Hiring a former coworker
March 7, 2012 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Should I steal my former employer's best employee?

For the past 5 years I have worked for a small business, in a team of 3 (plus owner and temps) as the #2 earner for the business. 2 weeks ago I worked my last day and tomorrow I will be starting my own business in a city about an hour away. Interviews for new staff start next week. I have several promising candidates lined up already.

So far, so good. Except that my former coworker, and the #1 earner for the business (Mary), has indicated she is interested in relocating and working for me.

On one hand, this would be great for me. We have a great working relationship and I can think of no one better to fill the position. If it were needed, I would be willing to hold a slot for them so they could give more than the customary notice period to my former employer.

OTOH, this would be seriously crippling to my former employer (taking their #1 person away in the wake of their #2 person leaving). I am starting in a city with lots of good applicants, but they are located in an area where good staff are quite hard to come by. If Mary is replaced reasonably quickly, everyone is a winner. If not, I've put the former employer into the red and possibly jeopardized the job of the #3 (last remaining earner). And the former boss and the #3 person are about as close friends as it is possible to be at work. I do feel like I owe the former employer a bit after being kept in my job during a very trying time for me when I was not giving anywhere near 100% (and someone else might've suspended or fired me). And I'm quite close to the #3 and their family.

Should I let the free market rule and offer Mary a job as soon as they want it? Pretend I didn't hear Mary's half-hearted question about a job, and go filling the spot in the normal way with someone almost-as-good? Split the difference and offer Mary a job if she gives the employer a very generous notice period?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total)
It's not stealing if she's coming willingly. Think of it from Mary's point of view - you get passed over for a job because the boss you're applying to is buddies with your current boss? Not cool.

It's just business.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:20 PM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Here are some questions that come up for me:

Doesn't Mary have a right to change jobs? Isn't it up to her? It seems to me that if Mary likes the job with you better than the job with your old boss, then your old boss isn't treating her right. If she doesn't take your job, will she quit anyway and take another job? Is she in the market for a job right now?

How much loyalty did your boss show to you? Did he keep you on because it was a bad market, or because you were good at your job? If the tables were turned, would your old boss decide not to hire someone who was working for you?

Is it a moral question, or awkwardness? Because if it's awkwardness, you can chalk it up to Mary wanting to relocate.

Are you seriously willing to not hire the best person? How will you feel if your business doesn't do so well and you could have had a great employee?

How would it affect your decision if you asked Mary to give your old boss extra notice, and take the time to train up her replacement? Isn't that better than if Mary interviews secretly, and then takes another job where she can only afford to give two weeks notice?
posted by musofire at 8:28 PM on March 7, 2012

It is up to her and she is clearly a valuable asset and believes in you.

It seems like suicide to not take this person who WILLINGLY wants to come work for you.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:31 PM on March 7, 2012 [14 favorites]

These are peoples' lives. "It's just business" is one of those phrases like "all is fair in love and war" -- they're just a way of saying "I'm ruthless". Business doesn't have to be done that way. Kudos to you for considering the consequences of your actions.

Still, IF Mary is truly the best person for the job and she very much wants it, and assuming that your new company won't be directly competing with your former boss' company -- do it. I think that your idea of holding a slot for Mary so that she can give the former employer more than the customary notice is a good gesture.

If you want to go the extra mile, go ahead and interview those promising candidates. If any of them are really good, you might end up reconsidering, or at least you can let them know about a similar job opening up at the old company. Potentially everyone could end up happy.
posted by dacoit at 8:38 PM on March 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yes, I really hate the attitude of "it's just business" because it's seriously not - there are literally people's careers and lives at stake and I think sometimes people conveniently put the "business" sticker on everything so we don't have to deal with the consequences of our actions.

So I think it's great that the OP is acknowledging just how difficult this situation is.

With that in mind, it would also be offensive/detrimental to Mary as well as to your own business to not at least offer it to her and let her decide. From there, if she accepts, I don't see anything wrong with allowing her to give her current employer lots of notice.
posted by mleigh at 8:45 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you asked Mary why she's thinking of moving on? I'd really want to make sure that the position I was offering was a great fit for her and that she would be happy and it would be a mutually successful venture. Basically, if you're gonna poach employees, make sure it's worth it to everyone. If Mary is the person for the job, have an open and frank discussion about everyone's expectations and also your concerns about leaving the former employer in the lurch. Maybe she's got some ideas there.

