I accepted a job, then a better counteroffer from my employer came along — what should I do?

Research shows that discontented workers lured back with higher pay often end up leaving within a year.
(Seth Perlman / Associated Press)

Question: After close to a decade in my current job, I started applying to new jobs because my salary has remained stagnant, and I was concerned about layoffs. I have accepted a job offer in the public sector. A few hours after I gave my two-week notice, one of the vice presidents and the director of a different division at my current employer made me an incredible counteroffer to work in a new position under the director.

I feel like the pros and cons are pretty equal. My current employer is offering me more money with an incentive program; it’s a new and exciting position with room for growth; and I already have a great reputation here and wouldn’t have to start from the ground up. The other job is in the public sector, so currently there’s a guaranteed raise every year; I could get a pension; and it’s more stable than the industry I’m in now.

I have read that you should never accept a counteroffer because your boss will lose all respect for you. In my case, it’s not my boss making the offer, and it wouldn’t be the same position.


Also, would it be unethical or illegal for me to turn down the new job? I’ve sent in some paperwork, but I haven’t signed a contract yet. Plus, I feel almost guilty because the other employer will have to start the hiring process all over again. Am I being silly in thinking that way?

Answer: Research shows that discontented workers lured back with higher pay often end up leaving within a year, anyway. But you wouldn’t be slinking back to your old job; you’d be entering a new job with a new boss, with the bonus of institutional knowledge and a reputation that sends VPs chasing after you. And you already have inside connections to help you investigate what you’d be getting into.

As for legal repercussions, I wouldn’t worry too much unless you’ve signed a contract promising to perform for a specified period or received some financial incentive that you’d have to repay. That doesn’t mean that backing out is without other consequences: You will burn some bridges with the other employer.

And it’s not silly to be mindful of inconveniencing that employer -- but it would be a bit naive to think that those doing the hiring don’t have second-string candidates lined up. The best you can do is avoid wasting more of their time by making and communicating your decision quickly.

So the remaining question is, which offer will you accept? The public-sector job may well offer more security and predictability. But it’s clearly not the one you’re excited about.

Pro tip: Employment and labor lawyer Declan Leonard of business law firm Berenzweig Leonard notes that employers can also pull job offers at any time for nondiscriminatory reasons. In some cases, jilted hires may be able to file claims for expenses incurred as a result of the offer, such as relocation costs.

Karla Miller writes a column about work dramas and traumas for the Washington Post.