Be careful of counteroffers

A company's gambit to get you to stay might sound like a bountiful blessing, but a recruiter explains why you should think twice before taking the deal.

"Should I accept it?"

The young IT executive posing the question had been recruited aggressively by one of his company's archrivals. He'd quietly gone on a first interview, then a second, then a third. In due time he'd received (and accepted) an extremely attractive job offer. So he cheerily returned to his current employer to hand in a cordial letter of resignation.

But to his surprise, his boss read it, then grew flustered and begged him to postpone his final decision for a day or two. Within mere hours the executive was presented with an even more attractive counteroffer. "We simply can't afford to lose you," his boss explained, patting his shoulder.

Who knew? And more importantly - what to do now?

Before I answer the question (and before anyone starts wishing you had such "problems"), let me mention that because of marketplace demands, highly qualified IT managers and executives are more likely to face this particular rose garden.

But therein lie several thorns. Granted, there are many good and legitimate reasons to leave a position for greener pastures. Perhaps someone has just finished implementing a major ERP system and is now in maintenance mode, with no fresh challenges on the horizon. Or perhaps a training budget has been slashed to bits - a kiss of death to any IT worker intent on upgrading his or her skills. Or perhaps a newly hired network engineer just learned the $15,000 bonus on which he was counting isn't likely to materialize. Bummer.

So he starts shopping for new positions. He finds what he thinks is a terrific fit. He informs his boss, "Hey, it's been fun," but he's moving on - and then he's stunned to hear, "Tell me what's wrong here, and I'll fix it. But you have to promise to stay. And by the way, here's more money."

I'm not saying the executive shouldn't accept a great counteroffer - but that won't rectify all problems. Think about your reasons for wanting to leave in the first place. Let's review the situation and consider the following worst-case scenarios that might play out if you decide to stay with your employer.

You'll change the culture of your company

A resignation is the business equivalent of holding your boss at gunpoint: "Give me what I want, or I'm history." The counteroffer is the equivalent of your boss handing over cash, a promotion, less travel or more time off, and putting your gun back into its holster.

But the incident isn't over. In fact, it may never be. You have upset an apple cart and provoked a panic-buy. Those apples can never be stacked the same way, and everything, including the company's pecking order, is now different. Passive aggression and veiled hostility might arise later from some unexpected sources.

If co-workers hear of your new title and/or perks, a new dynamic will develop. You won't exactly be the most popular guy or gal on campus. However minor your perks, don't underestimate how little it takes to make co-workers angry; inequality within the ranks is lethal. If you decide to stay where you are because it is familiar, you might be surprised. By accepting the counteroffer's perks, that familiar office dynamic will become foreign.

You'll raise the stakes

Your acceptance of a counteroffer will change expectation levels - both for your boss and for yourself.

After bestowing rewards, it is human nature for your boss to expect more from you. You'll be held to a higher performance standard, which you might also hold yourself because of guilt from stirring up muddy waters. Your every misstep will be scrutinized, and every minor error in judgment will be magnified. In other words, you'll earn every penny of that increased salary and every minute of that family leave time with your blood, sweat and tears.

You won't be trusted

You're no longer a team player, but someone who, first and foremost, looks out for No. 1. You've already stated in effect, "I don't really want to be here." Because you've broken the loyalty oath and held your employer hostage, you'll be henceforth viewed as less than committed. Your allegiance also will be compromised in your own mind; something about the job just won't feel "right."

Perceived lack of loyalty in addition to co-worker resentment and an employer's feelings of disempowerment could lead to a short-lived position. I've witnessed many IT workers who've happily accepted counteroffers in winter only to leave by the next summer. Unfortunately, upon leaving this upheaval, the employee no longer will receive a good solid reference. He more than likely will receive a two-word negative response, if any.

Accepting a counteroffer isn't always a bad decision, but as a professional recruiter, I'd be remiss if I didn't urge a very close look at the possible pitfalls. My ultimate goal is seeing candidates happy and successful in permanent placements, whatever and wherever those might be. So I'd also encourage a talk with the boss before you start shopping around, rather than after. Address your misgivings and dissatisfactions early; give him a fair chance to rectify them. It's quite possible that nothing will change - but be assured that you haven't wasted your time.

You've called the boss' attention to the situation in an honest, straightforward way. You've acted with integrity while gaining the assurance of knowing how much you're truly valued - without jeopardizing your career, your economic stability or your positive relationships with peers. And without pulling out the verbal equivalent of an Uzi.

What's more, if you ultimately decide to leave the company for a warmer climate, your boss can never claim he didn't see it coming.

Hall is director of professional recruiting and a 15-year veteran of FGP (Find Great People) International, a Greenville, S.C., global professional search firm specializing in IT, apparel, healthcare, accounting and finance. He can be reached at steve@fgp.com.

Learn more about this topic

Accepting a Counteroffer Can Be the Road to Ruin

CareerJournal.com, 08/09/2004.

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