Counter offers often are made by employers so that you will leave the firm on your current employer’s terms, not yours. Counter offers only come into play when you have threatened to leave or given notice of your termination. Employers do not like to be “fired” (no one likes rejection), so a counter offer can turn the tables. In most cases, it is in your employer’s best interests for you to stay at a higher compensation level for at least a while. It costs them much more to recruit and train someone else to do your job, and your leaving may catch them short-handed. Therefore, once you have accepted a counter offer, an employer can find your replacement and terminate you on its own timetable. National statistics show that almost 90% of employees who accept counter offers leave, either on their own or are terminated, within six months. Remember, if you accept a counter offer and let your new opportunity go, there is no guarantee that there will be as attractive an offer down the road, and it is to your disadvantage to be out of work and looking for a new position. In a slow market, offers—and counter offers—are few and far between.
While it is flattering to believe that you are so valuable that your current employer will do almost anything to keep you, you must remember that counter offers come with built-in pitfalls. First of all, because they are prompted by a threat to leave, your loyalty to the employer has been called into question. When it comes time for career advancement, or cutbacks, that fact will remain in your employer’s mind. In most cases, the circumstances that prompted you to seek employment elsewhere will persist. If there is anything you desire that your current firm possibly could provide, ask for it before you begin your job search. However, if they cannot give you what you want, and you undertake the search process, remember their inability or unwillingness to provide what you asked for should they present you with a counter offer when you resign.
Very rarely does a candidate decide to make a career move for purely financial reasons. Usually there are a number of strategic considerations relating to long-term professional and personal goals. Remember the reasons you decided to explore other opportunities. Chances are they involved advancement opportunities, practice issues, management style, personal or client conflicts, geographics, travel schedule, hours, and so forth. Ask yourself whether those issues can be truly met through the terms of a counter offer. Except for purely financial matters, most of those issues will remain largely unchanged. The firm’s culture, practice, client base, and personnel and personalities will not change.
If you are being wooed to stay by your present employer by promises of more money, perks, or a promotion, ask yourself these questions: Why did it take a threat to leave to be offered these incentives? Were you being undervalued previously? Will your new compensation level offend others who are ostensibly at your level? Where is the money coming from—your next raise or promotion? Does the person making the offer have the authority to follow up with the goods? Or, are these empty promises? (If you have any thought of entertaining the counter offer, get those promises in writing!) Will these enticements resolve all the reasons you had for seeking new employment in the first place? Is this a better situation in all regards than the new job opportunity you have been offered? Will you have to threaten to leave the next time you want to advance at this firm?
Tendering your resignation is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances. It brings up feelings of guilt, disloyalty, obligation, and the fear of disappointing others. On top of that, the new job, no matter how attractive, may engender fear of the unknown, leaving the comfort of your current duties and co-workers, and having to prove yourself all over again. With those uncertainties, it is an ego-boost to hear how valuable you are to your present employer. At such an emotionally charged time, a counter offer may seem like the easy way out, but it is playing on your vulnerabilities. Remember that a counter offer is not necessarily about what is best for you and your career; it is about what is best for the firm.
Therefore, it is best to anticipate the possibility of a counter offer ahead of time, and be prepared with reasons (which you do not need to share with anyone) why it is best for you to move on. This will fortify you for the reality, and help you withstand your employer’s attempts to bribe you to stay. The best way to handle the resignation and counter offer is to be polite but firm. Keep it on a positive note, thanking the employer for the opportunities you have enjoyed with the firm, but stating that your move will allow you future career growth. Emphasize your desire to maintain a cordial relationship. (See: “Making a Graceful Exit”).
Do not overlook the fact that you are faced with a counter offer only because you have accepted another employer’s offer. As a lawyer you know that an offer and acceptance makes a contract. If you break that contract, there will be negative consequences. It would be very unusual for any prospective employer to sue, but there are damages. They have lost the opportunity to hire other candidates, and have held the position open for you. The most important consequence to consider is that the legal community is small. You will hurt your reputation in ways that may not be apparent immediately. And, next time you seek to make a career move, you may find that your reputation precedes you. Prospective employers and recruiters are going to be less willing to take your search seriously for fear you will, once again, be susceptible to a counter offer.