After months of job search agony, you might have an urge to immediately accept any offer you receive. But before you give a final answer, take time to learn a little more about what the company has to offer. Remember, now your potential employer is trying to sell you, and that means you can ask important questions about benefits and compensation that may have seemed pushy or self-serving during the interview process.
Now, I should mention upfront that not every applicant will have the power to negotiate the benefits below—your experience and expertise will strongly influence how much bargaining power you have. A senior hire may find that almost all contract points are negotiable, whereas a recent college grad will have less power to change the package.
The size and structure of the company will also impact your ability to negotiate. A large company will likely have greater resources to expend on employee benefits, but it also may have more intractable policies, giving you less flexibility to adapt your benefits than you might find at a smaller company.
But regardless of your seniority or the type of company you’re joining, you should never assume that any offer is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Make sure you’re getting the best possible package by researching, asking questions, and discussing the following with HR prior to accepting any job.
In many jobs, you’ll receive a base salary as well as additional incentive compensation—that is, extra pay based on performance. If you will receive any form of incentive compensation—be it commission or bonus—ask how that pay is determined. Is it based on a formula or objective criteria? What will it typically be as a percentage of your base salary, and what are the past high, low, and median levels for someone at your level? The more you know about incentive compensation, the easier it will be to structure your performance to maximize it.
Although each of these amounts is often highly negotiated by senior hires, junior employees usually don’t have much leverage. That said, if your potential employer offers you less than you had anticipated and it won’t move off that number, ask if you can receive a salary review prior to the standard review period. Large companies often can’t diverge from specified salary levels, but might see an earlier review as a way to reward you without breaking rules.
When I graduated from business school, I worried how I would transport my car to my new job, since I planned to fly rather than drive all the way from Boston to Washington. Then I read the small print in my HR packet. The company would transport my car for me at its expense! I’m not going to lie, I felt a little guilty watching my rusty 15-year-old compact being lifted onto the vehicle carrier—but it definitely saved me hassle and time.
Even if you’re moving from a dorm room to an apartment via your parents’ minivan, you do have moving expenses, and it’s worth asking whether gasoline and mileage is covered. Also ask about reimbursement for apartment-seeking expenses—even day trips to a new city result in subway, train, cab, meals, and tipping costs.
If you’re more established, you may also need to think about selling your home and buying a new one. Some companies will agree to compensate new hires for a loss on their home, or pick up the financing fees or closing costs on a new home.
All this said, make sure to ask about any contingencies tied to moving reimbursement. When I moved on to a new job 11 months later, I received a formal letter from my previous employer informing me I had to pay the company back for prior moving expenses, since I left before a year’s time. Fortunately, my former manager was able to intervene—but make sure you figure out beforehand if there’s a “clawback” of moving expenses.
Even if you can’t imagine returning to school, find out about your prospective employer’s continuing education and tuition reimbursement program. A few years down the road, you may realize you need an additional degree or even just a few courses to position yourself best for advancement.
In addition to finding out how much your company will reimburse you for further education, also ask questions to uncover how easy they will make it for you to receive it. The most generous companies will not only pay for your education, but also allow you time off to complete a degree. But, as with moving reimbursement, find out if there is a required payback in time with the company if you use a corporate reimbursement program for your education.
You probably didn’t feel it wise to ask about vacation or sabbaticals when you were trying to land the job, but now’s your opportunity to learn about the company’s policies. How many days does the company offer each year? Are you allowed to roll over days from one calendar year to the next? Will you be compensated for the days off, or not?
Today, some of the more creative companies are offering flexible vacation trade-offs. One 2009 college graduate working for a defense contractor told me she took advantage of a company policy that allowed her to convert her overtime hours to vacation days and extend her vacation abroad with her boyfriend.
As a single young professional in my 20s at Merrill Lynch, I never considered reviewing the policies that would affect my work-life balance, such as parental leave, flex time, telecommuting policies, or retirement benefits. But before I left the firm 10 years later, I was married, had two children, worked from home one day a week, and had contributed to my children’s college fund.
You may be far from building a family, but it’s worthwhile to check out how your company will treat you if you do. In the U.S., anyone—male or female—employed for at least 12 months by a business with a payroll of at least 50 people may take 12 unpaid weeks off and not lose his or her job under the Family Medical Leave Act. But the structure of these policies can differ: For example, some companies offer more than 12 weeks. And some companies compensate the parent for the time they are home, while others don’t.
Similarly, flex time, telecommuting guidelines, and savings plans—although possibly unimportant to you now—might later make the difference between maintaining your job with your employer and quitting down the line. Moreover, these policies can be a revealing measure of your prospective company’s attitudes toward its employees—especially its female employees.
Although a discussion with your prospective employer’s HR department may not seem important when you receive an offer for your dream job, these are worthwhile conversations to have. Not only will you reduce the possibility of surprises down the road, you may be able to adjust the offer in your favor. Remember, you never have more leverage than when you’re holding an offer you haven’t accepted.