Keep your head

A new service is helping companies to stop headhunters poaching their IT staff. Bill Goodwin reports

A new service is helping companies to stop headhunters poaching their IT staff. Bill Goodwin reports

A group of former IT headhunters have turned the tables on recruitment firms by creating a consulting company to train IT employers and their staff in anti-headhunting techniques.

The firm, called Anti-Headhunting, has advised companies including Deutsche Bank, KPMG and Compuware in Germany over the past two years and now plans to offer guidance to UK employers.

Recruitment agencies estimate that employers have to spend a minimum of £30,000 to replace each member of IT staff successfully headhunted.

But the hidden costs can be far greater. They include the loss of expert knowledge, disruption to IT projects and the risk of inside information being leaked to a rival firm.

"Good Internet and Web development skills are in short supply. At Blue Circle our top guys were headhunted on a regular basis," said Roger Ellis, Blue Circle's former IT director.

Headhunters use a catalogue of ruses to persuade companies to part with the names of their top IT staff. At one extreme, some headhunters send contractors into companies to steal their internal phone directories, or pose as journalists or staff from an overseas branch.

More often it is a case of phoning the switchboard and asking who is in charge of Web development, said Paul Sampson, CEO of Anti-Headhunting, a division of David Charles Consulting.

Employers can cut down the risk of headhunting significantly by ensuring that secretaries, receptionists and other public-facing staff are trained in some simple anti-headhunting techniques.

Sampson and his staff will pose as headhunters to help companies check their information control systems. His team are usually able to produce long lists of IT staff within a couple of phone calls.

Oracle in Dusseldorf claims to have cut poaching by 90% after taking advice from Anti-Headhunting.

"The first thing we do is train our reception staff to identify headhunters. A lot of them are not aware of the dangers," said Till Brugelmann, customer care manager at Oracle.

"The number of headhunting calls has risen very much in the last 12 months. All our locations, especially our customer care centre, are being targeted. In the past we lost a lot of people from pre-sales and support," he said.

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Beware the motives of IT headhunters

Tricks of the headhunting trade

  • Internal phone directories - these are stolen to order by contractors and temporary workers who sell them on to headhunting organisations for thousands of pounds.

  • The Heathrow Airport trick - a headhunter poses as a frantic salesman who is about to sign a deal at a business meeting at Heathrow Airport. He rings up the targeted company and orders a secretary to fax over a list of staff to clinch the deal

  • E-mail lists - companies forget to remove former members of staff from internal e-mail lists. In one case, a rival firm was able to pick up sensitive information from the chit-chat in the inter-departmental football mailing list

  • Posing as an employee - headhunters will phone a secretary, claiming to be from a different part of the company to glean information about IT staff. The tactic is particularly effective if the headhunter rings from abroad and speaks poor English

  • Computerised telephone directories - one headhunter posed as a salesman having problems with a laptop. He persuaded a secretary to e-mail him the internal telephone directory

  • Voice mail systems - headhunters are able to compile staff lists by telephoning company voice mail systems after hours. People often leave their mobile phone numbers or numbers of colleagues on the system

  • Web sites - some employers make the mistake of listing all of their staff, sometimes with biographies, on their company Web sites. Others have thanked their staff by publishing their names in full-page adverts in the Financial Times

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