5 ways to make your IT staff unpoachable

The world economy moved from hiring freeze to hiring spree. There's not enough IT talent to go around. Here's what to do to keep from losing staff to poachers who carry a pot full of deal-sweeteners.

When it comes to hiring practices, the tables have turned—capsized, actually. After decades of marching orders to "do more with less" saw thousands of IT jobs lost to downsizing, outsourcing, and automation, now the race is on to hire swarms of top talent. The trouble is, there isn't enough talent to go around, and the threat of losing key staff to poachers is growing daily.

"In the current war for talent in Silicon Valley, a lot of leaders believe that it is not possible to compete with the Google and Facebook phenomena and take it as a given that they will lose key team members to these giants," says Lee-Anne Farley, former director of talent acquisition at TriNet, the largest private U.S.-based human resources outsourcer, and currently global HR operations leader at Glassdoor. "However, Silicon Valley employees are looking for more than just money and a title."

The key to retaining existing employees and attracting new talent lies in knowing what IT people really want and what motivates them to move.

Push or pull

"Associates leave an organization through either a push or a pull scenario," explains Sean Ebner, former regional vice president of Technisource, a top IT talent firm, and now president of Locum Tenens Staffing at AMN Healthcare. "You want to eliminate the push, and you want to protect against the pull."

Ebner says a push can include a poorly defined career path, poor work environment, challenging or inappropriate leadership, poorly defined corporate vision, inability to develop new skills and experiences within the company, or a poor work/life balance.

A pull is the perception of a better work situation, a more attractive organization, a more defined career path, better compensation or benefits, better work/life balance, and more exposure to emerging technologies and methods.

Encourage a culture where employees have a real stake in the company and genuinely feel that they are building for the future.

Lee-Anne Farley global HR operations leader at Glassdoor

Successfully building a defense against the push and pull mechanics behind an organization's brain drain begins with redefining the IT staff's place in the corporation.

"Go out of your way to treat IT staff like true partners, and not in the surface-only marketing sense," says Daniel E. Abney, formerly CTO of LoyalNation, a firm that creates customer and employee loyalty and rewards programs, and now an independent technical consultant at Spring EQ, where he also assists in the interviewing and hiring of its full-time IT team.

That means changing the culture so that the IT staff is no longer seen as a handy scapegoat when things go wrong or as an outsider summoned only when something needs to be fixed.

"Too many times the IT arm of an organization is treated as a separate entity within the company," Abney says. "As a result, if they are treated like a mercenary, they tend to behave like a mercenary—and always look for the extra dollar somewhere else."

While pay certainly does play a central role in recruitment and retention strategies, some companies miss the mark in rate calculations. "When viewing a talented associate's compensation, view it in the context of how much you would be willing to pay to bring in that type of individual from a competitor," says Ebner. Would you pay recruiting fees or a sign-on bonus? Keep this in mind when considering an associate's annual merit increase. "If you are paying your associate well, it takes away some of the allure another company might be able to present by lessening the amount of additional comp they could expect by leaving."

Some companies have a locked range of pay for each IT position that is often too low to retain or attract top talent. A common way to offset that problem is to offer a skill premium—additional pay for a specific demonstrable hot skill—or a retention bonus to dampen the allure of a higher paying poacher. 

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Deal sweeteners

Pay is not the only consideration your IT talent weighs in career decisions. It isn't even the top consideration. You can't ignore pay rates, obviously, and you had definitely better be in the ballpark, but you can find creative ways to compete successfully against companies that are willing to pay more than you can afford. Just don't expect that to be an easy task.

"This time around, unlike back in the roaring 2000s, everyone seems to understand that salaries and foosball tables aren't going to be enough to keep the best of the best," says Jim Anderson, an IT management consultant at Blue Elephant Consulting, and vice president of marketing, SaaS product management, at GSL Solutions.

Something else is clearly needed to sway the decision to go or stay. "The challenge that a lot of IT managers are running into is that they've been out of the trenches for so long that they've lost touch with what's really important for the Gen X/Y/millennials who do the IT work these days," he says. "It doesn't help that IT workers aren't very good at expressing what it would take to make them stay either."

