“I’m doing the happy dance!” the candidate wrote to me in an email shortly after receiving an offer from my client. Within a week, the candidate sent an email to the client, reneging on her signed offer letter. Bias aside, my client offered the better job opportunity, the most promising upside potential, and the more progressive culture with happier team members – all the reasons that the prospective employee had been excited about the new opportunity to begin with – and yet the loyalty the person felt to her current executive team had a strong hold over her.
They made promises that from the outside-looking-in seemed questionable. They apologized for neglecting her and promised to be more attentive to her career progression. But, old habits die hard and I will not be surprised in the least bit if her situation returns to the level of dissatisfaction that first prompted her to respond to a recruiter’s inquiry.*
When you extend an offer, realize the precarious nature of the period following the offer acceptance while waiting for the prospective team member to finish her or his final weeks at the current company. Proactively find ways to stay connected. Keep in front of him or her a vision of the brighter future that awaits.
I can think of a particular situation that illustrates this point. When I shared with a client, shortly after she extended an offer, that I strongly suspected that her prospective team member would receive a compelling counteroffer, the initial response from this very rational and clear-thinking CEO was "But he signed an agreement and this is clearly a better opportunity. He's a big boy. I don't need to hold his hand."
Yet, a decision to change jobs, no matter how rational, will have emotional and relational implications. Even in a less than ideal job situation, you can’t underestimate the potency of the shared history and relational equity the current employer can leverage. Add to this, the natural human tendency to trust the known over the unknown.
After decades of helping to connect companies with the most attractive talent in the marketplace, and making some mistakes in the meantime, I can say with certainty that if you are hiring away a superstar from another company, assume that the current employer may go into overdrive in their efforts to convince the person to stay.
It didn’t take much persuading for my astute client to figure out what she needed to do. This CEO stuck to her convictions about not “hand holding” but, in the weeks following the offer, she did begin to actively engage the prospective employee on different levels and in ways that were completely natural -- sending a welcome gift and congratulatory champagne, meeting over dinner for a preliminary strategy session to plan out action steps, soliciting his input for upcoming decisions, inviting him into the office to select his new laptop and a few office furnishings, and so on. Other team members also kept in touch, expressing their excitement that he was joining the team. The team at the new company did an outstanding job of helping the soon-to-be team member feel vitally connected before his official first day on the job.
Meanwhile, his current company extended an unbelievable counteroffer including a title and pay increase that he had not anticipated in his wildest dreams. However, during these last ditch efforts to keep him on board, guess who the superstar prospective hire used as a sounding board? You may have guessed – his soon-to-be boss, based on the relationship that had begun during the interview process and that continued to be carefully nurtured during the transitional stage.
As a recruiter, I also played an instrumental role, but what won out in this situation was the very clear match between the opportunity offered by my client and the candidate’s goals and aspirations and – equally important – the culture that the candidate was being invited to participate in, and the relationship that had begun to develop between the new team member, his new boss, and the rest of the team.
Successfully withstanding a counter-offer doesn’t just begin after the offer is extended. This starts during the recruiting and interviewing process. The process must include transparency, full-disclosure, and laying the groundwork for a relationship of mutual trust and respect. This goes a long way.
Some questions to ask in the interview conversation:
- What do you value most in your current role?
- If you could change anything about your current job/company, what would that be? Have you tried to initiate any of these changes? What happened?
- What are the three main criteria that you will use in determining whether to accept an offer?
- If you decide to join our team, what could your current employer do to change your mind?
*Within three months, this person contacted me to let me know things had gone awry and that she was actively looking.