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When You Get a Job Counteroffer: Should You Stay or Should You Go?

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You got a job offer, you gave your notice, you’re psyched to pack up your coffee mug and launch your glittery new gig. But wait! Your boss muddles everything by offering you a counteroffer that you can’t possibly refuse! How do you figure out whether to jump ship or keep your anchor fixed?

Happy New Year, suckers—you are so out of here!

You went out, found a new job—it pays 20% more! and gave notice to your current employer. You’re ready to pack up your desk and move on into the new year and into your new, more exciting/higher-paying/innovative company, yippee!

But hang on just one minute, your boss says. Next thing you know, you’re looking at a counter-offer. Your boss asks, Would you stay if we give you a) more money, b) remote work or flexible hours, c) a high-profile project to work on, and/or d) projects that let you develop more valuable, cutting-edge skills?

So what will it be? Would you stay? Should you stay?

There are some career consultants who say, “Hell, no, turn down the counteroffer and get out.” They have horror stories to back them up. For example, in spite of a counteroffer of a pay raise, the career consultants’ clients have found themselves fired within a year, with their employer having gone and trained their replacement.

Why wouldn’t they? You already proved you’re not loyal. As WinterWyman Principal Consultant Doug Schade puts it, you’re just a Band-Aid on the situation, and with a counteroffer the employer bought themselves time to find someone else.

There’s more to it, though. This is not a black-and-white situation, Some people have been offered counteroffers that actually got to the heart of why they were leaving in the first place. Accepting the counteroffer has turned around unsatisfactory, unfulfilling, blah job situations, to everybody’s benefit.

I talked to career consultants who had stories to tell on either side of the “Should I stay or should I go?” coin. Here’s what they told me.

The “Get-out-while-the-getting’s-good” mindset

Reasons why it’s not a good idea to accept a counteroffer:

Offered a high-profile project: Clients who’ve accepted counteroffers have found that the project was put on hold, Schade says. Indefinitely.

Offered more interesting work: Schade’s clients have been stuck doing what they’ve been doing all along.

More flexibility: Sometimes people actually have less flexibility than they did before, WinterWyman has seen. Managers start to watch their counter-offered employees like hawks, suspicious that the no-longer-loyal workers are spending time looking for another job instead of doing their work. The managers just get jittery about what those employees are doing when they’re not being seen, Schade says.

More money (while they find and train someone else): See above. They’re just buying time to replace you.

Career growth stunting: Dennis Tupper, a consultant advocate at the IT recruitment and staffing firm Eliassen Group, points out that people who accept counteroffers typically aren’t considered for future promotions because of the perception that they’re not loyal to the company.

Bruce A. Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, does not believe that employees should accept counteroffers. Nor does he believe that companies should make them, given how at least one client he placed turned around and “played us like a Stradivarius,” Hurwitz said, demanding a counteroffer that included a new boss and an office with a window. The client wound up getting fired within about a year for allegedly not admitting to a mistake.

For his part, Hurwitz himself resigned from a job at one point. He turned down a counteroffer from his boss. Six months later, he quit his new job. He got his old job back, in part because of his decision to turn down the counteroffer. “The boss told me it was because I hadn’t played games and had acted ethically,” Hurwitz said.

Those are some reasons why you shouldn’t accept a counteroffer, but not all situations are created equal. There can be compelling reasons why you should consider a counteroffer. It all comes down to thinking long and hard about why you want to leave in the first place.

Care for a sprinkle of introspection with that mulling?

Kathy Robinson, founder of the career and business consultancy Turning Point, says that yes, she’s seen examples of counteroffers employed by management teams looking to buy time to look for a replacement.

But, at least in her experience, it’s not the norm. “Typically, if an organization makes a counteroffer, it’s because the employee is truly valued. Otherwise, [management would] see it as an opportunity to trade up if the employee were to leave,” she says.

At any rate, more often than not, after a counteroffer has been accepted,  the employee ends up leaving anyway. That’s because the structural reason they were looking for a new position is often still there after the new, counteroffer-arranged situation is put into place, Robinson says.

In fact, the few times that Robinson has seen a counteroffer work out is when it strikes at the heart of the reason why an employee wanted to leave in the first place: Namely, he or she is assigned to a new manager.

