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Beware of the Counter Offer

Posted on 20/08/2015 by Declan McNamee

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Just say NO to Counter Offers

So you've spent the last several weeks going through the hiring process with your potential new employer, you've gotten an offer and you're delighted. You walk into your Manager's office to hand in your notice of resignation - "I'm leaving, it's time to move on." But your manager asks you to stay. Things will change, he'll make sure of it, he promises

I tend not to be cynical about people. I actually believe that most people are inherently not evil. They might not rise all the way to inherently good, but most people are not the manipulative beasts we sometimes fear they are. When employees tell management they have an offer, I don't think it is usually a pure leverage play. When you get your new offer letter, you have to tell your current employment that things are just not working. "It's not you, it's me," you tell them. And as with many relationships, they start asking "Why?" and telling you "I'll change. I swear I can change!" The culmination of this all-too-common dance is a counter offer.

You know that promotion you thought you deserved? You can have it. Maybe you wanted to run a team? Ok, we will build that team around you. It could be that you wanted recognition. Well, here is a bonus and a certificate. It was signed by the Executive Vice President of your division! Whatever it was that you had wanted for the last year or two, it all becomes available. 

In the moment, this can all be horribly confusing. You have emotions that have built up over an extended time period, and now your employer is telling you all the things you wanted to hear for the last however many months. It reminds you of the honeymoon when you first joined the company, when they still openly courted you and made sure you were engaged and happy and taken care of. But it's not the honeymoon. It's 6 years later. Things have changed. But when all the employee love is thrown your way, it makes you wonder: have things really changed? This is exactly what I have been asking for.

In this moment, what do you do? 
I can tell you what I do. I ignore it. Gestures like these tend to be short-lived. The reality is that behavior over time is a far greater indicator of how you are viewed than a few monetary or political gestures in a moment of panic. And you need to be honest about why your eyes have been wandering in the first place.

It is never about the money. Let me say that again – IT IS NEVER ABOUT THE MONEY. Or the title. Or the team. Contrary to the all-too-prevalent carrot-stick management style, we are not a bunch of coin-operated people. The science on this point is clear. Even sales guys are motivated by more than money. We need to all get paid, but provided it meets our requirements and we feel equitably compensated (someone else isn't making 2x for doing the same work), money is no longer the driving motivator. Anyone who says otherwise is a lazy leader.

But we care about money (and title) because of what they represent. They are a sign of appreciation – recognition that we are important. When each of us joins a company, we have an explicit contract that takes care of pay and equity, but the implicit contract that we will be valued and recognised is perhaps more important. And when that contract is violated, it is very difficult to repair the relationship. 

And no amount of money, praise, or anything else can make that unspoken promise whole again. But in that moment where we are sitting across from a boss we haven't talked to in 6 months (and we weren't really sure knew who we are), the counter offer feels good. It is cathartic. It soothes the months of aching. But the way this plays out – the way it ALWAYS plays out – is that in that moment, you go through your own metamorphosis. 

You entered the office as a loyal moth, but when you walk away after having accepted the counter offer, you emerge as a mercenary butterfly. Sure, you are more beautiful (the title looks great, the money buys good-looking clothes), but you are fundamentally a different creature now. And once the first few weeks (sometimes even months) pass, the underlying dynamic re-emerges. Failure to lead and engage continues to be failure to lead and engage. You are no more recognised or valued than you were before. Your boss isn't even spending her own money. The salary increase and bonus are just a couple of notes in an HR files tucked away in a system that only gets fired up at review time.

If you weren't loved before, the raise and title aren't going to change that. And so you will invariably wind up in the same spot several months down the road. Where things typically end up is that after a year (almost exactly a year), people end up leaving anyway. Money is a poor substitute for purpose, and if your job lacks purpose and you lack motivation, no amount of money in the world makes waking up each day any easier. Sure, for enough money, you will tough it out, but only until you have enough money that you can pick up and go somewhere else. At the point that the counter offer is accepted, your loyalty is already gone. 

Think of it this way: many of us have regretted staying in a relationship well past the point where we knew it was over. We watch our friends do this and we counsel them not to. So why be that person at work? It's bad on everyone, including your colleagues who have to work alongside a soulless work zombie for however long. 

None of this is to say that it is never a good idea to get more money. But just know that unless it is life-changing money, the money is never going to be fulfilling. And for that reason, you should never accept another counter offer in your career, I hope never to offer one either. My employees deserve better.