Factors for Making Important Job Offer Decisions


(This piece was written for graduate students back in 2009 when the job market was not in good shape, and I hope it still has value to you in your job offer decisions).

It’s frustrating to try and figure out the job market. The job market is always in dramatic change, either on a precipitous decline or a fast uphill growth spike. If it were a roller coaster, you wouldn’t enjoy the ride because the “valleys” between the ups-and-downs don’t allow you enough time to recover. You’d be in constant heart-attack mode due to the dramatic shifts.

Today’s scenario may be a sharp drop off a cliff, but I can guarantee you that tomorrow’s will be something else entirely. That’s why I’d always recommend that you keep your focus on the plan, and not worry too much about what the market will be like when your CV lands on the desk of hiring managers and human resources. A well-thought-out and smoothly implemented career plan will put you in the best possible shape when you arrive at the job market’s door, ready and willing to be employed. Perhaps, in the worst possible job market, you’ll have to decide upon one offer at a time. In the best possible scenario, though, you’ll have offers to compare and contrast.

That’s what this month’s blog is all about. I’ve gathered the advice of experts on decision-making to help you move past the common barriers that lie in wait to trap those who want to select the best of their options.

Understanding the Decision Process

Whether you land multiple, simultaneous job offers, or you put out a lot of effort only to land one dangled job offer, your decision needs to be researched more carefully than the day-to-day decisions that you are faced with in other parts of your life. And yet, many people don’t change their formula–or even attempt to understand the process–when faced with decisions that have life-altering consequences like that of a new job.

For example, many people will decide to choose the job with the best salary, or decline a job offer if it doesn’t fit what they’ve heard others are getting. Most experts agree that is not a good idea to take a convenient shortcut such as simply selecting by salary, or selecting by word-of-mouth compensation surveys. Similarly, another convenient shortcut might be taking a new job only because it is at the company with the highest prestige. That’s just too easy.

Edward Russo, PhD, is coauthor of one of my favorite personal development books, Decision Traps. He believes that understanding your decision process and avoiding traditional shortcuts is the cornerstone for successful decision management:

“You’ve got to beware the easy decision,” Russo warned me in a personal interview. “It might be OK to take a shortcut if you’re trying to decide which peanut butter to buy, but in the area of career decisions, shortcuts are dangerous. The ‘rule of thumb’ approach is a dangerous path–perhaps something a colleague told you, or a few guidelines passed on as common knowledge for job changers. Your career choices are of such importance that you must construct a decision frame that contains criteria that matter to you. It’s an immensely personal process,” he advised.

Russo and his coauthor Paul J. H. Schoemaker go into great detail about this decision ‘frame’ in their book. Although they describe it in scientific terms, their idea is actually a very easily understood concept. It refers to the mental framework around which you look at your decision and your choice of options.

A Matter of Emotions

Think of your decision as a window you are looking through; the frame around that window is constructed of personal issues that matter most. The problem is that many people (even scientists who are trained to separate fact from fiction) have difficulty in taking emotions out of the equation.

Emotions can easily rule out over facts. In my practice as an executive recruiter, I find it amazing that candidates will make so many important decisions purely on emotions. These people have been trained for 8-10 years or more to use the analytical approach. Even with this background, many of them still decide to accept or decline a job offer purely from emotions. Dr. Russo believes that you have to separate these feelings from the raw data.

“Personal values dominate, but you have to have realistic facts to make the right decision. How quickly will you be promoted? How well will your new boss mentor you? What is the real value of this mentoring? It’s all very personal. And it certainly has emotion attached,” he told me. “Your job in making a decision is to work as much from facts as you can. Talking with someone else who is close to you can really help separate facts from emotions.” Russo believes that having a good friend or relative as a sounding board can be an extremely valuable part of the job-decision process. Start out by telling that person that you are attempting to do a factual analysis and have them play devil’s advocate.

“Talk with someone you are close to and tell them about your assumptions. Perhaps your college roommate or a sibling would be a good sounding board,” advises Dr. Russo. “If in your research you’ve come up with some insights based on negative feedback from people who have worked at that company before, don’t distort the evidence. Too many times I’ve heard people say ‘Well, that won’t happen to me,’ and later it does. Instead, talk it up with a close friend and let them hear why you believe this problem wouldn’t affect you.” Russo believes, and I concur, that hearing yourself attempt to convince your friend about some of these emotionally-charged issues will in itself become one of the best filters for your evidence.

Your Comparison Factors

Although everyone has their own methods for making choices, all of us start with the same basic problem: To make any decision, you have to know what your comparison factors are–and then be able to prioritize them. Everyone knows the typical ingredients in a job search decision. These items are common denominators for most of us:

– Salary and benefits

– Prestige of company

– Position title

– Job security

– Potential for advancement

– Long-term financial incentives; stock options, retirement, etc.

To the above list, many people might add some or all of the following:

– Cost of living differences

– Quality of life issues; childcare, access to arts, commute time, etc.

– Proximity to family

– Relationship with new boss

– New and challenging work

My suggestion is to improve on this list by adding those special factors that matters for your decision. For most of us, the next step in this process is to then prioritize the list. But, prioritizing a list of items in which everything is a priority can be exhausting. The best way to approach this is with a variation of the “pair comparisons” method, where you review the weight of each factor against the others.

Getting Yourself Prioritized

Choose the factors that you will use to make a decision and write down those factors. Your job will be to go through each item on the list, from top to bottom, and rank them by comparing them against each other. If the factor of Salary is more important than the factor of Relationship with new boss, than keep that higher on the list. If it is less important, move it down. If you end with a tie or two, you’ll have to make a judgment call.

Obviously, just having your list prioritized isn’t going to make your decision.

“When you are researching the data you’ll need for your decision, make certain that you search for disconfirming evidence. This is tough to do because many people have developed a leaning toward a particular decision. If you are excited and anxious about the prospects for a new job, it’s hard to think about what could go wrong. It’s best, though, to really dig.” Russo tells me that he counsels his graduate students to talk with people who have worked at the company before, or those in other departments and other types of positions with the firm.

“Don’t ask them the canned questions that will solicit the company-line response. Instead, talk with them about their real feelings about the company culture–why they took the job that they are in, and how they have progressed since joining up. You’ll find much interesting information in the way that people answer questions like ‘Tell me where you think you’ll be next year at this time,” Russo suggests.

To sum up, remember that any good decision is an informed decision. If you research what is really important to you in the choice, and combine it with a fair and impartial review of the facts, you’ll be in great shape for making one of the biggest decisions of your life. And if you get totally stuck on two equal choices, then—and only then—allow emotions out to cut the deck.