“As the saying goes, ‘People don’t often leave jobs; they leave bosses,’” she says.

Robinson recalls one example in which a software development manager was, in fact, highly valued by his company, but he was working for a director whose management skills were, shall we say, somewhat lacking. Robinson, part of the management team, says that the team understood that the director wasn’t long for the organization.

Unfortunately, the employee came before the team to resign before the team had a chance to take action on the subpar manager.  The team wound up giving the employee a raise, since his new-job offer was slightly higher than what he had been making, and then they did their best to insulate him from the director until they could move that director out.  With the core problem addressed, the employee wound up staying another two years—everybody happy.

From a career coaching standpoint, it’s rare that the organization can fix whatever structural problems are causing the desire to leave, Robinson says, but it’s obviously not impossible in the case of a misfit between employee and management.

The Eliassen Group’s Tupper says that this gets to the real question somebody should ask himself if he is looking at a counteroffer: Why am I leaving?

The decision to accept a counteroffer depends on your relationship with the company, Tupper says. Are you unhappy with just one person? Or are you just looking to blame one person for other problems? “Sometimes, blaming your resignation on [one person] is just an easy way out, to justify making a move, when you could address it in other ways,” Tupper says.

He’s got a good example of when it is right to accept a counteroffer, though.

One of his clients, then a director of IT in the financial services, came to him looking for a new gig.

Tupper asked her what it was about her current company that was leaving the IT director unfulfilled. “I always want to find out the motivating factors why somebody’s looking for another job,” he says. “Are they being true to themselves? Or are they just bored?”

She was just bored. At the time, the financial services company wasn’t particularly cutting edge. They’d been in the industry a long time, had excellent market share, and didn’t seem to see any need to advance. Status quo was fine. The money was coming in, so management didn’t feel they needed to change things. The company felt complacent, and the IT director felt like her career was stagnating.

OK. Fair enough. But then Tupper asked her the flip side of that particular coin: What do you like about your current job?

She really liked the people she worked with. The location was great. She knew everybody in the company. Likewise, she knew all the executives and the different teams. The culture was really good, with a healthy work/life balance. On top of all that, the company’s brand was strong, and they had sizable market share.

OK, Tupper asked after the IT director went ahead and interviewed at a new company, “What’s attractive about this new opportunity?”

The answer: working on fresh products and  being able to use knowledge from a newly acquired MBA with a company that had zest for new ideas. True, the company was emergent. It was working in her field for less than five years. But—another plus—her salary would bump up 20% in the move.

OK. So, Tupper asked her, “What do you not like about the new opportunity? What were the risks, and what were the downsides?”

Well, every single person would be new, and every team would be new. Unknowns included how everybody at the new company interacted, not to mention understanding how good people were at their jobs. The commute was a little longer. She’d be dealing with a newer brand and thus would lose the name recognition when dealing with people outside the organization. She’d lose that instant respect factor she got from calling out from her well-known, well-respected company.

Still, she was excited. A 20% pay bump! New ideas! At the end of weighing the pros and cons, she went ahead and handed in her notice.

That’s when the counteroffer came.

One of the executives called her into a room. They sat down, and the exec didn’t just throw money at the IT director. The company knew that her departure wasn’t just about money, though they did throw in a 10% pay raise.

More to the point of why she was leaving, the company crafted a  position that had never existed at the company hitherto. Her current position was intact, but the management team tacked onto it a brand-new title—Head of Strategic Initiatives—with brand-new duties.

“Her responsibilities were the same, day to day, but they also made her head of strategic initiatives because the company, because they were complacent, had never thought of having new products or new lines of business,” Tupper says. “In order to make this person happy, they understood that throwing money at her wouldn’t help. Instead, they [had to change] responsibilities.”

She accepted the counteroffer. It was up to the company to use what she’d learned in the MBA program and from her smart networking. Plus, the company now has a reputation for evolving along with its industry, Tupper says, with this IT director-cum-innovation czarina widely recognized as a vital part of that evolution.

Either way, research the bejeezus out of the counteroffer

Eliassen Group Account Executive Laura Bartkiewicz agrees that it’s helpful to analyze your motivation for leaving before you make any decisions about a counteroffer (or, for that matter, before you even look for a new job).