I don't think it's right to discriminate against her because you are buddies with her boss. On the other hand, there's ways to handle this so that there's few hard feelings in the long term. The short term might be a little rocky but play it right and you've got a bridge unburned.
posted by amanda at 8:55 PM on March 7, 2012

Do you have an employment contract with your former employer? Many typical contracts have non-compete and non-solicitation clauses. By hiring Mary, you could breach the contract. IANAL but I have a contract like this signed.

Morally? If Mary approached you, she is probably thinking of switching somewhere else already, so it seems to me you have no obligation to not hire her. However, if you made the first step, I personally would feel I crossed a line by poaching off of a former employer I was on good terms with, especially a small business. But then I am not you, so I suggest doing what lets you sleep at night.
posted by Yavsy at 9:10 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

At least this doesn't sound like it has to be a 'limited-time offer' for Mary to quit and come work for you. You can both probably afford to wait a little while until the timing's better for your old company.
posted by lizbunny at 9:10 PM on March 7, 2012

I think the key difference, if we're talking ethics, is whether Mary wants to relocate and would like to work for you when she does, or whether Mary wants to work for your new company and is willing to relocate to do it.

If it's the former, I'd think nothing more of it and let Mary apply. Note, I said let Mary apply. Don't just give her the job, especially in this new city with lots of qualified applicants. Take applications, of which Mary will be one, and evaluate each one on merit. You can offer to keep Mary's application confidential. You have absolutely no idea if Mary is the best candidate, just that she's a known quantity.

If it's the latter, this is called poaching, and there are lots of people who are better qualified than me to discuss the ethics of it. Just keep in mind that you are now a peer of your old boss, and if you're in the same line of work, you may burn a bridge or damage your reputation if you gain a reputation as a poacher.
posted by juniperesque at 9:15 PM on March 7, 2012

Of course you should hire Mary. She wants to work for you and you want her to work for you. It's the employer's job to keep their employees; it's not your job to prevent that employer's employees from leaving.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:20 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

If Mary wants to change jobs she has the right to do so. I like your idea of working it out with your former employer so she can give as much notice as possible. And call your former boss after Mary's given her notice and try have a conversation about it - this will be a difficult call to make but the only way to try to make repairs and not burn any bridges. Hire Mary, because no matter how good an applicant seems in a job interview, there's no guarantee that applicant will be a good employee, but you know Mary will be.
posted by hazyjane at 10:24 PM on March 7, 2012

I was once in Mary's shoes. My new boss explained to my old boss in all earnest sincerity that she hadn't recruited me; I'd just applied. He publicly declared -- half joking and half serious -- that "now she owed him a big favor!" And that was that. He got over it because it was me changing jobs just like people typically do, and because it was clearly a new step in my career. There was some arrangement wherein the old job let me take a few days during my notice period to attend a special early training there, and in exchange, I was to spend a few days back at my old job during the crunch time. It also helped that these groups worked so closely together that I actually continued to lead on a certain task. Old Job did not have to find someone new to cover that task; during the portion of my time devoted to that two-month project, I did the same thing, paid now by New Job, in a more New Job way, but still protecting Old Job's interests. (Did I mention that these are non-profits?) She let me break the news to him but called him shortly thereafter. I don't know your industry, but might there be creative ways to avoid hurting your former employer as there were in my situation?
posted by slidell at 10:32 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

No one is as irreplaceable as they may seem.


Not no one, but very few people. While your concern is laudable, it is definitely up to Mary, and chances are that your old employer will be ok.
posted by kavasa at 11:18 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

If Mary would rather work for you than for your former employer, and if her desire to do that is strong enough that she would be willing to relocate to make it happen, then her present employer clearly values her less than she thinks you will.

You no longer have a direct business relationship with your old employer, and I can see no ethical reason at all why you owe that person more loyalty than Mary does.

I think you'd be mad to knock her back.
posted by flabdablet at 11:47 PM on March 7, 2012

You aren't stealing Mary. Mary is not the property of PreviousEmployer. Unless she's a slave, or something, but it doesn't sound like this is the case. Mary has the right to leave a job if she chooses to. Where she goes after leaving that job is no longer any of her old employers business.

I think it would be nice of Mary to tell PreviousEmployer that she's thinking of leaving and give PreviousEmployer a chance to make a counter-offer. And then, PreviousEmployer will have a chance to start looking for more staff to replace you both, of which it doesn't seem like there would be a problem. If she wants to leave just because she's working for you, then there's not a lot that PreviousEmployer can do.

