A Blocking Strategy For Increasing Employee Retention, Part 1

Are you currently experiencing, or are you fearful of experiencing, an increasing turnover rate as global competition for talent drives more and more organizations to directly target your employees?

It’s no secret that demand for skilled labor in specific talent pools currently exceeds the available supply of local, and in some cases regional, talent in today’s labor market. This fact is driving organizations to become significantly more aggressive at targeting the talent of weaker organizations. If you want to develop an approach to block the raiding, read on.

As an avid advocate of poaching away top talent, I am well aware of the arsenal of approaches that recruiters use to poach talent from competing organizations and related industries. Like many of you, I am also aware that organizations with stronger brands will invariably be targeted by recruiters; it’s the price organizations pay for being a popular place to work.

This multi-part article leverages my learnings relevant to both poaching and employment branding to explain why poaching happens and what companies can do to limit it or block it completely.

Section 1: An Introduction

The first lesson is to invest as much effort into protecting your people as you do other corporate resources like computers.

Organizations often employ all sorts of sophisticated security to keep someone from stealing computers, trade secrets, and other equipment, so why shouldn’t you leverage the same level of sophistication in your protection system that prevent your most valuable assets (employees) from walking out the door and going to a competitor?

While nearly all corporate resources depreciate in value over time, many talent resources appreciate in value thanks in part to on-the-job development, training, and work specialization. You have invested in creating millions of dollars of intellectual capital; unfortunately, most if it resides in resources that have legs!

What Is A Blocking Strategy?

A blocking strategy is a systematic plan or series of steps designed to limit the ability of external corporate and third-party recruiters from contacting and eventually recruiting away your top talent.

Developing a blocking strategy is actually quite simple, one needs only to understand the process that is used by the very best recruiters to contact and eventually recruit your employees, and then to devise infrastructure and process changes that implement barriers to said approaches.

Most people think that blocking strategies are telephone-related, but in fact, a comprehensive blocking strategy covers nearly every channel a recruiter might use. Elements in an effective blocking strategy include identifying the recruiters, discovering the recruiting approaches that they use, identifying whom they are targeting or might target, blocking access, minimizing the impact of successful raiding attempts, and preventive strategies to keep it from happening again.

Many organizations leave selecting the firm to be poached up to each individual recruiter, while others develop precise strategies designed to “cherry pick” the very best from designated talent-competitor firms.

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Fortunately, for those attempting to block recruiting efforts, the criteria used in both cases to select firms to target is generally the same. The selection of target firms is generally driven by either senior or line managers indicating a desire for someone from a particular company.

We have all heard, “I want someone from a Fortune 100 firm with experience in this industry,” or “get me someone from GE, Dell, IBM, McKinsey,” etc. Typical firms that will be targeted include those that fall into one of the following categories:

  • Fortune 100 firms
  • Global 200 firms
  • Industry leaders experience strong topline growth, profit increases, or a growth in market share
  • Firms that have consistently won local, national, or global “best place to work” type awards
  • Firms recognized by the business press as being most admired
  • Firms that have developed a strong employment brand (i.e., likely to be targeted because of the publicity they garner for being well-managed)
  • Firms known for innovation or excellence in product development (i.e., Apple, Google, Nokia)
  • Firms known for excellence in a mission-critical business area (i.e., P&G for product branding, the Ritz Carlton or Emirates Airline for excellent customer service)
  • Firms that have been recently highlighted in major business publications like BusinessWeek, Fortune, Fast Company, Business 2.0, Workforce Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and the Harvard Business Review
  • Firms included on the list of strong product brands (i.e., Pepsi, Starbucks, Google, GE, IBM, Toyota)
  • Any firm that has been routinely raided in the past

Firms are added to the targeted list if they are perceived as though they are going through some turmoil. Firms meeting this criteria might include those that are experiencing disappointing business performance; high-level turnover; ethical or legal issues; or a merger/acquisition.

Raiding: More Than Cold Calling

Many individuals think that you can block recruiters simply by blocking incoming telephone calls. Unfortunately, that’s a na?ve notion. Recruiters use a variety of approaches to identify and lure people away, so you need to set up a system to identify all of the recruiting tactics that are or might be used.

