Last Updated Dec 22, 2010 12:00 PM EST
|The Scenario: You've never been happy with your salary. You have no butt to speak of (having worked it off), and routinely watch Office Space and Fight Club for new negotiating tactics to be better paid. As a last resort, you interviewed at a competing firm and have what you think is a firm offer in hand, including a 30 percent bump in salary, which you present to your boss. She smiles. Drums her fingers on the desk. And says, "It's been good working with you." Oh. Um ... OK. Time to start packing up the office. The only problem is that the offer was never in writing and you just found out that the other company reported lousy results and enacted a hiring freeze. Suddenly you know how Wile E. Coyote feels when his legs are still churning but there's nothing beneath him.|
Baseball fans may remember a similar situation with the guy who at the time was the best player in the game, Alex Rodriguez. At the end of the 2007 season, A-Rod’s contract with the Yankees allowed him to opt-out and become a free agent. Which he did. He and his rep, super agent Scott Boras, hit the open market and said that it would take a 10-year, $350 million offer from the Yanks just to get the slugger back to the table.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to payday. No other team stepped up with an offer. And A-Rod had to come crawling back to the Yankees and make nice. He ended up with $275 million—serious coin, no doubt, but probably less than what he would have gotten had he simply negotiated directly with the Yankees. In the process, Rodriguez demonstrated on a grand scale that trying to play different employers off one another for money is risky sport.
“Never, ever use someone else as leverage,” says Janet White, author of Secrets of the Hidden Job Market. “If your original company wanted to keep you, you would’ve known that a long time ago. The fact that they didn’t compensate you the way you wanted or thought you deserved should have told you it’s time to go — because you can’t negotiate with someone who doesn’t care if you stay or leave.”
And even if you score — your boss blinks and matches the competing offer — long-term you could still lose, says Charles Purdy, senior editor at Monster.com and HotJobs.com. “He or she will likely forever question your loyalty,” Purdy says.
Good advice — in hindsight. But right now you’ve got a boss who has apparently moved on, a job offer that was a mirage, and a mortgage to pay. What do you do? Here are your two priorities:
1. Try to Get Your Old Job Back
The only way you have any shot depends on how you left the bridge when you crossed — intact or in flames? “This predicament highlights why you should never burn bridges and always leave jobs on good terms,” says Purdy. “Now when you go back to your former boss, it’s not purely about money.” Explain that “the new position wasn’t what you thought it would be.”
That’s a legitimate reason to seek a return — the potential job wasn’t a good fit and now that you’ve realized it, you’d like to come back. But you’d better be appropriately contrite and ready to grovel. In A-Rod’s case, he blamed his poor decision-making on Boras, his agent, and eventually parted ways with him; just as importantly, he took pains to emphasize on his website that he’d made a mistake and New York had always held a special place in his and his wife’s hearts.
If your former boss is unmoved by your contrition, try appealing to the bottom line. It would be both easier and cheaper for the company to bring you back at your old salary than to find, hire, and train a new person. Matthew Rothenberg, MoneyWatch.com columnist and editor-in-chief of TheLadders.com, advises approaching the situation as though you’re essentially applying for your old job. Think of ways you could do it better in detail, and present these to your erstwhile boss, along with specific goals you plan to accomplish if given the chance.
Oh, and remember: Even if they hire you back, you have a lot to overcome. “No matter how good a departure you’ve made, you’re already designated a flight risk,” says Rothenberg. You’re going to have to bust your tail to prove your recommitment. In A-Rod’s case, after two decent seasons in 2008 and 2009, he tore the cover off the ball in the 2009 playoffs and delivered the Yankees their first World Series ring in nine years. All was forgiven, even his embarrassing disclosure that he had used steroids years earlier. Do you have a homerun strategy?
2. Watch How You React to the ‘Mirage’ Offer
Yes, there was an epic miscommunication here. Yes, perhaps you feel misled or downright ripped off. Don’t show it. “Obviously, never make a move until you have an offer in writing,” says Rothenberg. “But in this situation, treat them with as much grace and consideration as you can. If you irritate two companies in this process, it could cripple you when an eventual third company starts checking your background.”
Also, along with a classy reaction — don’t let the dialogue die. “There are two kinds of ‘no,’” says White. One type of no really means “not now.” The second is a definitive no when things happen that you or your potential boss have no control over, like funding falling through. With a definitive no, whatever you were talking about is off the table, period. Now ... how do you take this definitive no and transform it into the “not now” variety? Try having a candid discussion with the person who interviewed you.
“You got to a point with this potential boss where you were talking about money and offers, so clearly you connected with him or her enough to now ask, ‘What happened?’” says White. Try to schedule an off-hour get-together over drinks (you’re buying). Maintain and preserve this relationship even if no job can be offered today. Down the line you may find yourself with consulting work or a full-time offer. “Time changes everything,” says White.
While your short-term strategy should be focused on your old job and your almost job, you should face another reality: Given the strains on both of those relationships, your long term future is probably with a third company. As soon as you come up for air, come up with a savvy networking strategy. Polish your resume and practice your interview skills. And don’t hire someone like Scott Boras to represent you.
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