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Should I take a big counter-offer?

In the March 3, 2015 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader considers a big, fat counter-offer not to leave a job she hates for one she really wants.

Question

counter-trapI work in the financial services industry. For a year and a half, I was promised project management work but never got it. Recently I landed another job in another company — something I’ve wanted for two years. But it comes with a $6k pay cut. Then my boss made me a counter-offer, promising everything he had promised before, plus an $18k raise and a promotion to Project Manager.

It’s a big pay difference and a major promotion, and that’s the only reason I’m considering it. I could live off the lower salary with some lifestyle changes, in exchange for having a job I really want. The reason I was looking in the first place was that I am miserable at my job. It’s the wrong culture in the wrong industry working for a narcissist boss. Of course, the extra money would really help. Please help me figure this out.

Nick’s Reply

Far be it from me to tell anyone to reject an extra $18k. But I will tell you what every good headhunter knows: A counter-offer usually has hidden strings.

I discuss this at length in “What’s the truth about counter-offers” in Parting Company | How to leave your job, (pp. 50-52):

“To a company, a counter-offer is sometimes a purely pragmatic tactic that enables it to sever a relationship on its own terms and in its own good time. That is, companies use counter-offers defensively. A company would rather have a replacement employee lined up, and a counter-offer buys time. The extra salary offered may be charged against the employee’s next raise, and the work load may increase. The employee is a marked man (or woman).”

In other words, there’s a good chance your boss is keeping you until he can find a replacement.

Of course, I could be wrong. Your boss may have seen the light. Even so, you must ask yourself, why didn’t your boss do the right thing before you announced you’re leaving?

You refer to lots of things that make you unhappy with your employer. The extra money would be nice — and I’d never blame you for taking it. But if this deal is designed to cover the job until they find someone new for less money, will you be on the street soon without another job waiting for you?

Again: Why didn’t your boss do this before you signaled you were leaving? Will any of the other problems you describe be corrected by this counter-offer?

I don’t get the feeling you went looking for a new employer because you wanted your boss to counter. But if you had, here’s the strategic advice I’d have given you, also from Parting Company:

“Before considering a job change, ask yourself if you would consider a counter-offer. If the answer is yes, identify exactly what changes you would want in your current employment and compensation and try to negotiate these with your boss before you step out. If there’s nothing you really want, then you’re ready to move on. (See “Learn to Move On,” p. 31.)”

It seems you already tried this, when you asked your boss for a job change and a raise. I know this is a very loaded question, but, why didn’t he give you what you asked for when you asked for it?

I think you know what you should do. The hard part will be deciding whether you can forgo all that extra money to have a job you really want, working with people you respect, in a healthier environment.

These are all things to consider. I wish you the best.

Would you take the counter-offer, or the job you really want? Am I too heavy handed with the risks of counter-offers? Have you ever gotten burned by one — or has a counter paid off for you? More important, what other factors would you advise this reader to consider?

(The reader who submitted this question has let me know what she decided to do and why. I’ll post the outcome as the discussion takes off! UPDATE: After letting our community post comments for a while… I’ve posted what the reader told me she decided to do, in bold down below in the comments… along with some additional information that she shared about her boss… Gotta give her credit for handling this so well!)

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49 Comments
  1. i like Nick’s response and will add one thing from an executive standpoint. Trust and culture are very important and money can’t replace them. While it is possible that your employer felt safe and wasn’t in a hurry to fix your comp, broken promises are a warning sign. Good leaders will be straight with you and even help you find another job if they cannot meet your career goals. I know there aren’t many of us like that, but trust and a strong culture is what retains talent. Find that and you be rewarded many times over.

  2. I think you already answered your own question. “I am miserable at my job. It’s the wrong culture in the wrong industry working for a narcissist boss.”

    The extra money would be nice for a while, but you would still be working in the wrong culture, wrong industry and have a narcissistic boss. In my mind, extra money is never worth your peace of mind.

  3. Nick nailed it. A counter offer is rarely a good move, especially if you’re miserable. Take the other job, and you’ll flourish. Go be amazing for someone like Dave (above) – they deserve your talents.

