On Recruiting from a Competitor

On Recruiting from a Competitor

In response to my statement on prohibiting current employees from disclosing proprietary information from their former employers, blog reader Alberto from Sao Palo, Brazil, questioned me on the ethics of hiring from a competitor.

Competitors are the principal, sometimes inevitable, source for talent with industry-specific skills and relevant experiences. At first sight, the proposition of hiring from a competitor sounds quite rational: the recruit may be well-trained at the competitor; he/she may be able to jump-start a new venture and establish a customer-network readily. However, depending on the position your recruit held at the competitor, this attempt might be fraught with problems–ethical and legal.

In today’s competitive marketplace for talent, an employee has a fair right to seek employment with competitors of his/her current employer. However, the loss of a key employee and the fear that the former employee may reveal trade secrets to a new employer may lead to contention between the new and former employers. A recent example: the bitter dispute between Google and Microsoft when Google recruited a Microsoft executive to lead Google’s research initiatives in China.

Essential Considerations for Recruiting from a Competitor

Here are three important guidelines to consider when recruiting from a competitor.

  • Take into account the costs of hiring and retaining your new recruit. The recruit is likely to command a premium over his/her benefits with the former employer. Further, if your new recruit will leave a competitor to join your organization, he/she could leave your organization in the future and return to the former employer or transfer to a third organization. What will motivate him/her to continue to stay with your organization on the medium- and long-term?
  • During the recruiting process, understand any non-compete or non-disclosure agreements your recruit may have entered with the former employer. Abide by any such commitments—for the duration of the non-compete or non-disclosure agreements, if possible, assign responsibilities that do not conflict with terms of these contracts. Consult legal experts to weigh any potential risks.
  • If the recruit had held a key position in the competitor, he/she likely has access to proprietary information or trade secrets of your competitor. Do not solicit any proprietary information about the former employer—this is unethical and may expose you to liability.

Interviewer Skills #2: Conducting Reference Checks

Hiring: Interviewer Skills: Conducting Reference Checks

Following a job interview, many managers do not feel comfortable extending an offer to a candidate of choice without talking to the candidate’s references. Conducting reference checks is indispensable to validate perceptions of the candidate from an hour-long interview and to discover minutiae that may not be evident from the candidate’s resume or interview. Hence, talking to references gives the manager a distinct perspective of people who may have observed the candidate at his/her work.

Hiring: Conducting Reference Checks Candidates often list as references only individuals who will present upbeat reviews. Further, many references hesitate to provide precise information on the candidate to minimise legal risk (defamation, privacy, etc.) Consequently, some organisations believe that talking to references hardly ever has value. Despite the bias, however, references frequently drop inferences or provide details that may point to important clues to the candidate’s credentials or personality.

Conducting a Reference Check

Ask the candidate for professional references and obtain his/her permission to contact former employers. Setup a twenty to thirty minute telephone meeting with the reference. At the appointed hour, describe the background of the discussion to the reference, inform that the information he/she will provide is valuable and guarantee confidentiality. Consider questions such as the following.

  • “What was your relationship with the candidate? Did you supervise him/her? How frequently did you interact with him/her?”
  • “What kind of supervision did the candidate expect? Did he/she learn quickly? Was he/she open to feedback and change?”
  • “What were the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses? How would you compare him/her to his/her peers?”
  • “Was he/she good at working with people, negotiating, etc.?” Pick a few important professional traits that you believe are critical for success in the position for which you are considering the candidate.
  • “Would you hire (or rehire) the candidate for a similar position in your company?”

Important Guidelines

  • Hiring: Conducting Reference ChecksWhen the references state general observations such as “Sujay is creative” or “Smitha is a good communicator,” ask for specific examples.
  • Try to read between the lines. Be careful of potential misinterpretations; ask for further details and clarify your understanding of the reference’s information.
  • Check independent references, wherever possible. Talk to a friend or people within your network who may know the candidate.

Obtaining meaningful data from reference checks and interpreting this information in the context of the rest of the interviewing process helps managers make objective decisions on job candidates.

Interviewing Candidates: Stale Questions Get Stale Answers

Interviewing: Stale Questions Get Stale Answers

One of my former lab mates, who has been interviewing for a job, recently remarked that her interviews are typically boring because interviewers tend to ask identical questions.

The main objective of an interview is to discover more about a candidate’s credentials and objectives to see whether the candidate is a good fit for an available position. An interviewer who asks cliché questions or uses tired language typically leads a dull question-and-answer session. He/she loses the attention of the candidate and fails to acquire comprehensive information about the candidate.

Avoid cliché questions

Job seekers have access to a number of books and websites that describe canned ‘best’ responses to the most popular interview questions. One response to the oft-asked “What are your weaknesses?” question is the predictable “I work too hard and ignore my social life.” Avoid old standby questions and ask incisive questions that make the candidate think.

  • Instead of “Do you like your boss?”, ask “What do you think your boss’s weaknesses are? How do you complement her weaknesses and support her responsibilities?”
  • Instead of “Tell me about yourself?”, ask “What aspects of your upbringing have contributed to your success at your current position as the leader of the risk management group?”
  • Instead of “Why does a career in sales interest you?”, ask “Can you name a few salesmen you admire? Over the years, what aspects of their talents have you incorporated in your sales approach?”

Personalize the questions

Interviewing: Personalize the questionsTo whatever extent possible, review a candidate’s résumé ahead of the interview and customize the discussion. Frame your questions to relate to the candidate’s experiences: “In you résumé, you mention that you led a team of technicians that worked during the weekends to meet an important deadline. Why do you think they cooperated with you and agreed to work during the weekends?”

Relate to the responses

Relate to one or two of the candidate’s responses by mentioning your own experiences: “I once had a customer who …”. Resist the temptation to start a conversation, empathize or add value to the candidate’s response. Be brief. Avoid talking too much about yourself.

Use a fresh tone of voice

On occasion, you may be required to interview several candidates in succession, e.g. while filling multiple positions or in a college recruiting session. After talking to a few candidates, your chosen set of questions may start to sound jaded due to repetition. Watch your tone of voice when asking questions; convey enthusiasm for the candidate’s details and engage in a lively conversation.

Maintain good rapport

Interviewing: Maintain Good RapportInterviewers often over-indulge in note-taking by recording minor details of a candidate’s responses and interpretation of these responses. Although the candidate welcomes the occasional respite from visual attention, too much note-taking can have a distancing effect. Record just an outline or use a graphical note-taking technique, e.g. mind mapping. Review this outline immediately after the interview and add details you want to capture for later review or a consensus meeting.

Pair up with a colleague

Conduct a tandem interview if possible; alternate asking questions and taking notes with the colleague. While one person takes notes, the other person can ask follow-up questions and maintain a rapport with the candidate.


The primary challenge for an interviewer is to see beyond the veneer of the candidate’s carefully-crafted résumé, on-the-surface details of past responsibilities and often well-rehearsed responses to interview questions. A lively conversation is essential to elicit thoughtful, candid responses and enable the interviewer to make an educated decision on the candidate.