Subscribe
The insider's edge on job search & hiring™

Can I play one employer against another to get a better job offer?

In the February 9, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks whether it’s okay to threaten one employer with a job offer from another employer.

Question

I’m a recruiter and I want to address what happens when people are interviewing with multiple employers. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting an employer manipulateknow you’re interviewing at other companies. After all, employers acknowledge they’re interviewing more than one candidate. But I think it’s bad form to use one job offer to leverage another one.

If an offer is not what you want, just reject it after trying to negotiate a better one. But don’t threaten an employer with an offer from another employer. I had two employers pull job offers from candidates when the candidates played hardball during negotiations. They said they had other, better offers, hoping to get the employer to raise their bids. In both cases, of course, the candidates were stunned and disappointed the offers were pulled off the table. Lesson learned for them.

Do you agree?

Nick’s Reply

So, there are rules of engagement in interviews? (I know, I’m baiting you, but it’s friendly.) If there are any rules, it seems they’re all designed to benefit employers.

The double standard

I can’t think of one thing employers are expected to do out of respect for candidates.

  • They waste applicants’ time with silly screening interviews by personnel jockeys. (How is it an HR person with no engineering expertise can judge whether a computer design engineer is worth interviewing?)
  • They arrive late for interviews with impunity. (“We are very busy.”)
  • They want urine samples.
  • They leave applicants hanging for months after promising feedback “in a couple of weeks.”
  • They demand private information — social security numbers and salary history — before even meeting the candidate!

A double standard has long been in place. It’s time to remove it. Job applicants are constantly and sternly warned by HR and “career experts” about what to wear, say, not say, how to act, and so on.

  • “Don’t ask what the job pays.”
  • “Don’t tell us you’ve got other opportunities.”
  • “Don’t try to leverage a better salary.”

Think about it. Would you give your SSN to someone who asked you out on a date? Would you give them your home address, before the date? Would you agree to take a personality test before going to dinner? Of course not. Employers’ expectations are bizarre and self-serving. But there’s an intimidation factor at work: If you want to be considered for a job, learn to heel, learn to beg.

I don’t agree with you

If a job candidate believes using one employer to force another employer’s hand might work, by all means do it. You point out that employers interview lots of candidates. They often say, “We found some other very good candidates, so we’re not making a decision about you yet.”

How’s that statement any more legit than, “I’m talking to another excellent employer who is interested in hiring me, and we’re talking about a higher salary than you’ve suggested”?

On the other hand, if you don’t want to disclose that you’re talking to other employers (or who they are), then it’s also legit to decline to disclose even if you’re asked.

A job interview is a negotiation on all levels. Be honest, be polite and professional, and demonstrate integrity — but you’re not required to pull punches. (See Fearless Job Hunting, Book 8: Play Hardball After The Interview.)

If you think you can get more money by pointing out that another company has made you a better offer, then use that as leverage. Of course, be aware that you might not get a higher offer. (And please don’t confuse my advice about using one offer to leverage another with using a job offer to extort a higher salary from your current employer. See “Don’t use an offer to get a raise” in Naive young grad blows it.)

If the employer plays at being offended or appalled, move on to someone who is an adult and ready to negotiate. (See Only naive wusses are afraid to bring up money.)

Be realistic about negotiating

There is, of course, a difference between trying to leverage a better deal and threatening or offending someone. Negotiating requires tact and integrity, and it requires that you behave reasonably and realistically. Perhaps most important, you must demonstrate that what you’re suggesting will benefit both you and the employer. Never ask for more money just because you want it; show why you’re worth it. (See The Basics: The New Interview and The New Interview Instruction Book.)

As for those employers who pull offers because the candidates played hardball during negotiations, that’s the employers’ prerogative. It’s also up to candidates to decide whether those employers are worth working for. (Please note: I think pulling an offer during negotiations is very different from rescinding an offer that the applicant has agreed to accept. See Protect yourself from exploding job offers.)