These include inbound telephone calls; direct targeting at professional conferences and events; networking through local association meetings and electronic communities; benchmarking processes; direct and indirect email; website advertising (overt and indirect); direct mail; and employee referral (a former colleague now at a competitor’s company poaches talent).

Like any business strategy, a blocking strategy should have measurable goals and objectives. The best blocking strategies include most of the following goals:

  • Identify individuals and firms that are raiding you
  • Identify “who” they are targeting
  • Identify what approaches they are using (both successful and unsuccessful)
  • Restrict or completely block the successful approaches
  • Learn from the raiding approaches and leverage them yourself
  • Take away more top performers from them than they take away from you
  • Prevent future poaching attempts

Section 2: Elements of a World-Class Blocking Strategy

The remainder of this article highlights the critical elements in a world-class blocking strategy. Of course, not everyone needs to have a sophisticated world-class blocking strategy, so pick and choose which of the following strategy elements are needed by your particular organization.

  1. Identify talent needs of competitors. It’s relatively easy to find out when competitors are hiring, and for what type of talent, because they post their jobs on their corporate websites. If you track their jobs over time, you can often identify patterns in recruiting practices that will help you predict possible poaching activity. Obviously, if they’re doing a great deal of recruiting for a particular job type or job family, individuals within that job family at your organization are at risk of being poached away. Conversely, if they’re doing no hiring in a job category, your blocking efforts can be temporarily relaxed.
  2. Use “dry search” to identify which employees are most likely to be targeted by others. When wolves attack, they don’t go after every sheep. Instead, they target the most vulnerable or the fattest, juiciest sheep they can find. Recruiters are no different. As a result, you want to identify which of your employees are most likely to be poached away and which ones are the least vulnerable. Use an executive search professional with expertise in your industry or a functionally aligned executive recruiter. Headhunters make their living by poaching employed individuals. They are the very best poachers and tend to know or be able to quickly identify which individuals would be prime targets. Ask such recruiters to conduct a “dry search,” which is a scan of your organization’s organizational chart and employee profiles to see which individuals are least and most likely to be desirable by an outside firm. Of course, you have to rely on their ethics not to actually poach the desirable people after they’ve identified them, but if you work with them regularly, that’s not likely to be a problem.
  3. Ask retained search professionals to be on the lookout. Talk to your retained search firm and ask them to note any competitive intelligence about what jobs major players are actively recruiting for and which firms are involved. You can also, if you’re feeling bold, ask them to be on the lookout for your own employees who initiate a job search (knowing who is looking can give you an opportunity to re-recruit them).

Next week in part 2, look for additional elements of a successful blocking strategy.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.



15 Comments on “A Blocking Strategy For Increasing Employee Retention, Part 1

  1. So THAT’S how they’re doing it!


    I can’t wait to read Part II – thanks, Dr. Sullivan!

    ‘The few are those preparing to defend against others, the many are those who make others prepare to defend against them.’ ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Ch. Six: Weakness and Strength

  2. Interesting points are made in this article – good revelations for corporate recruiters on third-party recruiters’ strategies. But the best counter-measure or blocking strategy for increasing employee retention remains making sure employees love working where they work and would not give it up without second thoughts.

    I have been in the multilingual/diversity recruiting business for nearly five years now; and it’s the toughest practice considering it takes the already hardest-to-fill Requisitions and complicates everything by adding bilingual or multilingual reuiremens. And never have I come across a block I could not breach; this thing called ‘Internet’ in combination with networking is the secret weapon to blame for my success.

    Unless you keep your talents locked in maximum security jails – they would not be employers anymore, would they? – there is just no absolute way to guarantee your talents are inaccessible by headhunters or others.

    Instead of attempting to create a wall around them, give them sufficient reasons to believe they would be fools to leave all they’ve got (from pay to job fulfillment to work/life balance to potential and more) with you as an employer and the energy put into retention efforts can serve to actually attract more talents of their kind – the topnotch ones, still out there.


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  3. Interesting article to post to a bunch of recruiters – but hey, I’m not complaining, the more info I get on the ‘counter measures’ the better for me.

    Here’s a really full-proof way to keep those pesky headhunters and recruiters away, try taking care of your employees… I know novel concept.

