Executive Search Firm

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Headhunter Pro Tip: Averting a Counteroffer

Losing a candidate to a counteroffer can be a bitter pill, especially, after investing your and your team’s time interviewing (possibly ruling out other candidates who are now no longer available or open to the opportunity), hours spent talking to references and the careful thought put into preparing your best offer.

It is even more disappointing if the counteroffer takes you by complete surprise. And, on top of it all, you now have to start the search all over again.

A proactive approach during the interview process is your best defense against a counteroffer.

I approach every potential hire alert to the possibility that a counteroffer could occur and take preventive steps from the very beginning of my interaction with a candidate. If a counteroffer does not occur, then this is a pleasant surprise.

A proactive approach during the interview process is your best defense against a counteroffer. You cannot control whether or not a counteroffer is extended, but you can minimize the possibility of its acceptance:

  1. During the interview process, learn what truly motivates the person and reinforce the ways in which taking on the role at your company will connect with these motivations.
  2. Identify the primary criteria that will determine whether the person will change jobs and confirm that these criteria will be met by joining your company. (If not, then you probably do not have the right fit.)
  3. Ask the person whether a counteroffer is expected and if one is made, how this will influence the decision to join your company.
  4. Ask what the current employer could change to ensure that the person would not accept another offer.
  5. Use the interview process to begin to establish a relational connection with the person. Further build on this as your interest in the candidate is solidified, bringing other team members into this process. Create opportunities for social interaction between the team and the candidate to help strengthen the relationship. (The already existing relationship is one of the strongest advantages that the current employer has in their favor.)
  6. Always present the job opportunity as part of a larger context. Help the candidate to understand the overarching vision and mission and their vital role in helping to make this a reality. Start this early in the process, even including this in any written description of the opportunity such as job postings.
  7. Present the best offer that you can make rather than waiting for the candidate to negotiate for more. Some will disagree with me and argue that there should be some room left for negotiation, but, in my experience, a good faith attempt to present the best offer possible goes a long way toward helping the prospective candidate feel valued from the outset. It also helps to instill a sense of appreciation.
  8. This is more sensitive territory for a potential employer to cover than for an outside recruiter, but it helps to know if the person is exploring other job opportunities and what is particularly appealing about these opportunities. This is where understanding motivations and evaluation criteria (Items 1 and 2, above) can be especially helpful in gauging the likelihood of the candidate accepting your offer.

This is not an exhaustive list, but some of the steps listed are the same steps taken to assess the person’s fit for your culture and the job opening. It boils down to understanding the person’s values, desires and motivations, not just their qualifications.

Counteroffers When You Least Expect Them

A counteroffer does not always happen immediately after you extend the offer. Even with the minimum two week notice, and as long as two or three months for some senior executives, this gives the current employer time to rally. I have seen counteroffers come on the person’s last day of employment. I have even seen counteroffers come after the person has begun the new job!

Again, being proactive is important. The time between the candidate’s acceptance of the offer and joining the new company should include regular communication with the new team. At the very least, team members should reach out to extend a warm welcome and to check in. If there are any company events or social gatherings during this time, the prospective team member should be invited. One of my clients sends the candidate a generous and thoughtful welcome gift shortly after the offer is accepted. The more senior the role, the more room there may be to engage the new team member during the interim as an incoming executive whose input is welcomed or even needed.

The longer the time period between the acceptance and the first day of work, the more intentional the interim contact should be. How about meeting for coffee or drinks, or even a dinner with significant others included? This can include actions such as sending materials for review, asking for advice on a problem, or getting input for ordering the prospective team member’s new equipment (laptop, phone, etc.) or office furnishings. While the person will probably want to focus on giving the best possible effort to the current employer during this time, you can help facilitate a relational, as well as mental and emotional, shift toward the new team.

Don’t ignore what your incoming team member may be experiencing in the midst of this transition. Change can be hard even when it is positive change. I am not suggesting that you be a “hand holder” or become the person’s emotional support system, but this is an opportunity for you to at least show that you care, and further reinforce what a great person you will be to work with. I recall a search in which the executive received an outlandish counteroffer that my client CEO could in no way match, but the ability to talk candidly with his prospective boss and the trust established during the interview process went a long way toward his decision to reject the counteroffer.

The onboarding process should be as intentional as the interview and selection process, if not more so.

Once the new team member is on board, do not breathe a sigh of relief and consider the matter resolved. The first few weeks and even months will determine whether the person is fully committed to the new team. The longer it takes for the former employer to find a replacement, the more your new team member will become canonized in their minds. There is something appealing about hearing, “We didn’t realize what we had in you until you left. What will it take to get you back?”

The onboarding process should be as intentional as the interview and selection process, if not more so. Even for the most senior roles, some early wins help to fortify the person’s sense of having made the right decision in joining your company. If you have hired a star performer, then one of the things that will be most gratifying is the ability to make a meaningful contribution. The sooner the better. This is something that you as a leader can reinforce.

Do you have any advice to share on this topic?

[Some credentials: The offer acceptance rate for searches in which I am involved exceeds 9 out 10, and when I am actively involved in the assessment, reference and offer process, the average is close to 100%. Only one counteroffer has been accepted in the past five years and in this instance, the candidate’s current company made false promises, taking advantage of the candidate’s undeserved loyalty. This individual was unemployed three months later.]

Donna White

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