How to handle counter offers

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Headhunters spend a lot of time coaching candidates in how to avoid being placed in a position where they face a counter-offer. A surprising number of candidates believe themselves to be unique in being offered a second chance, as it were, and headhunters see it as their role to expose this belief as a fallacy.

'We coach people by explaining to them that this is what always happens. They are not unique.

On the assumption that we find good people, a barrage of others will always try and persuade them to stay,' says Chris Leslie, director and head of financial services at Whitehead Mann.

A person who already feels slightly guilty about resigning is vulnerable to pressure, and the headhunter's job is to make sure they understand the potential extent of that pressure and how to handle it. 'We tell them not to get drawn into a dialogue in counter-offers, to listen but not respond, and to get out as quickly as possible,' says Leslie.

Even when the resignation is technically complete, there are occasions when people go back to their employer, although these are rare. 'When someone is leaving a job it is very exciting, but once they have done it they tend to suffer from anti-climax, and are then extremely vulnerable,' says Anthony May at niche search firm Baines Gwinner.

The headhunter has to adopt a role of looking over his client's shoulder for him to see what offers may be lurking. Once the client has resigned it is as if he is open to committing adultery - he may be willing to look at other offers as well as the original one, says one headhunter. The most worrying obstacle to closing the deal, however, is likely to be the counter-offer from the existing employer.

'Employers should think very carefully about using counter-offers. They don't always think of the ramifications of what they are doing in terms of internal politics. Doing a special deal for one individual is not always smart, and it can amount to a policy of managing crises rather than thinking strategically long-term,' says May.

For the person who is resigning, the emotional pressure contained in any counter-offer is considerable, and can result in fairly intangible promises made on both sides. 'Most counter-offers address money and some address issues of responsibility, but none address strategic direction. But if they offer you responsibility and scope for your job as well as money, you may want to look at it, as you have already shown them your hand,' says one headhunter.

Although the headhunter's perspective dictates that his candidate must never take the counter-offer, there are some that can be very hard to refuse. 'If they offer to double your salary for the next three years - and they often do - you would be a fool to leave,' says one headhunter. Be warned, however. Headhunters are loath to name any names, but say there are some firms who will make counter-offer after another until they find one you will accept, and then a bit later, find a reason to fire you.

The potential content of counter-offers is as varied as the length of a piece of string. If you are faced with one, you might want to ask yourself whether you got to the position you are in after being faced with extreme duress. If you did, you might then want to think about how that reflects on the firm. In the current climate of competition in the financial services industry, firms are throwing money around easily, with more counter-offers than might be considered usual.

Although there are many individuals in the market who choose to employ a cynical strategy of resigning precisely to take advantage of the improved terms of a counter-offer, this is not a recommended strategy, as it can easily backfire.

At Alexander Mann Financial Markets, clear guidelines are set down for candidates to help them work out how best to respond to counter-offers. 'We deal with the issue very early on in a possible move, and as a result of this perhaps, we have the highest closure rate - 93% of offers to deals in the industry,' says managing director Mike Brennan. Some years ago, AMFM undertook a study that looked at whether candidates who accepted counter offers were still with their original employer. It found that any candidate accepting a counter-offer had left voluntarily within six months of the acceptance or been let go within a year.

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