Reader Question: Retention Etiquette

Reader G is an associate professor at a research school highly ranked in G’s discipline. G recently received an offer from a lower-ranked place at a more desirable location (for personal and spousal-placement reasons). G consulted with department and college elders, and a retention offer is currently in the works.

However, negotiations with the other place fell through and they withdrew the offer, because they were ultimately not able to offer G what G needed (lack of resources, etc) and they needed to fill the post. While offer withdrawal is rare and considered poor form, at least in my academic corner, it is understandable they wanted to move on quickly, to a candidate they were more likely to attract.

Now that the outside offer has been withdrawn, how does G proceed? G could use the goodies promised in the retention package and would like to get them, if possible. Is it ethical to wait for the retention package to go through at this point, or to inquire about its progress? Or should G immediately report that the competing offer is no longer in the picture? What if G’s institution learns the offer is no longer there from someone else, before the retention is finalized?

What say you, academic blogosphere? How does G proceed? My guess is G wants to maintain good relationships with home institution, and, ideally, get the stuff promised for retention.


  1. Do universities have a legal office that faculty can consult on such matters?
    July 19, 2018 at 12:52 PM
    Can he talk to university legal and ask them?

  2. I agree with Alex, honesty is the best policy. G should prepare her/himself for the possibility that being honest will make the retention package disappear completely. On the other hand, once a person has obtained an outside offer and are on the market, they are likely to obtain another one. So the University may wish to do a “pre-retention” in this case anyway. Not saying anything, even if free of legal repercussions, can have very damaging consequences (at the very least, G’s relationship with his/her colleagues will be affected negatively if this becomes known) and I would personally not take that risk, no matter what the potential goodies are. Some things are just not worth it.

  3. There is no question—G has to report the withdrawal of the competing offer, if he or she has an pretense of being an ethical person.

    Of course, I have always found the game that many academics play of applying for outside positions just to be able to push for retention offers ethically repugnant.

  4. I agree with others that I would report it. Are there other universities around that would similarly be better for personal reasons? If yes, I would suggest letting the current university know that G is still open to pursuing other options to make her/his personal situation better. Then send out feelers to those nearby schools. This has two benefits: you get to show current uni that are you are honest, and you might get to explore other competing offers. In my experience, you can’t play the competing offer game very many times, or it pisses people off. So once you’ve opened the conversation with one school, it’s best to seek 1-2 additional competitive offers. That’s unfortunately the only way to truly know your worth in the academic market, and the only way you can enter a retention negotiation armed with enough information to make reasonable requests.

  5. Its weird how “ethics/honesty” always favors the university. This is probably why academics are all underpaid and mistreated. Bleeding hearts telling you how you are being a bad person to your university.

    Please don’t listen to the previous comments here. Don’t say anything new and you are OK.

  6. A good reputation is valuable because, must like certain types of degrees, it’s hard to obtain.

  7. If G doesn’t say anything and accepts the retention package, will he be in trouble later, like get fired? @Jaybird8519

  8. Ultimately, “ethics/honesty” favors the ethical and honest person by helping them to stay out of legal and personal trouble. If you have questions about whether a certain course of action will lend you in trouble, it is usually a good indicator that you will indeed face all kinds of expected and unexpected problems should you choose to pursue it.

    G is not completely without leverage in this situation. There is another institution that thought highly of G to the point of extending an offer to him/her. That may be enough for his/her current institution to proceed with the retention anyway since G can clearly land another job next year. I shudder to think what kind of situation will she/he find her/himself in if he says nothing and his colleagues/chair/dean eventually find out what has really happened. And they will almost certainly find out. This really is a no-brainer.

  9. To add on to what Random Reader said, Jaybird is getting morals mixed up with ethics. Nobody has said anything about morals. Ethics is about CYA and protecting yourself. First you want to cover yourself legally, then you want to cover yourself ethically. Morals are all internal to yourself.

  10. Jaybird is right. I read the comments to my partner (a moral and political philosopher at a R1), and he is now ranting as I type. This is a market transaction. There are no obligations to disclose this kind of information. Of course, one shouldn’t lie if asked, but there’s no need to show one’s hand. Think for a second about whether the university does anything remotely comparable for *us* as we negotiate. It doesn’t. They are certainly not disclosing to G all the ways they are desperate to keep her. Why should she be morally obligated to disclose her vulnerabilities, while the institution isn’t?

  11. Sorry, my husband and I can’t stop discussing this situation and the majority views here. I found a fun suggestion on Quora in response to a request from an employer for proof of a competing offer: “Turn the tables on them. If they think it’s acceptable to ask for your offers, ask them to see the top and bottom offers they’ve made to similar prospective hires such as yourself. Transparency goes both ways” (Levy Klots).

  12. @tenured, in the University of California system, all compensation is a matter of public record, and the Sacramento Bee maintains a database where you can look up any UC employee’s pay—so finding out the highest and lowest accepted offers is fairly straightforward (though checking for who the newest hires are is a little challenging).

    If retention request was triggered by the employee claiming to have had a better offer elsewhere, then the employee is obligated to report if the offer is withdrawn. If the employee merely claimed that they would quit if the their compensation was not raised, and they did not report a competing offer, then there is no obligation to report on the withdrawn offer—but they are obligated to follow through on their promise to quit if the retention offer is not made.

