This article written by Hal Reiter was published on forbes.com on June 30, 2008.
Pitting your employer against another in a bidding war for you is often career suicide.
A few years ago, I recruited an executive to run a mid-level company. The night before he was supposed to start his new job, the executive called to say he was staying put. The board of directors at his current company–a major multinational retailer–had offered to name him CEO in one year’s time.
I was aghast, but my former candidate could hardly envision a better scenario. He had leveraged an offer to run a mid-sized company and used it to land the coveted top spot at a retailing giant. No greater career coup exists, right?
After three tumultuous years as CEO, my former candidate was fired. This executive was not yet ready to run such a large organization. Had he accepted the job at the smaller company, he could have gained the necessary experience to successfully run a major multinational in due time.
Instead, he lured his company into a bidding war and forced the board to make a rash decision about retention in the name of corporate competition. As a result, his career ultimately suffered a mortal blow, not to mention the damage he caused shareholders, who watched their stock drop as a result of his inexperience.
Unable to land another CEO position, he took an early retirement.
In my 25 years of experience, I have learned that accepting a counter-offer is usually career suicide. Watching your boss scramble to keep you may be a heady experience, but in exchange for that sweet moment, you’ll have squandered your honor, a sacrifice that will haunt you for many years. Even more troubling, you may never know exactly when or to what extent your reputation has been sullied.
There’s a good chance hiring executives might blacklist you from other employment opportunities. Aside from refusing to ever hire you again, executives have long memories and will bad mouth you any chance they get.
I remember sitting on a plane with a group of retail executives when someone mentioned, by name, a seasoned retailer. The group listened intently as one of the executives launched into an unflattering tale of how the employee had used the executive’s perfectly good job offer as a bargaining chip for a fat buyback. By being dishonest with one company, the employee harmed his reputation with all of the executives on that flight.
Whenever I deliver a short list for a top job to one of my clients, I feel obligated to mention which potential candidates have accepted buyback offers in the past. Often my client will choose not to proceed with one of these people. Remember: Recruiters never forget a buyback, and computer files help us immensely.
Bosses don’t forget either. Initially, the company that retained you delights in winning you back from the competition. But after perhaps six months, management will begin resenting you for essentially extorting money or power from the firm.
A bitter taste of disloyalty lingers. Now you’re tacitly expected to perform like a new hire, proving yourself all over again to justify your new salary or position. You had better be up to the task.
Anytime you use a new job offer as a bargaining chip with your boss, there’s always a risk you’ll lose the bet. Next thing you know, you’re sitting in a strange office, having left a trail of ill will in your wake.
To be fair, counter-offers can provide an opportunity for employees to voice issues or concerns about their jobs. When you are recruited for another job, ask yourself: What are the pros and cons of my current position? If the negatives outweigh the positives, you simply must leave. However, you may decide you genuinely like your position, aside from one or two problems, in which case it’s time to have an open, honest conversation with your boss–before you accept the offer.
Down the road, such a conversation will be far more valuable if you choose not to force your boss into a buyback offer. You will retain your reputation for honesty, and, in my experience, this will serves you far better than a single raise or promotion ever could.
Hal Reiter is chairman and CEO of Herbert Mines Associates, a senior-level executive search firm specializing in the retail, fashion, beauty and consumer products industries.