Is The Grass Really Greener?

Deciding whether to accept another job offer can be a nerve-wracking experience, fraught with unknowns. So how do you decide?
“I found the perfect job position for you!” That was the exuberant voice of my very persistent headhunter reverberating in my ear.

I wasn't looking for a new position, but every now and then the phone would ring with an enticing offer. This particular incident was before the Web took hold and I was programming on mainframes. The “perfect job” was a senior mainframe programmer position with a big multi-national firm that included a 20% bump in salary.

But I had another option. I had the opportunity to do ERP work on another project with my current firm providing me a chance to learn “cutting-edge” client server technology. It helped my case that at that time it was very difficult to find candidates with ERP experience. After much deliberation (and convincing of my spouse) I decided to take the ERP job so I could learn new technologies.

Granted, over the past five years not many IT professionals have been receiving unsolicited opportunities. But the tide seems to be turning, so you should be prepared before the phone rings.

These decisions can be nerve-wracking. Sometimes it makes sense to leave, but you have to make sure it's for the right reasons. Other times, it makes perfect sense to stay. So how do you decide?

Freedom to Innovate

For answers I talked with Jenn Mann, HR Manager at SAS, the global provider of business intelligence and analytics software based in Cary, N.C. She deals directly with IT staff members making these potentially life-altering decisions.

“Although compensation is a consideration for IT employees, it is not usually their top motivator,” says Mann. “I found their career values to be centered around the challenge of work, opportunities to learn new technology and freedom to innovate because the technical mind is tuned into innovation. The opportunity to collaborate with like minds is also of great importance.”

But what if you are presented with an unexpected opportunity and the compensation potential is really, really enticing? What questions should you ask before agreeing to an interview?

There are many good, qualitative questions you can ask about career advancement, company factoids and work-place intangibles that will help you sort hype from reality.

“Ask about budget for technical training and the process of moving onto new projects for exposure to different technologies,” suggests Mann. “Inquire about the work environment – office space, equipment resources, and availability of a quiet space to innovate.”

You should do your own research as well, especially if the company is public. Research company financial information, like R&D spending percentage, at, or simply on the investor relations link at the company web site. Mann suggests trying a basic Google search to find out information about company stability, strategic direction and commitment to quality. You may even find a discussion board where there are rumors of the company being acquired. Armed with this information, you can ask more probing questions if you decide to pursue an interview.

There are always intangible factors to consider, such as flexible work schedules and commute times. Mann says, “At SAS we found that people are more productive at different times of the day and they may have an outside work issue that requires some flexibility.” If the work day is rigid at the new place, then you need to weigh that in your decision.

Other incidental considerations are the little perks like free snacks. “There is quite a bit of that here at SAS where you can go down any hall and find goodies. We also have a café co-located with the IT staff so that tech people can brainstorm.” If you are the type that works late, it never hurts having munchies around (I personally had an affection for Peanut M&Ms – what is it with programmers and candy?).

When Former Co-workers Recruit

Sometimes the call doesn’t come from a headhunter, but from a former co-worker. They might be espousing the fantastic new work environment and maybe even speaking negatively of your current situation.

Mann said that you have to carefully analyze the information being provided by your former co-worker. “Think about what you know about that individual and compare your values and job criteria. Do they need the same benefits and quality of work life?” says Mann. “Are they still in the honeymoon stage when the new company cannot do any wrong?”

It is true that every company has issues. Your goal should be to figure out what they are and how they relate to your needs and values. And Mann suggests verifying your former co-workers’ motivation. “Some companies have referral bonuses, which encourage them to contact former co-workers.” My suggestion there is to ask them directly and make sure they buy you a nice lunch if you take the job!

Mann suggests one other way to dig a little deeper and peek behind the curtain.

“It is not inappropriate to ask to speak with employees that you will be working with. It is doubtful that an employee will speak negatively, but look for slight hesitations in their responses and listen for contradictions from what the hiring manager or recruiter stated.”

If your research pans out and you are still interested, it does not hurt to accept an interview.

“If you are a little unhappy, this may confirm you are working at the right place,” says Mann. “However, if the new job excites you and the job challenges are better, then a switch may be in order.”

Just be professional about your resignation and be sure not to burn any bridges. Mann says it isn’t uncommon for a former employee to return to SAS if they left on good terms.

But keep in mind it can be like going to the new car dealer for a test drive. Before you know what happened, the new car is sitting in your driveway. This is why it is critical you do research before taking the interview.

As for my decision to stay put, the headhunter was not pleased. Said I was making a huge mistake. Couldn’t understand why I was staying put when I had a huge pay increase within reach. In hindsight, it was a very good decision, enabling me to take an ERP consulting job that subsequently led to a management position. The resulting long-term career and compensation benefits far outweighed the pay increase I turned down, proving the grass is not always greener.

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