Counter offers 101
In recruiting, a counter offer (known colloquially in our circle as a back recruit) is when someone receives and accepts a new job offer, but when they give notice, their current employer promises them the world if they'll stay. Previously a relatively rare occurrence, the tight labor market has made employers desperate to hang on to talent. If you're at a law firm that's already understaffed, turning away work and staring down the barrel of a three month recruitment process that could cost them six-figures, the chances of your firm giving you a counter offer are relatively high. If you're a senior associate, counsel or partner, your odds are even higher.
The Eddie Murphy of it all
So what's that got to do with Eddie Murphy? In the spring of 1983, the fate of Saturday Night Live was hanging in the balance. Cast members Jim Belushi and Julia Louis-Dreyfus weren't yet household names, and the weight of the show was on Murphy's shoulders, with rumors circulating in the press that the show wouldn't be picked up for the next season without him. Fresh off the success of 48 Hours and midway through filming Trading Places, Murphy was feeling growing pains in his role at SNL. The long hours, the fact that the show kept him from accepting other work, and the comparatively meager pay were making his contract feel like a tether, and his favorite writers, Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield had left for bigger and better things. Rumor has it that he was telling people close to him he was out for '84.
So Executive Producer Dick Ebersol called up his star. He sang Murphy's praises, convincing him that if he stayed, he could work half as much for twice the pay, and he could work more flexible hours through pre-tapes. Here’s the thing though - Ebersol recognized that Murphy was useful to him: his stardom clearly put butts in seats and kept the ratings up. But his attitude for Murphy over the years was described as going from "condescension to coddling."1 Murphy told friends that "three years ago he (Ebersol) wouldn't talk to me. Now he's kissing my ass."
When the 1984 season started, everyone looked at Murphy like he was overpaid and had one foot out the door. And to be fair, he did have one foot out the door. The problems that he had with SNL were still there, and the time he spent filming the show was time he could've spent filming more exciting projects. Within a few months, his relationships with the writers, cast and crew were strained. By the time his new contract was up, Murphy had no good feelings left for the show. He left dejected and disillusioned. Perhaps, if he had left after '83, it wouldn't have taken him 35 years to come back to host.
You never bring me flowers anymore
There's a pretty widely cited statistic in recruiting (of somewhat dubious origins. Try to figure it out and you might get stuck in rabbit hole.) that 80% of employees who accept counter offers end up leaving within six months, and 90% leave within a year. While we can't vouch for that statistic, we can say it aligns with our experiences.
When an employee gives notice, the employer goes into 'fix it' mode. Think of quitting like a break-up. The employee says "you never bring me flowers anymore" so the employer say "I can bring you flowers. What do you want, 100 long-stemmed roses?!" And they buy the flowers.... once. But the structural and cultural issues that led the employee to searching for a new job still exist. And other employees start to view the quitter with suspicion: "why would we promote them if they've already expressed that they want to leave?" Or "why did they get a raise for being disloyal?"
What we tell candidates is that whatever issues compelled you to go through the long, arduous process of searching for a new job still exist. When you are planning to give notice, go into the meeting feeling strong. Remember our favorite mantra, "it's not you, it's me." A counter offer will feel flattering (and they have a million reasons to want to keep you, you're great!), but remember that it is somewhat rooted in your employer's fear of the cost of replacing you. And last, we can confirm that if you leave respectfully, before you're dejected and disillusioned, you won't burn bridges. We know several attorneys who left their firms for perfectly good reasons, practiced somewhere else for a few years, then returned when their old firms had addressed their issues.
1 Weingrad, Jeff and Doug Hill. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. Untreed Reads, 2011.