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Do You Stay or Go?

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If the rumors about the advertising economy are true, the job market is getting better. I believe this will open the floodgates: There will be a mass exodus by those of you dissatisfied with your jobs, but, until recently, have had no other place to go.

This will leave many agencies in an awkward position. No company likes sudden change, especially if it upsets work flow and makes clients uneasy. The solution will likely be an attempt to keep employees through counteroffers. But beware of them. Sometimes they forestall the inevitable. And if an employee accepts a counteroffer, many recruiters, not just myself, will tell you chances are good he or she will end up gone when there is another round of layoffs or an account loss. Why? Because, once you show your current employer that you are disloyal, you instantly become vulnerable.  

Here are some important things to keep in mind in the world of counteroffers:

Never go shopping to get a raise: If you're shopping around to determine what you're worth on the open market, that's really bad form and a waste of everyone's time. All you need to do is contact a trusted recruiter and he or she will tell you what you'd be worth somewhere else. If a person merely shopping receives an actual offer and then goes to his or her employer to see what they would do, the strategy can backfire. Chances are you'll be seen as disloyal and in some cases, if you stay at the same job you'll end up being let go should there be another round of layoffs or an account loss.

Most "counteroffers" are not counteroffers: Let's say you found or were offered a new job in good faith, go to your employer to tell him or her you'll be leaving, and are given an offer to stay.  Make sure you don't confuse a counteroffer with mere parity. This may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people do so. In order to be an actual counteroffer your employer has to come back with more than what your new company proposed. If they offer to meet the amount, it's merely at parity. The raise should also come immediately and not be promised for the future.

A real counteroffer happened to a candidate of mine last summer: When he resigned, this group account director making $175,000 at a small agency was apologized to for not being recognized sooner, was offered $225,000 and made the head of the office. That's real -- and it happens only rarely.

Counteroffers cannot change your environment: The reason most people leave jobs is not for money, but having to do with culture and environment. A counteroffer doesn't change the latter. A bad boss cannot be cured by you being given a raise. A poor work environment is not corrected by a few thousand dollars. And being overworked and underappreciated cannot be fixed by a new title, especially if what you're given is essentially the same job.

Counteroffers can be for your employer's convenience only: A counteroffer, if it's accepted, can be an inexpensive way for a company to buy time in order to find your replacement. Most agencies are understaffed. A resignation, even by a marginal employee, can cause a huge hassle for the existing organization as it interferes with projects and work flow, and inevitably work will pile up. Two week's notice is an insufficient amount of time in which to find a replacement, and certainly not enough time to get a new or transferred employee up to speed. Also, of course, clients become upset. So, while it's always flattering to hear from a company that it likes you enough to offer money or a title to stay, it's often false flattery.

Very often, when a candidate resigns, he or she tells me that a supervisor has begged them to stay an extra week or two because they're concerned about having to fill the gap caused by the departure. My advice: leave immediately -- don't fool yourself into thinking that the company loves you. Staying an extra week only prolongs the inevitable. It also raises a commitment issue with a new employer, so why cast a doubt?  

Taking a new job is always frightening. But remember why you wanted to leave. And if your new job is not what you thought it would be, the change in environment will probably be good for you anyway.  If your old company really likes you enough, going back at some point later in your career is safer and more beneficial than accepting an initial counteroffer.

Paul Gumbinner is president, The Gumbinner Company. He can be reached at Paul@gumbinnercompany.com.