The pros and cons of accepting a counteroffer


Dear Joan:

After college I worked for a small family business for two years and then elected to move on. Upon my resignation, the owner made the comment, “We could buy you out of this decision.” My decision to leave was not based on money, so I still elected to move.

After two years at my second employer, the situation at my first employer changed, to the point where they needed someone. The first employer contacted me and made me an offer I could not refuse. I have been on my second stint with my first employer now for seven years.

I am now looking at options to move on again; a promotion beyond the small, family business. What, if any, is a good way to handle the possibility of the family offering to “buy me out of this decision”?

Is it unusual for a perspective employee to go back to a potential employer, after an offer has been made and/or accepted and say, “My current employer doesn’t want me to go and has countered your offer?”


Consider this analogy: Imagine that you have been in a committed relationship for several years. Your partner announces that she has been pursued by someone else and she is considering leaving you to join him. He can offer her a richer lifestyle, so in an effort to keep her, you offer her a pricey diamond necklace, to entice her to stay. Even if she stays, you will always have the nagging doubt in your mind about her loyalty. If she was tempted once, she’ll be tempted again. If she leaves for the richer offer, the new boyfriend will also doubt her real commitment. Either way, both suitors will question her loyalty—she may leave for the next highest bidder.

Okay, I know it’s a bit of a stretch to compare a personal commitment to a business commitment, but employers can take some employee departures quite personally. In some extreme cases, I’ve even seen business owners and managers react bitterly, as if the person betrayed their trust and is a traitor for leaving them to work somewhere else. Although that seems a bit bizarre in this free agent marketplace, people are still people, especially when close working relationships are formed.

Even if a counter offer is made and accepted, it often doesn’t sit well. For example, in one organization, the company was desperate to keep a key employee, because he knew so much about their technical system. They made a counter offer and he stayed. The company realized their vulnerability if he left, so they immediately contracted with a search firm to find someone they could hire as his replacement. Of course, the company shouldn’t have gotten into that pickle in the first place and should have been developing other potential replacements all along. Unfortunately, the employee was never viewed as a long-term player after that.

Employers make counter offers if they think money is the reason for leaving. It wasn’t the case before and it’s not the case now. Because you returned after circumstances changed, your original employer probably felt proud and reassured. When employees return, they often think, “Well, she learned her lesson and realizes how good she had it.” Employers love to tell stories about the people who left and came back.  (It is a little like romance isn’t it?)

If you are ready to move on and you don’t want to entertain a counter offer, be clear about it when you announce your intentions. For example, you might say, “I’ve learned so much here and I’ve never been sorry I came back to work here. But I think the time is right for me to move on and apply my skills in a new environment. I think it will keep me fresh and learning new ways to do things. I have always appreciated the fact that this company welcomed me back, but I think it’s time to move on and try something new.” 

Your manager is likely to be pleased with the seven years you re-invested and will probably wish you well. In fact, there may be colleagues who will be eager to compete for your job.

It’s okay to tell your potential employer that a counter offer has been made, but don’t play games with them, or you could lose their offer. Decide in advance if you want the new job, because they may not be willing to get into a bidding war. If you try to manipulate the situation beyond their tolerance level, you could even lose them both.

With the economy heating up and the labor pool looking slim until at least 2010, we will once again see a demand for employees in many fields. I doubt we’ll see the days of BMW’s as signing bonuses, like we did in the ‘90’s, but counter offers will likely proliferate. Before you offer one or take one, just remember to think beyond the bucks, and consider the lingering feelings after the deal is done. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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