Employers have a lot to lose by disrespecting job applicants. Pretending that salary doesn’t matter is just plain goofy — yet many employers act like it’s bad form to talk money before agreeing to a job interview. But, why would anyone agree to lengthy discussions if they don’t know whether the salary for the job is high enough to justify all the talking? It’s just not realistic, and employers don’t get a pass when they’re goofy.

Leverage if you want to

Telling an employer you’ve got a better deal elsewhere may not be inappropriate. Use your best judgment. There’s nothing inherently wrong in playing one option against another — employers do it every day when they interview candidates! It doesn’t make you bad or rude unless you behave badly or rudely. Money is a serious factor in doing business. Just ask the company’s CFO. It matters all the time. So, don’t let employers intimidate you into a corner. Think about your situation, and decide whether to use one employer to leverage a deal from another.

(For what it’s worth, I’ve seen employers end interviews when candidates admit they’re interviewing with other companies. That’s akin to dumping a date who says they’ve been on other dates. We’re dealing with naivete.)

For more about negotiating higher job offers successfully, see these sections of the PDF book Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers:

  • Am I unwise to accept their first offer? (pp. 8-9)
  • How to Say It: I accept, but I’d like more money (p. 9)
  • The bird-in-the-hand rule of job offers (pp. 12-14)
  • Juggling job offers (15-17)

How do you negotiate? Do you let employers impose a double standard? Are you intimidated by “employers’ rules” — or do you insist on candor in the negotiating process?

: :

31 Comments
  1. Is this guy for real? Seriously, employers play candidates off against each other all the time. That’s the interview process! Companies weigh internal candidates against external ones, diversity mandates against qualifications, and yes, salary expectations for different prospects as well. They regularly run resume solicitations when they have no existing vacancies so they can keep their talent pools populated and measure their current pay scales against the market. So the candidate is wrong when playing one employer’s offer against another? That’s the market, plain and simple. If a company knows Candidate A will do the job for less but that Candidate B has more experience, they’re going to take those factors into consideration when making a decision and will undoubtedly use it as a means to play hardball during any negotiations. (“We have other candidates who would be happy to work at this salary…”). I can understand if you’re a recruiter how this can be frustrating, but that’s part of any negotiation; and expecting candidates to essentially pull their punches while you use every means available in what remains a lopsided equation in the employer’s favor is plain and simply hypocritical.

  2. For anyone who thinks candidates should not mention other offers or opportunities, consider this:

    If a business was negotiating with your company to buy a product or service and mentioned that a competitor had a better deal, would you call them unethical and walk out of the negotiations?

    If you were a car salesperson, and a potential buyer said the dealership down the street had a better deal, would you throw that person out of your office and ban him or her from entering ever again?

    Businesses seem to relish capitalism, acting as independent economic agents seeking to maximize their returns…..that is, until employee candidates start doing the same. Then it’s bad form and inappropriate and the gravest of sins.

    Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If employers don’t want to negotiate with adults who behave both professionally and respectfully to maximize their own “returns”, then they should replace everybody with robots or close up shop.

  3. For the companies who pull offers: my bet is that your C-level people perhaps had a headhunter playing hardball on behalf of the prospective CEO before he/she got hired. So it’s ok at some levels, but not others?

  4. Solid advice, as always.

    I know once in awhile that I’ve been interviewing with 2-3 companies at the same time. Salary/benefits can easily be a determining factor when deciding to proceed on my end, especially if other things are relatively
    equal.

    If candidates are being respectful in negotiations, I do not see a problem with asking another company if they can sweeten their offer- people do it all the time in other situations like Nick points out – so the question strikes me as very naive.

  5. I lost revenue, and it’s someone else’s fault. (“I had two employers pull job offers from candidates when the candidates played hardball during negotiations.”).

    Didn’t you talk to the candidates about other potential employers that they were talking to, and the advantages of your employer? If the candidates were negotiating salaries (instead of you), didn’t you coach them beforehand?

