Are your staff safe from vendors?

Von Julian Bajkowski

With pressure to rack up ever more sales and beef up their supply of IT talent, vendors are cherry-picking staff from their client base.

The problem has now become so bad that many clients are insisting that clauses expressly forbidding the poaching of staff be written into vendor contracts to ensure ethical behavior is observed.

In Canberra, Australia, the problem has reached "plague proportions" according to a senior Defense IT source. Some unscrupulous operators routinely approach new staff within "weeks of them getting their [security] clearances", the source said.

"The government spends millions upon millions each year training people for trusted positions only to see them walk out the door within 24 months. It"s effectively a massive training subsidy for private industry. Then they sell us back the same talent at twice the price," the source complained.

In private industry things are not much better according to IT manager of MG Rover Australia Louise Ridlen who says vendors regularly offer positions to in-house staff.

Ridlen said part of the appeal for vendors was finding key staff in specific verticals to gain insight into that particular industry. Money and conditions are frequently offered as sweeteners.

Ridlen said vendors commonly look for the "IT linchpin of the organization".

"Sometimes I think about it -- I have to say some have offered more money... but I have not taken their offer," Ridlen said.

However, Ridlen says money alone does not buy the sorts of relationships and satisfaction IT managers get from making a difference to their enterprise.

The bottom line doesn"t stop with money, she said, it"s also about people and location. "There is something to be said for being comfortable about where you are. The IT manager is there to make the business more profitable and save time in doing so," she said, adding that vendors keep their ears to the ground for "personal recommendations from other people".

St George Bank CIO John Loebenstein has a simple message for enterprises losing staff to IT vendors or competitors: look at what you can improve in your own backyard.

"You reap what you sow; companies should be providing an environment that offers challenges, satisfaction, recognition and rewards so that employees want to stay and are satisfied," he said.

"It is ridiculous that people complain. It"s up to them to fix it, and they have the power to fix it. You have to look at what will make a satisfied employee [so] they will not be tempted to the dark side."

Many IT vendors frankly admit they happily employ IT talent from industry verticals to boost their offering and developments, but insist there are strict ethical rules to be observed.

At Oracle, senior director of human resources Lynn Harvey said while poaching staff from customers is simply not the way to do business, if IT staff freely approach the vendor, it is free rein.

"In the recruitment market the key competency is IT experience, but ...the icing on the cake is industry experience, especially when we are ramping up for an assignment," Harvey said.

"It would not be a strategy of Oracle to target staff. What we tend to do is make extensive use of recruitment billboards and Internet facilities...and of course people with the prerequisites certainly view them."

When dealing with a senior manager within a particular environment or industry, vendors" representatives have to talk the same language, he said.

"It is key [the representatives] have confidence in understanding the pain points and critical aspects of business," Harvey said.

SAP marketing director Len Augustine said many vendors try to hire staff who have experience specific to their customers, adding you cannot implement an application if you don"t understand the process of the particular industry.

However, the line is drawn in regards to hiring staff from business partners. "Industry knowledge is crucial to our business - we sell into 24 different sectors from industrial to mining and it is important to find people who can talk the language of the customer, through pre-sales as well as consulting services," Augustine said.

"I think all vendors would have policies around stealing from business partners and would not do that directly unless they were approached by a person from an organization - it is a bit sensitive if you hire staff from business partners."

Family first

The issue of government losing tech talent to private industry has also attracted the attention of Attorney General Philip Ruddock.

Speaking at the launch of an eBay online safety guide in March, Ruddock used the opportunity to lament the fact that eBay"s new director of trust and safety, Alastair MacGibbon, had come at the expense of the Australian government, where MacGibbon previously held the directorship of the Australian High Tech Crime Center.

For his part, MacGibbon emphasizes that he chose to move to the eBay role because it was a better fit for a family man after a decade of thrilling work, but awkward hours and international and domestic postings.

BT"s ethical boundaries

With heavy IT and telco deployments in financial dealing rooms across Australia, BT general manager of consulting and systems integration Tom Frutnik insists IT suppliers must have strict ethical guidelines when it comes to attracting staff and dealing with customers.

While admitting plenty of poaching does occur within the IT industry, Frutnik told Computerworld part of his organization"s culture is to constantly educate staff about what constitutes ethical and unethical behavior.

BT also routinely puts anti-poaching clauses in contracts, not only to give customers comfort, but to protect its own investment in staff.

"It"s a big thing for us. I wouldn"t want my customers poaching my staff. We never approach people. If people want a change [they can to come to us]. But it"s got to be highly ethical," he said.

Top five defection busters

Computerworld anonymously polled 10 enterprise IT managers on the five best way to stop staff leaving to vendor roles.

1) Always insert no-poaching clauses into contracts

2) Closely monitor morale and pay rates

3) Make non-IT management recognize IT achievements

4) Promote a family-friendly workplace culture

5) Persistently refresh training and learning schemes