re-interviewing a candidate who previously accepted a counter-offer

A reader writes:

My company has grown enough to add a counterpart to my position. I have been extremely involved in the interview process with candidates. We found a fantastic candidate early last fall and made him an offer, but he accepted a counter-offer (title and salary) from his company about a week before his start date.

Cut to this week — he has contacted our HR to let us know that things have gotten progressively worse at his company (surprise) and he wants to interview again. My boss has stated that I have final approval on which candidates get offers, since this employee is going to be working hand-in-hand with me every day. We haven’t had many strong candidates, and I’m getting stressed handling the workload on my own as we continue to search. I’d like to get someone in the role, but I’m annoyed that he bailed so close to his prior start date. Plus, I think he displayed terrible judgement by accepting a counter-offer in the first place.

How do I proceed? Do I bring him in for another interview and ask him to explain his rationale? What questions do I ask? Or do I listen to some of my more senior coworkers and just write him off now?

I’d be pretty tempted to write him off. This is someone who made a commitment to your company that you depended on and then reneged on it — a week before his start date, no less. That’s pretty useful information about how he operates and how seriously he takes his word.

If you have other strong candidates, I wouldn’t consider him. But if it’s a hard-to-fill position and he’s especially strong, I suppose you could talk to him — but I’d be skeptical about hiring him, unless he offers up an explanation that you find unusually compelling and he sounds like he gets that it was a big deal to do that last year.

So if you want to, talk to him and ask what caused him to renege on his acceptance of your offer last time. You can even say explicitly, “To be honest, I’m concerned that the same thing will happen again this time, or that if you got a better offer from somewhere else in a few months, you’d take it.” There are two basic types of responses you could hear in reply to this:

1. “I wouldn’t be actively looking, but I can’t promise I wouldn’t take something that fell in my lap.”
or
2. “No, I believe strongly in keeping my commitments, and what happened last time was out of character for me. It happened because of (insert some convincing explanation here), but if we move forward now, I’m committed to proving that I’m reliable and stable.”

You’re looking for something like the second — something that signals to you that this guy isn’t generally a commitment-breaker, that what happened last year was an aberration, and that he’s unlikely to repeat it. If he sounds cavalier or defensive, he’s not the person you want to hire.

I’d also look at his previous work history. Does he have a history of staying places for a while, or is he frequently moving from one thing to another? And what do his references say about him, as far as reliability, commitment, and follow-through?

But unless he’s head and shoulders above other candidates in every respect, I’d leave him in the past. (And even if he is, I’d do everything you can to build your pool of other candidates first, mine your network for others, etc.)

Edited to add: This all assumes that he had actually accepted your offer and then later backed out. If he didn’t actually accept it, then he hasn’t  done anything wrong, since people aren’t ever obligated to accept offers. It’s the breaking of his word that’s at issue.

{ 50 comments… read them below }

  1. CoffeeLover

    “We found a fantastic candidate early last fall and made him an offer, but he accepted a counter-offer (title and salary) from his company about a week before his start date.”

    Did he accept your offer and then bail a week before the start date? Or did you extend him an offer that he rejected a week before the offered start date because he went with the counter-offer? If it’s the former, then I’d be concerned, but would probably still hire him if everything else seems great and you can’t find another candidate. If it’s the latter then I see no issue. After all, when accepting a new job you don’t really know the new place will be better, and you might think more money will make you happier in the old place. (Note: I don’t actually think you should accept counter-offers, but I can understand why someone would.)

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I answered on the assumption that he accepted the offer and then bailed a week before his start date. (Since I assume he wouldn’t have had a start date only a week away if he hadn’t yet accepted, since he was currently employed.)

      If I’m wrong and he hadn’t actually accepted the offer, then I agree — not a big deal at all. People are never obligated to accept an offer.

      1. Jessa

        Yeh, I’d like to hear the clarification too, because I first read it the way you did, but then when I read the follow ups, I also questioned whether this person actually accepted their offer or just took it back to the prior company.

