Thursday, 22 March 2018 13:40

Rules for Negotiating Job Benefits

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Published in Careers

In previous editions, Dr. Eleanor Jennings provided information about preparing for the interview and interviewing do’s and don’ts.  In this edition, Microbe Mentor’s Dr. Jennings finishes her job interview tips by looking at the art of negotiating job benefits. As a general rule, never ask about benefits before an official job offer has been made.

Rule 1: Understand Your Level of Negotiating
Your level of negotiating power is directly proportional to your worth to the company, and your worth is dependent on how much relevant job experience you have and whether you are an expert in the field. Higher valued employees can negotiate almost anything – amount of vacation time, salary, job location, etc. However, if you are just starting out, then you probably don’t have much room to ask for things. Knowing your worth will allow you to maximize your negotiating power.

Rule 2: Understand What is Negotiable and What is Not 
Regardless of your worth to a company, some benefits that you want may not be realistic.  For example, if your company does not have on-site daycare, they won’t add it just for you - even if you are a company vice-president.  Know what benefits are up for discussion. This involves some research from you.

Rule 3: Don’t Ask About Salary Too Early in the Interview Process
This suggests that your only interest is the pay and not the company itself. An interviewer wants you to clearly understand that you are there to work and serve the needs of the company.  Asking about money too early suggests that this is your prime motive.

Typically, at some point in the interview process for an early-career scientist, Human Resources (HR) will bring up benefits, including the offered salary.  Don’t say anything at this time, but instead wait to follow up later. Once you are given an offer, you can start the negotiation process by giving a reasonable (and well-researched) counter-offer back to the company. Alternatively, HR can ask you what your expected salary is, to which you have an answer because of the research you’ve down ahead of time.

If an employer has not discussed salary after multiple interviews, it is OK to then ask what the salary range is for your position.   If you are wanting to negotiate for the higher end of this range, be able to justify why you deserved it by using quantifiable reasons such as number of patents you hold, the dollar value in sales of the new molecular process that you will integrate into the research team, revenue generated by clients you plan on bringing with you to the new company, etc.

Rule 4: Don’t Discount the Value of Your Actual Salary
Your salary impacts your long-term earning power and your retirement savings.  Women, in particular, tend to under-negotiate their salary, and some report this leads to an income loss of $500,000 over the length of a professional career in comparison to male counterparts. In addition, many employers allow employees to contribute a percentage of their salary to a retirement fund, and will match or partially match the employee contributions.  Over time, a consistently lower salary can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars not being available for retirement.  

Rule 5:  Don’t Ask About Vacation Time Too Early in the Interview Process
What if you are offered a job, and the start-date conflicts with a pre-existing vacation you had scheduled?

Regardless of the reason, first ask yourself if the time off is really necessary.  As a new employee, you do not want to start off on the wrong foot and send the signal that the job is not your top priority. See if you can move the time off to later in the year. If the reason for taking off is substantial and not movable, then you need to navigate a very difficult situation and tell your future employer what is going on - and every situation will be different.

Time-off discussions need to occur during your negotiation period, after a formal job offer has been made. Mention the time-off to your potential supervisor, if you know who it is.  If not, then work with your HR agent.   Understand that your employer starts making plans for you the minute you commit to joining the company.  This is why you talk to them before you commit to your start date – you need to prevent your employer from setting up your onboarding process only to have to modify the plans later on.  

If you need a full week off for an expensive and already-paid-for vacation and it would occur at the start of your employment, then tell HR immediately that you have a “personal commitment” that you can’t back out of and then proceed as above.  If your reason for taking time off is vacation-related, don’t disclose this fact … this sends a bad message about work ethic and can start your career off on the wrong foot.  Then take all precautions not to return to the office with a great tan, for the same reason.    

If you are taking any amount of time off for a health-related issue, be cautious as to how much information you disclose, to the extent of not even revealing if it is yourself with the issue.  For example, only say “An immediate family member has a surgery scheduled.”   Remember that you are not yet an official company employee during this negotiation stage, and thus your position has absolutely no legal protections whatsoever.

If all you need is two business days off and it is during your first weeks of employment, ask the company if they want you to postpone your start until you return.  This keeps the company feeling in control of the situation.  Also, most new employee training is a well-oiled machine, and many employers won’t want to throw a disruption into it by having you gone during the process.

