As a company that has pioneered numerous management innovations, Netflix has garnered significant renown as one of the most forward-thinking firms on the Big Tech scene. However, an article at Business Insider reveals that Netflix urges its staff to take part in exercises that, at the very least, seem problematic from an ethical standpoint.

In the piece, former Netflix talent chief Patty McCord says that the company actively encourages employees to take part in job interviews at other firms, in order to a) gauge whether they are being appropriately remunerated, b) refocus on their professional aspirations – and c) reaffirm their loyalty to the Netflix brand. In McCord’s view, the staff who take part in these external sorties will realise that “the grass isn’t greener”.

Details of the policy have emerged from McCord’s new book on unorthodox management practices, titled Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. As she explains: “My experience is that you’re more honest with a perfect stranger than you are with your own manager after a while. You know what management wants to hear. But you go to talk to a perfect stranger and they’re like, ‘What do you want to do?’ You’re like, ‘Well! Actually, I’ve got a couple of ideas…’”

McCord advises female workers, “Don’t feel like you’re cheating on your husband when you’re interviewing for another job! You’re just finding out what’s happening in the market.” And in what may be her most problematic statement, McCord says: “Let’s say you interview at another company and you don't really want the job, but you really like the people that you met. Now you have a source of candidates for your own company. It’s all about networking.”

Can any of this really be ethically sound? Are these not, in fact, rather deceitful behaviours – some of which may actually contravene rules against staff poaching?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “There are quite a few nuances to this. It’s clear that you have a greater chance of being offered a job if you genuinely, authentically and honestly want it. If you have to pretend that you want a job because you’re effectively being a ‘mystery shopper’, then on the surface that does appear to demand a certain degree of duplicity. If the individual in question is prepared to maintain that level of pretence in order to investigate another organisation, one could quite reasonably ask whether they’re being truthful to their own.

“However, there’s another, more optimistic, way of looking at this, which draws upon Adams’ equity theory, plus a pinch of the motivation theory developed by Frederick Herzberg. Essentially, employees are less likely to be dissatisfied in their roles if they feel they’re being rewarded in their efforts at least as well as peers who are rewarded at a similar rate of input versus output. In that sense, the Netflix policy that McCord advocates is wonderfully open: ‘Look, we think this is a terrific place to work. If you’re not so sure, then by all means go out there and test us against other companies.’”

Cooper points out: “In many ways, this is a form of post-purchase advertising, reassuring the buyer that they’ve made the right decision: ‘It’s great to work at Netflix, and we know that because you’ve looked at other jobs and they’re not as good as what you’ll find here.’ It also means that, if these ‘mystery-shopper’ interviewees do come across some innovative incentives elsewhere, then Netflix will be interested to hear about them, because it wants to hang on to its best people. All of this demonstrates that Netflix is hugely confident in the relationship it has with its staff.”

On the question of poaching, she adds, “it will be up to the individual talents that Netflix employees encounter on their interviewing rounds to check their contracts, and assess the terms they have agreed with their firms on approaches from other companies.”

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