update: what are the ethics of poaching an employee from someone I know professionally?

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer wondering about hiring someone who her colleague would be upset to lose? Here’s the update.

Thank you so much for answering my question! Your answer and the comments did confirm to me that, yes, this was an awkward issue and no, there wasn’t an easy answer. I read every comment and appreciate the time that people took to consider my question.

Here is how it shook out.

I posted the job. Taylor applied, along with many other candidates. She did ask if I received her resume and requested an interview. I ended up interviewing her (along with interviewing several of the other good candidate who applied). Taylor wasn’t comfortable with me discussing her job hunt with Leslie, so I wanted her to be able to make her case in a more neutral environment and to see what was going on with her and Leslie.

It turns out that Taylor had been reassigned to another contractor, so she wasn’t actually working with Leslie anymore. Leslie was quite unhappy about this, but didn’t have much say in the matter.
Taylor ended up asking Leslie for a reference soon after I interviewed her (after I asked if she would be comfortable with me talking to Leslie) and letting her know that this was for me. Leslie gave Taylor an excellent reference.

So I hired her.

I will say that was pretty clear that Leslie would have taken it badly if I had hired Taylor while she was still working for Leslie, to the point where I don’t think that I could have done it. I think our professional relationship would have suffered a deep and permanent rift, even with the “plausible deniability” strategies that you suggested. It may not be reasonable, but I can see where Leslie would be resentful if her mentee hired an employee who was making life much easier for her.
I agree that it sucks for Taylor.

We got lucky.

Thank again for your help.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Granger Chase*

    I’m glad to hear it all worked out! This was one I was hoping for a good update on, because it was certainly a tricky situation to try to navigate. Sounds like it landed at the best possible outcome!

  2. NotAnotherManager!*

    I’m glad that it worked out for both you and Taylor – I will say it’s disappointing that Leslie made it clear she’d have been angry were Taylor still on her team. Part of mentoring people is that they grow professionally, and that sometimes (often?) means up and out of the job you have for them. Considering it a betrayal for a professional contact to hire them, particularly if it’s a good move for the employee, doesn’t reflect well.

    1. Dragoning*

      Sounds like it would’ve been the mentee hiring the employee, not the mentee being hired. I agree it still sucks, but it almost feels a little like stealing a benefactor’s resources, which I can see.

      I don’t like it, but I can see it.

      1. C Pointer*

        I am amazed that you consider another human being a resource, like a pile of gold, some eggs or whatever.
        Its reality but unfortunate that in business people have to step around a client or important contact’s severe personality issues such as jealousy, possessiveness, etc to do a hire. Sad also that references are used as blackmail by vindictive people.

          1. Dragoning*

            Most companies have an organization literally called “human resources” but that’s not dehumanizing?

            1. Brogrammer*

              Funny story… apparently many practices of modern HR have their origins in slave plantations in the American South. Link to an article in reply.

      2. NotAnotherManager!*

        You are correct – I misread the relationship between the parties! I’m with you – I can see it but really don’t like it and think that taking personal offence isn’t really professional. If the other job is a better fit for Taylor, I’d hope that a good supervisor would be supportive.

    2. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      I agree. Especially since Taylor wasn’t even Leslie’s direct employee, just worked for the company Leslie had contracted for assistance. Punishing the OP for providing Taylor a better job opportunity when Leslie didn’t direct-hire Taylor herself is just crappy, IMO.

      I am glad it didn’t come to that, but it sucks that it could have.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Right? You get all possessive and weird over a contractor who wants a full time job, Y-I-K-E-S.

        It’s a yikes even if they’re your full time employee who’s just looking for a new job in general but it’s so extra to be that way over a contractor that you hired through a 3rd party source who obviously has to think about their income security.

  3. Luke*

    In my observation and experience, “plausible deniability” is more valued for the subjective *psychological* benefit it gives the user, than for any actual immunity/protection it affords. See also: “concealment” vs “cover”. :)

    That having been said, it doesn’t reflect well on Leslie that she’d have considered what happened a betrayal if Taylor had still been her direct report.

