Companies & Industries

An Offer Too Good to Accept


By Liz Ryan Few business situations can be described as bittersweet, but one almost certainly qualifies: After months of clandestine interviews and late-night conversations with recruiters and hiring managers, you accept an offer outside your company.

You prepare a polite and professional resignation speech, steel yourself, and march into your boss's office. "Jack," you say, "I've decided to join another company, and I'm giving my two weeks' notice. I thank you for the experiences I've had here, and wish you and the team well." Pause. And then Jack says: "Give me 24 hours. I think we'll be making a counteroffer."

TREAD WITH CARE. Geez! you think, I wish the company had been so responsive every other time I had a request. Still, it's flattering to get that counteroffer. It means you're really valued. Or does it? If it did, wouldn't it have headed off your months of stealthy job-searching by keeping you satisfied?

Surveys over the past 20 years have found that a high percentage of employees who accept counteroffers -- in some studies, more than 50% -- leave the organization within six months, anyway. Yes, it's heartwarming to be recognized as a key contributor, to see people scrambling around to construct an offer that will get you to change your mind. But might there be downsides to sticking around once you've decided to go?

Yes, there are. Here are three factors to consider before re-signing on the dotted line:

You'll be violating the trust of your supposed-to-be-next employer.

If you've already accepted a job and then renege, you've wasted the time of another employer. It dealt with you in good faith, it undoubtedly turned down other candidates to hire you, and then you essentially said, "Ha! I was only kidding." You can pretty much write this employer off your list for future opportunities.

You've created a sense of unease at your current spot.

Your boss may come up with some cash, a great title, or other perks to keep you glued to your seat. But how will he or she view you in the longer term? Won't there be some lingering sense that if you ever have a bad week, you might quit soon after? Could there be resentment that you made the boss look bad in front of his boss (if, for example, your boss had to go up the ladder to approve some unbudgeted dollars for you)?

At the very least, your boss will now understand why you've left early, arrived late, or perhaps been less than 100% focused on your job for the several months you were job-hunting.

And if you're promoted to get you to stay, could other employees be resentful?

There's no question that, at some level, a little of the trust between you and everyone else will have eroded. Are you sure you want to stay in the company under those circumstances?

You may have left the underlying issues unresolved.

Money is great, and job assignments and titles are big, but relationships at work (with your boss, with co-workers, and with clients) are often the triggers that make people decide to move on. Most counteroffers don't and can't, address these critical factors.

They won't resolve the dysfunctional management or the power struggles that sent you job-hunting in the first place. Over the long term, a negative work environment will take its toll on your physical and mental well-being. And if you stay in a less-than-ideal situation for a few thousand dollars in extra pay, what does that say about your values?

LINGERING DOUBTS. The only situation where I recommend taking a counteroffer to heart is the one in which the boss says, "Jim, I completely understand why you'd want to leave us. We've had these huge problems, and you haven't gotten the support you deserved. I haven't been able to tell you about it, but we've gotten approval for a reorganization that will fix problems A, B, C, and D. Would you be open to talking about staying with us, given the way things are going to change?"

At least in this case, the company isn't simply throwing money at you. The evidence, however, must be overwhelming that it's in your best interest to stick around.

So, as a rule, once you accept an offer to leave your company, you should go. Wish everyone well, thank them for the gracious counteroffer, and be on your way. Life is long. You may work for these folks again someday, but not now. The impulse that got you to go through your grueling job search and salary negotiation is still valid. When your gut said "go," your gut was right. Listen to it.

WORKS BOTH WAYS. Does this mean, as a manager, that you shouldn't make counteroffers either?

That's right. Extending a counteroffer outside of the "guess-what!-we're-making-those-changes-you-asked-for" scenario, is dangerous short-term thinking. Can you really regard this person whom you've just learned has spent three months interviewing after-hours as a solid member of your team?

The fact that he's trying to look out for himself doesn't make him a bad guy, of course. But it means that something about the relationship has changed -- and it's hard to recover from that. You also don't want your company to develop a reputation for routinely making counteroffers. Outfits that do that tend to become viewed as places where you must have a job offer in hand to be listened to, and that's poison.

If you're the employer on the other side of the equation -- waiting to hear whether your chosen candidate will accept his company's counteroffer -- take heart. If he reneges on your offer, you'll know he isn't your kind of guy anyway.

Still, because it's so frustrating to invest time and energy in a candidate who may succumb to a counteroffer, it's a good idea to test the person's susceptibility early on in the interview process. Here's how:

You: So, Jason, are the folks at Acme Industries aware that you're doing a job search?

Him: No, they have no idea.

You: And how do you think they would take that news, if you were to accept a job here and give notice?

Him: Oh, I think they'd be unhappy, because they like me. But I really want to make a change.

You: It's wonderful that they think so highly of you. If we were to make you an offer, and Acme Industries were to extend a counteroffer, that might make it hard to leave, I'd imagine.

Him: Well [chuckle], they'd have to offer me a lot of money. I don't think they would do it.

This isn't what you want to hear. A person who's hedging this way isn't a good bet for your company. I'm not saying that you should focus your recruiting on people who despise their employers. But you do want candidates who have a clear idea of what's lacking in their current jobs -- and what they want in their next one.

That's the ideal situation -- where your open position provides something that the candidate's current employer can't match (besides a few dollars more).

THE REAL DEAL. If you aren't fortunate enough to find a counteroffer-resistant candidate, you can at least help reduce your vulnerability by reinforcing the candidate's decision to accept your offer. Invite the person to lunch or dinner to sign the offer letter. Introduce him to everyone on the team -- in advance, by e-mail -- rather than reserving the "welcome aboard" activities for his first day.

You can't fake this stuff. It has to be authentic. But the more you share the goodwill of your group with your new arrival, the less likely it is that he'll change his mind if his current employer ups the ante.

And then, of course, don't shut the spigot. Keep that reinforcement and encouragement coming, right up until retirement, resignation, or layoff, whichever comes first. In fact, if the reinforcement and encouragement meter in American business were a little higher, the entire conversation about counteroffers would be moot. That's another good goal to shoot for. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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