Talent Swapping – a Threat or an Opportunity?

Evil, evil, evil is what I was thinking after re-reading for the third time an article on talent swapping over at ere.net (“a premier online community for recruiters, with more than 95,000 unique visitors per month”)

To let you in on my thoughts, I’ll start by defining a S.W.A.P. (Strategically Waving Average Performers).

In the words of Dr. John Sullivan who is a well-known thought leader in HR and called the “Michael Jordan of Hiring” by Fast Company magazine, it means:

“borrowed from the professional sports industry…In sports, winning is everything, and it is a common practice for team management to externally seek out a “superior” player in a key position to replace a struggling player. When the team finds an available star, they “SWAP” or replace their struggling player…When applied to the corporate world, a S.W.A.P. initiative proactively replaces poor performers in a key job only when an arguably/measurably better candidate has been identified and successfully recruited by the talent management function.”1

Read that one more time in case by now it’s not clear to you that in the end of a S.W.A.P. an employee loses their job as a result of a deliberate measure from management to clean out ordinary performers.

At the very least, talent swapping is evil, but I’m also thinking that it’s out of touch.  Dr. Sullivan decided to write the article and then ere.net decided to publish it on 24 Nov. – a time when over a million people have been laid-off because of cut-backs.2  Talk about trying to be part of the solution…not.

What were both parties thinking? 

I’m not naïve.  I know that a lot of people, including recruiters, are struggling during the economic downturn. Masquerading as an idea to increase productivity in the work place, talent swapping is just another revenue-generating tool for recruiters.  Put in very simple terms, a candidate is hired by a company and ka-ching! out goes a cut for the recruiter.  As one who also has bills to pay, it would be hypocritical on my part to blame recruiters for looking outside the box for new streams of income.  (In that sense Dr. Sullivan gets an A+ for creativity.)

And here’s what Dr. Sullivan was thinking.  Among other things, he thinks that an economic down turn, because of higher than average lay-offs, is a perfect time for companies to go hunting for top talent.  Okay, I also get that.  While a poor performer looses their job, a top performer gets a job – that was not open by a traditional way.  I can somewhat see the silver lining in that.

What I find most uncomfortable (and to me sounds like war drums) is what Dr. Sullivan thinks is one of the advantages of such an initiative:

 “It sends a clear message to all employees that continuous improvement of skills and ability to perform is as much an individual’s responsibility as it is the organization’s, and provides real consequences for those who ignore the mandate.”

A bit harsh don’t you think?

And by the way, according to Dr. Sullivan’s online bio, he’s “a frequent speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley firms.  Formerly the chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies – the 43,000-employee HP spin-off – he is now a professor of management at San Francisco State University” 

Translation:  your employer has potentially paid for his advice.

In saying this, I am not one to play the cog employee victim card – far from.  (check out my bio if you need proof of this)

Instead, to me this is a great opportunity to point out the idea that even as employees we are self-employed.  More than anything that means that career advancement is  each person’s responsibility.  Leaving it up to an employer, aside from feeling like watching the grass grow – is simply risky business.  Potentially the same team in the HR department that designed your company’s career development program is also an advocate of S.W.A.P.  Contradictory to say the least, don’t you think?

Dr. Sullivan’s article also makes it clear that there are more opportunities for top performers.  That means that your track record is your ticket to ride during good and bad times.

This is what I think.  I’d LOVE to hear your thoughts.

3 thoughts on “Talent Swapping – a Threat or an Opportunity?

  1. This practice is not new. Many years ago I was doing outplacement with Exxon. They had forced rankings and eliminated their bottom twenty five percent each year. This type of social Darwinism created a “me” environment, instead of “we.” While trying to eliminate poor performers and get higher level performers in the organization is not a bad policy. But, forced rankings and elimination creates a paranoid work environment.

  2. Thank you Dr. Miller for sharing your experience!
    Furthermore, it would be interesting to see some long-term statistics on the impact of this practice. While it makes sense that potentially in the short term things would improve, being that there’s a risk that a ‘me’ environment in created – as you point out – what happens with performance (including employee turnover) in the long-term?? What you mention reminds me of the US olympic basketball team – the Dream team…that’s a reminder of the power of team dynamics – you can have the top performers on your team, but if there’s no ‘team’ then what are you left with?? The Redeem Team is my guess!

    Stay in touch,

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