        On the other hand I’d side eye someone who lead me to believe an offer would be looked upon favourably and then instead of negotiating with me, took it back to their old job and used it to negotiate with THEM.

    2. Ann O'Nemity

      I had the same question! Did he accept and then renege on the offer? Or did he receive the offer, sit on it, and then ultimately reject it one week before the proposed start date? It’s not 100% clear in the letter and there’s a big difference between the two.

  2. BCW

    I don’t think you should necessarily discount him, especially just for taking a counter offer. Normal readers of this website have read time and again why counter offers aren’t good usually. However I’d say to most people, they make sense. You are in a place that you are comfortable, know how things work, etc. You were looking to leave, but you got offered a huge promotion and raise. And you don’t know what other personal factors went into that.

    Aside from this. I think everyone makes mistakes. I had to renege on a job offer once a few days before my start date. I’m not proud of it, but looking back, it really was the best thing for me. Long story short, they needed an answer by a certain date which they wouldn’t budge on. I had gotten a verbal commitment that I was who they wanted to hire from a company that I preferred and that was better suited for my long term goals. However the person in charge of sending the actual offer was on vacation for 2 weeks. So I took the other job all the while waiting to hear back. Once I got the official offer (which was 20k more!), I had to renege on the original offer.

    I’m all for giving people a chance to explain themselves. You say he is the strongest candidate. What harm could it do to bring him in for a conversation, or at least have a phone call?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      The problem isn’t that he took a counter-offer; it’s that he broke his word. The company has no reason to trust him and shouldn’t signal that they’ll reward that behavior.

      1. BCW

        I wouldn’t call it rewarding him, because its a mutually beneficial situation. They need someone. He is their best candidate.

        Besides, this happens the other way ALL THE TIME. Companies pick one candidate over the other. Their original choice doesn’t work out, and they call the person they initially rejected. I understand the broken commitment thing. But when it comes down to it, in both cases they thought they were doing what was in their best interest, and they were wrong, so now they are trying to change it.

        1. PJ

          This. Both parties are making choices that they hope are in their best interest. Sometimes choices are wrong, and we choose again. I would not automatically discount someone who did this, but I agree with AAM — he needs to tell a compelling story as to why this was an unusual situation that won’t be repeated.

        2. Colette

          But if a company made me an offer, I accepted, and then the company pulled the offer a week before the start date, I would be totally justified in not considering another job there, don’t you think?

          1. Jazzy Red

            This happened to me, and I decided then and there that I would never work for people who think it’s OK to do things like that.

            To the OP – if you do hire this guy, remember what he did and that he’ll bail on you, too.

            Since I’m all into old sayings: If he cheats *with* you, he’ll cheat *on* you.

  3. PEBCAK

    Has the position been open this WHOLE time? If so, then talk to the guy again…if you can’t find someone in nine months (since last fall), even bringing him on and losing him might be better than keeping it open another year.

  4. Joey

    This is totally like dating: “I know I chose someone else over you before, but that didnt work out so……”

    The key is you have to remember that the reason he turned you down is you weren’t his ideal match. So how can he now your ideal match when you’re the same as last fall?

    1. BCW

      Well, I’d say there are a lot of people who don’t work at their ideal place. I’d say at the time, he thought out of the 2 choices he had, the other place was better for him. Its not like he had his pick of any company anywhere, he had 2 choices. He misjudged. It happens.

    2. PJ

      There is no ideal match in the job world (and, says the ragged voice of experience, in the dating world). We trade our time for a paycheck, and we hope we’ve got enough information to make a good decision. To further the metaphore, sometimes the old boyfriend comes around to woo us back, and we’re smitten enough to forget why we left in the first place. Then… oh, yeah. That’s why.

      In my opinion, the closer the guy is to the start of his career the more leeway I’d give him. It’s certainly worth checking out. And the guy may be so contrite that he’ll bend over backwards to prove his loyalty. I would not discount him without at least a conversation.

