Why Counter Offers Upon Resignation Rarely Work

Your top employee or best manager just walked into your office holding that dreaded piece of paper. You know, the one with the words “thank you for this great opportunity, I respectfully resign my position” typed neatly on it.  

As you read it, your mind starts brainstorming “what can I do to get them to stay?!” You can’t lose them, they’re the best of the best. You’ll never be able to find someone with their skill set and knowledge of the organization. You’ll spend months training their replacement just to get them up to speed. You’ve invested so much into them, how can they quit?

And then without hesitation, the words “would you reconsider if I put a counteroffer together for you?” comes out of your mouth. They graciously say “sure” but in their mind, they’re thinking there’s nothing you can offer them to stay. It’s too little, too late. 

And in reality, in most cases it is. Yet, in many industries, counteroffers are becoming increasingly common. 

What does a counter offer really say to an employee? 

  1. You weren’t worth my time then, but you are now. You didn’t take the time to gauge their satisfaction with their job when it would have counted. Instead, you assumed they were happy with their position in your organization, with your head stuck in the sand, until they abruptly informed you that they were not happy in the form of their resignation. And suddenly trying to make them happy has become a priority, where ten minutes prior it wasn’t even on your radar. 
  2. It will cost me less to retain you than to replace you. It’s estimated that replacing an employee costs between 100-300% of their annual salary. That includes recruitment, onboarding, and training. By proposing a counteroffer you’re telling the employee that you’d rather pay them more to stay than to have to put out the money to replace them. It’s cost-effective. That tells the employee they aren’t what’s important to you, the cost savings are. 
  3. I’ll offer you more money to stay in a job you’re obviously not happy in. Counteroffers most often include incentives in the form of a higher salary, extra vacation time, and other perks that aren’t available to the general employee population. What they too often don’t include is training opportunities, strategic plans for advancement, or any other resolution that would improve the work situation the employee aims to change by leaving. Three of the top reasons employees leave is the work they are doing, no room for advancement, or their leadership. Offering them financial incentive to stay won’t impact those things. 

So how can you proactively keep your top employees from slipping you that piece of paper? 

Start by assessing your key talent through a people review. This should include their strengths and areas of improvement as well as their risk for leaving the organization and a succession plan if they do. Then sit down with them and have a conversation, or what we in HR sometimes call a stay interview. Find out what their career goals are and see how that matches up with the succession plan you designed. A succession plan won’t work if you haven’t taken into consideration where your employees want to be in three to five years within your organization. During that stay interview also ask them what they like about working for the company, what their pain points in their position are, and give them the opportunity to share their ideas. And finally, assess your wages on a regular basis. Are you lagging in your industry with regards to wages? If so, what can you do to improve that? 

What steps has your organization taken to ensure that your key employees don’t walk out the door and leave you in a panic? 

Lorrie Coffey

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