How would you like to have two or more companies trying to hire you at the same time? When it rains, it pours, right? If you find yourself being courted by more than one company, you have an opportunity to be selective and negotiate what’s best for you, and that’s awesome. But what can happen, more often than you might think, is that a company will make an offer that you readily accept (because you need a job and this is your only offer)…and then a second company pops up to make you an even better offer. On the surface it appears you’re in an excellent situation, because you have a choice and an opportunity to upgrade. In reality, your toes are dangling off the edge of a precarious situation; one with potentially long term consequences that can affect your career for years to come.
The Lady or the Tiger
Frank R. Stockton wrote the classic story in 1882 about a king who dispensed justice in the form of fate (or divine intervention) by having accused criminals choose between two doors. Choosing the door with the Lady behind it meant innocence and instant acquittal. Picking the door with the famished Tiger didn’t work out so well for the criminal (now known as ‘lunch’) or the guy who had to clean up the mess afterward. Is the choice between sticking with your commitment to the original company versus going with the new company as black and white as the choice between a beautiful Lady and a man-eatingTiger? Or do you feel just as baffled as the guy looking at the two blank doors?
One school of thought believes that in this day and age you must act in your own self interest, do what’s best for you, and get the best job you can even if it means breaking a commitment. Those who advocate this philosophy understand this choice has backfired on others but believe it won’t happen to them for any number of reasons: they’ll have the job they want which will last forever, people will forget this minor transgression, or someone might remember but won’t care. This view is focused on perceived short-term upside and highly dismissive of long-term risk. They choose the door on the left.
The other school views their own position as virtuous. They fear the implications to their professional reputation of breaking a commitment. They are concerned that breaking a promise could come back to haunt them and do not want to take the chance. They are willing to sacrifice what they view as short-term upside to ensure their long-term options remain open and unhindered. They choose the door on the right.
In Stockton’s classic story, the lover of the King’s daughter stands accused and must make the choice. The king’s daughter, who will lose her lover forever to either the Lady or the Tiger, knows which door leads to each. She points to a door and he opens it. But which door?
Pros of Accepting a Better Offer
- No FOMO – Fear of missing out on the next big thing may be the most compelling motivator. No one wants to tell the story of how they refused to get on the ground floor of the next Apple or Google because they chose to honor their commitment to Barney’s Beanbag Factory.
- A Better Position – Most people want to establish a career and have that career grow. If you find yourself with an opportunity to advance right out of the gate, why wouldn’t you pounce on that?
- More Money – More money means more buying power and, if you’re a squirrel, more saving power. More money is always more than less money.
Cons of Breaking a Commitment
- Reputation – You will be judged by others…it’s one of the Tyrannies of Life. Some people (left-door people) will understand, other’s will not. Professional communities can be fraternal and people talk. Hiring managers are highly influenced by their peers and people they trust, who just may include someone you pissed off.From the perspective of a hiring manager it is irritating and possibly humiliating to have to explain to your organization that your personal hiring choice just flew the coop. It reflects poorly on your ability to assess and judge character because it breaks trust, which is one of the three legs a hiring decision stands on. It should go without saying that you won’t be a consideration for that hiring manager as long as he or she is with that company…or anywhere else their career may take them. People tend to remember strong, negative feelings, and if given the chance they might try to even the score.
I know someone who recently recommended a close friend to her company. They hired her friend, who spent an entire week with them before jumping ship for a job that paid more. The recommending friend’s stock took a huge hit and she was personally embarrassed by the situation. She’ll never recommend or help that friend with a job search again.
- Legal Complications – When a company extends an offer letter they have essentially signed a contract, which is why offer letters are conditional and always have an expiration date. When you sign an offer letter you are now a party to that contract. When you don’t hold up your end you are technically in breach of contract. Most companies won’t take action against you because At-Will employment law nullifies the breach. Even if it didn’t, most companies would see little point in taking legal action. There’s not much to gain with no realistic upside or return…the company is better served to move on. But there are rare exceptions, fueled by emotion or misguided principle that are no fun to be a part of.One of my friends tells a story about a former associate who was so embarrassed and pissed off when his new hire changed his mind that he filed a lawsuit against the young man and his hiring company. He even had the guy served right before Thanksgiving for the express purpose of putting a damper on his holidays. It was a circus. The young man had to hire his own lawyer and deal with the uncertainty of a negative outcome and also felt embarrassed that he was the reason his new company was in a lawsuit. The hiring company probably felt slightly annoyed they had to spend legal fees over a seemingly petty issue. In the end the parties settled and everyone got on with their lives but the young man learned a painful lesson.
