Should you give a counteroffer to an employee who plans to quit?

You dread that moment when one of your people schedules a meeting to tell you that they have just accepted a job somewhere else. As a manager, you feel rejected, maybe even abandoned, and now have another problem on your hands—an empty position, a new person to hire and onboard, lost business. The fight in you comes out, and you might wonder what you can do to make them stay, and you reach for the counteroffer. So the question stands: Should you offer more money?

The reality is, research shows this line of thinking is flawed. As summarized in a recent Cornell University research paper: “The majority of employees who accept counteroffers turnover within the following 6 to 24 months. Counteroffers are a short-term fix when firms need a long-term solution.”  The truth is, the person leaving has already emotionally and mentally “left the building.” It is most likely too late to save the relationship.

But if buying their retention isn’t the solution, what is? In an unstable talent market, where employees leaving has reached an all-time high, this just adds to your own anxiety and the panic. So, what should the counteroffer actually be?

Make it about the relationship—not the money. These four relationship-building tips will help you lead with the ability to value your people while they are with you and support their evolution when it’s time to move on. Embrace the counterintuitive here, and take these steps to stay in relationship with your people while they are leaving:

Managers, you’re in charge of setting the tone

When someone resigns, it can feel like rejection and that can send you to a place of judgment—and this is when you might begin to make things up, creating stories about that person, making them “wrong.” Sometimes this can send you to a place of vilifying them—and ruin what had been a good working relationship. This is a step to avoid. Instead, it is up to you to stand in a perspective that will serve you and this relationship. Some relationships need to end because they no longer serve one or both parties. So, what is significant here for you? What do you want to hold on to, what are you grateful for? And what are you ready to let go of?

Take a pause to invest in healthy, lasting relationships

Tenure is fleeting and careers are long. Pause here to step back to look at the bigger picture. This is not necessarily a breakup. In far too many workplace settings, when people are ready to move on, we make this the end of the relationship, and it doesn’t have to be that way.

Keep in mind that healthy relationships go through many transitions and last for the long haul. So, how do you want to be as you are both evolving to different places? This person may come back around and work with you in your next work situation. Or you may get a job in their new situation. Who knows? So, pause. What does closure look like? And closure does not mean the end, it’s just what the current circumstances look like.

Don’t take it personally

We get that the research says it is all about you. That people leave because of their managers. But it’s often more to a worker’s rationale.

Consider for a moment, what if their decision has nothing to do with you? Instead, their leaving has everything to do with them and what they need right now. So, get unhooked so that you do not take their leaving personally. Do what you need to do to become grounded with this person and see their situation from their point of view. The antidote to judgment is curiosity. Rather than feeling judgmental about them and why they are leaving, what are you curious about? What questions do you have? How can you learn from this?  It might have something to do with you, and it might not. Provide a safe space for them to share their experience with your company and their reasons for leaving as you listen without judgment. There might be some nuggets in this conversation that will make you better. This might be about your learning as much as theirs.

Take time to celebrate and acknowledge departing workers

Leaders oftentimes don’t celebrate the accomplishments of their people enough. As a manager, consider how this person has contributed to the success of the group, division, or company. How have they helped you? What qualities beyond the doing of their job do you want to acknowledge? It might be a can-do attitude or their team spirit or that you could always count on them for fill-in-the-blank. And we think it’s okay to be emotional. It’s likely you spend more time at work with your fellow colleagues and workmates than you do with your loved ones. So don’t feel put off by emotions and let your coworkers know how much they mean to you and how much you will miss them.

It’s obvious money is important to people. So, make sure that you are being competitive in the market and paying people fairly. This is a necessary first step to retaining your employees. And if someone does walk into your office to tell you they’re leaving, consider this a gift. It might be a signal that something is wrong—or maybe not at all. Your departing employee could be moving closer to family or into another discipline altogether or needing to be at home to offer much-needed stability in these uncertain times.

Either way, you are selling yourself and the relationship short if you just make it about what you pay. Treat your employees like humans. Maintain a relationship with your employees by getting personal and empathetic. Therefore, try asking without judgment and from a place of pure curiosity. Since yes, this person is leaving, but what they tell you might help you retain the rest of your team.


Debbie Cohen and Kate Roeske-Zummer are the cofounders of HumanityWorks, a leadership development organization that focuses on increasing productivity by embracing humanity at work. They are the coauthors of Humanity Works Better: 5 Practices to Lead with Awareness, Choice, and the Courage to Change.

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