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I'm currently working as a senior'ish engineer, and am being trained to become a junior engineering manager in the next year, so the company's success and mine are intertwined very directly.

About a year back, one of our "ace" engineers, "Jack" (in another division) was screwed over hard (promised a promotion and raise; just got the new responsibilities but no new title or pay; made a point of quitting the day after annual bonus payouts; very messy and political month). Personally, I would never have treated a team member this way, but that's history at this point.

This engineer recently met several employees from our company at a large technical conference. Based on feedback from one of my junior engineers, Jack hosted numerous lunches for his former colleagues, and "connected" them with friends at various companies (i.e. convinced them to work for other companies, but not his own, and basically introduced several of our senior engineers to employers throughout the conference). Over the span of 6 weeks, we've lost 12 senior engineers to various other companies (that is a ton of experience and skills lost). Nearly all of them citing pay bumps, and all of whom joined Jack for lunch(es) during the conference.

Is there any way to address this without having to loop in the legal team? I've identified one of my colleagues as the ringleader (i.e. person who "points people to Jack for a job reference", and am curious why they stay with us while encouraging others to leave), but this doesn't technically violate company policies. I'm debating bringing this up with my own boss, but am worried that if I bring it up now, my boss will be concerned that I took too long to bring it up. I'd like to "stop the bleeding" without getting blamed myself. Leadership already suspects the conference is involved, and regrettably is planning to no longer let us attend it in the future.

Edit: we've asked each departing employee (at least, those that would attend the exit interview; some declined even though attendance is mandatory), "why are you leaving?". It feels like they were all reading off of a script: "need more $$, and I no longer trust this company since I had to threaten to leave to get more money; the counter-offer raise 'poisons the well' and will be my last raise/promotion at this company, so I'm out". Almost word-for-word.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Lilienthal
    Dec 8, 2021 at 19:26

10 Answers 10

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Is there any way to address this

Sure: treat your employees well and they will stay regardless of what conference they attend. Treat them badly and they will leave.

nearly all of them citing pay bumps,

That means you're not paying market rate. If you want to be competitive, you need to pay your people competitively.

without having to loop in the legal team?

Legal is unlikely to work. First of all, they can only engage if someone is doing something illegal or against a legal policy. It's possible that Jack is violating a non-poaching agreement (if he did sign one that's still active). But even if he did: the best you can probably do is a "cease and desist".

Even if this works, it will look terrible to your own people and only accelerate the exodus. Suing employees (or ex-employees) is NOT making you any friends.

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    Again: If these people are all getting pay bumps, you are not paying market rates, whatever your research firm may have told you. Dec 8, 2021 at 17:40
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    @Tundra: You do NOT pay market rates. Otherwise your people wouldn't get higher pay elsewhere. The market rate is what employers are actually willing to pay, not what some research firm says.
    – Hilmar
    Dec 8, 2021 at 17:41
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    @Tundra I'd add one extra detail, and I know that it is hard to hear. Occasionally you are judged by the company you keep, even when that company does something beyond your control, like screwing over an employee. This means you should attempt to discourage the screwing over of an employee, even if they are not your employee, to the same degree you attempt to avoid other losses of corporate reputation, money, time, and reputation.
    – Edwin Buck
    Dec 8, 2021 at 17:57
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    "But even if he did: the best you can probably do is a "cease and desist"." No, even if he did sign a poaching agreement, he's not poaching anyone (unless he's earning a referral fee for it) since they're not joining his company. And sending a "cease and desist" order without proof would not only look retarded, but it would make him redouble his efforts even more! Dec 8, 2021 at 23:34
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    @Tundra he's not "very spiteful". He's friendly and helpful, helping his ex-colleagues to find employers that appreciate them appropriately.
    – Džuris
    Dec 9, 2021 at 4:14
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The only thing to address is your current company's practices. These all come from your original post:

  • Ace engineer "was screwed over hard (promised a promotion and raise; just got the new responsibilities but no new title or pay"
  • Almost everyone leaving "citing pay bumps"
  • You are worried that "my boss will be concerned that I took too long to bring it up" and "getting blamed myself" for people leaving the company.
  • Leadership "is planning to no longer let us attend it in the future" (this conference) because employees who attended left the company.
  • Mandate attendance to exit interviews.

Why you would attempt to defend or stick with this company is beyond reason. Clearly there are several things wrong with this company which perfectly explains the mass exodus. You can attempt to work from within to fix the current problems with your company or you can leave. Any reasonable employee who sees all these things happening will not stay much longer.

