the ceo magazine, managing employees,
Russ Riendeau, PhD, Partner, Jobplex

Labor markets are as tight. Talent wars are in full regalia and you’re top employee just gave you the “Hey, boss, can I talk to you for a minute” request, as they lean in your office, holding themselves by one hand behind your door frame. You know what’s coming: They are resigning.

Yep, the person says they have another offer to join a different company. All the standard clichés, reasons and accolades for you and organization are delivered, but, in the end “’s time I leave here” is the final appeal.

This next part may not be so flattering to a manager. It is blunt, and the words used to describe the scenario are strong, for a reason: the perception of what others see is what it is and a critical aspect to consider. And research supports it.

So you, being a human being and a manager, are in a bind. You didn’t plan on this person quitting today. You actually like this person—you may even truly feel they are making the wrong decision to leave. You show surprise, disappointment, sadness. Then, instead of wishing them well and escorting them out the door, you become a beggar and try to convince the person to stay. You offer up gold, changes in policy, a new title, promises of a glorious future, lunch! You throw in a set of new, monogramed bath towels, a new job title with a cool, European theme and you  promise better communication—oh, it’s a feast of stuff that you toss at them to “please stay.” Oh, it’s pitiful.

And the person has a change of heart. It worked!  And in  the blink of an eye, the beggar—you-- has won a small victory. And the counter-offered person thinks they’ve done “what’s best for me and for the good of the company.”

Ahh, all better. No harm, no foul. No one will ever hear about this incident and back to work! Not so fast, my friend. You just created a bigger problem. “How so, you say?” Here’s some of the wheels of change your delivery of a counteroffer has delivered:

  • Co-workers will find out  that you “begged” her to stay and you now our perceived weak, desperate and dependent. The team saw the exchange, heard the rumors, even spoke to the quitter. They all know.
  • You appear to cave into demands and offer up prizes and gifts to those who threaten to quit. You are reactive, not proactive.
  • You have irritated co-workers that knew this person was unhappy, wanted to quit, needed to quit—co-workers even were hoping she’d quit—and you persuaded her to not quit!
  • You reveal potential flaws in your leadership style; flaws in the company policy; flaws in the hiring system.
  • As these counteroffers are delivered it will have a very subtle effect on your team--but very impacting--as employees’ makes decisions on who and where to invest their career energy.
  • Your counteroffer just gave more money and opportunity to a defector—a traitor/liar/decenter/a malcontent, that told you they were quitting and you told them they were not. You have just rewarded a merit raise to a quitter. And this motivates your current team how?
  • You appear selfish in front of your team. You appear to put your needs ahead of the totality of needs in the whole group.
  • You created a tense scenario to unfold in the office and around the company: challenges of disassociation around how to interact with the known quitter that stayed. Secret conversations, limited contact, loss of trust in the quitter’s real commitment to work harder to be part of the team….again and trust issues rise. Who should co-workers show loyalty, favoritism too?
  • And now you will question every move, every absent day, every extended lunch or late arrival this counteroffered person makes. You have created an unsettling scenario for yourself in retaining this person you “couldn’t live without” by not letting her move on.
  • You may have messed up a great opportunity for this person to move on. A person resigning from a job is emotionally stressed. Most of us feel genuinely sad, uncomfortable--even a little guilty—quitting, because we are admitting that we have committed corporate adultery by cheating on the boss to interview for a new job. We are admitting we are a liar, in some ways, and are susceptible and more vulnerable to emotion tugs to stay with our current employer. The default of humans is to remain status quo. The DNA default of a manager is Status WOAH! Don’t quit now!
  • And all the promises you made to keep her to stay will still be unsatisfying and too late because the person wanted to leave and will be disappointed in themselves for not holding their ground to quit. You didn’t “reward” this person with the money, promotion or new titles—you paid her unwittingly clever extortion demands.  She is  mad at herself for letting herself down by wanting to not let you down. So no matter what you do to please her, she will still be disappointed, forever looking over her shoulder to see what they may have missed by leaving.

If your spouse cheats on you or wants a divorce, how hard do you convince that person to stay? If your financial planner embezzles some, just some of your money, then apologizes and promises it won’t happen again, do you send him more cash? If your house cleaner snatches up some loose change from your dresser, do you let it go and not confront the person? The answer is NO.

Smart people don’t just resign without a lot of careful consideration, evaluation, soul-searching and interviewing with other companies to compare/contrast their situation. Fear of loss is stronger than the desire for gain, so the emotional appeal of counteroffer tactics are surprisingly effective—even when an intelligent person knows it is in their best interest to not remain. But they do and it rarely turns into a success story of the “one time a counteroffer worked.”

If you have an employee that turns in their 2 week notice, wish them well, thank them for their time and escort them out the door that day. Show your team that you are confident in their ability to carry the work load and that one person is not going to make or break the department. Show you have the courage and confidence in yourself to respect other’s need to grow and go. Show your team you are empathetic to those who want to change careers and lifelong employment is not a reality.

And that person that you escorted out the door after quitting? They won’t like the “walk of shame” out the door on that day. However, will respect you as a leader and as a professional more than had you begged them to stay. So will your employees.

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