    You can’t control everything, but you can be more aware.

  6. But would potential employers interviewing you believe you? I know so many job hunters who have lied in interviews about other offers to make themselves look more valuable I wonder if that practice is pervasive and well known.

  7. Jim’s comments are right on the spot. Was the recruiter aware of the other companies? of his candidate’s progress in the other interviewing process(es)? Did he know all of the candidates reasons for changing (it ain’t all for money unless the candidate is really being screwed? does the recruiter know the company he/she is representing well?
    Finally, it is not wise to be too tough a negotiator if the other offer is imaginary…

  8. Note that this question was asked by a recruiter, not by a job-seeker.

    In most cases, the sole concern of a recruiter or headhunter is to shove the job-seeker into the first job for which the recruiter has a contact–so he can collect a fee before another recruiter places the person, or the person finds a job on his own.

    Whether it’s recruiting or headhunting, it’s normally a volume business, under heavy time pressure. It doesn’t pay for a recruiter to spend any time trying to get the best salary for the job-seeker–much less the best job fit. The high risk of losing the entire fee outweighs the chance of getting a slightly higher percentage fee from a better salary.

    Note also that the better the candidate is, the greater the chance that the candidate will find a job before a given recruiter can place him, or a better job than the recruiter can find for him. So recruiters and headhunters don’t like it when a good candidate negotiates from strength, or is intelligently picky about what he accepts.

  9. My general rule is to tell recruiters and employers only what they need to know. Recruiters, even retained nowadays, play very cagey (won’t tell salary–I had this happen just recently, to the point where I cut the conversation short) or downright lie when asked about money, benefits and titles–except with contract spots. There it’s expected to get the terms of the deal upfront.

    The other (sad) factor is that if you are a woman and older, employers REALLY expect you to take what is given and are shocked–to the point of ending talks–when you open a negotiation. It’s a double whammy, because I hear this happening to older men too, but there’s it’s more of a refusal to negotiate than a walk-away.

  10. I have to agree with Jim, Peter and Ken from above.

    Why didn’t the recruiter know that the candidate is interviewing elsewhere and that if the client likes him/her they have to move fast and put their best offer forward? The recruiter doesn’t need to know where exactly the candidate is interviewing unless it’s their client.

    Also, why isn’t the recruiter doing the negotiations themselves?

    I also agree with the observation about recruiters not being willing to get extra salary out of fear that they will loose the client – but I think that speaks to the fact that most recruiters I have met are unable to assess the skill sets of candidates nor have good relationships with the people they are recruiting for.

  11. More self-serving BS from recruiters. Job candidates are doing nothing that employers aren’t doing. To expect a job candidate to remain silent about other offers is juvenile. If they can not afford to work for what is offered, a company should be glad for the heads up, and then it is on them, as to whether or not they up their offers to reflect market rates.

  12. *bravo* Nick
    Last year I had a reputable IT company in the Bay Area string me along for weeks. One interview (on-site) after another. Then nothing for two weeks and a last interview was performed. After ten days I get the call they had chosen a “last minute candidate we had been waiting for”. %^&*$@#
    Just five weeks ago this same senior manager out of the blue emails me (now at a different equally reputable company). “I remember you and the great interaction and background you have, would you be interested for this new opportunity?’
    I said yes
    I again interviewed. Nothing for three weeks and then was told I would have to do a 30-minute modeling test at a scheduled time. I set it up. Two days before the test I get an email telling me “Thank you for your time but we hired someone for the position and we want to keep you in mind for remaining positions on the team”
    I didn’t even get to take the test!!!
    Are these companies, management and HR for real?
    It is beyond insulting and unprofessional.
    NOONE can make this stinking pile of brown matter up.

  13. I couldn’t agree with you more, Nick. Employers hold all the cards, and feel justified in treating job candidates like cattle, parading them around for inspection before deigning to make an offer.

