When I was bound apprentice, In famous Lincolnsheer, Full well I served my master, For more than seven year, Till I took up with poaching, As you shall quickly hear; Oh! 'Tis my delight of a shiny night, In the season of the year.
The Lincolnshire Poacher Traditional English folk song, c1776
Judging by the date of this country ballad, poaching has been a problem for several hundred years. The song describes the activities of a rural reprobate as he chases the local gamekeeper's hares. Nothing new in that - there will always be some among those who "have not" who will always try and steal from those who "have".
These days, away from the kitchen hotplate, the term "poaching" is used most often in the context of staff recruitment. Whether it's hares or people, however, the principle remains the same: those who have good staff are in danger of losing them to those who don't. Good staff get lured away, either through the direct approach of another employer or through the activities of a recruitment agency.
It's a growing problem. The skills shortage is making the well-trained and proficient employee a valuable asset, something worth stealing. On top of that, with average staff turnover running at 47% across all sectors of the industry, many employers are becoming desperate to fill positions - and, in some cases, desperation leads to unscrupulous practices.
Disreputable recruitment agencies are also taking advantage of the situation. They make fresh approaches to staff only months after placing them in a job. Their excuse is usually that they are "checking up" on the placement, but a casual conversation can quickly lead to another job offer, with the agency cashing in on another commission fee from the new employer.
So what's the answer? Should poaching be outlawed? That would be difficult. Poaching is a practice that borders on the immoral but is not, and cannot be, illegal. Blaming the recruitment agencies is not the answer, either. Reputable firms will have codes of conduct and, while employers may avoid using maverick companies, there can be no safeguards against staff enrolling with agencies that operate outside the bounds of moral decency.
The issue is clouded further by the fine distinction that exists between "poaching" and "headhunting". One is deemed to be unfair, the other seen as acceptable (even expected) practice, particularly for senior staff.
One of the keys to preventing poaching is obvious. If staff enjoy working for an employer, they will want to stay. It can be as simple as that. Make conditions of service and pay scales competitive, offer benefits and career structures, and staff will feel a greater sense of loyalty.
It isn't the only answer to the poaching problem, of course, but it will certainly help. If staff are already in attractive positions, they will be more likely to take delight in serving seven year.
Forbes Mutch, Editor, Caterer & Hotelkeeper