  4. Taking the counter offer is career suicide. You’ll take the counter offer, the window closes on the new deal and that’s when the fun begins. Your workload will increase to the point were it’s not manageable and you are no longer effective. Forget being P.I.P.’ed. You will eventually leave on your own and ask yourself “what happened?”.

  5. First off, I really enjoy the weekly note from you, Nick. I appreciate your passion for improving the entire job hunting, recruting and hirng process. I have followed your suggestions, many times.

    Now, I have always felt that once a person makes a decision to leave, they should go through with it. I have been on both sides of the desk in this situation.

    People usually start looking because they aren’t enjoying what they are doing and don’t see any chance that it will improve.

    Based on the writers description of her current situation, no matter how much money they offer, she should leave. First she doesn’t respect her boss, which means the boss hasn’t done anything to earn it. Second, if the only way to get the manager to deliver on a commitment is to hurt his/her bottom line, then the manager looks at the employee as disposable. Third, the manager will probably retaliate at some point and find a way to terminate the writer for cause, resulting in a black mark on the writer’s reputation. It’s always, always best to leave on your terms not theirs.

    As a manager, when someone comes to me saying they have accepted another offer, I know that either I’ve not met their expectations or the company hasn’t. A counter offer isn’t going to change that because the employee usually won’t divulge the true reason for leaving. WIthout that dialog, I can’t fix the problem since I don’t know what the real problem is.

    While we will counter offer, it is a defensive move because loosing people costs our customers and our business. The only way a counter offer works long-term is if the manager takes the initiative to find out what really caused the person to begin looking and then to address it.

  6. While working with another company, I had a boss who once told me: “Never accept counteroffers, when you do you are showing the company that you could be the first one to go.” The conversation came in the context of when he accepted the job who will ultimately put him as my new boss, it made good sense to me (he has rejected a very generous counteroffer from the company he just left); that conversation was an eye opener way back then.

  7. I’ve taken a job for more money, and it worked out poorly. I’ve accepted a counter offer, and it worked out well. But in both cases, and over many intervening years, I’ve learned that money is not what it’s all about. What it’s all about is found in Proverbs 3:5-6.

  8. Money job people

    Strive to make all three great.

    Two out of three ok

    Less than this, leave.

    Outside of the counter offer issue, it’s time to move our person of the week

    Good luck!!

    Dave…I’m proud of the fact that I made this realization about “good leaders” for myself 7 years ago. I called it the “hats off ” talk which happens once a quarter with my employees, where we talk about how I can help you get to where you want to go in 5-10 years.

    Funny. I never have to use recruiters to find candidates.

  9. Don’t take the counter offer. It won’t end well. The problems there won’t go away with the salary increase they are offering. The salary reduction at the new position will work itself out as you do well and gain some new experiences and accomplishments. This will propel you to the next great thing, wherever that might be…the new employer, another one down the road or when you start your own business. Good luck!

  10. The original poster said: ” I am miserable at my job. It’s the wrong culture in the wrong industry working for a narcissist boss.” Is $18k really worth being miserable? I know it wouldn’t be for me. Being happy is worth infinitely more than any dollar amount in daily life satisfaction, health benefits and other countless ways.

  11. I noticed that Nick asked a few times why your boss did not hear you when you asked for project management responsibility and a bump in salary.

    You made your interest known and your boss chose to ignore it until you were going to leave.

    They know you are unhappy. If the culture and job are a wrong fit, it is time to move on.

    This question could have been written by me because I have been asking the same thing at my job–the request has fallen on deaf ears. I’m in a program now to learn a new and needed skill, and plan to leave toward the end of this year because this job no longer fits–I’ve outgrown it, as I suspect you have with your job or else you would not have been looking.

  12. Be happy and move on – don’t stay in a toxic environment. Good things will come from the new job which will far outstrip any financial gains by staying at a job where you are miserable working for a narcissist.

    Go on, DON’T take the money and run!

  13. The counter-offer fixes the money, but the writer didn’t say that the money was making him/her miserable. The writer used the word “miserable” and not about the salary. The counter-offer cannot fix this situation. Time to go.

