Negotiating the Minefield of Multiple Offers

How to avoid antagonizing your current and prospective employers while you weigh your options -- plus, bidding-war etiquette

H.J. Cummins

Q: Please help me sort through the ethical and tactical questions raised in a recent job hunt.

Five months into a six-month contract as a Web designer at a large company, I was told the wheels were in motion to make my position permanent. I was asked if I was interested, and I said I was. Because I'd heard nothing by the seventh month, I worried the permanent job had vaporized and interviewed for a position in another department. Then the permanent offer came through, and I accepted -- although it took negotiating to get my new wages up to industry standards.

Now to the complications. After I accepted the contract-to-permanent post, the other department called and made me an offer of $6,000 more. Then job possibility No. 3 emerged: Out of the blue, a friend asked me to apply for a permanent position in his startup. I balked, saying I had just accepted another job, but he persuaded me to interview, if only to provide the company with a "benchmark" against which to measure other candidates.

Imagine my surprise when I was not only offered the job but told it would pay $11,000 more than I was making. I accepted, because this post offered the highest salary and the best chance for promotion.

When I submitted my resignation, my irate manager accused me of ingratitude. But two days later, a company vice-president made me a counteroffer, which matched the $11,000 and created a senior-level position for me. He also informed me that he knew he was defying the wishes of my manager. I turned him down, saying I had accepted the job at the startup. My questions:

1. Ethically, once I had accepted the (first) permanent job offer, should I have dropped all job prospecting?

2. Should I have gone to my manager with the startup offer to negotiate a higher salary?

3. Are counteroffers the norm in these situations?

---- C.R., Toronto, Canada

A: O.K., we know you didn't ask our opinion of your former company, but our experts were moved to jump right in on that, anyway. To say the company mishandled things is an understatement. The managers there clearly want to keep you -- and yet their first offer comes slow and low? What kind of message is that supposed to send you? Then another department tries to hire you by outbidding colleagues across the hall? The next misstep is that unprofessional tongue-lashing. Finally, there's the matter of a v-p who countermands one of his own managers and announces that to you.

Our experts sense a lot of hostility in that workplace. Which is why, putting aside the particulars of your exit, you were right to leave, says Fred Guy, director of the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics at the University of Baltimore. No one has to stay in bad situations, Guy says.


  Now, let's put some context around your experience. Job offers are a little like romance, our experts say. You wait by the phone for months and no one calls -- then suddenly everyone wants you. So, get used to grappling with the ethics of multiple offers, says Mike Sweeny, a managing director at T. Williams Consulting, a Philadelphia-based high-tech recruitment firm.

The most important rule, our experts stress, is for you to do what's best for your career. In the tech marketplace, not only is that O.K., it's standard operating procedure, says Howard Hegwer, managing partner for Management Recruiters of Seattle. "People really have to manage their own career," Hegwer says, "wrap their arms around it and take full responsibility for making things happen -- or not."

It does matter how you handle the process, because careless offenses -- such as cavalierly using multiple offers to play salary games with potential employers -- can come back to haunt you. But our experts think you handled the process fine and that it was mostly your first employer's fumbling that led to your departure.


  Should you have declined all other offers after you'd agreed to go from contract to permanent? Our experts say it's a bad thing to renege once you've started a new job. But you hadn't. Indeed, in the interval between a job acceptance and a job-start date, it's not uncommon in the tech world for employees to jump from one job offer to another. In fact, Hegwer says, recruiters even have a name for the people who do this: "falloffs."

It may not be a pretty phenomenon, but there it is. Indeed, Hegwer has just one criticism of your behavior, and it has nothing to do with ethics. In the spirit of "take-charge-of-your-own career," he says, you should have followed up with your manager before so much time had elapsed.

Also, it makes a difference that your friend approached you, that you didn't continue your job search after you'd agreed to stay on, Sweeny says. After all, the unexpected sometimes happens in business life. Were you supposed to ignore a great opportunity that fell into your lap? He also points out that $11,000 can be a 25% to 30% raise for a Web designer. That might say something about your old company trying to get people on the cheap.


  Should you have approached your manager with the outside offer and tried to negotiate? "That's situational," says Dan Hayes, an e-services consultant at the recruiting firm Hall Kinion in Minneapolis. The answer depends on whether this approach might work in your particular office culture and whether you're dealing with the kind of manager who would hold it against you. Only you, using your workplace smarts, can evaluate this.

Job candidates also need to keep in mind that although counteroffering is endemic in the still-tight -- knock on wood -- labor market it can have some brutal consequences. "Bidding wars are no fun," Hayes says. "They make you look greedy, and to be honest, companies really get bitter about it."

Now, recruiters may be partial -- they make their money only when candidates hire on to a new company -- but they say it's often a mistake to stick with the old. Inevitably, you've soured things at least a bit with your bosses. They won't like knowing you thought about moving on. If you've gotten more money out of them, there's a feeling you held them up for ransom. And if all this creates tension and you decide to leave in six months, you have to start your job search from scratch.

And now that all that's settled, maybe you can get some work done.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, Business Week Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and the Minneapolis Star Tribune

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