Avoiding Declined Offers and Accepted Counteroffers

In today’s frantic employment market, there are many recruiters moaning about how they would be billing top dollars if not for their “bad luck” in having their candidates either decline offers or accept counter-offers. They do this in the (mistaken) belief that their skill as recruiters had nothing to do with this state of affairs. I doubt that Roger Federer rationalizes any defeat by Rafael Nadal as “bad luck.” I suspect that Federer identifies the specific skill differential between himself and Raf and then goes about doing his best to close the skill gap. That’s what champions do – they truly understand the adage “the harder I practice, the luckier I get.”

So what’s the cause of the skill gap that has some recruiters appearing to suffer more than their fair share of misfortune at the hands of “weak” or “deceitful” candidates at the offer stage? In my experience it boils down to the recruiter not understanding the difference between candidates’ rational motivators and their emotional motivators, and how this difference affects candidates decision to stay or go when confronted with the reality of leaving their current employer.

Brain science tells us about the difference between the decision-making of the left brain (rational brain) and the right brain (emotional brain). Legendary sales trainer Tom Hopkins puts it succinctly: “Many of us try to sell our products through logic and only through logic. Remember this: seldom do people buy logically. They buy emotionally, and then defend their decisions with logic. Find ways to get them emotionally involved with your product or service.” In other words, human decision-making and, therefore, behavior is driven predominantly by emotional thought, not rational thought.

As recruiters, we are intimately involved with one of the most emotional decisions a person can make: changing jobs. Yet when I observe what recruiters typically ask in an interview, the following questions predominate:

– What salary package will you accept?
– What industry do you want to work in?
– What job responsibilities are important to you?
– How far are you prepared to travel to work each day?
– What size company do you prefer to work in?

They are all valid questions, the answers to which provide you with a sound foundation on which to assess the candidate against your current vacancies for a likely match.

However, they are only 20% of the equation. They are all left-brain questions, accessing the candidate’s rational decision-making. The missing piece of the puzzle is the questions that access where the real decision is driven from, the candidate’s emotions (right brain).

Research consistently supports what recruiters know to be true from their on-the-job experience: that the major reason for people staying in, or leaving, their job is the quality of the relationship they have with their direct up-line supervisor/manager. In other words, whether we stay or leave our employment is overwhelmingly an emotional decision. It is a natural human instinct to want to have our emotional needs met. And having them met at work is no less important than having them met at home, especially in this day and age, when it is not un-common to spend more waking hours with our boss and work colleagues than with our partner and family!

So what are these emotional needs (also known as our values) that we are seeking to have met through work? Some examples are:

– Security (think public servants)
– Challenge – mental (think tax accountants)
– Challenge – physical (think brain surgeons)
– Recognition/being valued (think salespeople)
– Love/caring (think social workers)
– Adventure (think overland tour drivers)
– Leadership (think CEOs/GMs)
– Creativity (think designers)
– Community service (think teachers)
– Independence (think authors)
– Accomplishment (potentially any job!)

The well-reported trend of people “downshifting” highlights the differences about which I am talking. Downshifters have recognized that their emotional motivators were being compromised, so they have left their current job/career (e.g., corporate executive) where their rational needs were being met (e.g., money, title) to find a job/career (e.g., teaching) more in line with their emotional needs (e.g., community service).

When an offer is on the line or a counteroffer is made, the candidate now confronts moving from the rational theory of leaving his current job (“I want a better package,” “I want to change industries,” etc.) to the emotional reality of leaving his current job (“I love the people I work with,” “My boss has invested so much in my development,” etc). Even if the emotional concerns are quelled long enough to verbally accept the offer, it’s predictable that the candidate’s boss, when being delivered the resignation face-to-face, will pull all the emotional strings she can (and a smart boss knows the emotional strings of each staff member very well!) to prevent the departure. We know what happens next. Suddenly the recruiter finds that the candidate is uncharacteristically not contactable for 48 hours, and then a one-line email drops into our inbox unemotionally announcing, for some bland reason, that “I have decided not to accept the offer from XYZ Inc.” And we’re placement-less and frustrated as hell!

So, how (as much as is humanly possible) do we avoid this scenario? The key is to follow three critical steps:

1) During the initial interview, ensure that you ask questions that will give you access to the candidates’ emotional motivators driving both their “go” and “stay” decisions with respect to work.

2) During the initial interview, and again before you put any offer to them, take the candidates from the rational thought of leaving their job to the simulated emotional reality of resigning and leaving their current job.

3) Keep checking in with the candidates during the whole recruitment process to find out whether anything has changed (at work and at home) that could significantly affect the decision to leave their current employer and seek an alternative position.

Let me explain each step in more detail.

First, we most effectively access the emotional motivators of a candidate at work by asking some, or all, of the following questions.

What part of your current job do you enjoy the most/least? Why?

What you most enjoy/not enjoy about working for your current boss? Why?

Tell me about the job that you have most/least enjoyed in your career. Why?

Tell me about the boss that you have most/least enjoyed working for in your career. Why?

Notice that these are behavioral interview questions where you are accessing the candidate’s emotional extremes (i.e., happiness vs. anger or frustration) with respect to past work situations. Remember, the candidate’s past emotional responses are the most reliable guide to future emotional responses. You may be tempted to ask some questions about the candidate’s likely future behavior. Although the answers are not irrelevant, it is important to keep in mind that these are speculative answers, based on what the candidate thinks will occur. It doesn’t guarantee that this future behavior will occur. Examples of these sorts of questions are:

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What will you miss most about leaving your current employer? (Your counteroffer warning bell should be sounding very loudly if the person answers “My manager”!)