- Black Flags – It’s highly unlikely you’ll be sued by the scorned company. On the other hand, your chances of being Black Flagged are somewhere around 100%. A Black Flag (my term for this practice) is a permanent marker in the scorned company’s HR (Human Resources) records that ban you from ever being hired by that company. Seems fair enough – you burned that bridge and you know you can’t go back. But that’s not the real problem. What’s scariest about a black flag, which most people don’t know, is that they can spread to other companies or industries through mergers and acquisitions.‘Tom’ (not his real name) is a guy who got black-flagged by a relatively small technology company a few years ago. At the time Tom couldn’t have cared less. He had a new career at his company of choice and thought he was set. Years later he got what he thought was the inside track on a sweetheart position with a major defense contractor. He had his ducks lined up: he was highly qualified and had made a favorable impression on the hiring team. He even had someone on the inside who told him it was all but in the bag. But the bottom fell out of the bag. He didn’t get the job because this big company had purchased the small technology company that Tom had spurned and incorporated their HR records into their own. Tom’s black flag carried over and it cost him a plum opportunity. There’s absolutely no way he envisioned this happening when he made his decision to breach years earlier. HR specialists will tell you this practice is unethical (it is) and illegal (depending on prevailing labor law), but it still happens.
- Ethics – Mike is a former executive associate of mine who has managed successful teams for several leading technology companies. He has a reputation for being balanced and fair. When I posed the question of this subject to him he answered with his own question: “How would someone feel if the company, who had promised to hire them and for whom they had presumably ceased their job search, changed their mind and hired someone else?” To Mike, and many like him, this is purely an issue of business ethics, and ethics speak to the quality of a person’s individual character and what they can or cannot be trusted with going forward. In other words, a poor demonstration of ethics can limit your career growth no matter where you end up. And, for the record, a company can change their mind at the last minute with no repercussion whatsoever just like you can (unless you’ve signed an actual employment contract).
If You Choose to Accept the Counter Offer
You may still decide, after carefully weighing both sides of the debate, that accepting a counter offer is what’s best for you. If that’s the case you need to keep a few things in mind. You should:
- Carefully itemize your reasons for doing so…make sure they’re the right reasons.
- Contact the first company and explain your situation thoughtfully with humility and respect. List the compelling reasons for your change of mind. This can go a long way toward mitigating hard feelings.
- Explain that you never intended to put them in an awkward or embarrassing situation and tell them you feel terrible, even if you don’t.
- Tell them you understand and are sorry that you have disappointed them, but in the final analysis you are doing what you truly believe is the best thing. They may still be ticked but should appreciate you being courteous and forthright.
- Give future thought to being a professional free-lancer. Free-lancers, who excel at what they do, have freedom to pick and choose and can get away with being a little capricious.
Definitely DO NOT:
- Fail to inform the original company. It is completely tactless and disrespectful.
- Spike the football or tell the original company to stick it. Never forget people’s capacity to remember.
- Boast about breaking a commitment to peers, future co-workers or friends. You will look like a self-serving idiot.
- Make this a habit. Some people will give you a mulligan for a given situation. Nobody will look the other way twice.
If You Choose to Refuse the Counter Offer
- Live with your choice. You made it for a reason and need to give it a chance. You can always change direction later if things don’t work out.
- Graciously thank the company making the counter offer. Tell them you are flattered by their interest but you are committed to honoring your original agreement. This will help keep channels of good-will open and may leave the door open to future possibilities.
- Do not boast, brag or act as if the original company is lucky to have won the race. Companies (like people) prefer to feel they are in a relationship based on choice and respect, not a prize based on circumstance.
If I Were Your Big Brother
I’d tell you to call mom more often…you know how she worries. Then I’d probably tell you to carefully consider all the variables before accepting a counter offer. I’d want you to define your views on ethics, personal integrity, professional ambition, and money, and then suggest you go with what you think is best for you.
Finally, I’d want you to seriously consider the possible effect your choice would have on other people. Has someone put in a good word for you or made a personal recommendation on your behalf with the original company? If so, your decision could negatively affect them, and that could potentially affect your relationship with that person. Think this thing through and carefully count the cost of what you or others stand to lose by such a decision before you finalize it.
In truth a lot of this kerfuffle (yes! finally got that word into a post) could be saved if people could delay accepting an offer to see if they can work with their first choice. There’s nothing wrong with contacting them to say you’ve received an offer but would rather work with them instead. This is a great way to nudge your preferred company to a decision. If they won’t give you a decision or reject you outright then cut them like a cabbage (meaning remove them from consideration…do NOT pick up a knife) and accept the offer you have in hand.
This is a subject that can invoke strong feelings. I stand solidly in the belief that you should keep everything in front of you and that you shouldn’t make a decision until you’re ready, but once you decide you should feel good enough about it to stick with it. Having said that I also recognize that time and tide may present an extraordinary circumstance that warrants going against the grain. Just remember that if you choose to do that, there may be a cost. Make sure you can pay it before you move forward. No one wants a face full of Tiger when they open the door. Make your choice with deliberation and certainty.
Go get ‘em, Tiger.
Oh, and are you wondering whether the fair maiden sent her lover off with a beautiful rival or doomed him to be eaten by a tiger? The author ends the story without ever telling us. What a goob.
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Thanks for reading and all the best in your job search!