The Other Compensation: Negotiating a Knockout Benefits Package

by Michelle Goodman

You got the job offer, agreed on a starting salary, and now you're on cloud nine. But before you break out the bubbly or call Mom to tell her the good news, take a deep breath, Champ, and get back in that ring. Because until you've KO'd your benefits package, you're not done negotiating how you'll be paid for the job.

"People dramatically undervalue benefits," says Brad Karsh, author of Confessions of a Recruiting Director: The Insider's Guide to Landing Your First Job. "They think, 'Salary is the king, salary is the great god.' But salary is only part of the equation."

In other words, blindly accept whatever benefits package is waved in your face and you risk leaving money on the table.

So, which benefits can you negotiate? How do you negotiate them? And just how much extra money are we talking about?

Aim for the Easy Targets

Although many benefits are set in stone -- especially staples like health insurance and 401(k) plans -- some perks are up for negotiation. In fact, "by asking a few friendly, non-threatening questions, you stand to gain thousands of dollars in benefits," says Janet Scarborough, founder and president of Bridgeway Career Development.

Next time a manager's chomping at the bit to hire you but can't come up to your salary sweet spot, try asking for one or more of these incentives:

  • More vacation time. "The perk that people overlook the most is asking about extra vacation days," says Seattle-area recruiter Kristen Fife. And, scoring a few extra days off a year is actually one of the easiest benefits to negotiate, she says.

  • Signing bonus. On average, such bonuses amount to 10 to 20 percent of your gross salary, Fife says. Note: You do pay taxes on this money, and many companies require you to return the cash if you jump ship within a year.

  • Relocation package. If you're moving out of state, some companies will reimburse a portion of your costs. As with signing bonuses, it's easier for an employer to give you this one-time perk than come up in salary.

  • Stock options. Since this dangling carrot isn't worth diddly till the options vest, it doesn't cost the company a dime, Fife says.

  • Sniff Out the Lifestyle Perks

    Smart employers know that quality-of-life benefits are as good as gold in today's balance-starved workforce. Following are some lifestyle perks you may be able to nab, depending on your company's benefits program:

    • Flexible hours or telecommuting. Unless the company already has a flexibility program in place, you'll have to prove yourself on the job before you can ask for an alternate schedule or telecommuting privileges.

    • Sabbatical or family leave (paid or unpaid). You may be able to take several weeks or months off to travel, study, or care for family without jeopardizing your job.

    • Tuition costs and professional development. Some employers offer an allowance for continuing education, professional conferences, and professional membership dues.

    • Other bells and whistles. These include onsite or subsidized child care or pet care, commuting and parking reimbursements, gym memberships, free or subsidized meals and beverages, and concierge services.

    If you're not sure whether a potential employer offers any of these perks -- even after you've played detective online and off -- just ask.

    Write a Wish List

    Before you walk into the negotiation room, identify your deal makers and breakers. If you're contemplating parenthood, family leave and flex time might top your priority list. If you want to get your MBA before the decade ends, tuition reimbursement might grab you most.

    Be realistic about your wish list. "I wouldn't pull out a list of 17 things and say do you have this and this and this?" Karsh warns. "Hiring managers will think, 'High maintenance!'"

    Haggling is equally unbecoming. "When it comes to negotiating benefits, my approach is one and done," Karsh says. "Job seekers who keep going back and back run the risk of damaging the relationship or even losing the offer."

    Get Your Facts Straight

    Knowing that you get to choose between two different healthcare packages isn't enough. You need to know what portion of the premium your employer will pay, if there's a deductible, if you can choose your own physician -- especially if you're comparing multiple job offers, Scarborough says.

    And if you can't make heads or tails of the fine print, ask the hiring manager to put you in touch with HR. That's what they're there for.

    Next: 5 Tips for Talking Money With a Potential Employer >>

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