    People play all sorts of games to try to get bigger raises than their colleagues—lying by omission is not ethically sound here, and their colleagues will rightly regard them as scum if they do so.

  13. I am intimately familiar with the UC salary compensation system and the diverse and flexible arrangements that underlie the numbers reported in the Sac Bee database. I am also intimately familiar with how wealthy private R1s do things.

    I am not advocating lying to anyone. If someone asks explicitly, OP should say. Lying by omission is more complicated but generally not an issue in market transactions except where carefully regulated (e.g., we must report termites and radon and major structural issues, we don’t have to disclose planned pregnancies to potential employers). The university does not tell you about the check from a big donor that actually allows them to pay you more than they proposed a few months ago. Much of the equity talk is garbage (salaries of full and active profs at my R1 varied by $120k with no rhyme or reason, and I know similar things happen at public R1s). We do not have to disclose that we would be willing to accept up to $20k less than offered because that’s how much living in city X is worth to us. In other words, we do not need to disclose our threat value while the university fails to disclose theirs.

  14. Quick note on the legality, which seems to confuse people: Not disclosing changes in threat value (to use the economic term) is not fraud. Fabricating outside evidence, such as a fake offer letter, is fraud. If the OP had said, “Until further notice, assume I am entertaining an offer worth roughly this much,” and then failed to disclose that the offer had been withdrawn, that would be problematic. But I am guessing the OP said no such thing.

    Back to the original example: Do we really think universities–which should be treated like any other employer–have a moral obligation to inform us of their changing circumstances? Like they didn’t get that other line filled, and they are suddenly especially desperate to have someone teach basketweaving, and they’ll pay you $30k more if you ask for it? They don’t even come close.

  15. “If the OP had said, “Until further notice, assume I am entertaining an offer worth roughly this much,” and then failed to disclose that the offer had been withdrawn, that would be problematic. ”

    Isn’t that exactly what people are doing when they are negotiating for retention with their university based on an external offer? They essentially threaten to leave because they have an offer (which they may or may not be serious about) and the university’s administrators act based on this offer. A person does not have to be upfront with their chair/dean/colleagues about the strength of the offer or about the fact that they do not intend to move at all even if the university makes no retention offer and we can have a separate debate about whether such behavior is moral or not. On the other hand, one should be upfront about the existence or non-existence of the external offer.

  16. “Isn’t that exactly what people are doing when they are negotiating for retention with their university based on an external offer?”

    I don’t think so. For one, I can easily think of several retention packages that were inspired by the merest hint of an outside offer. (Indeed, my chair actively wants to hear when people have been receiving feelers from other universities.) It’s in the university’s interest, if they like someone, to try to retain that person. Even if a real outside offer was just withdrawn, the fact that you received one is a signal to the outside employer that you are movable. It’s a huge pain for employers to replace people, it can make other employees cranky, etc. This seems like an opportunity for OP to renegotiate the relationship. And lest anyone worry that OP may try to pull this stunt again and again, that’s why universities usually insert “non-compete” clauses that prevent you from considering other offers for n years upon receiving goodies x and y.

  17. “One should be upfront about the existence or non-existence of the external offer.”

    Sorry for the double posts. I’m not writing as clearly as I should.

    OP should not pretend an outside offer exists, but she should not feel the need to volunteer that the outside offer has folded. Negotiating a better package with your university, inspired by outside interest (even if no longer relevant), is not unethical.

  18. I actually agree with of much what you have said, tenured. In general, external offer is not necessary to negotiate for retention (outside interest is often enough) and it is indeed in University’s best interest to retain people.

    I would, however, not lie by omission about an external offer being withdrawn, if that particular offer is being used as a reason for retention and would not advise anyone else to do so either. I think that we will just have to disagree on this. I believe that an honest conversation with the chair of the department explaining what happened plus reiteration of the most important reasons due to which the person will seek to move in the future can still lead to a positive outcome for G. An institution that is going to pull G’s retention offer completely based on the external offer folding (due to legal or other reasons) is precisely the type of place that could make G’s life miserable once they find out that he or she wasn’t honest about it.

  19. The “rational” point of view is to not tell.

    The “realistic” point of view is that the chair of G’s dept and some rando from the other dept are going to end up at the hotel bar and Dr. Rando is going to say, “Too bad we had to withdraw that offer from G, huh? Guess you got lucky this time!” and the chair is going to say, “What?” This could damage a useful working relationship. If you don’t think the chair is the type to take it personally, it probably won’t be that big an issue. If the chair is vindictive or takes money personally, different situation.

    Best case, you mention casually to the chair that the outside offer is running into some issues and she says, “You don’t need to tell me about that — it’s out of our hands now, going up the admin tree!” Then you’re covered on both sides.

  20. From the outside-of-academia, this issue seems like one that doesn’t warrant the torturous reasoning.
    What IS a retention package? Is it a bribe? Or a honest reflection of a true value of an employee? Treat it as you would either.
    Do they want you to perform better/provide more for the package offered? Ir is it just long-due compensation of your talents and skills? In any case, it has nothing to do with any received or not, accepted or not outside offers. It is strictly a dialog, a negotiation of contractual terms.
    There is an old adage: there are two fools on the market: one is a seller, another – a buyer.
    It’s because both accept a certain risk in their transaction. So when your employer offers a higher price for you, they either getting a bargain or overpay. In either case, it’s their risk, not your responsibility.

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