How to get internal employee poaching right

Market competition for IT talent remains so stiff that IT leaders are increasingly looking to poach employees from other departments to fill IT openings.

But snagging a potentially new IT “shining star” from another business function, even when the employee has already expressed an interest in shifting to an IT career, can get complicated.

Take, for example, an employee who has strong business chops in a particular domain that IT lacks. And suppose this person is a known high-performer and has a natural interest in and demonstrated aptitude for IT.

Chances are that the business manager doesn’t want to lose that employee to IT. Arguing that IT talent is hard to come by, and that the technology department is the lifeblood of the business, is one way to go about prying that staffer away. But the best route for IT leaders is to help find a way for everyone to come away with a positive outcome. Here’s how.

Know your culture

The ability of employees to shift careers within an organization depends in large part on company culture. Some companies are extremely controlling and might even have high levels of competition between departments and their managers. In this environment, moving a high-performing employee from a user department to IT without creating acrimony might be impossible.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are companies that actively encourage employee cross-training, career development, and departmental transfers. In company cultures like this, managers of IT and other departments are encouraged to embrace employee transfers and employee sharing. There is a collective belief that the more the company assists its employees in broadening their careers, their skill sets, and their interests, the greater likelihood that employees will remain with the company long-term.

Knowing where your company sits on this spectrum is vital to understanding how to go about pursuing a transfer. And if you can help lay the groundwork toward a more transfer-friendly culture in advance, the long-run benefits can be considerable.

Trusting relationships matter

Even if your company has an open culture, it’s critical to develop cooperative relationships with managers in other departments because losing a top performer isn’t easy for anyone. Nevertheless, if a user department manager recognizes an employee’s interest in transfering to IT, and you have a strong working relationship with that manager, internal hiring can go a lot more smoothly.

For example, the two of you could arrange a period of weeks or months for the employee to fully transition from the user department to IT. During this time, the employee might perform work for both departments. This approach would give the employee time to get up to speed in IT while affording the user department manager time to train or recruit someone else to fill the departing employee’s role.

Never forget protocol

At some companies, poaching an employee from another departments is considered unethical and underhanded. Regardless, internal employee poachingcan certainly be an issue if you actively recruit another department’s employee without letting the other department manager know.

It is vital to know up front the actions and behaviors that are acceptable within your company before you start recruiting another department’s employee. For instance, in some cases, it is acceptable for an employee to be “loaned out” from one department to another for the duration of a specific one-off project. Such a policy helps provide temporary resources for projects while enabling employees on loan to gain knowledge and cross-train in another discipline. Still, the intent is always to return the employee to their original department once the project is complete. 

In other cases, employee transfers are intended to become permanent, but there generally is a period of time during which the employee still maintains some of the duties of their original department. This gives the user department manager time to recruit or train another employee to assume the departing employee’s responsibilities, as mentioned above.

In all cases, it is good protocol for the managers of both departments to work out the logistics first. What you want to avoid is surprising another department manager with an employee transfer request that the manager knows nothing about.

Remember that poaching can go both ways

In my time as CIO, I have accepted several employees into IT from other departments, and there have also been cases when an IT employee has requested to be transferred to an end-user team.

In one case, I had a manufacturing business analyst who had an opportunity to apply to the manufacturing group for a manufacturing planner position that was posted. This person had been working with manufacturing as an IT analyst, and the manufacturing manager was very high on her. The manufacturing manager, the employee, and I got together. Collectively, we worked out a transition plan that would enable the employee to start her manufacturing role right away, with the understanding that she would still be half-time in IT for 60 days. This transitional period gave the employee time to learn her new manufacturing role while she trained another employee to take her place in IT.

The results of this process were great for all involved.

Engagement and empathy make all the difference

Poaching employees from other departments can be delicate, and even politically risky.

From the CEO and HR viewpoints, employee transfers are a win for the company because employees who have a chance to build skills and further their careers are likely to stay with the company for the long haul. But for managers who lose talent, the process can be hard to accept.

That’s why it’s essential to build and maintain strong relationships with other managers, and to think not only in terms of what IT needs, but how other departments will be affected.

Finding the right balance between these elements isn’t easy, but it can be done when everyone is actively engaged in the process.

Business IT Alignment, Hiring