Job Hunt

Please Don't Quit: Handling a Counteroffer

You’ve given notice and are ready to leave. Then the company rolls out the red carpet for you.

Maura had made up her mind. She was going to take the job offer from a boutique interior design firm, which was offering her a 20% salary bump and a culture fit that would allow her to spend more time with her two young children. But within 24 hours of telling her manager that she was leaving, she found herself in a room with her boss and her boss’s boss, who thickly laid on a counteroffer. They’d matched the salary offer, so money wasn’t an issue now. Maura could name the project she wanted to work on. And, by the way, what else did she need from them?

“I was drained from it all,” she says. “I had already told them exactly why I was leaving—which was hard enough because I really liked my boss—and it was only when I gave notice that they started acknowledging my value.”

In today’s tight labor market, companies loathe letting good talent go. Offering a quick counteroffer in the heat of the moment can seem like the douse of water needed to put out the fire. After all, it’s much easier to throw some extra money or other benefits someone’s way than begin the arduous task of finding a replacement. “If it’s a key team player, then you are kind of freaking out,” says Christian Moritz, president of Klaxos, which provides digital optimization services on both the offering and seeking side of job searches. “You now have to deal with a huge hole.”

To get what you really want, it’s better to ask for a few benefits that really matter to you.

But experts say many counteroffers are complicated. That’s because the employee sees what the company can do when its feet are held to the fire, which can create resentment. At the same time, even if she did take the counteroffer, word may spread about how the company wrangled to keep her, spawning animosity or unease among colleagues. From the company’s perspective, the employer is going to be less enthusiastic and less trusting toward the employee, because “they already know you’ve been thinking of bolting,” Moritz says. No wonder, then, those promises that were rolled out for the flight-risk employee are quickly forgotten several months later—even if they’re in writing.

Still, career pros say counteroffers should be taken seriously. After all, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you to play your cards right. Here are some things to consider when assessing the red-carpet rollout.

Ask for time.

As we all know, negotiating a job offer is exhausting. By the time an offer comes in, you’re often ready to just say yes to get the process over with, and considering a counteroffer can be seen as prolonging the already excruciating process. But it’s important to pause and really see if the counteroffer is something worth considering. Speaking to mentors and people within your company, along with reflecting on why you were job hunting in the first place, can help you see your options clearly. To do that, you need to have time on your side. Be reasonable about it, of course; you can’t ask the company for three months to decide on the counteroffer. But you can ask for a week. 

Be selective.

When counteroffers are given, they often come across as a “name your price” campaign, Moritz says. But to really get what you want, it’s better to ask for the few benefits you really care about. Is it the commute that’s killing you? Focus on asking to work from home. The compensation? Review data on salaries in your field to ensure what you’re asking for is reasonable, compared to both the outside offer you have in your hand and industry standards. If, for example, the counteroffer comes in with a 10% boost above what your outside offer has stated, would you want to go back to the outside firm as ask them to match the counteroffer?

Talk to counteroffer veterans.

Knowledge is power, and one of the most powerful tools for counteroffer contenders is talking to those who have stayed, says Alexander Lowry, executive director of the financial analysis graduate program at Gordon College in Massachusetts. Did the company deliver on that person’s requests or did it retreat? Many times, firms fail to follow through, even if promises are in writing, Lowry says. And are the counteroffer veterans happy with their decision? One staffer at a media company who accepted a counteroffer two years ago reports he’s quite satisfied with his choice. “I pretty much get to focus on the big projects and skip the smaller pieces,” he says. “That’s ultimately what I wanted.” 

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