      1. Joey

        Except that’s pretty quick to decide to try to come back. If nothing else Id be concerned that he doesn’t know what his priorities are. At that point he’s likely running away from his job, not running to the op’s.

  5. Nikki J.

    While it wasn’t fun for you to have him pull out of this offer he may have had his reasons and why not listen? Really, you’ve got nothing to lose by simply asking someone directly what happened. There could be so many legit reasons why he had to take the counter. Yea yea I get commitment and loyalties to companies but lets always remember they are humans first that SHOULD have much stronger loyalties to themselves, family, etc…

    Like I said, no skin off your back to entertain him. Growing up my mom engrained into me “it doesn’t hurt to ask” and in most cases in life she’s spot on. It’s just a basic of good communication.

  6. OP

    OP here. To clarify, yes, last fall the candidate accepted our offer, put in his notice, and then accepted the counter offer.

    I agreed to bring him in for another interview last week, and I’m glad I did. First – I discovered that our HR person reached out to him. He did not approach us, which is what i had been told by manager. (Confirmed this with HR.) During his interview, I asked him something close to what AAM suggested. I was understanding of his response. He had been at his previous company for 7 years and really liked the people he worked with, but his office was clearly about to be sold – no new hires, no money for new projects, no support from management. But when he put in his notice, the VP’s materialized at his desk, promising him support and capital for his projects. “They just couldn’t stand to lose him.” It wasn’t the money – He felt loyal. He thought words from such senior people would mean action. He bought it, but then nothing has come of it. He’s over it, doesn’t believe them anymore, and is ready to really move on.

    I agreed to extend an offer to him. My company made he offer, he accepted immediately. Word is he gave notice this past Monday – so keep your fingers crossed! The stress of my job was making ME consider finding a new position, so I figured it was the best bet right now.

    1. Meg

      Good luck! I really do hope it works out for you. I tend to side with Alison; I’m suspicious of someone who reneged on an offer, but if it was an anomaly in his job history and he’s an otherwise strong candidate, then he may be the best one in the bunch after all.

    2. PJ

      Good job on follow-through! Given what he told you, I’d make the same decision as you did.

    3. The IT Manager

      Best of luck to you. Sound like you followed Alison’s advice in advance. Like PEBCAK said above, if this postion has been open for 9 months and he’s been the only viable candidate, this is hopefully win-win for you.

    4. Kou

      That’s funny, because when reading it for some reason I got the feeling that maybe it wasn’t that he flits around to different jobs– it was that he had been there a long time and didn’t want to go if he could find a reason to stay.

  7. Joey

    Alison,
    I’m curious. Do you have any idea how many people actually follow your advice vs. just trying to validate their own decisions?

    It seems to me that job seekers generally follow your advice, but I’m not so sure about those on the employer side.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Nothing scientific, although I get a lot of mail from people who followed it on job-hunting stuff and had it work. I get less feedback about what happens with advice on other topics and I’d like to (which is one of the reasons I started doing updates every so often).

      I will say, though, that I’m sometimes frustrated when letter-writers post in the comments section and appear to be totally disregarding the advice without explaining why — it’s totally fine to disregard it (obviously no one is obligated to do what I say, as much as I’d like them to), but if I take the time to answer someone’s question here and they’re taking the time to weigh back in, I’d appreciate hearing their take on the advice and why it will or won’t work for them.

      (This isn’t a reference to the OP in this post, who had already taken action before the letter was published anyway.)

      1. OP

        It would’ve been a completely different story if this were 1 month into the search. Or if we had a number of good candidates. But I decided that having his expertise, even if its only a few months before he maybe flakes (which I don’t expect), is better than me working 80 weeks for the foreseeable future without any backup.

        Engineers for oil & gas are in crazy high demand right now (college kids take note) so it’s blood sport to find good ones.