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    I have seen this in a number of places myself, the last ones that the company provide value to is the ones being groomed for leadership (essentially being given a ton of growth as part of their compensation). The stingyness will reach them too, tho.
    – Petter TB
    Dec 8, 2021 at 23:09
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    Missing obligatory: Don't walk, RUN!
    – mcalex
    Dec 9, 2021 at 8:50
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From what you've posted, your company is sounding suspiciously like a "burakku kigyō". (A Japanese term that translates to "black company". ) And the companies use threats, punishments, and intimidation

You kind of glossed over the fact that Jack got screwed hard, and that it was all i the past, got my attention, and made me suspect "burakku kigyō" , but your edit solidified my suspicion

we've asked each departing employee (at least, those that would attend the exit interview; some declined even though attendance is mandatory), "why are you leaving?". It feels like they were all reading off of a script: "need more $$, and I no longer trust this company since I had to threaten to leave to get more money; the counter-offer raise 'poisons the well' and will be my last raise/promotion at this company, so I'm out". Almost word-for-word.

Either they are telling the truth in the exit interviews or lying. BTW, making them MANDATORY? REALLY???

The fact that some are skipping the interviews despite them being mandatory demonstrates that the ones who are leaving have a deep resentment to your company.

Back to telling the truth or lying. If they are telling the truth, then there's your problem, if they are lying they either fear, or have lost all respect for your company.

But I expect that there is at least some truth in what they are telling you.

YOUR PROMISES MEAN NOTHING

Harsh, Your company lied to Jack.

That's the only thing he needs to say at those lunches, "They cheated me out of a promotion"

I suspect that there was more going on, such as threats towards him on his way out.

If you want to stop it

CLEAN UP YOUR OWN ACT

Jack is not some sort of Svengali. He was there with a life raft in case others jumped ship, and they couldn't leave fast enough.

Your company sounds liked a terrible place to work.

TLDR: Your company has earned a reputation for breaking promises. Start keeping your promises and start finding out why people are unhappy BERFORE they leave

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Is there any way to address this without having to loop in the legal team?

No. And it's extremely unlikely the legal team could do anything either.

Hosting former coworkers for lunch, and connecting them to people in their professional network is neither illegal, nor unethical, IMHO. This happens all the time, conference or no conference. (And this isn't actually "poaching".)

Your company certainly cannot be surprised that people have professional networks and that some of them will leave for better opportunities. Once you have some experience as a manager, you'll get to see this for yourself "from the other side".

It's a normal part of work life. When it gets excessive, that's often a sign that something is wrong in the work environment. If your company (and thus you) want to be successful, you'll need to find ways to attract and retain talent. Trying to squelch folks operating within their professional network is unlikely to work.

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I mostly agree with the other answers, but in the spirit of giving some constructive ways out of your companies misery:

  • Pay fair wages. Not "barely enough so underinformed yokels don't leave", but enough so people say "changing the company for that amount? Why would I?"

  • Pay those wages when they are appropriate, not when you feel threatened. That proably means handing out pay raises now.

  • Ask (and listen to) your employees what they would appreciate besides money

  • The next time a conference comes around, go with your employees, make sure you have a good budget and then invite them all to a really nice dinner. Or a city tour. Or whatever fills their evening on your bill. If they don't have a chance to hang around bored and chat with Jack and Jack's business partners, they won't get to know the better offer. But be aware that this is only a bandaid if you don't do 1-3 above. It only goes so far.

It all comes down to one single factor: you need to outspend the competition. In money, things you can buy with money and trust. As you seem to have little of the later to offer, you may need even more of the former.

That is a hard sell and your company will not take that lightly from a junior manager. Be prepared to be denied any such requests. Be prepared to hear from Jack with an offer that is really too good to pass over. Your company did not suddenly get smart with your salary either. If they underpay workers, there is no reason to not underpay their bosses.


By the way, Jack has no secret sauce, anything they say on exit interviews is something you can read right here on this Stack as highly upvoted advice. It's public knowledge.

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    This is right, the way for the next Jack's efforts fail is to make an environment where the employees tell someone "thanks for the job tip and I'm sorry you got screwed, but my experience at Company is that they pay and treat me well"
    – pboss3010
    Dec 8, 2021 at 20:30
  • You wrote "In money, things you can buy with money and trust.", but probably meant "In business, ...". Either way, I like this phrase.
    – FvD
    Dec 9, 2021 at 2:41
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    @FvD I read that line as being the 3 things in which to outspend the competition - #1 money, #2 things you can buy with money, #3 trust.
    – brhans
    Dec 9, 2021 at 13:16
  • @brhans You're probably right. I guess I read it with a Russian accent, and the image of someone waving a cigar around.
    – FvD
    Dec 10, 2021 at 1:35
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Is there any way to address this

At this point you can only go the expensive route of proactively promoting, adding bonuses, benefits and bumping salaries to engineering team, at least a critical path staff.