    Shhh, don’t tell, if you focus on defeating the symptom and not the cure, it will continue to make my job easier :-P.

  4. Dr. Sullivan,
    It is simply smart for a company to eliminate recruiting calls into their company as it is a distraction to productivity. Also, companies should devise strategies to retain employees including researching who competitors are targeting. I believe that a company should take a more proactive approach to make sure that ‘valuable’ talent remains by affording reasonable job growth, an outstanding corporate culture and an above average compensation plan compared to their competitors. Companies need to get serious with exit interviews to find out why talent choses to leave and what the company can do to prevent fallout in the future. This is a weak link in most corporations. Your suggestion to use ‘dry searches’ left the hair standing on the back of my neck. I believe that the use of ‘dry searches’ is an insecure, unethical act that infringes upon personal freedoms. I would love to know that a company in my industry performs ‘dry searches’. I would know just what to do.

  5. Dear, dear, Doc Sullivan,
    I think Berlin tried some of these tactics before they erected the wall and gun turrets which was ultimately not effective either. (Although that may be covered in part two) 😉

    In the Financial Services arena every email is checked by compliance; phone calls are viciously screened by admins (if you have a name) and sent immediately to the sales manager if you have no name. Firms pay huge amounts of money, known as transition packages (one candidate I moved was given a check for 1.2 million to move) and locked in with 7 year + non-compete clauses as strong as Fort Knox. Firms pay ?deferred income? that is lost on leaving; will slap a TRO (temporary restraining order) on them in a heart beat?
    Still we always get to and successfully move top performers on a regular basis.

    Building walls and putting gun turrets up will only keep the weakest from leaving. Employee retention is the key and most of the responses I read this morning are correct!
    If you want to keep people from leaving treat them well.. or you can do what some old Baptist Churches did in the south years ago; they gave the congregation ?permanent parking? by burying them on the property.

    Golden handcuffs become a ?ball and chain? in an environment where management is dysfunctional. ?People join good companies but leave bad managers?
    If any client has a ?revolving door? issue I always suggest that they take a long, objective look at their managers. (Have employees give anonymous feedback on supervisors when they feel safe and know there will not be reprisals). They are always surprised to discover where the problem lies. Bad Managers.

    Keep people happy and keep happy people!

  6. Fred:

    You are, of course, correct–The doctor’s ideas on the subject reminds me of the Maginot Line — but even more expensive and more useless.
    Defense is not the way to play that game.

  7. Just hire people who are fantastic at their jobs but for whatever reason would not be attractive to headhunters.

    The curse of the headhunter is the need to get the greatest, best, perfumed perfection of a candidate, while the current employer merely needs people who can do the job.

    And of course, you can come flat right out and tell your people that if they are any good, they are going to be recruited, and to watch out for it.

    The classic challenge facing a ‘pretty good team’- can they keep it together long enough to win the whole thing ?

  8. No More War For Talent –
    Prevention and Retention is the Key

    Pink Slip ? new company across the Ocean
    Leaving just a memory
    Retirement shot, 401k gone as well
    No, there is nothing left for me
    Nothing was left behind for me

    We don’t need no ‘war for talent’
    We don’t no metrics Control
    No more new bodies in the office
    Employee Expectation will be respected
    Retention and Prevention is the key

    We will push for Education
    We will focus on Talent Utilization
    We will implement understanding
    We will show appreciation
    We will return our employee loyalty

    Fairness and equal Treatment
    Is not just a fond memory
    We have seen the writing on the wall
    Yes all in all Business Success is all about
    Retaining All our employees

    We will aim for Employee Reduction Control

    Hey H.R – Success it’s About Retention and Prevention

    something I wrote a while back –

  9. Actualy,

    Put these lyrics in to replace those in Eminems ‘Mosh’ and it wouldnt be half bad…..:)

    your lyrical poet….


  10. It?s no wonder to see the harsh reaction to Dr. Sullivan?s anachronistic blocking strategies which in fact weren?t strategies at all but tactics, crummy tactics at that. Nevertheless, several of his critics suffer from an anachronistic perspective themselves.

