Anatomy of the Counter Offer – What the Employee Hears…

anatomy counter offer

A top candidate of mine just had “the talk” with his boss. He put in his notice, and the response was so very predictable. The boss offered apologies, promised raises and talked about new roles to keep him, but the candidate politely declined and finalized his start date…just the way we had prepped him.

Counter offers have been used by Google, defended by top HR pros and lampooned by others, so I won’t talk here about whether they are effective or not. I can, however, confidently state that the notice conversation, the point where a valued employee tells the manager he/she is leaving, is typically so poorly handled that it comes across as pathetic, lame and predictable.

It all sounds plausible, and in fact, sometimes it’s even genuine. The problem, of course, is that the talk comes too late, so it feels fake. Here is a typical manager response when a top performer tells him she is leaving:

Wow, Sally…that really catches me by surprise. Look, you’re way too valuable to us to have you leave. You have to know that, right? I mean, we’ve been really busy, so maybe I have not given you the right recognition or been able to bring you up to speed on the conversations we had last month at the leadership retreat. You’re very important to us. We had even talked about expanding your role. You’re that important.

And me, I’m probably moving up in the next 6-12 months, and you’re the lady on the succession plan. Let me talk to the CEO and get you some time on her calendar next week, when she gets back from Asia. I know we can accelerate the raise we had already planned for you, plus another bump when you get promoted into my role. Just hang in there, Sally. Things are right around the corner. Big things. Don’t make any firm decisions yet.

It comes across as so fake, in fact, that this is what the candidate actually hears from the manager:

  • Initial surprise—I have been paying absolutely zero attention to you recently as you have completely disengaged from your work.
  • The big secret plan—we either had a plan and failed to act on it, or more likely, never ever had a plan for your development.
  • We can expand your role now—we have a group of unwanted, barely productive, high maintenance employees who no one else wants to manage. They’re yours.
  • More money, right now—we would rather pay you what we should have been paying you rather than start a search. We will absolutely throw money at this problem.
  • The big move…later—if we increase market share 67%, cut costs, and our four biggest competitors catch on fire, you’re in. Just not right away.
  • Don’t make any firm decisions—even though you have worked tirelessly for me for years, I am asking you to delay your shot at greatness until someone else comes up with a plan to keep you.

I am exaggerating a little, but I have used stories like this to tip off candidates ahead of time. Humor helps make the point. That way, they should be able to examine the counter conversations with an impartial eye. If you can prepare them for typical counter topics, maybe they can take the emotion out of the game to understand what’s real and what’s nonsense.

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. John Hollon says:

    A long time ago, back in my first job out of college, I worked at the Hearst-owned Los Angeles Herald Examiner. It was a fun place to work, but we were always getting poached by the bigger, richer Los Angeles Times. So, our best editorial staffers were always coming in and announcing that they had been offered a better paying job by the other guys across town.

    Our top editor was a guy named Jim Bellows who was a bit of a legend. He had a policy that he NEVER made a counter-offer, and his line to someone telling him they were leaving was simple: “I hope you have that new job locked down, because you’re done here the minute you walk out of my office.”

    This surprised a lot of staffers who thought that we were losing good people that might have stayed for just a few dollars more. Bellows would have none of it. He made his career at working at the No. 2 paper in cities all over America, and he felt there was a lot more freedom and fun in that. If you didn’t embrace that and decided to make a run for the money instead, well, Bellows response was don’t let the door hit you in the ass when you go.

    It may have been a harsh, short-sighted way to handle people, but one thing was sure — it wasn’t fake and it made everybody in the newsroom who heard a story like this who wasn’t getting recruited by the LA Times feel incredibly invested in our mission to kick their rear in some way every day. And yes, that was a whole lot of fun.

  2. Margaret J. says:

    If every conversation ends up like this: the initial shock, the counter offer etc. and if you were able to create a script for that then it definitely means it is fake. What saddens me the most (even though that might not have been your goal) is this bit “Initial surprise—I have been paying absolutely zero attention to you recently as you have completely disengaged from your work.” Why? Because it is true. You are working your butt of, trying to be a team player, you care and yet no one in the upper ladder cares. You are just another meaningless pawn.

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