Purpose – Despite a large literature on talent management there is very little research on the comparative attitudes of employees in talent pools with those not in talent pools. This is an important omission as employee reactions should influence how effective talent programmes are and how they can be designed and evaluated. Consequently, the purpose of this paper is to explore the work-related attitudes of employees who are members and non-members of talent pools. Design/methodology/approach – Matched samples of employees working in a single public sector, scientific organization were surveyed using a standard survey and open questioning to elicit and compare the voices of included and excluded employees. Findings – Employees in talent pools were more positive about their future prospects than employees outside talent pools who reported feelings of lower support from the organization, stronger feelings of unfairness and had lower expectations of the organization’s interest in them. Research limitations/implications – More matched-sample studies are necessary to further understand how employee reactions to talent pool membership are mediated by context. Practical implications – Organizations should consider how employees will react to the design and implementation of talent pools and try to alleviate any adverse reactions. Two threats in particular are the depression of affect among excluded employees and failure to sustain positive affect among the included employees. Originality/value – This is one of very few studies to explore employee reactions to talent programmes in a single organization. The single-site design controls for a large number of variables that confound inter-organizational studies of talent pool membership.