Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I don’t do counteroffers.

That’s not just a quirk of mine; my college doesn’t do them. It’s a policy I’m happy to follow.

The question comes up whenever somebody respected on campus gets an offer elsewhere. People always seem a little surprised when the answer to “so-and-so got another offer – what are you going to do?” is something like “wish hir the best.” But it is, and that seems right to me.

Admittedly, a position like this is easier to sustain at a community college than it would be at a Harvard. At the tippity-top of the prestige hierarchy, there may be good reasons to give Superstar Professor whatever she wants. Superstar Professor brings name value for recruitment, donor interest, and/or metric tons of grant money; a certain amount of groveling may make sense. But at this level, that’s not how the world works. While some professors here are more respected internally and in the local community than others, nobody really comes here to study under so-and-so. Our faculty don’t bring in the mega-grants, and for the most part, we wouldn’t have the infrastructure to support them if they did. That’s not our mission.

(To be fair, the policy isn’t limited to faculty. We don’t do counteroffers for administrators or staff, either.)

Good arguments exist for counteroffers. The one I find almost persuasive is the one that notes, correctly, that salary raises here are incremental and pretty much across-the-board. (The exception is promotion bumps -- going from Assistant to Associate Professor, say.) That means that if the salary you accepted when you took the job wasn’t much, then it may never be. Some people prove to be worth far more than the usual salary scale pays them, and they know it, but all else being equal, they’d rather not leave. In a system without counteroffers, their only option for a meaningful pay increase is to leave.

That’s a problem, but it’s a problem with across-the-board salary increments. Introducing counteroffers trades a small problem for a much bigger problem. At a really basic level, you’re encouraging people to try to leave. Incentives matter. When you reward ‘disloyalty’ over ‘performance,’ it isn’t hard to figure out which way people’s energies will move. If you want to keep the best performers, pay for performance. That’s not the same thing.

I’ve read that the average length of stay after accepting a counteroffer is 18 months. I don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds right. In my own experience, job searches (other than coming out of grad school) haven’t been entirely about money. People will tolerate relatively low pay if they like the job. (If that weren’t true, the entire adjunct workforce would have quit years ago.) If somebody is looking, it’s because s/he wants out. I’m okay with that – sometimes ‘out’ is the best option all around. Although the academic blogosphere is quick to sniff sinister motives whenever somebody trots out the ‘f’ word, there really is such a thing as a bad fit. If someone wants to find a better fit for hirself, I say, go right ahead. Someone who never quite clicks at college A can succeed wildly at college B. Context matters.

In my single days, I learned early on that there’s no point in trying to argue your way out of getting dumped. To me, that’s what a counteroffer amounts to. It’s an attempt to postpone the inevitable through a palliative that doesn’t address the real issues. At most, it’s a mutually-unsatisfying stall. But unlike the dating analogy, counteroffers affect more than the parties directly involved. When there’s a contractual pay scale, counteroffers can sabotage it. Other employees quickly get the message, and system-gaming becomes a full-time job. Loyalty is punished, performance ignored, and internal equity simply forgotten in the stampede. Not worth it.

Is there an argument for counteroffers at the cc level that’s actually persuasive? Am I missing it?