Because despite what they say, it’s usually not about the money
“If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it is yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”
I was in my late teens when I first read that quote in some self-help book, and for years I thought it only applied to love. But it popped up again in a totally different context a few weeks ago when a friend’s CFO gave his two weeks’ notice. He had gotten a better offer from a competitor and decided to take it.
My friend was freaked out. This was an important position, and it would be difficult to fill. My friend wondered if she should make a counteroffer to try to convince her CFO to stay.
“That would be a big mistake,” I said. “In my experience, once someone has one foot out the door, it’s almost impossible to get them to come back in again.”
In other words: If you love something, let it go …
Obviously, this doesn’t fit every situation, and I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible to lure someone back. I’m just saying that it’s probably not going to stick. With a great offer, you might get six more weeks. Maybe six more months. But inevitably you’ll be right back where you started because financial counteroffers just don’t work. The reason is simple. Money isn’t usually the reason they are leaving.
People don’t stay in a position based solely on how much they are getting paid — it’s actually a jumble of harder-to-quantify factors. Is there a good cultural fit? Do they respect their boss? Do they enjoy their co-workers? Are they doing something meaningful? Do they feel they have a voice? Do they sense that their work is contributing to a worthy goal?
People will often tell you “It’s about the money” for the exact same reason that Reed and I used to tell people we got the idea for Netflix because of a late fee on a movie. It’s just a much simpler narrative.
A counteroffer may get them back temporarily, but if you don’t correct the real reasons they’ve left, you’re going to be right back where you started once the shine on those extra few dollars wears off.
Sometimes people will flaunt a new offer in an explicit effort to see what the counteroffer will be. And while I have no problem with someone wanting to be paid what they’re worth, brandishing a two-week notice solely to obtain a counteroffer can feel like blackmail. And I don’t like being blackmailed.
Case in point: several years ago, an employee came into my office with an ultimatum: “Unless you can beat this offer,” they said, “I’m leaving.” So I stood up, shook their hand, and said, “Congratulations! When do they want you to start?”
In any negotiation, the most powerful thing you can bring to the table is the willingness to walk away from it. But there’s another thing to consider: never make a threat unless you’re prepared to follow through on it.
Despite my hardass approach to counteroffers, I know that “it’s not about the money” is only true when you can be sure it’s not about the money. And the best way to know that you’re paying someone adequately is simply to encourage them to look for another job. Market rates can fluctuate dramatically from year to year, and there’s no better way for someone to know their value than to find out for themselves what the market is paying for their talent and experience (Netflix has done this for years).
If this seems financially reckless, let’s consider the alternative. Say you’ve been underpaying someone, gleefully rubbing your hands together at how much money you’ve saved your company. What happens when they find out? I’ll tell you what happens. A discussion about money turns into a discussion about honesty and exploitation. And there is no counteroffer strong enough to recover from that.
So if someone comes to you with their two-week notice and tells you it’s all about the money? Let them go. Let them find out for themselves if the grass is truly greener on the other side of the fence.
And If they come back to you, they are yours. If they don’t, then they never were.