        1. Sarah

          OP, that’s an interesting latter comment. My husband is a substation engineer, and when his boss heard that I took a job in another city (which means he would have to move eventually too), his boss told him to let him know if he started looking for another job so they can offer him more money — they obviously don’t get that it’s not about the money. This same company won’t hire PEs because they don’t want to pay for PEs, but will hire kids fresh out of college that they will have to train for a couple of years. Those engineers will eventually move on after that huge investment of training, time and money.

          1. LCL

            The perception here is that substation engineers can find work anytime, anywhere. Can’t speak from experience as that is above my education level.

        2. Chris

          If you’re still around OP, I have a question for you.

          What turned you off from the other candidates for the position / made them seen as not hireable?

          My personal reason for asking is that I graduated with an aerospace engineering degree 1+ years ago (B.S.) and haven’t been able to find work since. As such I’d like to avoid making the mistakes the other candidates made (especially since it’s likely that I’m making them right now). Are there any specific common denominators in engineering resumes / CV’s that are turn-off’s? Thanks in advance.

          1. EngineerGirl

            Aerospace is in the middle of huge cutbacks and loss of funding. The industry as a whole is taking a hit right now. Additionally, an aero degree is sometimes too generalist for entry level positions. Software, mechanical, and electrical degrees fare far better. It could also be your GPA or school. Our HR wont look at someone who’s GPA is below 3.5.

            But really, there are few jobs in the industry right now. Instead think about looking at industries that use aero technology such as GPS, remote sensing, or auto-pilot vehicles (auto-pilot tractors etc.)

          2. OP

            Honestly, the hardest part has been finding experienced hires – ideally applicants within the widow of 3-10 yrs experience – they are so in demand with the industry right now. I would absolutely take on someone with internship experience, but no one with even that level has applied. We’ve had lots of “new to the industry” applicants, but honestly we are running so fast that I don’t really have time to train someone from zero. It’s unfortunate, but since our company doesn’t have any training programs/protocols in place, it would be on me alone to train someone brand new. I have discussed this with my manager, and she has stated this to be fact. (Issues with my manager’s style of “managing” is a whole different AAM post!)

        3. Anonymous

          Engineers for oil & gas are in crazy high demand right now (college kids take note) so it’s blood sport to find good ones.

          Is it easy to get entry-level work in the industry, or is this another one of those famous “shortages” where a bunch of people go to school for it and then find out no one will hire you without 7 years’ experience?

          One of my friends fell for this with nursing 6 years ago and has yet to find even per diem, and another one went to trade school to be an electrician because omg we’ll have no electricians in 2015 or whatever. Same thing. There’s a shortage of experienced electricians, and you can’t get started in the industry.

          1. OP

            Getting an entry level position in the industry is 100% dependent on a student having internship experience. That’s the biggest hurdle by far. After that there is lots of room for advancement . Oil & gas has a weird demographic: lots of senior folks about to retire and then an bunch of new people with 10 yrs or less. It’s a direct result of the last bust cycle. No new engineers were hired when prices were bottomed out.

            But these days no one gets in the door without internship/co-op experience. Most of the majors pull >90 % of their new hires from their summer student programs.

      1. fposte

        Oh, I like that–enough that I looked it up to find it attributed both to a member of Molière’s acting troupe and to Saul Bellow. Interesting pairing there.

  8. OP

    Just realized that I never explicitly thanked AAM for her advice. (Shame!) Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I really appreciate your perspective, because the advice I’ve been getting from my peers (less than 10 years experience) is that I would be “cruel” (yes – that word was used) to dismiss a candidate for this. It seems years of experience makes people far more skeptical of a candidate such as this – with good reason.

    1. fposte

      And I think that when you do decide to hire in this situation, the fact that you were able to talk out the prior situation will make it a lot easier to move forward into a productive working relationship. A previous action like this can hamper interaction going forward even if he does commit fully to the new company this time, so it’s good for the people hiring–for you, basically–as well as for him that you were able to bring that issue out in the open.