Legal would not work due to exit interviews gave you nothing, also you stated these employees going not to company where "Jack" works

BTW, Kudos to "Jack", if he has anything to do with your engineer exodus, too many of us just leave the misleading employer without being able of doing anything to repay the "generosity" and "loyalty" we get

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  • How would legal have any success, even if they directly said "Jack asked and I went to work for his company"? That's not forbidden.
    – nvoigt
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:28
  • hm, now that I read all the comments, I guess there is some mysterious anti-poaching contract at work that we are not allowed to know more about. Maybe you are right.
    – nvoigt
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:37
  • @nvoigt IMHO, it depends on the industry, that was not stated in the post. Smaller industries are some times populated by employers that collude in the salary and hiring areas to discourage jumping ship
    – Strader
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:46
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    @Strader: Depending on the country and the specifics, such anti-poaching agreements may themselves be illegal - see for example the High-Tech Employee Antitrust Litigation (and note that was in the notoriously labor-hostile United States!).
    – Kevin
    Dec 9, 2021 at 3:46
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    @Kevin i agree to that, but its never in writing.
    – Strader
    Dec 9, 2021 at 4:25
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promised a promotion and raise; just got the new responsibilities [...] Personally, I would never have treated a team member this way, but that's history at this point.

No, it's not history. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. And who's to say management won't force you to do the same to your team members once you're manager (or that the company won't do the same thing to you).

At this point, you need to start handing out much larger golden handcuffs. And by that, I mean massive amounts of money, but only to be disbursed on a delayed schedule.

And of course, since your company hasn't kept its promises in the past, these golden handcuffs need to be legally binding. In addition to that, their vesting/disbursements need to be staggered and spread out in some fashion because many companies will fire their employees just a couple of days before they're required to pay out these bonuses. So if your employees suspect that this is what your company might do at some point, which is to fire them just before they get their bonus, then those retention incentives are not going to have their intended effect.

You've asked us what you needed to stop the bleeding. This is what you need to (maybe) stop the bleeding.

I'm currently working as a senior'ish engineer, and am being trained to become a junior engineering manager in the next year, so the company's success and mine are intertwined very directly.

And if that doesn't work, or if the company refuses to spend that much money, then you need to flee the sinking ship yourself.

Because, as you've said yourself, your future is deeply intertwined with the company. And there is really no honor in going down with the ship also.

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    "Golden handcuffs" only work when they trust you to follow through on your promises, and not somehow retroactively take them back. Jack's example suggests that they should perhaps nto do that.
    – Ben Barden
    Dec 10, 2021 at 17:08
  • @BenBarden, You're right of course. I've amended my answer to clarify that point. Dec 11, 2021 at 0:18
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Seriously consider letting yourself get poached.

Your company is bleeding talent. The talent that they're bleeding are suggesting that they're being badly underpaid, and past events suggest that management is not trustworthy with its promises. Well... you're talent, too. See if you can get a few of those references that Jack and "the ringleader" are handing out so generously. Listen to the spiel with an open mind. See if the pay that these new folks are offering is really that much better than the pay your company is handing out. If they really are getting much better deals, then maybe you want a much better deal. Alternately, if you look at what's on offer and decide that you don't want to jump ship, then you'll at least have a notably better idea of where your company is failing to provide for its employees (as opposed to the legalist boilerplate that everyone's feeding you on the way out the door), and that might give you useful info on what parts need fixing.

...and if you don't want to leave because you're pinning your hopes on that sweet, sweet promotion to Junior Engineering Manager... I'm going to direct you right back to your words about Jack. "promised a promotion and raise; just got the new responsibilities but no new title or pay" I mean, "being trained to become a junior engineering manager in the next year" sounds an awful lot like "promised a promotion and raise".

Your company has already shown one failure of loyalty. Do you have sufficiently strong reason to be certain that you won't be another?

