Candidate Alert !! It's NOT over when you get the offer

July 7, 2009

We were recently involved in a search assignment in which our client extended an offer of employment to a candidate only to withdraw it after the candidate asked ‘a few innocuous clarifying questions’. The incident illustrates a key misunderstanding about employment offers.

Hiring exercises are courtships in which the parties get to know each other over a series of meetings, each designed to estimate the likelihood of a successful employment marriage. Every step is a gate to continuing or ending the process. The offer of employment is the marriage proposal and represents a big leap in the relationship. But, and this is key, the offer is not the end of the process, it is only another step. Many, many things can go wrong at this stage and it is not the time for either party to get drunk with joy, let their guard down, become undisciplined, or veer off the track that got them to that point.

The employment offer provides both parties with critical new information on which to make the final marriage decision. The candidate gets a glimpse of the behaviors which the employer values and rewards, the tone and structure of their agreements, how they deal with employees in the event of a breakup (think pre-nuptual agreement), their negotiating style etc etc. At the same time, the company also learns a lot about the candidate by how he or she handles the offer, where they push back, and how they deal with the negotiation itself. It is a delicate stage and an intermediary can be very helpful.

In the instance of our withdrawn offer, the company believed it was providing a high-potential individual with an opportunity to address an important role, one for which the candidate would need to learn much, and very quickly. They believed they had communicated their expectations to the candidate including the time pressures facing the role and the limited resources it would be provided. They believed they had clearly translated the context into the behaviors most likely to predict success in the first year….in short, it was going to be a lot of work.
The candidate appeared to be on the same page with the client and references went well. But when the written offer arrived she did not sign it or call us to discuss it. Instead she responded directly to the client with a series of ‘clarifying’ questions about various clauses in the agreement. She asked about hours of work and overtime policies. She asked about expense accounts, and whether the employer would cover her professional fees and support her attending selected developmental conferences. She asked about vacations….. I could go on but it is not necessary. With each question she gave clues into her priorities and work ethic, and raised concerns as to whether both parties were in fact aligned in their expectations. With each question she unintentionally put a nail into her own coffin until it was closed shut. She was shocked and puzzled when the company withdrew its offer.

It is not important who was right or wrong in this whole situation. We played a role on many levels, there were inordinate delays from the client side as well as mixed messages of their own, and the candidate may well have played her hand very differently if she had to do it all over again. In the end, these are uncertain times and nervous companies do not need much prompting to err on the side of risk mitigation. And ratifying an employment agreement is rife with challenges. Forgetting that can lead to some big surprises when you least expect it.