Why You Should Never Counter a Counteroffer

With the national unemployment rate sitting at four percent and certain tech and business skills in particularly high demand, it’s a job seekers’ market. That means candidates are routinely offered counter offers by their current employers desperate to hold on to valuable employees. But here’s one thing I’ve learned in the course of starting and growing six businesses: you should never counter a counter.

Is their word really as strong as oak?

I understand the impulse to counter a counter can be hard to resist. I was recently tempted myself when my head of sales told me that a talented sales pro we had made an offer to was considering sticking with his current company after receiving a counter. I knew my head of sales was working long hours, doing the work this new hire would take over, and I wanted to help him out. So I got on a call with the candidate. But before I started pitching him on our company, Vertex, and the role, I asked him, “Have you accepted the counter?”

“Yeah, verbally I have,” he answered.

Now, this is a guy who had told us earlier his wife was teary-eyed with happiness when he told her he was leaving his current position because the culture and working conditions were so bad. A guy who, when we warned him he would likely receive a counter, told us, “No, I’m in. My word is as strong as oak.”

At that point I retracted our offer, wished him well and said goodbye. As much as you need to fill seats when your business is growing fast…

Culture is more important than filling seats.

You may desperately need someone in the role, but what does it say about a candidate if they try to start a bidding war among companies? First, it shows they don’t truly believe in your product and your mission. If someone is coming to a hyper-growth business, they should be excited about getting on the rocketship, not the short-term financial gains.

Second, the word of the candidate I described above was clearly not as strong as oak. If you truly value integrity as a leader, a candidate’s behavior should count for something. Refusing to counter a counter sets a tone for your business’s culture. It shows your team you’re not just paying lip service to your vision, mission, and values. And that’s important because your culture really is the most important part of your business.

Having great people and a strong culture sets you up for success, no matter what business you’re building. It also means that even if you do run into challenges and have to pivot or even fold your current company and move on to something new, you’ve got a group of people that can move on to the next thing with you.

That’s why resisting the urge to just fill positions is so essential. It takes discipline when you think you’ve found the perfect candidate, but any person who expects you to counter a counter is far from perfect. There are always other possibilities out there, and you’re better off waiting for someone who truly fits the culture, who is a team player, who sees the vision, and wants to be part of it even if that might mean a few thousand dollars less in their pocket every year.

A word of caution for job seekers

Countering a counter is a bad idea for leaders, but I should add that I think getting into this sort of back and forth is usually a bad idea for job seekers too. Word gets around, especially in small markets like Iowa, where my company is based. The recent candidate who tried to play my business and his current employer off each other now has 40 or so Vertex employees—potential future colleagues and bosses—who have big questions about his character and who might be reluctant to work with him going forward.

Even if a series of counters ends up landing you a raise, the end result is rarely worth the bump in salary. By showing you’re unreliable, you’ve exposed how much losing you will put a strain on the business. Your boss might give you a little more money to avoid that short-term pain, but in the longer term he or she is going to mitigate that risk by reducing your responsibilities. You’ve effectively put a ceiling on your career at that company, and in six months you’re going to be even less satisfied than when you went looking for a new job the first time around. Only now your reputation with your network will have taken a significant hit.

Getting into back and forth offers and counteroffers is terrible for companies. It’s even terrible for candidates. That’s why, despite how tempting it can be in the current market to grab talent at any cost, resist playing the counteroffer game.

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