Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Scorched earth

The policy of scorched earth is an old military tactic that essentially involves destroying anything left in your path that might be useful to the enemy. In the past this was most easily accomplished by burning everything behind your army as you moved forward, hence the "scorched" part of the term.

It always astounds me the companies and individuals employ scorched earth policy when dealing with people that have been fired/let go or being fired or let go respectively. Perhaps it's because I work in entertainment and it seems like such a shallow pool that all of us in entertainment play in: you never know when someone that you employ scorched earth against may be in a position to do harm or good to your career in the future. (my sense is that many industries are just as tightly knit as entertainment, but entertainment is the vast majority of my experience).

In my time I have seen companies ruthlessly enforce non-compete agreements that are so restrictive former employees could not continue to work in the industry; this for people that they laid off, didn't even terminate for cause. Further, I have seen companies initiate lawsuits against former employees (even laid off ones) for violations of non-competes, knowing that they would not win, but wishing to be punitive and cause the employees significant out-of-pocket dollars to defend against them. Note that a number of times I have seen these employees wind up in decision-making positions and either actively or passively ensure that they company that employed scorched earth against them was unable to do business with them or any of their colleagues that were willing to listen.

On the employee side, I have certainly encountered ex-employees that have not had nice things to say about companies or people at companies; pretty normal response and forgivable. However, I have also seen ex-employees that have actively engaged in attempting to overtly disrupt company business operations. In almost every overt case that I have seen, the ex-employee may have been able to cause some short-term pain to the company, but has never succeeded in the long term. Further, I have seen ex-employees employing these tactics blackballed in the industry because word gets around quite quickly about character when an ex-employee attempts to employ scorched earth.

Sure, you can believe that business is war and take some learnings from that, but I do not recommend scorched earth as any sort of sustainable, long-term strategy for businesses or businesspeople.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

This is very thoughtful and reasonable. I believe that the leaders in our industry should adopt your philosophy and that it should be displayed on the websites of professional organizations. Having experienced the loss of a job due to a layoff, I can tell you how devastating it can be in this uncertain economic climate. It adds insult to injury to be bound by a non-compete agreement. Employers do not benefit from creating adversarial relationships with former employees. As you pointed out, in this "shallow pool", it is not wise to burn bridges.