Counter the Counter Offer – Before It Is Given!

In horror movies, the lights go out, the thunder crashes, and the actor who we all refer to as “the idiot,” walks into the room where the sound of a buzz saw and screaming was just heard. In staffing and recruiting, you get that exact same feeling when you get a telephone call from the candidate who has accepted an offer from you one week ago. They leave a message saying that they “have to talk to you,” it is “real important.” Nobody has to tell you, you know already. It is a counter offer. Suddenly you wish all you had to worry about was a homicidal maniac with a buzz saw. If at this moment you realize that you never once discussed, counseled, or spoke to the candidate about counter offers, well, there is a new victim in this movie. But we will be nice and refrain from using the term “idiot.” It is said that you cannot “un-ring a bell.” Believe me, you may not be able to un-ring a bell, but you will be amazed how fast you can “un-spend” a commission from your agency, or a compliment from your hiring manager. For the last couple of weeks a lot of time in the Forum has been dedicated to discussing the “evil counter offer.” There has been some good data and some myth busting. But let’s look at the situation, top to bottom. Counter offers are the nightmares of agency and corporate recruiters alike. To the agency recruiter – there is a lost fee. To the corporate recruiter – you have to run into the hiring manager’s office and tell them not to worry if the PC for the new employee takes a couple of more weeks to arrive, “Gotta go. Bye” – slam – run. We all hate them, counter offers, they make us look bad or cost us money. So what can you do about it. ITEM ONE: If you wait until there is a counter offer to mention it, it’s already too late. In the fourth quarter, it is a far better situation to have a 10 or 12 point lead, than a history of recoveries. In poker, hope you draw four aces, but bet knowing that it will only be “trip-threes.” Always be polite to people with “skull and cross bone” tattoos, and always, always assume the candidate you are shaking hands with for the first time will get a counter offer. One of the reasons for an interview is to see what is making a person leave their current employer. Because that is exactly what the counter offer will be on that fateful day. If a candidate tells you he/she is underpaid and was not given a deserved promotion, the counter offer will be a pay increase to go with that fancy new job title. How do you know this is going to happen? Well, on the day they gave notice to their boss, they told him/her the same thing they told you. If the company wants to keep the employee, the counter offer will contain elements of what the employee said is lacking in their current situation. You had plenty of advance warning, use it. ITEM TWO: Prepare the client or hiring manager during the offer process for the likelihood of a counter offer. When you set up the offer meeting with your client or hiring manager, tell them the truth. Let’s try that again for effect, tell them the truth. If a counter offer is made after your offer, and you want to keep the commission or the closed requisition credit, prepare the client or hiring manager on the very real likelihood that this candidate will get a counter-offer. The candidate has a greater value than their current salary, probably more than the new offer. A prepared manager is more likely to counter-the-counter offer than a surprised one. Or more importantly, an angry one. ITEM THREE: Be clairvoyant, predict the future for the candidate. Too many recruiters do not talk about counter offers because they think if they do not bring it up, nobody else will. However, by seeming so experienced that you can accurately predict the future for the candidate will impress them and lend weight to your words. “Don’t be surprised when everything you wanted for the last 6 months suddenly appears when you resign! Too bad you had to hold a gun to their head to get what you deserved. Now, let’s see if we can find a company that appreciates your potential now!” These words will echo in the candidate’s head as they are given their counter offer. The value of the counter-offer is diminished by your advanced warning. It is like a good “I told you so.” ITEM FOUR: Do not take Counter Offers personally. Candidates who accept counter offers are not low lives, ungrateful, foolish or “doomed.” They are people who were made a better offer. If you are selling your home, are you obligated to sell to the first, or the best offer? What really has made us angry about counter offers is what they have done to US, not what may or may not happen to the candidate’s career. The candidate in question has been offered money to continue to show up where they had already been showing up for years. If you get angry, you will get sloppy, even hostile, and any hope of dealing with the situation is gone. If you were a car salesperson and a potential buyer came back and told you the deal was off, you do not tell them how shocked and disappointed you are, you SELL. But you cannot sell your personal anger. Put it away. ITEM FIVE: You cannot counter a better deal, so do not try and sell candidate’s bad deals. All too often in staffing we consider the best opportunity for the candidate to also be the one that closes the requisition or makes us the biggest or fastest fee. If you have set up quick and easy interviews, focused on your easy clients, or just did poor matching, you probably have lost already. If you have presented the candidate with a better career opportunity, you may be able to sell around the money. But, if you did your job badly, you’re cooked. Save the offer by making it the right offer, for a good opportunity. Not the one that was merely best for you. ITEM SIX: Do not turn a counter offer into a bidding war. Do not assume that the fact that a candidate has come back with a counter-offer means they have to be “bought.” Have some empathy. They just want to make sure they are not bought cheap. They still may feel your opportunity, or your client’s, is the best. However, if they get the best opportunity, and get paid a couple of dollars more a year, is it wrong for them to bargain? If it were you, would you say, “No, keep the 5K, you are offering me plenty as it is!” Yah, right. Often, I find that by going to the manager or client and seeing if we might have a few extra thousand in petty cash, or a hiring bonus, a little stock, whatever is feasible to make the offer better, is enough. That is provided we are a good opportunity, fairly presented. Tell the candidate the truth. That you honestly felt your offer was initially fair. That you feel you offer the best long-term alternative. But, to keep money from having too much influence we will match, or come a close as possible, to the counter-offer. It sends the signal that you are trying to be fair and equitable and that there is no more money to be had by continuing the process. ITEM SEVEN: We try and make the candidates believe they will be hurt in the long run, but they know it is ourselves we are worried about. All the data concerning counter-offers has been complied, analyzed, reviewed and reported by us, the people who are hurt by them. Therefore, we often fail to see the flaws in our arguments. For example, candidate “A” is making 45K a year. They get an offer for 47K a year and then a counter offer from their current employer for 49K a year. They stay, but end up leaving six months later. We would point that out as proof that counter-offers are not good. But, if you do the math, candidate “A” during those six months picked up an extra 2K for the same job they were doing, and went back into the job market six months later with a base salary 4K higher than it was when they started. If you are a 1990s profile employee who has long given up hope for a 25-year job with a gold watch – this was a successful exercise in marketing themselves. If you want to succeed in getting people to stop focusing on money, try finding the value in their making the right decision. Stay off the old lines about evil counter-offers, we are the only ones who still believe them. We are not social workers. The people who come to us in the staffing process have lives and obligations outside our mission. The biggest thing that bothers us about counter offers is that is messes up our plans. Be honest with yourself about your motivation for countering the counter-offer and be honest with the candidate. If you prepared the candidate, did your job well and to the best of your ability based on your understanding of the candidate’s needs and not your own, you will probably overcome the counter-offer crisis. If you failed in the above, then it isn’t the counter-offer that is making you lose hirers. Is it!

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Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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