    During all the years as a HR executive, whenever I recruited for openings at my company, I treated candidates as valuable talent, not all of whom were a good fit for a particular job, but valuable nonetheless. I even contacted people to let them know when they weren’t selected, which, apparently, isn’t just a sign of common courtesy, but is actually a rarity.

    Candidates – by all means let employers know that you had a better offer. Negotiate on your behalf because you’re worth it.

  14. Playing one company against another works.

    So does walking away/saying ‘no thanks’.

  15. The question starts with, “I’m a recruiter”, aka, Human Resources.

    That says it all doesn’t it.

    I agree, if you feel the offer should be better, and you do have a better offer, then let them know that you’d like them to consider that an other employer (competitor) sees more value in you then they currently do. After all, you are the one bringing all the value to the table.

  16. Great timing for this question. I just got a call from a junior (6 months) recruiter from an IT recruiting company that I worked for for 2 years. I delivered two huge projects for their biggest client. Junior says they have a new opportunity for me but 1) wants me to send him 2 references before he will submit me for the job and 2) tries to talk me down on the rate I was receiving 2 years ago because I need to compete with all the other IT recruiting firms that are submitting for the position. I told him to have his manager call me.

  17. One more behavior to add to the bad-acting employer list: Bureaucrats who interview randomly as they have to justify their existence w/”MEETINGS” on their calendars (i.e. bankers).

  18. @John: “So the candidate is wrong when playing one employer’s offer against another?”

    I wrote this column because of HR’s wagging finger — “Don’t you dare suggest we’re competing to hire you! You’re lucky to get an offer!” The problem is, most of the career-advice world has jumped on this “HR Rules” wagon, and too many job seekers are holding on for dear life while the driver is trying to whip them off the rails. It’s simple: When HR threatens job seekers with “We won’t even consider you if you don’t follow our rules,” job seekers cower. They must stop.

    @Chris: Thanks for some examples that highlight the double standard. I’m glad folks here get it. Most do not.

    @Addie: Anything anyone says in a negotiation might be a lie. Bluffing is always in the air. Be careful.

    @Peter Miller: “Was the recruiter aware of the other companies?” Dissing HR folks isn’t my purpose here – but we have to consider the skills of the people doing the negotiating on the employer side. There’s really very little, if any, negotiating skill in HR. Most of the time, the attitude is, “Take it or leave it,” and “We don’t negotiate – that’s inappropriate.” (So much for all the talk about “collaborative” and “cooperative” and “win-win,” eh?) HR can do this because HR “holds the power.” They control the offer. They control the money.

    Naive job seekers don’t plan for this. Like the guy who really, really wants the red roadster he sees on the car lot, job seekers really, really want this job and they don’t have viable alternatives. When you have other options, it’s not so hard to say to HR, “Well, if you aren’t willing to discuss the terms of the hire, I’ll go elsewhere. Bye.” But when HR knows you really, really want that job, HR will use every trick in the book to prevent you from negotiating. “Money? Talking about that is unseemly. It reveals you’re not really interested in this job!” Sheesh! HR does that all the time! It’s ridiculous that people fall for it!

    That’s what this really boils down to. Job seekers must set the stage to negotiate. They must be ready to walk away. Most of the time, they’re not. They fold and complain they got screwed. You can’t get screwed if you take a strong position and are willing to say NO. You must have alternatives before you walk into that job interview, or you’re toast. HR cultivates an aura of Total Control, and job seekers unfortunately support it.

    @Ken Dezhnev: “recruiters and headhunters don’t like it when a good candidate negotiates from strength”

    It’s true. That’s why there are very few really good recruiters/headhunters out there who take this into account from the start. The best ones know that their future business hinges on good referrals from people they’ve already placed, and they will do all they can to make sure those placements are happy and satisfied. Those huge headhunting fees imply a whole lot of work to do it right, but newcomers to the business only see the big bucks – not what it takes to do the job right. That’s why turnover is so high.

