Should You Accept That Counteroffer?

The other day, one of my colleagues at Lynx got an email from a candidate who wanted his help. The Lynx recruiter had placed this candidate in a new job a few months ago, but the candidate had subsequently accepted a counteroffer and backed out before starting. The opportunity we had connected him with was an influential Product Management position within a promising startup, which he was very excited about. The candidate, who had been working for an established, publicly-traded company, was ultimately wooed back by his current manager with promises of great opportunities in the future, and he decided to stay put. Sadly, reality didn’t live up to the hope/hype, and now the candidate was back on the job market after just a few short months. Unfortunately, the position we had obtained for him had since been filled by another candidate and was no longer an option.

Most headhunters will automatically say you should never entertain a counteroffer under any circumstances. But how valid is this advice? Obviously it’s in a recruiter’s best interest that you don’t back out of a placement they’ve made, and if you do a Google search, you can find many articles, mostly written by recruiters, telling you what horrible things will happen if you accept a counteroffer from your current employer.

My experience has been that it’s not always such a clear decision. Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Some of the rationale for not accepting a counteroffer is that once you do, you will forever be branded as disloyal to your employer, and they’ll immediately start looking to replace you behind your back as soon as they can. To me, this is probably the least valid reason, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true. If you’re good enough that they want to retain you, particularly in the talent-scarce technology job market, you are probably fairly safe from such retaliation. I know several good engineers who accepted counteroffers and have remained happily employed for years at the same place. Whatever problems they had were able to be addressed satisfactorily, and for them, it was the right decision to stay put.

However, I’ve seen many more instances over the years of candidates accepting counteroffers, and then within a year, they’re gone anyway. Were they terminated by revengeful bosses? Not usually. Much more often, the original problems that caused them to explore the job market, covered temporarily by the band-aid of a counteroffer, continued to exist and fester, and eventually the candidate got frustrated enough to follow through on leaving.

If you get a counteroffer, ask yourself why the enticements being dangled in front of you weren’t being offered in the first place. Do you really want to work for a company where you have to threaten to resign in order to get what you want and deserve? There are plenty of good companies out there that will value you appropriately. Trust your intuition. If you felt that it was time to move on before you got a counteroffer, it’s probably still time to move on, no matter how rosy a picture the management team at your current company tries to paint.

So, in summary, while there are occasionally good reasons to accept a counteroffer, in general I would not recommend it. If I had to put a number on it, I would say it’s about a 9 to 1 ratio – for every one person for whom a counteroffer works out well, there are nine people for whom it’s not the right answer. Not quite “never”, but still… a life decision that you need to consider very cautiously.