The art of managing a counter-offer could be the best career move you ever, or never make.

The art of managing a counter-offer could be the best career move you ever, or never make.

If some of my talented mentors told me 15 years ago, when I started my career in IT recruitment, that I’d be sitting here now in October 2017, sharing my pearls of wisdom on counter-offers in my first ever blog, I’d probably have believed them. You see, back then, in the early days of me getting involved in the fast pace of recruitment of the top IT talent the UK and beyond could offer, everything seemed believable. I both suffered and benefitted from a healthy mix of naivety and optimism which accepted that things would just be as they were. Que sera, sera!

A decade and a half later, with a now potent fusion of experience and realism, I am as comfortable with the measured views I can now share as I was when I entered the industry as a full brunette in 2003, and a little wetter behind my ears.

I guess it’s only fair that I qualify for everyone why this topic of counter-offers has even come up. Firstly, a counter-offer in the Recruitment world is the act of trying to persuade someone to remain with one company over an opportunity they have been presented by another. Typically, a candidate will have gone through an interview process with an external, possibly rival, company and then find themselves with an offer of employment. When faced with the prospect of handing in their resignation letter to their current employer, this is where a fork can appear in their career path that seemed so very straight-forward when that same letter was being typed-up the night before.

It was on a recent live crowdcast which I was invited to take part in, that I was first asked for my professional opinions on counter-offers for a programme that was being broadcast over the internet by the good people connected with RecruiterZone, namely Stephen O’Donnell  and Hung Lee. Fortunately for me, I had just chaired the weekly training session which we hold every Thursday lunchtime in our FPSG offices in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Each week our FPSG Recruitment Consultants discuss in an open, frank, brainstorming type of session, a topic which is very relevant to our current markets. In it we cover off challenges faced, different angles of approach, and share ideas from Recruiters new to our industry with the same value placed on those rookie snippets as what can be taken from older war tales like my own. The topic of counter-offers was alive and well, so we talked it through, with some live examples ultimately going to make or break a placement that is going to send our candidates down one prong of a fork over another. That session was real and a true reflection of why we need an approach to give good, honest, consistent advice to our candidates at a point of their life that is as important as buying a house. By taking time to think and talk about it ourselves, it doesn’t take much to recognise that our candidates should be doing the same. More on that in a moment.

This wasn’t the first time I had visited this particular topic of counter-offers, so I had some ideas of my own to share, however, first of all I wanted to listen to what the current market was throwing up to our Consultants and more importantly, how they had been handling it. The most reassuring thing that I took from that weekly training session was that the advice I had been preaching, since I first learned from bitter personal experience (it was 25th January 2004 when I lost my first candidate to a counter-offer, but the competitive side of me knows it still Burns – pun intended!), was that we absolutely should be broaching that subject of counter-offers with our candidates, for everyone’s benefit, at the earliest possible opportunity. That means, at the very start of the candidate journey. For me, this is the point when we first have a serious conversation with a job-seeker about the potential offers we can put their way, which match their skill sets. Currently, we can offer a whole host of opportunities across a diverse Client base, where in-demand skills are highly sought such as Java, DevOps, Business Analysts, Consultants, UI/UX, on both contract and permanent contracts UK-wide. When the market is as candidate driven as it is at the moment, with a real shortage of available, eligible talent to fulfil the needs of our Clients, we need to prioritise looking after the coveted candidates we work hard to build relationships with. NB…Some of the available ones are here.

When I say look after them, what I really mean is to simply be 100% honest with them. In an industry which is often tainted by malpractice, mis-information or indeed a downright lack of communication, it is the most common courtesy to be honest when managing the expectations of a job-seeker and in turn to gain enough trust to expect the same in return. Collaboration is a key FPSG value, so we live it.

When a candidate has committed to entering into a formal process, where their CV is introduced by FPSG to a potential new employer, one of the first questions I like them to answer, for our mutual benefit, is “What will you do when your current employer gives you a counter-offer and tries to persuade you to stay?”.
There are a number of classic responses that tend to come back to that question. They range from “I won’t get a counter-offer”, through to “Hmm, I never even thought of that” and “Well I’d need to give it some serious thought”, all the way to my own personal favourite….”It doesn’t matter a jot what they offer me, I have my own motivations for moving and nothing they can offer me will keep me here.”.

Let me please explain why the latter is the music to my (nowadays, much drier) ears. It is simply because it is the clearest indication from those four example answers that the candidate that we are working with is pretty sure about what they want.

The others are a wandering blend of naivety (glad it’s not just the more youthful me); to a candidate who doesn’t really seem to have thought everything through; to the one who sounds like an improved current deal will tempt them to stay exactly where they are, but then again might not!

Anyone who has good skills, like those I mentioned we are hiring for currently above, in my view should reasonably expect to be made a counter-offer. That de-bunks the whole “I won’t get a counter-offer” notion right away. If you are good at what you do, you will be exceptionally difficult, not to mention costly to replace, so why on earth wouldn’t you get a counter-offer? If you don’t get a counter-offer, well, I think you could be right that your skills are most possibly of better use somewhere else anyway.

Similarly, if you’ve never thought it could happen, then STOP! Stop right there and ask yourself what happens if it does? What is your gut instinct? Why are you even considering leaving in the first place?

In the remaining example, the thought of waiting until the end of the process to hear what the current employer might offer when you shock them into realising that you intend to move to a better option, is likely to be the most time-wasting exercise of them all. It doesn’t need to be however. By discussing it early, it should actually be the point that the penny drops with the candidate if they are a serious job-seeker, or someone that is wasting time, possibly in the hope that they get a bump up in salary or package. As an experienced Recruitment Manager, I need to trust their honesty, in the same way I have committed to be transparent and confidential with them from minute 1 of their candidate journey with FPSG. I never have an issue with a candidate withdrawing from an application at this stage. It is infinitely better for all parties now than at the end of the process. (I can just about remember the bad taste of my re-heated haggis, neeps and tatties on Burns Night 2004 after spending my dinner time explaining to a wavering candidate that they were likely about to make a decision to accept a counter-offer that they would regret, given their motivations for job-seeking in the first place).

Any job-seeker who is not prepared to have that open, honest frank conversation with themselves at the beginning of their candidate journey is destined to find themselves in a bit of a flap at the end of the process. That’s where mistakes get made and decisions that later cause regret are harvested. To put a rule of thumb on it, for as long as I can remember, the average tenure of someone who accepts a counter-offer is typically around 6 months. This was certainly the case when my phone rang in July 2004.

The reason it lasts 6 months and rarely any longer, is because the real reasons that any candidate, regardless of their skills is looking to move in the first place, is not going to be solved by an improved package. The yearning for change that they harbour, or dis-association with their colleagues or management is very unlikely to be solved by money. If someone doesn’t want to be somewhere, then they are better off not there. If all they really want is improved salary, or package, my advice is that they should simply book an appointment with their immediate superior(s) and discuss it.

At some point in a candidate journey, that open, honest, frank conversation needs to happen. It might as well be when the candidate is questioning themselves on what is right for them. If it is too difficult to have a wage-rise, or promotion, or personal development conversation with the person you will ultimately also have to resign to, then perhaps it will help in being decisive to move.

If you are a job-seeker, or a company faced with retention or recruitment challenges and wish to discuss anything in this blog, or apply for any of the jobs we have on the FPSG website  then please contact me directly on mtaggart@fpsg.com or via LinkedIn and feel free to follow me on Twitter @MTFPSG where we also flag our IT jobs, blogs and posts with the #IT_FPSG hashtag.

Author: Michael Taggart 

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