What difficulties would you expect to be the most significant ones when transitioning from your current role to this role at XYZ Ltd?

Second, let’s drill down on simulating the counteroffer conversation at either the initial interview or after the candidate has received an offer. Because the offer is likely to be the point in the whole recruitment process where the candidate’s emotions are going to be most raw, it’s also the most vulnerable time in potentially changing the person’s mind about leaving the current employer. Knowing this, I recommend that you role-play the counteroffer conversation with the candidate. Having gained solid information about the candidate’s relationship with her current boss, reasons for leaving her current role, and primary emotional drivers at work, you should be able to effectively simulate a counteroffer conversation. The role-play allows you to watch and listen to what the candidate actually does and says in the conversation, which may be completely different from what the candidate may tell you she would do and say in such a conversation with her boss. In the role-play, be alert to all the communication coming from the candidate’s body language and voice, which will tend to give you far more accurate information about the candidate’s vulnerability to a counteroffer than anything she might actually say.

I strongly advise you to simulate a very difficult resignation conversation with the candidate (pulling the candidate’s emotional strings as hard as possible), so no matter how tough the candidate’s boss makes it in the real resignation conversation, she finds it easier to handle than your simulated conversation.

After the simulated conversation, ask permission to give appropriate feedback and coaching, in how the candidate handled the conversation, and how to handle it more effectively.

If the candidate displays significant vulnerability to a counteroffer, then be straightforward. Let him know you have major doubts about his motivation for leaving his current role. Tell him to think it over and call you back within 48 hours to tell you whether he really is serious about leaving. Either way, you cannot lose. If he calls you back to pull out of the process, then you have saved yourself (and the client) time and heartache, and if he calls back and tells you he is serious, then his commitment to leaving has just gone to a whole new level.

Third, you must be alert to any change in the candidate’s situation at work or at home that makes it more likely she will decline an offer or accept a counteroffer. Most recruiters operate under the (usually) mistaken belief that candidates will keep them abreast of any relevant changes that may impact their enthusiasm for a new job (e.g., increase in salary, new boss, partner’s parent has rapidly declining health, etc.). Although communicating with candidates may be currently very front-of-mind for the recruiter, you can be assured that for the candidates, communicating their updated circumstances with the recruiter is much lower down on their current to-do list!

The simple thing to do is to keep asking the candidate “has anything changed?” questions. I would recommend directing specific questions to the areas that were highlighted when the candidate gave you the answers to the questions you asked in (1) above. For example:

You mentioned at our initial interview that you weren’t happy with the opportunities your boss was currently providing to you. Has anything changed in this area since then?

You mentioned at our initial interview that you were feeling pressured at home, due to your long hours at work. Has any-thing changed in this area since then?

At our interview six weeks ago, you mentioned that you were having a performance review in the next month. Has that review happened? If so, did anything come out of that review that either confirmed your decision to seek a new position, or to perhaps reconsider your job search?

You might be very surprised at the answers you get, based on the (mistaken) assumption that the critical (in your eyes) piece of information you have uncovered would have been communicated to you by the candidate, without prompting.

The three things I have outlined to help you avoid declined offers and accepted counteroffers are not guaranteed to work every time. However, by the consistent application of these three steps, you should significantly reduce the “bad luck” you have in not taking candidates from being a “theoretically interested” candidate to an “emotionally committed” job seeker.

Ross started his professional recruitment career in London at the beginning of 1989. Since then he has worked in the UK and three cities across Australia. He has been professionally recognized by the designation MRCSA (Accredited Recruitment Professional), awarded by the Recruitment & Consulting Services Association (Australia & New Zealand). As a Certified Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Ross has a real skill and flair for communicating his passion for recruitment to others in a simple and powerful way. He now runs his own business as a recruitment coach and professional speaker. Ingenius Coaching, PO Box 425, Bentleigh East, Victoria, Australia 3165; Phone: 03 9563 8200; Mobile: 0423 557701.

Since commencing his recruitment career in 1989, Ross he has worked in the UK and three cities across Australia. He now runs his own business (www.rossclennett.com) as a speaker, trainer and coach, specializing in recruitment, based in Melbourne, Australia.


1 Comment on “Avoiding Declined Offers and Accepted Counteroffers

  1. I know this is a super old post but in case anyone else comes upon this as I did, I just have to comment. (even if nobody ever reads it , LOL ) I am not sure why ever article I have read both present and old like this one thinks that candidates are going to be so dumb and you will “outsmart” them with these ridiculous questions.

    Newsflash! Nobody is going to give you 100% of what you think you are so slick in extracting via questions. This is not a psychological profile test and end of the day I am simply looking for another gig. Now, I may not be 100% ready to jump ship but will usually consider seriously a valid offer. I am not your friend nor do I care if you get upset about me rejecting an offer from some company I did not like. This is business my friend so learn to take the good with the bad. I usually have more than 1 offer when I am ready to jump and will interview aggressively with many companies.

    I know this game and can pass all of your constant phone calls to “check in” and all the bullshit that you come up with . I am going to give you absolutely no signs that I may be looking elsewhere or hesitating. You are going to lie to me anyway and I can glean all I need to from the people I interview with. I know what questions to ask to get past all the idiot fronts and the usual fluff that occurs during interviews.

    Here is in fact that never changes. In the end I make the choice that I want to make without regard for what your opinion or “feeling” is since this is my career and my life. You are simply a switchboard operator that connects me to people that I need to talk to to get that next gig….

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