Maybe PreviousEmployer needs to ask theirselves why staff are leaving the business?
posted by Solomon at 1:36 AM on March 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Some people decrying the phrase "it's just business" seem to have some baggage here. Mary wants to work at a different place than she currently does. Therefore, ipso facto, presto chango. That he's even asking this question after Mary expressing interest shows the OP is not Mr. Scrooge.

It would suck if she were to say "Well, boss, I'm leaving for Company X right now. Seeya!" So just tell her she can give adequate notice.

The odds are great, greatly, GREATLY in favor of anonymous' business failing based on the statistics of small business. I'm not saying this to depress you, but to seriously remind you to grab all the opportunities presented to you. If one of those is a known excellent worker, well, get on that. People wanting to work with you isn't a moral quandary but a sign that hopefully you're doing something right! Note: thinking about it in the way you did makes me pretty damn sure you're a great person hence my advice to carpe diem within reason.

Also, what kavasa said. Few people are so unreal that they're irreplaceable to an established business. To a new business with smaller resources, capital, procedural memory, experienced hands... I'd put the margin of error much lower.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:00 AM on March 8, 2012

Some people decrying the phrase "it's just business" seem to have some baggage here.

Well, the OP indicated that the relationship to the employer and the other employees is not strictly business - the relationship goes a bit deeper than that.

I do feel like I owe the former employer a bit after being kept in my job during a very trying time for me when I was not giving anywhere near 100% (and someone else might've suspended or fired me).

also, it's not totally clear that Mary is trying to change jobs, as the OP describes her question about a job as "half-hearted".

If it were me, I'd have another conversation with Mary and determine if she really wants to change jobs, and why. I'd talk to her about your concerns regarding the relationship with the former employer and #3. And I'd see if she'd be willing to sit down with you and the former employer and discuss this.

The OP has already benefited from the former employer's willingness to relate on a personal level, rather than strictly business. In my opinion, it would be incredibly ungrateful not to extend a similar degree of courtesy in return.
posted by dubold at 3:48 AM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Note, I said let Mary apply.

Agree with this. If you treat Mary like any other applicant, rather than offering her a position outside of the normal hiring procedure, then I think your ethical concerns are alleviated somewhat. You and her didn't set out to screw your former employer, circumstances just turned out that way (if indeed Mary gets the job).
posted by Dano St at 4:13 AM on March 8, 2012

It is NOT stealing. Do you think the company wouold show the same loyalty that you are showing now? If they need to fire her - they would. So what is the problem with her leaving if she has a better opportunity.

It is not personal - it's business.
posted by Flood at 5:40 AM on March 8, 2012

If you had any kind of employment contract with your former employer, including something as part of severance package, you should look pretty closely for non-competition and non-solicitation clauses.
posted by valkyryn at 5:51 AM on March 8, 2012

If you're friends with Mary, talk to her. Did she mean it when she asked about a job? Does she feel that it would be unfair to her current (your previous) employer? Discuss with her your worry that it would ruin your name and your network if you did something that seemed two-faced (i.e. accepting generous or at least polite assistance as you left your job, then doing something that could be perceived as neither polite nor generous). But maybe this isn't as impolite as you think it is - does Mary agree it's impolite? Maybe she knows something you don't. Or maybe Mary asked about the job with no thought that she would be doing something that might spoil her professional network, and after this discussion she'll decide she doesn't want to apply. But you can't decide for her, and you can't decide without all the facts, so you and Mary should have a chat.

(and agreed, look into the legal fine-print of your contract, if you had one, about non-competition)
posted by aimedwander at 6:14 AM on March 8, 2012

You are not stealing anything, you offering someone a new opportunity.

No offense to all who point out the "its just businees, that's a bad statement", it really is just business. Its about bottom lines and being as profitable as possible. You owe nothing to your employer, and they owe nothing to you. Its sad, I don't necessarily like that culture, but it is what it is. in all the organizations I've worked for, even small businesses, everyone is replaceable, and you as a worker are onle needed if you aid the bottom line.

I say offer her an interview, and if she is a candidate you want, make her an offer. The rest is on her to do what she wishes.
posted by handbanana at 6:42 AM on March 8, 2012

To quote Cybill Shepherd about 'stealing' Peter Bogdanovich from his wife, "You can't steal someone, they give themselves to you."

If Mary's the right one for you, she's the right one for you. You do not need to be concerned about someone else's bottom line.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:49 AM on March 8, 2012

If you had any kind of employment contract with your former employer, including something as part of severance package, you should look pretty closely for non-competition and non-solicitation clauses.

And you also need to know whether Mary signed similar agreements.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:13 AM on March 8, 2012

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