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Cautionary Tales: Three Job-Offer Jugglers Gone Wrong

Here's what not to do when you get to the bargaining table.

In my recent column on how to juggle multiple job offers, I laid out a plan for job-seekers caught between competing employers. Here, I'll review three job-offer jugglers who dropped the ball and paid for it. These stories are composites of real-life job-search and recruitment tales based on two decades leading corporate HR teams.

Be Realistic

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The situation: Arnie called me to say that my company had to put up or shut up. He'd received a job offer from the other firm he was interviewing with. "Good for you, Arnie," I said. "We would hate to lose you, but I'm delighted to see that your talents are appreciated. Can you give me a sense of what we'd need to do to get you in our shop?" Arnie laid out the aggressive mix of base salary, bonus and long-term incentives he was hoping for, plus a car allowance and first-class travel benefits. "I'll run it up the flagpole here," I said. "I can let you know what we think, by Thursday. Wherever we end up, I'll close the loop with you quickly."

Our vice president of research, who would’ve been managing Arnie if we’d finally come to terms, balked. "Arnie is a smart guy, but that package includes about sixty thousand more in cash than I can afford to pay," he said. I called Arnie with the bad news. "I really like your company, so I can come down to your number," he said. By then our VP had lost faith. "I love a negotiation, but I'm wary when a candidate's wish list is too long and too lavish. If we're going into a run-down, at least we need to be in the same ballpark."

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Lesson learned? Know what's realistic before you begin a negotiation. Use sites like Glassdoor.com and Salary.com to gauge your expectations against the job market reality. If an employer is offering you more than what the market seems to bear, be wary -- there may be something making it hard for them to snag and keep good people.

Know What Really Matters

The situation: Melissa was interviewing for a purchasing coordinator job with our firm a couple of years post-college. She did a great job keeping me informed of her job-search adventures. "I'm talking with two other firms," she said, "but you guys are my first choice. I just love the energy here. I could learn so much." I stayed close to Melissa as she met with our managers and got a feel for how we got things done. "I would take this job over either of the other two positions I'm interviewing for," she mentioned more than once.

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We finally extended an offer and her response is: "I've got to compare the three health plans, the dental plan specifics and some of the other programs, like employee-referral bonuses," said Melissa, "before I could accept your offer." "Will a week be long enough?" I asked. "It would be," said Melissa, "except that the CFO for one of the companies is out of town and won't be back until next month."

"Melissa, we think you're fantastic and could help us a ton,” I responded “We think our company is pretty cool, too. It's important to us to hire people who resonate with our message and our mission and who think those things are more important than the dental-plan deductible, for instance. We'll keep the offer open for a week, and then you'll have to make a choice. I can't keep the offer outstanding forever when we have other tremendous people who deserve to know whether they're moving forward with us, or not."

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Melissa loved our culture, but took another position that paid her five percent more. Sad to say, she left that role within six months, and when she did we had no openings available in her area of expertise.

Lesson learned? Know yourself and what you require in a job. Don't shoot yourself in the foot trying to negotiate for items that aren't important in the first place. You’ll spend a vast majority of your time on the job. Make sure you choose an office environment that you can thrive in.

Protect Your Personal Brand

The situation: Kamil was already deep in conversation with another technology firm when we met him at a trade show, so we weren't surprised to hear that we had at most a week to interview him and put an offer together. We put the offer on the table at light speed and Kamil countered within two days: "Company X is offering me X, Y and Z, and you'll need to match those elements," Kamil said. We did. "Company A has thrown in restricted stock and a special performance bonus," we heard a few days later. "This is not a great process," I told him. "We'd love to know what you need to see in order to accept," I told him. “Let's synch up and then we'll make our final offer, so you can accept it or tell us it's not going to happen."

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We made our last offer and said, "This is the best we can do." Kamil came back with one more volley, when he was successful getting another chip from one of our competitors for his services. We bailed on the process at that point. Kamil took a job with a massive software firm, and shortly changed jobs afterwards. One day his name came up in conversation with another local job-search pro. "I wouldn't touch that guy," said my headhunting friend. "With him it's all about the piece-parts of the offer, and he'd go across the street for a thousand dollars. That's his reputation now." Negotiation can be fun and satisfying, but your brand as a businessperson has tremendous value, too.

Lesson learned? Remember that jobs are temporary, your career is long-term and your reputation is forever. Negotiate wisely and keep your personal brand (i.e., solid professional who knows what their worth vs. someone who's scrabbling for every penny) in mind as you negotiate.

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