    @Dee: “if you are a woman and older, employers REALLY expect you to take what is given and are shocked–to the point of ending talks–when you open a negotiation”

    The psychology of hiring is really perverse, given the “people-oriented” PR HR spouts.

    @Dave: “Also, why isn’t the recruiter doing the negotiations themselves?”

    Score 10 points for that one, my friend. Glad someone picked that up. One of the recruiters main tasks is negotiating to ensure both sides are happy. Sometimes that means playing friendly hardball. Done right, getting a good deal for both parties pays off long-term for everyone. Not everyone gets that.

    When I negotiate, I’m keenly aware of the challenge Ken refers to – the headhunter doesn’t want to jeopardize an offer altogether by trying to get a few more bucks for the candidate. This can be really hard. Any good headhunter will discuss this candidly with the candidate – “I can go back to the trough for you to get more money, but here’s the risk… let’s decide how much “more” you need, and at what point you’re willing to jeopardize an offer altogether.” The candidate and headhunter must work this out between them. The headhunter can also lose if he doesn’t get an offer bumped up by some critical amount — it’s not just that the offer might die on the vine, it’s that the candidate may walk away because the money’s not good enough. A good headhunter will address this carefully and candidly with the candidate and that employer. That’s the headhunter’s job.

  19. @Jurassic Carl: “Playing one company against another works. So does walking away/saying ‘no thanks’.”

    Hey, you just boiled down my entire column in two sentences. Cut it out, willya? :-)

    @Lynda Speigel: Thanks for a candid view from the HR side! I’d love to meet more HR folks like you? Can you get them to come join us??

    @Richard Tomkins & @CTurner: Your two comments say it all:
    “The question starts with, “I’m a recruiter”, aka, Human Resources. That says it all doesn’t it.”
    “I told him to have his manager call me.”

    Imagine how this would all work if HIRING MANAGERS did their own recruiting, and dealt with candidates themselves all through the process, rather than subbing out these tasks to robots dialing for dollars.

    I love it. “I told him to have his manager call me.” That oughta be the rule.

    • Hi, Nick! I only just saw your reply to me because you had spelled my name incorrectly (totally understandable when responding to so many comments!). I’d love to point more HR people to join you! Let’s consider collaborating on an article for LinkedIn or ReWork.

      • @Lynda Spiegel: Whoops! Sorry I got your name wrong. Please drop me an e-mail and let’s discuss.

  20. @nick: Your comment of “You’re just lucky to get an offer” strikes a chord. I still remember the face, tone, and attitude of the person who said, many years ago, “You should be grateful you have a job.”

    https://davidhuntpe.wordpress.com/2013/11/25/is-your-washroom-breeding-bolsheviks/

    And then companies wonder why people have no loyalty, have bad attitudes, steal, etc.

  21. Glad Iam retired :)

  22. @ Nick: “Any good headhunter will discuss this candidly with the candidate.”

    Aaaamen, whether the issue is salary negotiation or anything else. And the candidate will *really* appreciate it–the more so because that sort of candidness and willingness to actually work with the job-seeker is so rare. Back when I was looking for jobs or freelance gigs, I called recruiters or headhunters only during slow times or, early on, just to see what they could do. The rare ones who were candid about things like this, and willing to work for their fees, always got my very best. I wanted them to remember me for it the next time.

    To avoid risk, wasted effort, and misunderstanding, one thing a client and a headhunter/recruiter should have a firm understanding about right from the start is salary expectations. It’s not always a simple number, of course, but it shouldn’t be too complex: $XXX minimum for a run-of-the-mill job, more if I have to live someplace expensive, will go down to $XXX if I have more control, or get into a hot specialty, or don’t have to move, and so on. There may be room for just a little sounding out, but a good headhunter shouldn’t even call a good candidate unless the candidate’s stated salary expectations can be met. A good candidate shouldn’t expect that he will.

