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Anatomy of a Dilemma

By Liz Ryan My friend Bill got a job offer not long ago and called me for advice. I was glad to hear from him -- happy to have a ringside view and help him negotiate. I'm always surprised by the odd behaviors that companies display in these situations, and Bill's case proved no exception.

The offer was excellent -- a better job and a nice jump in pay. Only one thing creeped him out. He asked the human resources person to put the offer in writing, and she said, "Not until we have a verbal acceptance."

WHY THE RUSH? O.K, now that's just weird. Think about it. To get the written offer, all Bill has to do is say: "Okay, I accept." So the lady is encouraging job seekers to give spoken acceptance of jobs they're not totally sold on, simply in order to receive the offer in writing.

Problem is, a job offer is complicated. It has several moving parts -- salary, title, reporting relationship, benefits -- that a candidate must consider. You're saying, "I don't get to look at the thing in my hand until I say yes? What is the employer afraid of, wasting paper?"

It will take this woman 20 seconds to put the offer in writing for Bill. Can she not invest that much of her time to allow him to see what he's signing up for? Yuck! So that was a red flag.

Bill asked for a day to consider the offer and went to see his boss. As much as I discourage companies from making counteroffers -- and discourage employees from accepting them -- it's not a bad idea to let your boss know that somebody is trying to hire you. You do this, of course, by giving notice.

GO OR STAY? "I really like working with you," said Bill to his boss (who had joined the company just a few weeks earlier), "but I had started job hunting before you got here. Now I have a good offer, so I need to give you my two weeks' notice."

"Oh no!" said the boss, in so many words. He asked for 24 hours to prepare a counteroffer. That was a nice affirmation for Bill, so naturally he said that would be fine. "But I only have those 24 hours," Bill continued. "I need to let the other company know for sure by tomorrow."

Now it gets interesting. The new boss did manage to get a counteroffer prepared and approved inside of 24 hours. The job description was a dream -- in fact, it came directly from a dream-job write-up that Bill had given his boss (at the boss's request) just a few days before. The counteroffer included more money and a manager title.

COMING UP SHORT. "Wow!" I said. "That was fast -- and impressive. I usually counsel people not to accept counteroffers, but your situation may be an exception. After all, your boss is new, he has a new philosophy -- and he clearly wants you on his team."

"Not so fast," responded Bill.

"Even though it provided for a raise over my current pay, my boss's counterproposal didn't match the salary in the other company's offer. It was about $4,000 short."

"He didn't match the money?" I asked, stupidly, since Bill had just told me that. I couldn't believe it. I'd never heard of such a thing. His boss took the time to put together a counteroffer, and yet he still came up short, dollar-wise? How could he not match the money? "Did he tell you why?" I asked.

"He said nothing about it," recalled Bill. "He just gave me the new offer."

COURTESY DEFICIT. O.K., now that's really strange. In fact, it's insulting. You have an offer for X dollars, your boss offers you a raise that doesn't get you to X, and he doesn't explain why? It's like he's saying: "Working at our company clearly has a value associated with it that should make you happy, or at least willing, to give up that extra pay that the other company is offering you."

That's bizarre. He should at least have done Bill the courtesy of telling him why the counteroffer came up short.

"Plus, there's another thing," said Bill. "My dream job is in a different department. Today I went to meet that manager. I already knew her, and she's nice. She wants me to stay. She went on and on about how she knows nothing about my area of expertise, and how much she can learn from me."

END OF DISCUSSION. "Oh dear," I said. "Two big strikes: counteroffer short in the dollars, and a new boss who can't teach you a doggone thing."

"Make it three strikes," said Bill. "In the new job at my current company, I'd literally have no window anywhere near me, and I'd have to wear a suit and tie every day. In the other job I was offered, the view is glorious, and the dress code is business casual all the time."

"Well," I said, "there you have it."

YES, NO, MAYBE. Bill took the job across town. A month in, he's not sorry about his decision. "Counteroffers have a horrible success rate, anyway," I told him. He already knew that. He's kept in touch with the folks at his old company, who were sorry to see him go (but not willing to find another $4,000-or-so to prove it). Life is long, and he may intersect with these people at a later date, so it makes sense to stay in touch and on friendly terms with them.

What's the lesson? Taking a job is not a simple yes/no process. As I said, there are a lot of moving parts.

In Bill's case, he was juggling issues like the prospective employer's posture toward new hires (bad: no written-offer letters) against his old employer's ability to react quickly to save a key employee (excellent), its ability to put its money where its mouth is (poor), the career-development potential it was offering (poor), and its ability to communicate -- in this case, to explain the salary gap between Bill's offer across town and the counteroffer his boss extended (really, really poor).

NO SNAP DECISIONS. Think of Bill's situation as an opportunity to analyze an offer on your house. You want your asking price, but you also want a buyer whose loan will get approved. You want a quick closing date. You want no contingencies on the buyer's side. And if you focus only on the sales price, you may not make the best deal.

It's the same with a job offer. You have to look at the total package -- including "soft" elements such as how willing the company is to negotiate -- that make the difference between a great offer and a less-than-sensational one.

As a job seeker, you'll find it helpful to consider all this thoughtfully, not when you're under pressure on the phone. There's never any justification for asking a candidate to say yes or no right away. It's always appropriate to ask for your offer letter in writing -- and that also goes for counteroffers, of course.

THE MOST BASIC QUESTIONS. It's always correct to ask questions, and to speak with your hiring manager during the offer-negotiation process, even if human resources is trying to run the show. After all, you don't make many decisions that have more impact on your life than accepting a job.

It pays to understand the moving parts, ask for adjustments to the ones that don't suit for you -- and get as close as you can to that dream-job scenario. Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT

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