If your time off occurs after starting but within the first few months of employment, wait until you have begun to work and build a trusting relationship with your immediate supervisor.  Then disclose the need to take off with a plan to ensure that all projects will still run smoothly in your absence. Give plenty of notice (the length of notice should be proportionate to the length of time you will be gone).  You may have to take leave without pay if you have not accrued enough paid time off.               

Rule 6:  Don’t Forget About Other Benefits You Can “Exchange” for Salary
This includes the ability to work from home, a travel supplement, bonuses, flexible schedules, more vacation time, etc. If you feel strongly about working from home and in the position to ask for it during the negotiation period, be ready to demonstrate how you can work from home effectively. For example, “I have a separate room that is already set up and dedicated as an office, including a copier/scanner as well as a second computer monitor to use when working on large spreadsheets.”  This will add to your negotiating power by showing that you understand the needs of getting your job done via a functional office and have already accommodated that.   

Rule 7: Benefits are Not Set in Stone Once You Accept the Job
After you have been with the company for a few years and have proven yourself (in other words, your value has increased), you can renegotiate some of your benefits.  If you showed great leadership qualities and have successfully tackled a major problem, you may be in a position to ask for a raise or for a faster rate of PTO accrual.   If you have demonstrated the ability to keep up with office tasks even when on business travel, this can be something to bring up when negotiating for a day or two per week to work from home.  If you repeatedly find yourself leading team projects or working on more sensitive issues, the need for an actual office (with walls!) over your cubicle can be something to discuss.

Rule 8: Practice Your Negotiating Skills
Any negotiation is a sale’s pitch.  If you want more vacation time or the ability to work from home for a few days per week, practice out-loud how to approach your supervisor and what you will say. Include how you’ve earned this but also how the company will actually benefit.  For example, if you want to work from home twice a week, explain that the three hours per-day that you spend commuting will be transitioned into more time available to work on your reports.  At bare minimum, be ready to discuss how the company will not suffer from this new benefit (“I’m fine with being flexible as to the precise weekdays that I work from home if it’s critical for me to be in the office.”).  

Rule 9: Go Into a Benefits Negotiation Meeting with as Much Information as Possible
Have your facts listed out as to why you have earned a benefit.  Don’t assume that your supervisor, and others in charge of benefits, knows everything that you’ve accomplished.  All supervisors have their own jobs to deal with, and on top of that they usually have multiple people to supervise.  It can be hard to remember who did what.  In addition, some really good employees are naturally more quiet about their accomplishments, and don’t boast loudly in the lab or office.  If you are one of these quiet people, an actual written list becomes even more critical for documenting your achievements to your boss.  Also, remember to keep to the facts in an accurate manner.  If you were part of a team when an innovative technology was developed, make sure your teamwork skills are highlighted when talking about your role – it is both accurate and will show that you are comfortable sharing credit when appropriate. However, don’t sell yourself short and take less credit than what is due to you. Your goal is to accurately detail your accomplishments – something nobody else will do for you.

Rule 10:  Go Into a Benefits Negotiation Meeting with as Much Information as Possible – From the Company’s Side
Before you go asking for a raise, pay attention to office intel and company information about corporate finances – if the company is about to buy another corporation, they may be putting cash into the buyout and not raises.  Thus, you may be better off negotiating for more vacation time as opposed to a bigger paycheck.  If the company is thinking of moving operations across the country, and you want to stay where you are, then a remote office (working from home) may be your ultimate goal.  Make sure you have an idea of where the company is coming from, as it will help to determine what benefit negotiations are possible and which ones are not.  

Rule 11: Control Your Emotions 
Having a positive attitude and being polite can keep a negotiation going. Being rude or getting angry will get you nowhere other than marked as a problem-employee.  You can be assertive while still being respectful and professional.

With proper preparation, you can increase your chances of success when it comes to negotiating job benefits at the start of employment as well as during your career.

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Last modified on Thursday, 22 March 2018 14:03
Eleanor M. Jennings

Dr. Eleanor Jennings is a Principal Microbiologist at Parsons Corporation. She has worked on contaminant remediation projects on multiple continents, and currently serves as the U.S. science advisor to the National Science and Engineering Council of Canada.  She is also the Chair of the ASM Career Development Committee and is on the ASM Membership Board.