Main image of article How To Shield Your Top Employees From Poachers

Dollar LureWe've all had that pit-of-the-stomach reaction to hearing that a top performer has defected to the competition. But how do you avoid it? Short of chaining them to their desks -- which might raise legal concerns --  the best way to hang on to key players is to clue them into your plans for their future, says Bob O'Hara, founder of O'Hara & Company, an exit strategy firm.

It's essential to identify one to three people with successor potential and create long-term incentive plans for them; these complete compensation packages should include both financial incentives and personalized benefits, for while money certainly does talk, most executive level employees would likely agree that a hefty paycheck alone does not define job satisfaction. Chosen potential successors have already demonstrated their engagement and commitment to the organization, but they will become even more invested within their roles if they have a clear understanding about how they, as key employees, will be rewarded based on how well the company performs.

O'Hara suggests tying incentives to performance standards and the attainment of goals.

There should always be some type of vesting schedule associated with any incentive plan award. Normally, a continual or "rolling vesting" schedule is used; this approach requires each year's award to vest on a separate schedule. Employing this type of schedule will tie the key employees to the business longer as they are never fully vested in the most recent awards.

The only problem with this is that you run the risk of other employees realizing they've been benched or relegated to the B-team. But if benefits are primarily financial and constantly in flux, employees are much less likely to discuss them. Co-workers might wonder how your starting quarterback paid for his new car, but they won't know for sure unless he's willing to discuss his bonus and compensation package.