Thus, the onus is on the company to create employment sweeteners that appeal to workers who have changed radically. The recession and outsourcing taught prospective IT employees that job security is a myth, materialism is a less-than-satisfying life endeavor, and there is indeed life outside of work. In other words, the employment deal needs to be sweetened with real sugar—that is, honest substance—and not with the saccharin-like bitter aftertaste of yesterday's "here's lots of pay, but you'll have no time to spend it" offerings.

Surprisingly, these sugary deals don't have to be overly expensive to be effective.

For your retention or recruitment offer to work, it must be something you can live with and is uniquely associated with your company. (Why else would talent want to work for you if your competitors offer the same incentives?) To help you get started in the creative process, here are five poaching-proof tactics:

Stake them to the company. Make the benefits in working for your company crystal clear. Create an attractive employer brand, offer challenging work, opportunity, and reward in terms other than just money.

In other words, give employees a stake in the company's success. "Examples we typically see of clients that have done a really good job of retention is where there is a tangible atmosphere of pride, being a recognized part of decision-making, and being more than just a faceless number," says Farley. "Empowerment and ownership are key to this, so encourage a culture where employees have a real stake in the company and genuinely feel that they are building for the future, and recognize them as being excellent at what they do."

Offer life balance, not just a job. Work/life balance has become increasingly important in the workplace. "Pay more than lip service to this when dealing with top talent," advises Ebner. "Enabling associates to work remotely periodically using firm-offered tools is a great way to help them achieve a balance and recognize that the organization values them and their needs."

Flexible work schedules are also great incentives. They allow employees to attend to life details and interests, ranging from time off to meet the plumber to getting off early to attend a concert. Give them time to breathe and play; their productivity will increase. Remember, excessive cutbacks and downsizing have caused many talented people to do the jobs of several people. They have been overworked and underpaid for years. Give them a break, allow them to live again, and they'll be highly unlikely to change jobs.

Offer opportunities to learn. In today's environment, just about everyone recognizes that they need to manage their own career. "Ensure you have opportunities for talented IT associates to learn new technologies and methods," says Ebner. "In IT, it is critical to survival and advancement to stay ahead of the newest technologies. If an organization does not provide that opportunity, top talent will leave to find it."

Let them finish the job. "Let them complete things," says GSL Solutions' Anderson. "The No. 1 complaint that I get from the front lines of IT is that they never get to have the satisfaction of completing a task." Projects are cancelled halfway through, he says, or the goal posts get moved just as they reach the end. IT staff need to be able to feel that they completed a project. "A big party needs to be thrown, and lots of meaningless awards need to be given out to everyone," he adds. "They all say that these things really don't matter, but they do."

Let them create. It's comical in a sad way that companies today are trying so hard to innovate yet they throttle their staff's attempts to create. There are several ways to allow them to do so and all to your company's benefit.

"A lot of very skilled technical IT people are actually very creative and hate to have this creativity stifled," says Chris Sargent, founder of Akascia Executive Search and now founder and front-end developer at Sticky Pixel. "Sometimes this means they do their own work outside of their normal employment. As long as this isn't in direct competition or infringing on copyright issues, this should absolutely be allowed and encouraged."

You should also consider giving top talent their own personal work budget. "Top technical talent hates running a network that is cobbled together from loads of old pieces of equipment," explains Sargent. "Therefore, allow them to plan fully and deliver something that really satisfies them and makes them proud of their work."

Letting talent contribute to other activities also helps. "Allow staff to pick an open source project, for example, and contribute to it," says Anderson. The staff will feel good about doing more than "just work," and if the company actually uses the application, then both employee and employer benefit. "The time spent on the open source project needs to come from work time. Don't tell them to do it after hours or on weekends; the company has to have some skin in the game," he adds.

Ultimately, the one rule to remember is that you are trying to attract and retain human beings, not robots or slaves. Offer them a way to live their lives, work with pride, and create. You will not only retain a talented staff, but the company could well benefit far beyond your dreams.