  14. I wonder how many counter offers are simply a deflective response from the manager who refuses to see his/her inability to be a manager?
    I see too many good employees becoming managers as a reward or tenure recognition. WHY?!?!?!? They were great as a specialist! Why give them a completely different job? “Manager” is more administrative and less technical.

  15. I’m in a similar spot. I’ve been asking for a job title change and more money for a year+. I did get a promotion last year, but I’m still assigned to a support role when what I’m doing is consulting work and my peers are still making $20K more than I am (even after the 15% raise).

    I’m earning a masters this May, which will be my firm’s last opportunity to make things right. Otherwise, I’m moving on.

    I think the reader all ready knows the right answer to her question. She was promised PM work for 1.5 years and nothing materialized. Even with the pay increase, there is no guarantee that her job will change – especially for the better. Her manager has given her no reason to trust his word. Why should she believe his promises now?

    If it were me, I’d take the new job and not look back. A fresh start without the bad culture and lack of trust is well worth the $6K pay cut.

  16. I would agree that 99% of the time, taking a counter is a bad move. I could see some rare instances where it could be a decent move but in general, it may create problems in the long run.

    I agree with Kev’s comments above. It seems that there is a bias towards promoting people, that someone may get promoted just because they are there, not because they are any sort of a leader.

    As far as money goes, at some point you’ll get diminishing returns. In other words, if the bills are being paid and you’re able to put some money away, then why deal with the stress?

  17. It may be the lack of respect that’s most making you miserable. The counter offer is a sign that they do have some degree of respect for you. I had a similar situation a few years back. I negotiated a $15,000 signing bonus with no strings attached, a $5,000 raise for the current year and a $20,000 raise after one year. I explained the signing bonus was less than they’d pay a recruiter, and it allowed me the flexibility to search for a new position if things went sour. The strategy worked and I stayed at the company for three additional years, and then went to the firm I initially planned to move to, for additional compensation. But, this only worked because I negotiated a no-strings signing bonus.

  18. It’s NEVER supposed to be just about the money. If it is, this person has a lot more self-reflection and introspection to do than just thinking about the job.

  19. In a recent talk at the Y’s Career Forum, Nick said if the job is broken, don’t accept it – and, I will continue with this thought and say it would also apply to current positions. The current position is broken and there were good faith attempts to fix it. Seriously question the motives behind management’s offer. None of them sound like respect.

  20. If the other job is the right culture in the right industry and the boss is great, that is, it is something you are really happy about, then go. If it is just something that gets you out of your current situation, then maybe consider accepting the counter offer. And then keep searching for somewhere else to go that is the right job and not just an escape. Two questions though. Are you worth the 18K increase? If so, then that will help you to get a good salary in your future search. If not, it will kill your opportunities as you will be seen as too expensive to even consider or it will make future offers seem too low to consider. And that will have you stuck where you are and the extra money will not make it worthwhile.

  21. Good answer as usual, Nick.

    The bottom line here is that people don’t change suddenly, especially with no reason to.

    She knows what this boss is like. He is “narcissistic” according to her own words, and he doesn’t keep his promises unless she has something to hold over his head and threaten him with. Is she planning to come up with a new threat every time there’s something she needs from him? Because he’s just shown that that’s what it takes to get him to make necessary changes.

    So she can lower her salary and get a job she likes, in an industry she likes (and it’s not as if the boss could change the industry for her even if he was willing to, so she’d be stuck completely on that one), with people she can respect; or she can get $18K more and a title she had to extract from the boss with thumbscrews, and a narcissistic boss who doesn’t keep his promises unless you’re prepared to blackmail him for them.

    Even if she *weren’t* likely to be at risk of getting screwed over by the old boss and company now that they know she’s a threat to leave — and if Nick says she is, I believe it — that’s still not a good situation to be in.

  22. P.S. Can’t wait to see what she actually did. When can we, Nick? Pretty please? :D

  23. Great comments on this story! A couple of people have mentioned that counter-offers can sometimes work out well – and I agree. I’ve seen cases where a counter was extended and accepted it it worked out well all around. But that requires a lot of integrity from all involved. In general, I think if you’re serious about making a move, then decide up front that you’re not going to accept a counter. If you feel otherwise, then you need to go work things out with your boss before you start looking outside.

