Stop Counter-Offering and See Your Business Improve

We’ve all been there. Someone walks in and has another job offer. Silence for a second or a minute – however long – feels like an eternity if you’re not expecting this person to leave. Should you counter? I used to say yes, and then cross my fingers for more than six more months with the person. Now I say, “good luck!” and “I hope you come back.” And this answer — no more countering, and the principles behind it, have improved my business.

My change in attitude came during the dot-com boom in 2000. I had started an integrated marketing communications firm for one of the big three international media/marketing agencies in San Francisco, ground zero for the dot-com boom. Right when Gen Xers, a generation almost half the size of the Boomer (and now Millennial) generation were coming into the job market, money was flooding into online businesses, and everyone in Silicon Valley seemed to be in an arms race for talent, given that spawning, scaling, and then either selling, acquiring, or IPOing as fast as possible was the name of the game.

Our firm’s business was driving awareness for our clients among customers, consumers, and most importantly, potential investors to increase the perceived value of the client through media and expert coverage of the companies with which we were on retainer. Frankly, given the vast amount of capital flowing into “dot-com” businesses, which in turn drove the race for awareness-induced valuations, if you had a pulse you got a job.

As I grew the practice to $20M, my office (I had an office then!) became a revolving door of people who’d been offered new jobs with higher salaries, and who wanted me to counter. At first I did, scared to lose revenue-generating people when I had big numbers to bring home for HQ; without people, I couldn’t make my numbers. The result was an increasingly contentious workplace, where colleagues questioned one another’s value, plotted to get more, and felt they were being screwed. Everyone knew we would cave to an employee’s demand for more money, vacations, or perks when she presented other offers in hand, and employees seemed be waiting their turn to either test the boundaries or cast scorn on those who did. It sucked.

One morning, I woke up exhausted and said, “Enough.” I decided I wasn’t going to counter offer anymore. I was going to focus on the people who were doing their jobs and looking for opportunities to grow, not those who were planning to leave for more money, and screw it if I didn’t make my numbers—none of my peers were making their toplines either without a huge hit to their net profit. Let them walk me out of a happier workplace. I felt lighter and more rested immediately.

I didn’t even have time to roll out my decision not to counter anymore to my leadership team or the rest of the company before I put my new point of view it into action.

The next day, the first person who wanted me to counter came into my office to tell me that he had a new job. I said to him, “Good luck.” He was incredulous. “Aren’t you going to counter me?” “No,” I said, “your head is already out of here, and I’m not going to pay you more for less of your brain. How can I help you?” And I proceeded to give him some pointers for working with his new company. He was not amused or appreciative.

Six Numbers That Moved The Right Way When We Stopped Countering

The ripple was fast and positive. While that young man did indeed leave (and left that next job quickly), other employees responded to the news of “no more counters” first spread by that fellow, and then reiterated by me at the next staff meeting, with what I like to think was a palpable breath of relief. People stopped demanding counters, and our leave rate dropped. My numbers went up where it counted most net profit up, average tenure up, client retention up. Other key indicators went down and positively impacted my numbers: recruiting time went down; average recruiting fees went down; client churn went down. All positive repercussions from channeling effort into keeping great people from looking and NOT countering employees who presented a different job as a threat to leaving.

The Boomerang Principle: The belief that companies that allow and encourage their former employees to return have a strategic advantage over those that don’t.

That started a brand-new way of thinking for my staff and me that I’ve carried from that company to my own that I started in 2002.

We would focus on making our organization the best it could be with the belief that environment and culture would translate into a better workplace, which would translate into better work and better business. Instead of just showing people the door, we’d actively help them find what was next and welcome people back to us if and when they wanted to rejoin, we had the right position for them, and we had had a good conversation about expectations “this time around.”

While the dot-com bust curtailed our ability to actually bring anyone back to that company, my own company, Double Forte, began in 2002 with a handful of people who had worked with my co-founder and/or me in the past. What I call the “Boomerang Principle” has fueled our business from the beginning, with many employees returning for a second (even third!) employment, referring clients and other employee candidates, and becoming clients. What it counts on is not countering when people want to leave.

Boomerangs At Double Forte

Today, almost 15 years into Double Forte, our business model has changed three times to reflect the dramatic changes in the workforce and the public relations and communications industry. At the same time, we’re still not countering when someone says they are leaving (which doesn’t happen that often) and we still issue the invitation to come back when the time is right.

To date, we have re-hired 11 people (out of a current 35). Each time someone returns they bring a different perspective, new skills and insights, and a reinforcement of what our business offers to our employees. Nothing says you have a great place to work more than great people who want to return to it after they’ve had other valuable experiences. And every time there’s someone out in the world that thinks positively about your company, your business has the potential to improve.


*parts of this article are excerpted from The Boomerang Principle