    Most headhunters, however, can’t be troubled to pay attention to even a simple number–they’ll just call the candidate for the first possibility they get that nominally corresponds to the candidate’s specialty, and try to play the HR game of treating the candidate like a humble suppliant who can’t afford to turn anything down.

    The candidate’s job, of course, is to have well-founded salary expectations, which is a whole other topic, and be up front about them.

  23. Lynda Spiegel:
    “I even contacted people to let them know when they weren’t selected…” I can remember a time (I believe it was the Mesozoic Era) when this was the norm — not the exception. (Was the dinosaur reference too subtle?)

    David Hunt, PE:
    OMG, someone else — a PE no less — knows that engineering jobs don’t grow on trees! I’ve encountered some of the same bone-headed attitudes as you have. (I’m the author of the cited reference: “http://tinyurl.com/ANTEC2000-p1920-ref8.” SPE awarded me an honorable mention for my presentation.) And I like your website.

  24. I got 2 offers on the same day and was able to negotiate a fantastic deal because of it.

    That was a good day.

    Also, is this recruiter for real? ANYONE who is in the incredibly fortunate situation of having several job offers is going to use it. It’s a rare and beautiful thing!

  25. @Ken: “Most headhunters… just call the candidate for the first possibility they get that nominally corresponds to the candidate’s specialty”

    That’s the problem with the business. Any keywords will do. I stopped counting the number of times people have told me they were sent on totally wrong job interviews.

  26. Oh yes, there is a big double standard. Employers want to know your salary history so they can play you off of other candidates–how else will they know who is earning the lowest salary? But God forbid that you do the same–that you tell them you’re interviewing elsewhere and that company xyz has not only made you an offer but has topped their salary.

    Employers do this all the time, so what is so wrong with candidates doing this? The employer is trying to get the best candidate for the lowest salary and the candidate is trying to get the highest salary for his skills. That’s life, and that’s business. Employers have had it their way for a long time now, so they’re not happy when someone refuses to take whatever they dish out. I keep hoping the job market will turn around so things are more equal, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

  27. It’s hilarious to hear an HR rep deliver the same tired advice that perpetuates the stunted and uneven playing field in the hiring process. I’ve been hiring for 20 years, and I tell my hiring managers, “Top talent negotiates. You will listen, ask questions, make a rational decision, and seek input if need be.”

    I’m more worried when I make an offer and the applicant grabs it like a life preserver. Uh-oh, what’d I miss…?

  28. @nick: I keep getting emails from recruiters based on one word in my resume. Why, it’s almost as if they had their system pop my resume and fire off an email without their actually looking to see if I was even remotely a fit!

    @Marybeth: Many years ago someone I knew hoped things would “turn around” in the screw-the-employer vs. screw-the-employee cycle – simply so he could be the one doing the screwing LAST.

    @Paul: So true. I had an interview, then they choked on my salary request (seriously, for that position, the salary they mentioned was insulting!).

    I’ll note: The job is still open 1.5 years later.

  29. @Omar:

    I have been told that I’m “abrasive” and “angry” in my essays on my blog, or on LI – same for many of my comments.

    True, I’m sometimes biting in my cynicism and sarcasm. But I keep asking these people who comment thusly “Am I wrong?”

    You guessed it. Crickets.

    For example, multiple “names” in the HR/recruiting industry have pointed out how using an ATS with key word counts can filter out EVERYONE. Yet, when I not only mention it but cite these experts as my sources… *I* am the one blamed for being uppity.

    The hiring system is broken, and nobody wants to fix it – because to fix it would mean that someone has to admit that by implementing the ATS portals in their current form, or any of multiple other bad ideas, they made a mistake. Far easier to blame the candidates.

    YET, sooner or later, when it becomes clear that the inability of companies to fill jobs is affecting the bottom line, senior people WILL look into it, WILL ask hard questions, and WILL question why things weren’t fixed sooner. And I’d pay to be a fly on the wall when that happens.

Leave a Reply