Navigating offers - why understanding a candidate's dream role matters

Matt Baty Matt Baty
13th June 2022

Anyone working anywhere near recruitment will have a horror story to tell about the time their senior hire backed out post offer. At its worst, this can be so late in the day that the desk has been cleaned down, security passes ordered and business cards are already sitting in the top drawer. Most usually it’s in that dreaded no-man’s land between firm offer and official acceptance; the candidate goes dark, the tone of interaction changes and the email withdrawing is sent over a weekend reducing the possibility of a difficult conversation about why.

Working in-house, the reaction from hiring leads varies from ‘oh well, we clearly dodged a bullet’ to ‘can we go back to them and tweak the offer’. Working in search, your natural instinct is usually to attempt the charm offensive, walking that wafer-thin line between having an honest conversation, and bear-faced begging. Either way, the outcome is the same; weeks, even months of work up in smoke and the deeply unappetising prospect of starting it all again. This, of course, before the investigations start about who could have done better or worked differently.

The thing is, we spend so long thinking about what we can do to influence a candidate to say yes, from wining and dining, gifts, to increased offers, we lose sight of the most important thing of all; why candidates move jobs in the first place. In ESG recruitment, a perceived global talent shortage has naturally witnessed an increase in turned down offers. Active candidates are in demand across all areas of the industry leading to ‘either / or’ shortlists of a small pool of candidates. Many searches go on to fail because the hiring team’s heads are turned by that rare beast; the unicorn possessing the perceived perfect combination of competitor experience, cultural fit and credibility at, or even beyond the level of the role. They are right at the top of the salary scale on offer, even over it. They have been ‘talked into’ the role by a convincing recruiter. Whilst you might land them, the long-term risks are obvious; if the role isn’t broad enough in scope, retaining them past 12 months will be challenging. We are seeing a number of senior ESG candidates re-engaging with the recruitment process at other firms after short tenure, both flattered by the attention and increased salaries on offer and, and this is far more common, disillusioned after being ‘sold’ the dream of an ESG-aligned business that turns out not to be.

Usually, the ‘best candidate’ is the one for whom the opportunity represents a genuine chance for career advancement and (and this this is often a neglected discussion point through the process) personal fulfillment. It’s a bold move, but removing the high risk / high reward candidate from the process at an early stage can be a good option; having a candidate at the later stages of a process who is at best, 50/50 for accepting an offer can enable other candidates to shine. Far too often, the exciting but difficult-to-place candidates ruins good shortlists; naturally the hiring team will gravitate towards the person they really want yet can’t easily have and in-so-doing rule out others who are also strong hires.

Is this settling for second best? Well unless you have a compelling and realistic story to tell about how a role might develop and the ability to flex budgets upwards, it’s not that they are second best, they are simply the wrong candidate for the role. Within ESG, candidates are far more likely to be mission-driven than their counterparts in other business functions. Their ‘dream job’ will vary one to the next, but the common denominator in longer-term career planning is to make a tangible difference, not just to ensure a company can adhere to a framework or legislation. If this is not explicit within the process, you may find that the discussions move quickly towards ‘what’s in it for me’. By flipping your approach from skills alignment and experience, to matching the opportunity to the candidate’s idea of their own dream job, hiring teams will find that candidates will engage more with the opportunity.

Cynically speaking, money and title becomes less of a discussion point. If you can articulate and (insofar as it’s possible) evidence the possibility to drive change and impact within ESG recruitment, you’ll have a greater degree of success.

Crucially, once a candidate makes that mental switch from notional opportunity to ‘this is my dream job’ they are more likely to actually resign, sever the emotional tie with their current employer and become more resistant to buy-back. Candidates rarely resign because either a hiring manager or a recruitment consultant has talked them into it. They may give off positive noises, and may even accept an offer verbally, but when it comes to the point of actually writing an email of resignation they are very vulnerable to changing their mind. This can be for a number of reason; they may be offered more money to stay. The blocker to their progress may be removed. They may be promised a new project or even an internal move. They may simply be talked into staying. What we overlook is the virtual ‘emotional contract’ that exists between an employer and an employee. Until that is broken either through work related factors or the candidates personal situation, even the most compelling of offers can end in rejection.

There are myriad reasons why a person decides to move from one company to another. The main ones include: 

  • Work/life balance
  • Future prospects
  • Lack of challenge
  • Unfavourable changes to working practices
  • Dissatisfaction with superiors
  • Changing personal circumstances (relocation / divorce / caring responsibilities)

If the new role represents their dream job and a chance to make a genuine difference through the ESG lens, the above reasons are still at play at the final stages. Even that ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity has to pass a series of tests to be accepted by the candidate, particularly if it is going to cause domestic upheaval or disruption to a household already finely balanced. Hybrid working, for example, is discussed in nearly every candidate conversation we have; those who have it want to retain it, those who don’t, want it. Since the start of COVID-19, not a single candidate has requested full time office working, but many have turned jobs down because either a policy is wooly or it is clear that arrangements in place are temporary (or not fully bought into).

One of the best heads of HR I have ever supported as a consultant would (once a candidate’s suitability had been agreed by the hiring team) spend at least an hour meeting them with no discussion of the role at all. He even once insisted on taking a senior hire to dinner with his wife to fully explore the practicalities of a relocation, both to be creative with an offer package and to tick that final box about whether the search hounds could be stood down and he would accept the role.

When it gets down to brass tacks, the risk levels increase exponentially. Should the preferred candidate back out at the last minute or post offer, if the search has been completed effectively the only real option is to start again or totally revisit it. So to increase the chances of a successful offer it is vital that:

  • The candidate views the role as a dream, or at the very least career enhancing opportunity
  • Impact and change are explicitly emphasised and, where possible evidenced within ESG at all levels
  • You think creatively about the offer package. An underwhelming offer will spook any candidate who is not fully engaged. Sometimes the inexpensive things matter the most
  • You progress only suitable and engaged candidates. A good candidate ‘padded out’ alongside a couple of individuals unlikely to be successful leaves you with Hobson’s Choice, and by extension minimal bargaining power
  • You simply get to know them. Senior ESG interviews are often multiple stages and rarely do they consistently build the assessment from one session to the next.

Changing an unnecessary stage to focus more on the person, their life, aspirations inside and outside of work and their values gives you a greater chance of aligning and, crucially, reducing the risk of a mistake. Understanding a candidate’s career aspirations is a key part of the recipe. If they can match their dream job to the opportunity the search will often be successful. If not, it’ll come down to who’s got the biggest wallet, and this is not the bedrock on which ESG is built; change and impact, on the other-hand is.

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