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When a New Competitor Enters the Store and Attempts to Poach Employees, the Owner Reacts

But should he retaliate?

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MIKE CALLAHAN WAS PLEASED with the way things were going. Since taking over Commonwealth Jewelers from his dad more than 20 years ago, his business had grown significantly, and he’d built a profitable in-house shop, employing five highly regarded jewelers who handled Commonwealth’s repair, custom and production work as well as a good number of trade accounts. Mike couldn’t help but think about how much of his time was invested these days in hiring, training and managing his current six-person team.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

There was no doubt that his next hire would need to be a sales manager.

While out on the sales floor one day, Mike was a bit surprised to see a trio of well-dressed executive types walk into the store. When he greeted them, one of the men introduced himself as the regional VP for a major jewelry chain, the woman with him as the district manager for the area and the other man as the newly appointed manager for the freestanding store they were scheduled to open across town in two weeks. The RVP told Mike they were having lunch at the restaurant next door and decided to stop in to say hello to Julie McManus, one of Commonwealth’s top salespeople. Julie had been hired eight months ago by Commonwealth after taking a year off of work to care for her newborn daughter. Prior to her leave, she had worked for the chain for five years.

Mike welcomed the trio to his store and after explaining that Julie was at lunch, offered to show them around. He was polite and informative, telling them about his family’s history in town and about the capabilities of the Commonwealth shop. He let them know that he worked hard to maintain good relationships with his competitors, and he offered his trade shop services should they ever have need.

A short time later, after Julie had returned and joined the conversation, Mike went back into his office to take a phone call. He wasn’t concerned about Julie being vulnerable to their poorly disguised poaching effort, as she had made it very clear when she was hired that she had no interest in returning to the company and had commented on many occasions that she was beyond grateful for the opportunity at Commonwealth. She was making more money while working fewer hours with no nights or Sundays.

Mike expected the trio to be gone by the time he finished his call. Instead, he came back out onto the floor to see Julie with a customer, the RVP and store manager near the front door deep in conversation, and the DM handing her business cards to two of the store’s jewelers who had stepped out of the shop to go to lunch. He promptly interrupted the DM and asked her to leave — but not before letting all three of the chain managers know that he was disappointed and disgusted with their abuse of his hospitality and their blatantly unethical behavior. As soon they were gone, Mike talked with his jewelers and confirmed his suspicion that the DM had waited for them to come out of the shop and then approached them about coming to work at the new store. They assured her that they were not interested and that they were firmly committed to Commonwealth.

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The next morning, Mike drafted a scathing email to the CEO of the chain describing the incident in detail and asking what action the CEO would take to ensure that his company representatives would behave in a more respectful and professional manner. A week later, he had not yet received a reply.

The Big Questions

  • Was it appropriate for Mike to throw the competitors out of his store?
  • Was there a better way to handle the situation?
  • How can an employer ensure that associates are not vulnerable to poaching without bankrupting the business?
  • Should Mike make an effort to fill his new sales manager position by recruiting from the chain’s new store?
  • What (if anything) should the chain’s senior management do about the behavior of their field managers?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Jennifer F.
Colorado Springs, CO

Honestly, if an employee is unhappy and wants to leave, there is no way to keep them. But if they love everything about the business they work for, then “poaching” is a non-issue. Was it inappropriate? Absolutely. Did he have the right to throw them out? You bet! The best thing they can do as a team is have a meeting and get it out there … have the salesperson who once worked for them talk about why she is so happy now! Joke about it collectively and come to an agreement about how to handle it as a team next time.

Gabi M.
Tewksbury, MA

I’m assuming that the chain’s senior management advised the field managers to do exactly what they did. If not, Mike probably would have received a reply by now. He definitely should’ve thrown them out; they were rude and on his property! I think he should leave it alone and just focus his energy on growing his business and loyalty with his staff.

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Kevin P.
Newak, OH

I would do exactly the same thing. There is never a guarantee your employees will continue to work for you. Employees are on a path, side by side with you as long as that path leads in the same direction and is beneficial to both parties. When that is no longer true, you part company. If an employee is unhappy, they will look elsewhere and find another position. For a competitor to come into your store and solicit them is plain wrong and completely unethical. I had a goldsmith leave a month before Christmas. The competitor would only hire him if he left immediately. They let him go in February. Of course, he wanted a referral from me. All I would say is that I would not rehire him under any circumstances. Treat your employees as you would want to be treated, and employees, treat your employer as you would like to be treated. That is the best you can do.

Joel W.
Tulsa, OK

We had the same thing happen in our store several times over the years. After 15 years of this happening, they have taken two from me and both times it was a blessing. Richard Branson says train an employee so they can leave and treat them so they never will. I believe we have the best place to work in the country, and not everybody is cut out for that kind of environment, or sometimes they don’t deserve it. I am very protective of my staff, but I don’t own them, and when my competition is always after my employees, it lets me know that I am doing something right. You will always have a target on you when you are working to be the best!

Tom N.
Spencer, IA

I would most likely have done the same thing. What they did is unacceptable to do in his store, in my opinion. That being said, it does not surprise me that a) they acted in this way, as I’m sure their “corporate training” was a huge part of it, and b) the CEO never responded. That to me says quite a bit about that chain and that CEO.

It sounds as though he has loyal and pleased employees, though, so he should feel very good about that. I’m sure his employees would be very disappointed if they did leave for a corporate chain job.

Jim G.
Champaign, IL

I think asking people to leave the store was in line, as well as writing the letter to the corporate office. I would also advise my employees that a company that uses such tactics will continue to poach and will likely replace anyone they feel is not up to their expectations. A job with them is not secure and solid. I realize this method of finding employees is common, but it is not ethical, at least not the way I was brought up in the business world.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

It was not only appropriate but necessary for Mike to throw them out. And he was way more cordial about it than I would have been. I would have told them to leave the moment they walked in. He should have known what they were up to. I don’t know how you actually stop other companies from poaching employees because I feel like that happens a lot. Just build a culture within your store where your employees are happy and satisfied and hopefully won’t leave. Also, if I was Mike, I would not seek out hiring a manager from the chain store. You’re only asking to start a war when it’s not necessary. There are a lot of good businesses to draw a sales manager from that won’t result in a counterattack. As far as the chain’s senior management, I don’t think they would do anything, but if they had any respect and class, then they would condemn the actions of their management and apologize to Mike.

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William C.
Paterson, NJ

A photo of the individuals from the chain store while inside the jeweler’s store should be posted in the jeweler’s store with the caption: “Even our competition shops here while trying to steal our employees.”

Andrea H.
Chicago, IL

I think Mike’s behavior was professional and appropriate. When it became clear that the chain-gang was abusing his hospitality, he was right to ask them to leave.

The only way to reduce employee vulnerability to poaching is to create an exceptional work culture and environment. Pay fairly, offer ample opportunities to learn new things, be direct, professional, and kind to your employees, and praise liberally and often.

Also — run a good business. Employees know when they are working for someone who is running a good business and when they are working for someone who’s just phoning it in — and they like working for winners.

Jim A.
Salt Lake City, UT

You cannot prevent poaching. Businesses are free to recruit and employees are free to shop their services elsewhere. But you are certainly under no obligation to make the job of the poachers easier. I agree that the behavior of the chain execs was unprofessional and unethical. Throw the bums out! Sounds like Mike did it as well as it could be done.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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