    There have been so many comments that I’m going to wait a bit before posting the original reader’s outcome as she described it to me. I don’t want to color anyone’s comments just yet! But I promise to post it.

  24. Nick, I’d like to counter your intention to wait…
    LOL

  25. I left my last company after trying very hard, within the system, to get more responsibility very similar to your reader as I had recently earned my PMP (project management certification).

    When I gave my resignation the VP of IT was scrambling to create a counter offer. The VP of HR told me “I will not insult you by offering a counter – you have handled this very professionally, and I wish you the best.”

    I had decided before I resigned I would not accept any counter offer, if there was one.

    I know there are exceptions – but once you “threaten” to leave, I feel they will expect you to leave in the future. Also, if they cannot further your career/pay without the “threat” of your leaving – what is going to happen at the next level?

    I second Naomi, I look forward to the reader’s decision!!

  26. @Kathi–I face the same situation now that you did at your last company. Earned the PMP and am going to become certified in Agile. I have asked and asked for more responsibility but to no avail. So, like you, I too have decided that when I leave, no counter offer will keep me there.

    I look forward to hearing what the reader did–stay or go.

  27. Yeah, generally it seems that accepting a counter-offer is not a great idea. The big exception that I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone address: if the problem really WAS money. If you love your work, and they just aren’t giving you the money you want, and then counter-offer with a substantial raise, then it might be worth taking. I’ve known people in this situation; sometimes, the manager’s hands are tied (by someone acting silly higher-up, no doubt)until the person is actually trying to leave.

  28. Kudos for another excellent Q&A, Nick!

    Sure, more money often sweetens the pot, but as per the letter writer’s own statements, the issues she has with them are as much if not more about the narcissist boss, disconnect between her values and her professional needs and desires, and the fact that her employer did not keep their word to her as it is about money. An $18K is not an insignificant amount, so if they can pay her now, plus honor their forgotten promise of making her a PM, then what has changed other than her giving her notice? Does she think the culture and the narcissist boss will change once she is in her new role? She’s unhappy with more than her old salary and job, and I have to agree with the others who advised her to walk away. The only thing that will change will be that she will feel obligated to tolerate more of the same narcissist boss and culture that doesn’t suit her, and the employer will feel that she owes them because they’re paying her. And, as others noted, now that they know that she’s looking for other opportunities, they might be more likely to let her go as soon as they find another disposable cog, but someone who will work cheaper.

    A $6K pay cut–ouch, but she wrote that she could live on it if she makes some lifestyle changes. Honey, I’d bail (wouldn’t accept the counter offer) if I were you. Take the job that pays less IF you think you’re going to be happier there, if you think there’s a better cultural fit, if you think/know that your boss will be a better boss. You can learn a new job and new skills, then parlay that into a promotion (hopefully new company promotes from within/honors its promises) or use it to secure a better job with a higher salary. If you couldn’t live on the salary offered, then it would be a different matter and a different discussion.

    I, too, am looking forward to reading about what she decided to do. Please don’t keep us in suspense too much longer, Nick!

  29. Run, don’t walk from the old position and embrace the new one!

  30. It should always come down to whether you love what you are doing or not? The old saying
    “Money does not buy happiness” Well it does to some extent but loving what you do will bring new opportunities within the culture of the new company and role. If your goals and work are valued, opportunities will present itself.

    The old company made a mistake. Don’t reward them now. All the above comments are accurate and do not need repeating.

    Stick to your gut and why you left in the first place. It is usually correct!

  31. I was in the wrong culture, wrong industry and a pompous narcissistic boss. In addition, while pontificating from the heights of hills of moral superiority, (slightly before the age of HIPPA) he reviewed every doctors report in our self funded health plan that he, of course, managed.

    Not surprisingly, he came to find out that I had been into the ER with what appeared to be a heart attack, and after much testing, a report was issued. While I had every symptom, the doctor could find nothing physically wrong, and that I likely had workplace stress.

    Of course, no one would dare have workplace stress at this owner’s company, and I was shortly thereafter dismissed. Cashiered. Fired. Kicked to the curb. You get the idea.

