Are You Prepared to Walk Away?

In the last month or so, I have observed three tragic career train wrecks. In each case, I looked on in horror and what seemed like slow motion as otherwise smart people demonstrated profound naïveté about how to navigate their careers.

As I watched the events unfold, I found myself wanting to shout, “No, no. Don’t do it!” But in each case I arrived too late to be helpful. I was able to diagnose what had caused the derailment, but I was too late to the scene to prevent the damage.

Case 1 was a situation in which a very talented person was encouraged to apply for a job she didn’t want in order to use it as leverage to increase her salary. When she succeeded in getting an offer, she turned to her current department and said, basically, “I’ve received this great new offer. What will you offer to keep me?” The response in this case was, “It would be wrong to hold you back; best of luck to you.”

Case 2 involved a promising candidate who was coached to express disdain for a salary offer and encouraged to counter by reimagining the job and asserting that the bigger role was worth a 30-percent higher salary. The response was worse than “I’m sorry that’s not possible.” Instead, it was, “Thanks, but never mind.”

Case 3 involved a guy who had received a hint of interest from a prospective employer and was encouraged by a good friend to use that potential opportunity to secure a promotion. He scripted his ask with care: “I really enjoy working here, but the idea of a leadership role is, of course, hard to turn down. If you could match the opportunity, I would consider staying.” It was a double blow when his current department failed to offer anything new and the prospective employer didn’t come through.

A key strategy in good negotiation is to have a backup plan and some wiggle room. Asking questions about what might be possible is wiser than issuing ultimatums that may eventually be shot down. If you aren’t prepared to walk away from your current situation, it’s not smart to play hardball.

Have you ever used a real or potential job offer to leverage something better?

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user Valentin.Ottone.]

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