A status alert on the social media profile of a candidate catches my attention. I smile wryly. Ten months ago, a colleague and I had bet a five-star meal on the fact that the individual in question would quit his job within the year.
Rewind 10 months. The person is a professional who started exploring options after five years in his present company. We approached him for a role and after the usual deliberations, an offer was made and accepted in writing. In spite of having rehearsed the counter-offer scenario, the avalanche of disbelief, shock, emotion, promise of a larger role, calls to his wife from the chairman when he resigned, completely overwhelmed him. Five agonizing weeks into his notice period, fatigued, confused and nagged by guilt, he decided to stay on in his old job.
Push and pull factors: Often the most stressful, emotional part is the resignation process.
And why would rational, experienced professionals who have usually gone through a long, exhaustive process of evaluating options, negotiating and accepting a new role, demur after signing up? And how should they navigate a counter-offer?
First, the person could be genuinely unsure of the new role in the new company. Albeit late in the day, he/she should re-examine the push and pull factors that led to the job change in the first place. Be clear about the merits of the size of the role, the platform, the economics and a longer-term growth opportunity. Walk through this, again, with an adviser, someone who can help assess the situation objectively. Of course, any professional will ideally do this before accepting a new job.
Second, and this is the tricky one, there could be a materially significant change in job content on offer at the old company. A professional should re-examine the reasons for wanting to leave the job in the first place—growth, money, governance, or just bad chemistry? Did he genuinely discuss his career concerns before accepting another offer and were these concerns heard and addressed? If the concerns were not heard, then why not? Does the enhanced job offer at the old company actually compare favourably with the new opportunity? More importantly, will the old company really be able to deliver on the promise of more money, the bigger responsibility, new reporting line, the club membership—everything he wanted in the first place. If he does elect to stay, will he have the trust of his employer, going forward? Will his colleagues resent him?
Third, people completely underestimate the complexity of the covenantal engagement they have with a company. The job change process is scary enough to start with—it’s a new relationship, a new set of risks and a whole new world out there, and often the most stressful part is the resignation process. Wrenching, guilt, flattery, peer pressure, logic, emotion, attention—there is no way around it, only through it. It’s natural to feel all of this, just don’t make a decision based solely on this.
Lastly, and sadly sometimes true—the whole job change is orchestrated to provoke a counter-offer.
Though I am often an interested party, I’m not saying you should never accept a counter-offer. Eventually, a person must decide what is best for him, but make sure it’s a thought-through, rational choice, driven as much by professional opportunity and positive instincts—not emotions like guilt, fatigue and fear. Either way, decide quickly. Communicate in person. Apologize and show empathy to whoever is being dumped. Take responsibility. Be firm. Be respectful. Offer to do what it takes to make the process easier. Basically, handle it professionally.
And what about the new employer, the third party? Be prepared to “put up a fight", as they say. The hiring company would be well advised to remember that there is always a risk of a credible counter-offer, and start addressing this early in the process—ask and listen carefully to the reasons why someone wants to leave their current job, figure out and articulate the compelling step up in the opportunity, role, compensation. Consider tenure, stickiness of relationships, and don’t shy away from asking how a candidate would handle a counter-offer. Be mindful of telltale signs—lack of follow-through on agreed actions, unanswered calls, requests for changes in joining dates, delays in announcing resignation, re-examining agreed parameters of role and compensation.
While dealing with a vacillating candidate does create angst, consider that the process is stressful too for the candidate, who has had only limited traction with the new employer—and a long successful history with the old. Increasing engagement and support levels at this stage may well help the candidate navigate the process. But this won’t always work. Always have a plan B. Oh, and don’t shoot the messenger.
Casual statistics—ask any headhunter—imply that a significant number of people who renege and accept a counter-offer end up resigning—and actually leaving—within the year anyway. Even as I am ordering my free lunch at the Oberoi hotel, I think—sometimes, I just hate being right.
Sonal Agrawal is chief executive, Accord Group, an executive search firm.
Write to Sonal at firstname.lastname@example.org
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