    My next physical, a mere three months later, showed I still had a clean bill of health, and all my stress symptoms were gone as well.

    Leave. Now. The money is not worth it.

  32. One check is use is to think through the “grass is greener on the other side” check.

    Sometimes a new company, a new boss and a new job can look better at the employment interview then they turn out to be once you start working there.

    But when we face a salary cut at the new job, and we still think everything else is right, I’d say go for it. An additional 18K does not turn a miserable job in a misfit environment into a great job in a great environment.

  33. I agree with the main thrust of the comments. The writer should leave.
    I’m in the middle of an experiment along these lines. I’m close enough to retirement, and have enough money saved, to leave any time. But I like the job. But due to various factors I’m not happy with my recognition. So, I told my boss that I might be retiring soon, which caused a problem because no one else knows my stuff, and hiring someone to replace me will take a while. So I got a counter-offer to retirement, which will come through, maybe, in a few months. We’ll see. It is a no lose proposition for me since retirement will always be there, delaying is good since I save more money, and I’m not miserable. They are not going to fire me, but if they give me money to leave without suing them I also win.
    Any thoughts, Nick?

  34. Ok — I held off on posting what the person who submitted the question told me she decided to do. I didn’t want to turn off anyone who might have suggested taking the counter was a good idea. But, Man, no one suggested that! Even with $18k in the balance! You guys rock, and I agree with you!

    So here’s what she wrote back to me… I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, but you may want to punch a wall when you read more about her boss…

    : :

    The counter-offer was clearly made to keep me here during a transitional time for the company. The first thing he [the boss] said is that I should’ve told him I was leaving a week earlier — and he would have retained another employee that he fired. He said he could only keep one of us, and it’s now my fault he had to fire her. [Got that?? Sheesh! -Nick]

    I have decided to leave and take the new job. At least I’ll have a job I really want, even if I do get paid much less. I am constantly bombarded by co-workers who tell me I should stay and that I’m making the wrong decision to leave. My manager has suggested they talk to me. [Again, got that?? Double sheesh! This guy is quite a slug! -Nick] The money difference is huge. But I am obviously not respected here and that weighs on my career confidence.

    I have 4 more days left at this job. I hope I made the right decision.

    : :

  35. $6k is nothing. Their word…and your satisfaction… that’s everything.

    They didn’t follow through the first time, there is no reason to believe they’ll do it the second.

    If it were me, I would take the new job, and plan on making it up based on good performance. If you were concerned about $6k, then you might let the new employer know about the counter offer you’re turning down…but not as a request for a sweeter deal; rather, to let them know how much you value their working conditions, and to set your hopes for growing their business.

    What I wouldn’t do is try to lever the new firm for the $6k, holding the counter offer as a fallback. You’ll be unemployed in 6 months by the old firm…or somehow screwed when they fail to come through on a promise.

    Trust your first instinct, which was to leave.

  36. Hmmm. I DID read this at 0500…$18k vs. $6k?
    OK, I guess I goofed. But still, the principle holds. It’s not the money.

  37. The counter offer was made to keep you there during a transitional time. Question: Would that counter offer have been made if this was not a transitional time? I say probably not.

    Coworkers are constantly bombarding you with pleas to stay. Why? What does it matter to them if you leave or stay? Or, is this your soon to be former boss using others to convince you to stay.

    I find all these pleas to empty. If you were truly valued, there would have been the raise and promotion long before, not after you gave your resignation.

    I think you made a good decision to leave and I wish you the best at your new job.

  38. I think the other thing to remember is that there’s more than two jobs in the entire world. I agree with all the advice here, but if the new job turns out to be less than ideal, use those effective job-hunting skills to find something even better! Best of luck!

  39. The other issue I thought about yesterday after I posted my previous comment was that the letter writer has no reason to trust that her current employer will honor their counter offer. Past history and past behavior on their part suggests otherwise: they made her an $18K higher salary, plus the job and title of PM to retain her. But they haven’t been honest or ethical with her in the past–didn’t keep previous promises, so what would prevent them from doing the same here, i.e., reneging on both the $18K in additional salary and the new job?

