Counter Offers – What to Do When Your Unappreciative Employer Comes Begging Back!


What a great feeling when your company gets wind that you’re “in play” and comes countering back with a vengeance . . . or is it?   For close to 20 years, we’ve seen this scenario unfold like an endless video replay:  “Boy decides to leave company. Company offers him the world.  Boy takes his counter goodies and stays.  Within 12 months, boy is unemployed!” 

Several studies have been done in the recruiting and staffing world showing that 50%-80% of all employees who accept counter offers and stay with their incumbent employer, end up voluntarily leaving within 6 months; while up to 90% are separated by month 12 (downsized, terminated, demoted).  National statistics are often higher, with several indicating up to 89% are gone within 6 months!  Sometimes this is voluntary, but more often not.  In either case, the process of threatening to leave, and then subsequently staying, changes many of the interpersonal dynamics that made your original stay so pleasant.

The reality is that very few people leave an existing job purely for the money.  Of course, there are always exceptions; you know, sweet heart deals where the base salary is just simply on another playing field.  However, most people’s decision to leave is based on a confluence of factors.  Any of these sound familiar?

  • Boredom in their existing role with limited growth opportunities
  • Concern for the future prospects of the company, its business, and or its industry
  • A changing corporate culture
  • Dissatisfaction with management, or the relationship with one’s boss
  • An overall feeling of disenfranchisement or lack of appreciation/recognition
  • The perception of being underpaid and overworked
  • Underwater stock options

The list goes on ad infinitum, but all factors have one thing in common – there’s an emotional pull that one’s time is done and the employee is now ready to turn the next page.  So now it’s your turn.  Time for greener pastures.  Time to feel appreciated again.  Time to get what you deserve!  Then one day, some recruiter sees your profile on LinkedIn and makes a call. Her people talk to your people, a date is set, the courting begins, and that small box with the diamond ring is presented.   It’s so perfect that you pledge your eternal love and can’t wait to make the transition.  Except . . . there’s one problem.  You still have to cut the cord with your current employer. But that’s a no brainer.  They haven’t really cared about you much lately – at least in the past few years – and probably will say “good riddance” anyway.  You can probably wrap up the whole shebang in about 20 minutes.  If only the world really worked this way

Here’s what most likely will occur, particularly if you are a solid performer:

  • Your boss will act in total shock and surprise, expressing the company’s devotion to you.
  • He/she may let you know that you are in-line for the next promotion, or perhaps share that you were actually slated for a raise next quarter. Your boss has been “secretly” going to bat for you the entire time, but kept things on the low-down in case he was unsuccessful (wink wink)!
  • The company will want to know your specific offer, and may even ask to see the offer letter.
  • The CEO of the company, business unit head, or GM would love to have lunch with you to share some very confidential information about the company’s prospects and future. Normally the CEO would only share this info with the board, the head of the CIA, FBI, or Director of Homeland Security, but he feels that YOU need to know . . .  and need to know right now.
  • The CEO and your boss ask that you just wait one more day.  They have even more exciting news to share that will impact your pocket book and your family’s future.
  • Meanwhile, everyone you worked with is slapping your back, telling nostalgic stories of when you were all in the foxhole together – “one for all, and all for one.” Maybe one of them will actually give you the cutest little guilt bear for your endearing son, Tiny Tim.
  • And then the counter offer. More money, more territory, more stock, promises of more responsibly, and a company road map showing how they’re on the precipice of becoming the next Facebook. 

And then you and your spouse sit down and begin to talk very, very rationally. “Honey, we have to do what’s best for our family.  Why take a risk at a new place; it could all fall apart.  Maybe you misread your current company; they’re really stepping up to keep you.  Even the CEO is involved!”  And so it goes.  Of course, most of this is moot, because your spouse is talking to a dead man walking.  Most likely, you will be unemployed – or employed elsewhere – within 9 months. 

Are there exceptions?  Absolutely, but let’s not forget the underlying reasons for why you contemplated leaving in the first place.  In most cases, the bulk of these haven’t changed.  So what’s so different on the company’s end?   How come they didn’t rise to the occasion earlier?  The answer is usually the obvious – everything you felt was probably correct in the first place!

Here’s why they are lavishing you with endless oceans of TLC:

  • Any loss of a key employee makes your boss look terrible! Outside of losing an actual client, the separation of a good employee reflects very negatively upon the remaining leadership. If you’re going to leave the company it should be because management is giving you the ax; and the spin masters need to position the narrative accordingly (which they will indeed within 9 months or less).
  • The competition – always looking to steal good people – will PR this to death as an indication that all is not well at your employer. And they LOVE sharing defection stories with your clients and theirs.
  • It’s always bad for morale for the remaining team, who could, themselves, be wondering if greener pastures exist elsewhere.
  • Company performance can be hurt in that interim period if no quick fix to replace you exists.

But here’s the real scoopOnce disloyalty has been entered into the equation, trust is gone and becomes very difficult to get back.  If you tell your spouse you’re walking out the door for another – and he/she begs you back . . . and you stay – don’t think for a moment that this whole saga has somehow IMPROVED your relationship!  Distrust is now the underlying instability, and it’s very tough to get back.  You may work hard to rectify things in a marriage, but, for your employer, it may be easier to just start fresh.

So what do you do?  First, given that the underlying reasons for leaving are still likely there, just go through with the transition.  The stats are pretty evident, and the downside risk of moving is usually fairly low anyway.  Besides, you’re probably looking at a better package with the new gig and a resume improvement in the event the worst comes to fruition. However, if you have fallen prey to the lavish gifts of the incumbent, here are a few negotiation points to see how sincere they really are:

  1. Make sure any increase in base salary is “guaranteed” over a full year, even in the event of a separation.  It’s very easy for an employer to up your base 50%, when they can terminate you 90 days later and have paid out only one-fourth of the increase.
  2. If they promise you more equity, make sure it immediately vests or a large portion of it vests.  A new option grant that starts with a 1-2 year cliff is meaningless.  You can be terminated in a year, and the company has lost nothing.
  3. Ask them to pay any guaranteed bonus for the year upfront as a “signing bonus.”  Are they willing to deposit the cash in your bank account next week?
  4. If you get more territory, are you sharing it with another key person (AKA the person who will take over without missing a beat once you “leave” later on)?
  5. If they are offering you any special perks (like paying your country club dues); have them pay a year or two in advance.
  6. If there are promises of more responsibility, more territory, or more options in the “future,” insist that they make all of this happen NOW.  To prove their commitment, ask them to notify the rest of the company of these changes via press release or an internal email. This is especially important if you are promised a change in title or responsibility.

These are just a few of the more common “counter” points.  Of course, companies and people do make honest mistakes and neglect good people, focus on non-performers, or simply lose touch.  But if they are really intent on keeping you, then let’s put the “counter” immediately in the bank.  They should be willing to write a non-refundable, non-conditional check, add that new title to the name tag on your office door IMMEDIATELY, or publish notification of your newly found responsibilities in an electronic form that friends, co-workers and competitors can find as easily as an update on Kim Kardashian’s waist size. “Promises” – if your employer is serious about keeping you long-term – need to be solidified in writing with guarantees.  In the immortal words of Elvis Presley: “A little less conversation; a little more action.”  Anything else will pretty much insure you become that statistic within 9 months!