    2. Joey

      Cruel to them for not filling the position because its been open so long?

      Because it definitely wouldn’t be cruel to the engineer?

      But oil/gas engineers can almost be outright a**holes and still get hired right now.

  9. ES

    I had an HR person at my last job who tried to convince me to accept her counter-offer…three days before I was due to start at my new job. I told her I couldn’t do it because it wouldn’t be fair to the job that I’d accepted nearly two weeks ago, and she told me people do it “all the time.”

    I still didn’t take it.

    1. Mena

      People with integrity don’t do it all the time – I think she said that to ‘get her way.’

    2. Ruffingit

      So looking at this from the point of view that you gave two weeks notice, the counter offer shows up 11 days after you gave notice? That right there is reason enough not to bother entertaining the ridiculous notion of staying. It took them 11 days to even bother coming back with something, that just screams how important you are to them. Geeze.

      Good for you for going with the new job and not being swayed!

  10. Brett

    My employer currently only gives merit raises as counter offers if you get a bona fide offer from another employer. In other words, the only way to get a raise is to find and use another employer and completely burn your bridges with them. This letter makes me realize the genius of this policy.

    How’s that for an employee retention strategy when you stop giving raises?

    1. Joey

      That’s actually the complete opposite of genius-that the company will willfully and continually underpay them until they have one foot out the door.

    2. PEBCAK

      Ah, but the time to ask for a counter-offer is BEFORE you accept the new job. It would go like this:

      New company: Here’s an offer.
      Me: Lemme think. Hey, old company, I have an offer.
      Old company: Here’s a counter offer.
      Me: Great! Hey, new company, I have to decline the position.
      New company: Alright.

      Your company’s policy is still a terrible one, but you can get and decline a job offer WITHOUT burning bridges.

      1. Brett

        I was more referring to the idea that by making this policy, other employers are going to be weary of even interviewing applicants who work for us, much less giving them an offer. (We have about 4,000 employees in this area.)

      2. Editor

        One of my direct reports — a few years before I was his supervisor — did the “fish for a new job and get a counter offer” trick. It worked well and he continued along. The business went downhil along with the industryl, however, about the time I moved from another office to his office and became his supervisor. After a couple of years where we had no raises and the industry continued in decline, he started muttering about job-hunting. At first I was panicked, because he was a key employee in many ways.

        But after being repeatedly threatened, I was just not interested in dealing with his final attempt to do the same thing and get enough of an offer to get a counter-offer. This time he had to take new job because the counter-offer was insignificant. The irony? He got a promotion, some more money, somewhat worse health insurance and a much worse boss. I got to do his work for more than a year and got laid off. Employment is unpredictable.

    3. anon-2

      Brett,

      Remember that many businesses run quarter-to-quarter. There are many companies out there who have a pig-headed “do not bid against yourself” policy — which also translates to “don’t give anyone a raise, unless they stick a gun to your head.”

      It might be a good policy – but — quite often , people are convinced to never accept counter-offers. And quite often, an employee who goes looking to improve his situation may oft decide – “bozo, it’s too late. I tried to negotiate with you, you said you can’t do anything. Now I have an offer, and you tell me, ‘duh, we wuz only kiddin’ ya?'”

  11. WWWONKA

    It has to be rembered that a candidate has to do what is best for him/her. The candidate owes you nothing as well as you owe him nothing. If you choose to talk with him again get clarification on his commitment to his job hunt and your company.

  12. HAnon

    A very awkward thing like this just happened at the company where I work. An employee in my department has been frustrated (rightly so) with a lot of problems with the company and she accepted a job elsewhere and turned in her 2-weeks notice. Management freaked out and offered her a raise and a Management position (she is a hard-worker but she has HORRIBLE people skills — incredibly rude, snippy, gossipy, immature) and she waffled back and forth for 2 weeks before she accepted. At this point I have no idea what’s going to happen now, but I can’t imagine making this kind of counter offer if I was the employer! Seems like a really bad idea to me!

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