    @Jim: Both figures are correct, but it is the NEW job that pays $6K less than what she is currently earning and it is $18K that her current employer counter offered to her to get her to stay in the job in which she is unhappy for reasons other than salary.

    She wrote that she can live on salary offered by the new employer, even though it is less than what she is making now, by making some lifestyle changes.

    I also think that it is possible/probable that the narcissist boss and employer only made the counter offer to keep her around long enough to tide them over the transition, i.e., until she trains her replacement, who probably won’t even be making what she is currently making, minus the $18K sweetener/counter offer.

    And if she decides that the new job isn’t everything she thought it would be, she’s not married to it either, unless there is an employment contract that stipulates she will work there for x amount of time. She can leave them too.

    At my last job, our dean lost over $600,000K of our profits (profits the program I ran generated, by the way). I ran the program so smoothly (too smoothly perhaps), so when her business office decided to terminate staff, they thought I didn’t do anything because the program ran so smoothly. Unlike the last staff member they let go (let her go then belated realized just how much she did and how essential her job was to th

  40. the school and didn’t realize how long it would take a new person to learn and do her job even a fraction as effectively as she did), when I was targeted, they decided to be “smart” and have me train a temp (my replacement) “in every aspect of my job and in all of my job duties”. To their minds, what’s not to love? They get rid of me (the higher paid employee, though by far not the highest paid staff member in the school) and get a temp, trained by me, to do my job at one quarter of my salary and no benefits. A win-win, to their way of thinking. Had I stayed, I would have been there only long enough to get the temp up to speed. The letter writer’s current employer could very well do the same to her, and choose not to honor their promises of an additional $18K in salary and different job. Good for her for bailing.

  41. @Dave: kudos to you for being a different kind of manager. I wish there were more like you out there.

  42. Never look back. Your new opportunity sounds awesome and the money will come eventually. You can’t be wealthy if you’re not healthy. Don’t forget to leave skid marks in the parking lot when you leave those morons.

  43. Run Forrest Run…

  44. Many great comments… one I haven’t seen is this: Leaving is a “no brainer” (I think all involved here know that), but perhaps writer can negotiate a portion of the $6k shortfall to lessen the pain?
    Talking to new employer about wanting to be there but worth a slightly higher salary could do the trick.

    My similar situation: current employer offered me $x and when I reiterated my range (about 10-15% higher), employer came back and offered me additional 10%, based on the skill set I brought to the table… writer can probably do similar to lessen the $6k pain. Most companies should be able to absorb $3k-$4k for a good fit employee.

  45. One comment that goes without saying. If you were worth $18K more to your employer today than you were yesterday…. how come it took you to quit to get that money?????

  46. First of all, this is an excellent article, and one of my favorite “logic puzzles” in the field of recruiting. I totally agree that counter-offers should never be accepted, since those that choose to accept them are usually gone within 6 months (80%). If the time-span is extended to a year, that goes to about 90% turnover rate.

    I’ve had my own candidates accept offers that literally doubled their income from their current bosses, only to still leave within six months. It’s usually the person who accepted the counter-offer who is the first to be laid off, as well.

    In 26 years as a recruiter, I have seen very few counter-offers work out well. One counter-example I can offer is someone I placed who had over 100 patents. He was able to wrangle a counter-offer and is still with his old company, six or seven years later… he’s actually a good friend, too, and a great guy all around. So, there are exceptions.

    Before you expect to be the exception, ask yourself “Am I that 1 in 100 people who can make a counter-offer work?” Then, act accordingly.

  47. Curious whether original poster changed career or made lateral move. If the latter, are pay cuts for such the new norm?

  48. I once worked for a place that needed specific talent for an open position. A friend and former co-worker of mine from a previous employer was a perfect fit, so I asked him if he’d like to apply. He did and I gave him a great reference.

    He interviewed well and we made him an attractive offer. He took it to his current employer and used it as leverage for a counter offer. He accepted their counter offer, leaving my company a little bitter and me looking stupid and naive.

    I still consider him a friend, but keep him at a bit of arm’s length and won’t offer him any more jobs.

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