business unit
  11. The recruiter that successfully poaches your top talent
  12. The top performer in any key position (and then their manager)
  13. Referrals from a recently hired top performer who work at that person’s old firm
  14. The mentors of top performers, as well as top performers’ “apprentices” at your direct competitor
  15. Senior compensation professionals from your direct competitor who know the names of the top talent at that firm
  16. The spouse/mentor/friend/family member of any top performer now at your direct competitor who may “bring” the top performer with them immediately after they are hired

How Do You Identify These “Hire to Hurt” Individuals? Walk into any senior manager’s office and provide them with a list of the key individuals listed above and let them select who they want from it. The thought alone will excite them, so don’t be surprised when they go wild when you actually hire a few from the list. Identifying who you should “steal” is easier than you think. Here are some tips on how to do it:

  • Utilize “names” search firms (research firms that have ways of identifying these individuals). There are numerous firms that will provide you with the names and the contact information of the above “hire to hurt” people at any major firm ó for a relatively small fee.
  • Capture your competitor’s telephone directory and their organizational chart and look for key titles. (At some firms, even office locations can be indicators of importance.)
  • Identify your competitor’s famous or well-known individuals by checking their “Google score.” Key people always have high Google scores.
  • Search your competitor’s website for org charts or press releases that contain key names and job titles.
  • Identify who is on your competitor’s succession plan and where they are placed on it by asking former employees who now work for you.
  • Ask your own senior managers for name. They almost always know the enemy’s top talent.
  • Conduct interviews and focus groups with individuals that you hired from the competitor in order to find out who else is essential to that firm.
  • Identify individuals in key jobs where there is a vacant second in command or back-fill position. (Open positions are usually listed on your competitor’s website.)
  • Because hiring away a competitor’s most innovative, creative, and idea-rich people will slow down their rate of improvement, it’s important to know who these individuals are. Identify these idea people by first asking your own innovative and creative people who they are. Next, search your competitor’s press releases and patent applications for names.
  • Search seminars, association events, and trade show brochures for speakers that come from your competitors. These high-profile individuals are almost always key “hire to hurt” hires.
  • When one of your salespeople loses a key sale in head-to-head competition, ask the customer who the winning salesperson was and then hire away that salesperson the very next day.
  • Ask your own top performers which individuals are better than them at your competitor, then target them.
  • Offer an increased referral bonus (a bounty) for “hire to hurt” referrals from key competitors.
  • Enter the names of each of your competitors in your resume database’s keyword search engine in order to flag and prioritize the resumes you already have.
  • Purposely include a representative from key competitors in your interview list for job openings. During the interview tell them that one way you assess top talent is by their ability to name other top talent. If the same names appear across multiple interviews, you’re getting close.
  • Ask new hires who came from a direct competitor on their first day about who else is good at the competitor, then target them.
  • Ask those who know the firm (former employees, suppliers, customers and consultants) to name individuals whose absence in the past (during sabbaticals, illness, long vacations, or other extended periods of absence) caused a noticeable impact on productivity.
  • Have your own recruiters hang out at restaurants and watering holes nearby your direct competitors. Ask the employees they meet (they often wear ID badges), or even the restaurant staff, to help you to identify names.
  • Search your competitor’s promotional and PR announcements in newspapers and trade publications for the names of top performers to target.
  • Ask executive search professionals you are currently working with for some names. Many are willing to give you names or tell you how to find them.
  • Search newspaper, industry journal, and magazine articles that highlight essential individuals at your competitors.
  • Search industry publications, awards, and conference proceedings for the names of the best at your competitors. Industry association officers from the firm are also likely to be key individuals.

A few other critical points:

  • Remember to protect your own from “hire to hurt” tactics. Use the same tools I outlined above to identify where you need to work on retention and on developing back-fill individuals.
  • Don’t forget to make it a corporate priority ó and then reward managers and recruiters who successfully capture these critical individuals.
  • Even if you don’t have a current opening for them, hire top talent from a competitor whenever you can get them. Hire them as a “corporate resource” and get them on board right away.
  • Encourage your mediocre and poor performers to quit and join the competitor’s team! (Only kidding.)

“Hiring to Hurt” Restrictions There are, of course, some drawbacks to “hiring to hurt” tactics. It’s harder to recruit high-impact individuals because they are almost always protected and well-treated at their current firm. In a very few cases (mostly involving top technical jobs), after you hire the individuals you might have some legal constraints on the projects that they can initially work on for the first year. But in most jobs there are no restrictions. Non-complete agreements are also of little concern because in most states courts have generally found them to be not enforceable. Conclusion It’s a given that the easiest way to recruit is to target people from non-competitors or hire from the unemployed pool. While both tactics have some merit, they pale in comparison alongside the impact of hiring away your competitor’s high-impact, hard-to-replace top talent. In a war for talent, the way to ensure victory is hire to help yourself while also hiring to hurt the enemy! I realize, though, that for most HR people “hiring to hurt” is out of the question. That’s because too many HR people really have no interest in becoming fierce business competitors. Their frequent talk about becoming a business partner and their desire for “outside-the-box” solutions is just that, talk. Perhaps their lack of aggressiveness and courage or their misinterpretation of what is ethical stems from the fact that most HR people do not have degrees in business. As a result, they fail to see that every aspect of business is a competitive game. They don’t see that firms don’t win in isolation, but rather by simultaneously raising “your” boat and sinking “theirs.” It’s a zero-sum game.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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