    If in fact markets did work so well, why bother getting up in the morning since someone in the free market will quickly do what you were going to do anyway? And if you do get up, why not hold a job fair on your own premises for competitors to interview your own employees – won’t that just speed up the top-grading process?

    Many of us here I suspect received our education in the post-Vietnam, Milton Friedman era in which free markets were extolled as the solution for everything. We ridiculed the liberals – the Modiglianis and the protectionists. We learned about those evil Keynesians and how they impeded markets. And although we formed our conscience about how business ran better with the freedom from big government, we had no trouble extrapolating the benefits to others including the poor and to labor in general.

    The fact is that markets don?t work all that well. Just like clients do dumb stuff like using an HR department to do strategic recruiting, employees do dumb stuff like moving on to new jobs that make less sense than the ones we provide them. And since we invest heavily in them, what is wrong with playing some offense when it comes to retention?

  11. Aaron,

    Excellent, well-written post. I could not agree with you more. Blocking and retention strategies built around restrictions just encourage people to see what they are being hidden from. One might ask, ‘What’s so great about the market that my employer would spend thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars keeping that information away from me?’ A cursory glance at Dr. Sullivan’s article leads me to immediately dismiss it as completely impractical and really what is at the heart of attrition and turnover. Have we all forgotten the Golden Rule?

    Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Simply put – treat your employees like you would want to be treated. Compensate them well, provide them with perks not available at other firms, ‘golden handcuff’ them, treat them like they are absolutely indispensable and critical to organizational success and you will create loyalty. It really is that simple.

    I recently heard of large, international CRO that forces it’s new employees to sign a 2-year commitment regarding the training they receive when they first start with the firm. If the employee resigns within the first two years of employment, he or she will owe the company $20,000!!!! Are you serious? It’s like a pre-nuptial agreement for employment. True, they were having horrible turnover but why not focus on those things that caused the turnover instead of having new employees sign a ridiculous contract?

    Would it surprise everyone to know that the number one reason potential candidates give me for considering a new opportunity is that they don’t feel valued by their employer? It’s not compensation, or travel or growth potential. It’s that they don’t feel valued. Corporate leadership really needs to get reconnected with the most critical asset they have – their people.

    Remember the Golden Rule.

    How’s that for an effective retention strategy?

  12. Gregg,
    the best offense for keeping your employees is to treat them right.

    As a recruiter you will be amazed to know that it is very difficult to pull candidates from some companies.

    Why? because they love where they work; no, not because of money, but because as the other post mentioned – they feel valued by their employer. The employer creates an atmosphere within the company the instills loyalty.


  13. I couldn’t agree more with you. Employees are people who greatly desire to be valued and appreciated. I really don’t understand how anyone could consider using blocking strategies to retain staff. People will go and work where they choose for whom they choose and in the main they are driven by the desire to turn up to work everyday and be told they are appreciated and valued. Let’s get back to the old fashioned stuff and let the business leaders who run these companies build a culture of trust. Then and only then when their employess are head hunted they will politely decline the invite to move. This has been something that I have experienced over many years. Unhappy companies lose staff, happy ones don’t.

  14. People (or markets) will do stupid things, but will generally correct them over time.
    Ideologues, empiricists, bureaucrats, sadists and software package developers, being inherently infallible, will not.
    Your question: ‘what’s wrong with playing offense—retention?’ is irrelevant.
    There’s obviously nothing wrong with it. The issue is the degree of offensiveness.

  15. Well said and suggested Karen. When we are retained by a client we always ask where would you want this professional to come from and usually we hear John Deere, Harley Davidson and sometimes specific divisions of Honeywell. These are all ‘World Class’ organizations and employers recognize the talent and what they can bring to another organization. After 8 years in this business I can tell you that I have spoken to hundreds of John Deere and Harley Davidson employee’s but have been unsuccessful in creating enough of an opportunity gap to get them to consider my client.
    I am quite sure that these organizations do not have a ‘blocking strategy’ or some other magic elixir to keep employee’s from turning over. They know what Jack Welch said a long time ago. ‘Your most important asset leaves to go home every night; what did you do today to make them want to return in the morning’. Evidently these companies do something each day to make their employee’s steadfastly want to be part of the team.

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