Thursday, 4 April 2013

Self-employed poacher?

Poaching is where you 'steal' work from your employer by going direct to the client.  This is good because you get more work; this is bad because you annoy those that employed you and kills off opportunities for future work with them.

I am self-employed but only for a very short time - I have learnt so much during this first year. One of the most difficult things to get to grips with was not poaching work from others while proactively seeking much needed work.  I'm still not sure I got it right.

Initially I was so keen to find work I'd do anything to show my capabilities, learn new skills and win new work.  I was not under any kind of employment contract as the jobs were very short-term and perhaps a bit ad-hoc.  So no legal stopper to chasing opportunities that arose not that that had crossed my mind in the throes of my enthusiasm to 'do good stuff'.

However, after a few jobs I became aware of the politics of being seen to circumvent implicit loyalties and unwritten contracts between a weekend's employer and me as a freelance work-starved employee.  I also saw the other end of the 'double-cross' having employed or considered employing people to work with my clients and worrying about them being given work that would otherwise have gone to me.

I say double-cross, but perhaps it's a natural consequence of capitalist society, of competition.  Clients chose me over the others because either they weren't happy with what they were getting, I was cheaper and easier to work with or I was in the right place at the right time.  It's the lore of natural selection, the dog eat dog business that could easily turn round and snap at your tail next.

The honest difficulty is that you may need to choose between your current employer and the client based on your own estimate of future worth.  How much work could you get from the employer and how much from the ready-to-be-poached client?  How connected is the guy you're winning work away from?  What is the value of loyalty in that industry?

If all's fair in love and war, what's fair in business?

I haven't always got it right but some tips I've picked up so far:
  • If there's work there go after it, if you don't someone else will
  • If the client actively seeks your services they're not happy with your employer/their current supplier
  • Think about suggesting to the client that they go through your original employer to place work on you - keeps both parties happy, but loses you some money, control and independence
  • Be aware someone you employed could do the same to you, so build up a long-term relationship with your client so that they want to maintain it as much as you and back it up with written contractual agreements for your protection where this is seen as normal
Unexpectedly I found an interesting post on Mumsnet that included this passage:
"One of the things about small businesses is that they are often heavily based on trust. But while that's a nice characteristic in many ways, it's only good to a point, and as a business grows, it becomes much more vulnerable and needs to balance wanting an environment of trust with putting in place reasonable protection."  

It reminded me of the idea of a psychological contract between employee and employer where each has both explicit and implicit expectations of the other.  Putting in place protection is really making that psychological contract explicit and binding in some way.  There will always be lots of implicit or just plain out of sight assumptions within psychological contract.   Official contracts, non-disclosure agreements, litigation etc. aren't the answer to this issue for a healthy business they are just distractions.  Developing healthy long-term mutually beneficial relationships based on trust and understanding is.

I'd like to hear of other people's thoughts and experiences on this subject.  Have you poached or been the 'victim' of poaching?  What etiquette or morality should we be thinking of when in a potential poaching position?  Are there other discussions on this topic you would recommend?

Some links: 
Poaching and trade secrets in the US