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Why You Should Never Under Any Circumstance Accept a Counteroffer

Things haven’t been right at work for a long time. You’ve felt stuck, unappreciated, and underpaid. In fact, it’s been a struggle to even drag yourself out of bed to get into the office some mornings.

But now, all of that is about to change. After weeks of surreptitious telephone calls and mysterious absences so you could interview, you’ve been offered a great new job. The staff at the new company seems terrific, you’ll have more responsibility, the opportunity to work on the things you enjoy, and will even see a nice bump in pay to boot.

When you told your old boss you were leaving, however, he didn’t take it the way that you thought he would. After months of seeming indifference to your very existence, you’ve now become the center of his universe. Pleasing you seems to be his highest priority. All of the things you had wished were true about your job are now within your grasp.

“We had no idea you felt this way,” says the boss, lauding your body of work, insisting you are a valued member of the team, and moving heaven and earth to make sure your concerns are addressed. Lunches are scheduled, meetings arranged, and somehow beyond all expectation a counteroffer is extended. It includes a match of the offer you already have with promises to immediately or at some point in the future improve your job responsibilities, reporting relationships, job title, and life.

So what do you do?

Well, if you’ve ever worked with a recruiter to find a new job, you’ve already heard a pretty consistent message about counteroffers: never accept them. Under any circumstance. EVER. Every recruiter has had this drilled into his head from day one—for good reason.

First and foremost, remember why you were looking for a new job in the first place. You were unsatisfied in your work. You were unhappy and unfulfilled. You were on the road to nowhere and felt completely underpaid—not that any amount of money could compensate for the crushing, soul-sucking depression you experienced every time you contemplated the future. As for this weird combination of Mr. Rogers and Mother Teresa that your boss has morphed into, remember that a week ago this hard-ass didn’t even know your name.

He’s not looking out for your interests now; he’s looking out for his own and the company’s. Your work is clearly valuable and now that they’re faced with the prospect of losing you he doesn’t know how he’ll get everything done. You’ve essentially got a gun to his head and he’ll say whatever it takes to save his own skin. Once the gun is removed, though, things will likely go back to the way they were before.

Even if things don’t go back to exactly where they were, you’ll never again be looked at the same way within the company. You may be able to extract a raise or a promotion now, but when it comes to future promotions or assignments, your disloyalty will count against you. Besides, if you’ve been promoted or raised faster than your peers, there may simply be nowhere else to advance you for a long time. Congratulations, now you’re really stuck.

Time after time, I’ve seen candidates succumb to the hope of a new start in their old companies by accepting a counteroffer only to have them call me six months or a year later hoping to get their job offers back. Generally, by that time, those offers are long-gone and the candidate is back to square one as far as their job search is concerned.

The office where I began my recruiting career once got a frantic call from a client asking us to immediately begin work on replacing a manager who had been offered a position with another firm. When he learned that the employee had accepted a counteroffer and had agreed to stay on, my boss called the client to see if we should call off the search. “No, find me somebody better,” was the reply. “As soon as I can replace that S.O.B., he’s fired.”

At the risk of violating the Recruiter’s Code, however, I have seen rare cases where accepting a counteroffer has worked out. Some small companies, for instance, have very underdeveloped human resource functions. They have no idea how the market values a position until they need to hire a new person or replace an old one. It’s not uncommon for leanly staffed organizations like this to be caught unawares that a long-time employee has become significantly underpaid and sometimes they will more than make up for their negligence when a valued manager hands in his resignation. These can be chaotic and challenging places to work, but they sometimes offer great experience, flexibility and other benefits that make the sacrifice worth it.

While promises made under duress are often forgotten in the long term, that isn’t always the case. I once helped a young Acquisitions Editor at a major publishing house get an offer with a much smaller, niche publisher. She was tired of feeling like a nameless drone in her large firm and wanted a change. The new offer wouldn’t provide much in the way of a salary increase, but offered her much greater responsibility, more autonomy, and the ability to work on titles that were of more interest to her.

Upon hearing of her impending departure the president of her existing employer stepped in and raised her salary, moved her to another division that was a better fit, and offered to be her personal mentor. I’d seen this happen before where the “mentoring” was soon forgotten. In this case, however, the executive took a real interest in her career and a year later things were still going smoothly.

Some candidates hear stories like this one and assume that getting an offer from another firm can lead to bigger and better things at their existing firm. This is something like announcing an affair in order to get better treatment from your spouse: “Hey, honey, I’m sleeping with Marsha. Now, here are my demands.” It might work, but chances are not in your favor. For every successfully executed counteroffer I’ve seen, I can point to a half dozen people who were permanently escorted out of their offices by security.

The best way to avoid counteroffer drama is to avoid counteroffers in the first place. If you are generally unhappy in your work, ask yourself whether the problem is largely within yourself or due to your surroundings. If the problem is with your boss or your company, nothing they can offer you will really change things in the long term. If the problem is with you, it may not get better somewhere else.

The best candidates move from great opportunity to great opportunity, constantly outgrowing their current role and moving on to one that’s a better fit for them at that point in their career. If your existing employer can offer you that, you’re in exactly the right place. If not, it never hurts to keep your options open. Once you decide to move on, however, it’s probably best to just do so.

Keith Liscio is the president of Patrickson-Hirsch Associates, an Executive Search firm specializing in the placement of marketing executives at consumer-focused organizations.

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