  4. LQ*

    I’m sure I’m the only one, but I can 100% see myself doing something like this (being Leslie). I’d mean it as a joke and I’d be sad to lose someone who was great. I think today I’d try to not do it, but I know past me would.

    I would even be annoyed about a great resource being taken away when talking with a work friend type person.

    I’d still give a glowing reference (assuming it was warranted), I’ve encouraged folks to apply for jobs elsewhere if I thought it would benefit them even though it would hurt to lose them. But yeah, I’d absolutely look like I’d be taking it badly.

    But I wouldn’t be actually upset or have it cost a real rift in a relationship. I might say something like next time I’m stealing someone good from you. But I wouldn’t be actually upset.

    1. Burned Out Supervisor*

      Same, only because it’s more and more difficult to find those truly great team members that just “get” the work and hit the ground running. Obviously, those team members will naturally move up or out of an org because they’re high performers, but I still mourn the loss of a great team member who makes my job both easier and more pleasant. I just have to remind myself that I was that person looking to move up and I have to let go.

  5. AnonPi*

    I was sort of a “Taylor” this year, and found out I was passed on a good job opportunity because the hiring manager didn’t want to deal with the potential fall out by “stealing me”. They’re not even close colleges or work in the same division, just know each other professionally since they work at the same company as managers so they’ve interacted periodically. Had an interview for a position with this new group, it went great, said they wanted follow up meetings, then ghosted me til I got a rejection letter 2 months later. Found out about two months ago from a colleague that went back to that division, that the reason I wasn’t picked was that the hiring person decided she didn’t want to deal with my current manager by hiring me. It really sucked finding out that’s what kept me from being hired, and now I worry I won’t be considered for other positions because of it. Even though current manager made it clear I should find a job elsewhere because I’ve outgrown my current position here.

    I get it is a tricky position as a manager to have to potentially deal with a fellow manager if you hire one of their employees, but from my perspective this is one of those things that comes with being a manager figuring out how to deal with it. Don’t punish the potential employee for it.

    1. TootsNYC*

      If your current manager is supportive of the idea that you’re looking for a way to move up, I wonder if you could ask her to put in a good word for you, should there be a time you’ve had a good interview and you think the hiring manager knows your boss.

      If that’s too much openness with your boss, you could make it a point to say, “I’m looking for growth opportunities, because I’ve pretty much maxed them out where I am; even my current boss has acknowledge this. I know she won’t be surprised when I eventually find what I’m looking for.”

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      I agree with TootsNYC. And I’ll add if your current manager thinks you have outgrown your current job and has no problem with you moving up even if it means moving out, ask him or her to be a reference for you. That puts it right there on the table. I’d also add that if your company is large enough, your manager can keep an eye on possible internal transfers. Good luck!

      1. AnonPi*

        Unfortunately my manager is not so helpful as to put in a word for me or help seek other opportunities. Even though other staff have told her I’m not being utilized like I could and she should help find a way to make it happen, she just doesn’t care. The bad thing is where I live this company is really one of 2-3 that pays well enough for the work I do, so opportunities are limited. I have applied again in the other division, and former colleague has said she’d talk to the hiring manager there, so hopefully that will help. It’s just a lateral move so it’s not great, but at least it’ll get me out of the toxic overworked situation I’m in now. And this other division and manager I’ve heard nothing but good things about them helping their staff develop and grow into other positions (which is why this opening is now available), so I figure long term it could pay out to take a lateral move.

  6. Stacy Sloan Smith*

    Ugggh I hate this. Not blaming OP but it sucks that poor Taylor is being viewed as chattel who ‘belongs’ to Leslie. It’s short sighted on Leslie’s part too because, if Taylor catches wind of the situation, she may realize she has to quit before she can move on in her career, which ultimately helps nobody.

    This is like the “too competent to promote” conundrum that hits departments in a big org sometimes.

  7. Triumphant Fox*

    I was actually pretty proud of my organization today – a vendor hired one of our employees away and asked us about it first because they value that relationship and didn’t want any bad feelings. Even though we’ve lost(let go of) a few people lately and are already short, the executive was super gracious about it and proud of our employee for landing the job. I loved hearing them share about it and discuss the difficulties that would result with no animosity.

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