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  • And if the OP is looking for a good junior manager job for someone with engineering experience, then perhaps Jack might know about a job vacancy somewhere.
    – Simon B
    Dec 11, 2021 at 16:32
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    @Simon B: Isn't that just exactly what Ben said? What did you mean to add? Dec 11, 2021 at 16:46
  • @A.I.Breveleri I was being less subtle.
    – Simon B
    Dec 11, 2021 at 17:01
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The other advice is spot on, but your company has another option— rehire Jack. Yes, it may be a fool's errand, but offer Jack more than what he was screwed him out of. Apologize to and flatter him, then offer him more salary, title and influence than he has now, and would have had otherwise. If he comes back, his and your company's interests will align.

Otherwise, if you are still unwilling to follow the prior replies and be a better employer, your company could just do nothing. Eventually, Jack will run out of contacts to poach.

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    I dont think it will be an option. Any employment is two way trust for some duration. Same words "poison well" comes to mind
    – Strader
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:26
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    Of course it's an option, just maybe not a good one. But it deserves consideration as it may work for OP's company or others that come here with a similar issue looking for advice. In this specific case I agree hiring Jack is likely impossible. Dec 8, 2021 at 20:36
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    @FredricShope My thoughts too, actually. I'm just rounding out the possibilities. Dec 8, 2021 at 21:22
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    You are trying to put Humpty-Dumpty together again ;)
    – Petter TB
    Dec 8, 2021 at 23:10
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    The golden handcuffs need to be ironclad. Promises are breakable, including by making up cause for a 'for cause' firing. Dec 9, 2021 at 16:40
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I agree with all the other answers in saying that it sounds like it is you, not Jack, who is in the wrong here. I wonder if "Jack" is in any way related to "Gust", because the situations sound awfully similar.

If I had to bet, I would bet that Jack, as a former senior engineer, is telling his colleagues what the treatment of senior engineers at your company is, and they are, for good reason, becoming concerned. They don't like your treatment of Jack any more than Jack himself did, and if you did that to Jack, chances are you'll do that to them too. This is why they're jumping ship, because your company policy sucks.

Here's the thing about exit interviews: The interviewee has no reason to be truthful, and this is doubly true of an employee who is leaving on bad terms, as most of these people are, having heard Jack's story (whether you believe the terms to be bad or not, they believe it and that's all that matters). Simply put, you're not going to get a straightforward answer out of any of these people, even if they were not inclined to do wrong by you, and in this case they are so inclined. If you look on any job resource board (this one included), the standard answer to "why are you leaving" is "more money", because it's a tangible, concrete, unarguable reason that does not provide any actionable feedback to the employer or any legal recourse against you and also does not require or elicit a followup question asking for details (as salary is generally protected information, meaning you can choose to say "no" if you want without appearing disrespectful in any way). In short, by saying they're leaving "for more money", they're intentionally screwing you by not telling you the real reason why they're leaving which will help you action a fix for the problems; if you don't know what the problem is then it's infinitely harder to engineer a solution, as I'm sure you're aware. This is all to say that there is no evidence whatsoever that Jack himself has any input into this situation whatsoever; that they're "reading off a script" does not mean in any way that Jack handed them that script to read from.

Now, if you want to retain talent, as I see it, your company has 2 choices (I'm not sure if these are above your pay grade, they very well may be):

  1. If they're saying they want more money, then give them (the ones who stick around) more money. Something like, 20% raise, across the board, to everyone, effective immediately, no strings attached. If your company can't afford to pay people what it will take to retain them, then nobody will keep working there and it's that simple. This is a choice of business continuity: If your business model requires paying people less than what a competitor will pay them, then you probably have a questionable business model.

  2. Start recognizing talent, properly. Whatever you did to Jack, stop doing that. You mentioned things like increasing responsibilities without title or pay; not only should you not do that (which I'm sure you're aware), but you should start doing the opposite of that and start promoting people more aggressively. If people see that promotion in this company is possible and comes with real rewards, then people who are encouraged by that possibility will stay at your company. If people see a "promotion" at your company as "more work for the same pay" which is what you did to Jack, then they will leave. Of course, this will take time and you may lose some more people in the process, so don't expect this to work immediately.

Now, I'm sure both of these choices are above your pay grade, as a (soon-to-be) junior engineering manager. You really have nothing you personally can do here. What you can do is, if there are other managers concerned about this, have a meeting together and go to upper management as a coordinated front and make suggestions to them, including these ones (I have some answers but not all the answers, you may have different/better thoughts than I do). See what upper management says to your proposal; if they shoot you down, then you can probably see that your company is on a downwards spiral, and you might want to give Jack a call yourself.

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  • "Gust" served 4 weeks notice. "Jack" quit suddenly after receiving yearly bonuses. Two different, though parallel cases.
    – Ben Barden
    Dec 10, 2021 at 17:28

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