Why are you unhappy? Is it your pay? Your responsibilities? Your role? No room for career growth? Is there another position you’d be great for? Did somebody else nab a job you thought you’d be great for? Are you leaving because you’re miffed about it?

Here’s the thing: Many of us are afraid to step up to the plate and say that we want more responsibility. Bartkiewicz works with engineers in technology fields, and she sees this tendency a lot. It’s a mistake to look for more, or different, responsibility in other places without trying your current employer first, she tells her engineers. “Don’t be afraid to throw your hat in the ring for positions at your own company,” she says. “Don’t look at other companies for more responsibility without trying to inquire within as well.”

But listen well to her next advice: Getting a counteroffer that addresses your needs doesn’t mean squat if you haven’t researched it to find out if it’s for real or just based on fluff, Bartkiewicz says.

One engineer she worked with was given a great offer of innovative work with a company. He’d been a web engineer for years, and he really wanted to get into mobile. The new company was offering to make him a project manager on a mobile project. So he gave notice. His company made a counteroffer: If you move into this team, we have the mobile role, and we’ll be doing it in six months.

Flash forward six months, and nothing had changed. “He should have left. You should leave if [a supposed project] is in the next month, or not at all,” Bartkiewicz says.

How do you figure out if a counteroffer is fluff? Research, research, research. “He didn’t do enough valid research to see what the real timeline was and if it was realistic,” she says.

Here are some other tips about how to deal with a counteroffer:

  • Always ask for time to think about (and research) the counteroffer. Asking for a week isn’t asking for a lot.
  • Talk to members of whatever team you’d be moving to. As for details about the project timeline, the role itself, the responsibilities, and any other aspects of the counteroffer.
  • Get the counteroffer in writing, lest it suffer from the common malady of evaporating promises.
  • Don’t shy away from interviewing at other companies. Finding out what other companies are doing, and how they’re doing it, is part of the research that can feed into your decision about how the counteroffer stacks up against new opportunities.

It may seem like a lot to think about, but look at it this way: Anybody who has to juggle both offers and counteroffers in this economy is likely doing A-OK.

May all our cups overflow with offers and counteroffers in the new year!

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  • Dean Schulze

    This article makes it sounds like only managers should accept a counteroffer, and that makes sense. How many managers are honest with non-managerial employees? Managers do tend to be more honest with other managers, however.

    Researching a counteroffer sounds like a good idea, but how many people could actually determine if a new project will ever get started? New projects often get outsourced before they are started.

    • Lisa Vaas

      None of the people I interviewed specified what level of worker their advice applied to. I’ve never probed the issue of whether managers are more upfront with non-managerial employees vs. other managers. You might be right, and it’s an interesting topic, but beyond the scope of this article.

      Regarding researching a project’s likelihood of getting started: You can’t assess anything if you don’t ask questions and do your research. Asking questions and doing your research doesn’t necessarily forecast the future with 100% certainty, but it gives you a far better idea than proceeding based on ignorance.

      • Dean Schulze

        Researching a counteroffer needs more discussion, particularly the details of how to research a counteroffer.

        Determining the probability that a new project will actually start requires that you find out what several people are actually thinking. They would be managers, but how many managers are willing to be candid about their thoughts with someone who would be negatively affected by those ideas?

        Researching impersonal factors is one thing, but when the most important factors are what certain people are thinking then researching those can be impossible if they don’t want to be candid with you.

        Researching a counteroffer sounds like a good idea, but it’s also one of those things that could prove impossible to do with a high enough degree of reliability to be useful.

        • Lisa Vaas

          I disagree with your suggestion that only managers can be the source of useful feedback. I think people in the trenches can have solid input, and people would be remiss not to solicit it.

      • Dean Schulze

        The reason I’m so skeptical about the idea of researching a counteroffer is that your article mentioned the case where a counteroffer was made just to keep someone around until a replacement was found.

        How could you research that? Management isn’t going to tell you that they are planning to replace you ASAP and that the counteroffer is only being made for that purpose.

        The premise for researching a counteroffer is that management will be honest with you, which often is not the case.