Perksmanship: Understanding the Benefits and Little Extras That Come With Employment Offers

The word "perk" doesn't come up much in grad school. But in industry jobs of all stripes, prospective employees wrangle to get as many perks as possible into their job offers. CEOs and VPs may acquire a private parking space in that big corporate parking lot, whereas staff scientists and junior businesspeople may hope to get into a good 401K retirement plan with substantial company contributions.

There are many varieties to these perks, and in the flush of actually receiving an offer it is all too easy to gloss over them and focus your attention on the salary. However, as a package, a company's standard benefits and negotiable perks can be worth as much as 30% to 40% of your base pay. So, in my Tooling Up column this month, I will elaborate on this topic. First, I'll describe perks that you may be able to negotiate before saying "yes" to an offer. Then, I'll look at benefits that companies may offer as a standard--and fixed--package. And finally, I'll offer a golden rule that you can apply to successfully negotiate a total compensation package that will get you off to a great start at your new job.

Negotiable Perks

One danger of writing about perks is that some may assume that these goodies are out there in a big corporate cookie jar just waiting for anyone who asks. That isn't the case, and in fact you may seriously damage your credibility with a firm if you come in like some kind of hardball negotiator looking for all kinds of extras. Instead, you should know about the kind of perks that some companies offer so that you can develop a strategy for responding to a job offer when it is placed on the table. By the time you're dealing in specifics, you should know as much as possible about what that company's standard benefits package looks like, as well as perks that you may be able to negotiate with them.

Here are some of the items that are often negotiated with companies. Remember, though, every company has a different culture about what is negotiable and what is not, and at what job level the negotiation should begin:

Hiring Bonus: A hiring bonus is a perk that is added at offer time in some jobs where there are just not enough good people to go around, or where there are special difficulties that one would face in a pending relocation. It is a one-time-only cash payment made payable generally on the first day of employment. Bonuses can range from $3000 in additional relocation assistance (see below) to as much as $10,000 or more when it is being used as a "sweetener" to attract a top performer for a hard-to-fill job. While such a perk has a certain attraction (cash always does ...), it is always wiser to negotiate as much as possible into your base salary because that is what future increases are based upon. Don't request a hiring bonus unless it is as a last resort. Companies will figure out before you do that this will solve the problem.

Vacation Time: The usual vacation benefit, which is likely to be included in your offer, is 1 week of paid vacation with a year's service. While it may seem like a distinct honor to have someone pay you for taking a week off in the woods after the years you've spent in the lab, you should remember that vacation time is one of the more flexible areas of a job offer. No company will lose a good prospect because of an additional week's vacation. Your job, however, is to convince them that you need this additional time, which is often difficult when you are at the same time trying to look like a hard-working new employee. Your best bet is to show them how you've had more than 1 week in your previous job before stating that you are simply looking for parity.

Scientific Meetings: The time to negotiate how many and which scientific meetings you will be allowed to attend is at the romancing stage and not after you are on the job. If there are two meetings that you need to attend each year, make a case for that at the time you are being hired. Often, though, a peripheral issue like this will be an arrangement between you and your future supervisor, and not a formal part of the written job offer. Additional vacation time may also be handled this way as well. (While the person with whom you are negotiating may vary, the decision-maker on the company side is generally the individual who'd be your new boss.)

Relocation Assistance: Some relocation assistance will always be provided, but certain aspects of the package are negotiable. These include realtor costs, points and mortgage acquisition fees, house-hunting trips, and temporary housing. Many companies will use a flat-sum relocation approach, which means that you'll get a certain amount to spend in total. Some larger companies will reimburse you for all your costs, and through negotiation you can have a small hiring bonus included for additional, unexpected expenses of the move. Most biotech companies pay only for the cost of relocating your goods and family.

An Early Review: If the job offer doesn't please, but the company and all other parameters look great, one way to improve your situation is to ask for an early performance review. Most companies conduct annual reviews for their staff in order to determine salary increases and bonuses. If you negotiate an initial review in 6 months, your salary increases will start 6 months earlier than is the norm. This is an easy way to close a negotiation that has stalled with a lower salary offer than you would have liked.

Company Benefits and Other Perks

The HR department goes to great lengths to put together a cohesive package of benefits that are available to all of a company's employees. Certain of these, like stock options, can be negotiated at the start in terms of their numbers, but the way in which the programs operate is fixed. Nevertheless, although you cannot change the way that stock options vest, and even the best negotiator would not make a dent in the medical benefits, it is important to know the details so that you can make better comparisons between offers.

Medical Benefits: You should always be one of those few candidates that requests a medical plan booklet that includes all the fine print. It is there that you will discover what the out-of-pocket costs will be, what the co-insurance rate is (what percentage of each bill you pay once you fulfill the deductible), and how the lifetime benefits stack up. Does the firm truly have a dental program, or is it simply a gimmick to get you into a participating dentist's office? Is the employee the only person covered (as is usually the case for plans offered by most small companies) and if so, what is the full cost of family coverage?

Stock Option Programs: Most biotechnology companies offer stock option programs, and many of the larger companies also offer stock purchase plans. Don't be concerned if the employer doesn't give you the exact price of the shares in the offer letter. Often, they will have to confirm your "strike price" in the next Board of Directors meeting. However, the company can and should confirm in writing the number of shares you are eligible to receive and/or purchase, and it should give you a verbal confirmation of what the pricing is likely to be. The company should also be able to tell you how soon you can get your hands on the stock (i.e., your vesting schedule). Typically, your vesting schedule will describe the amount of time that you have to work before you can take any action with the options granted you.

401K's: A good 401K can be a great deal! These are programs where the employer helps you save money, and the firm contributes every time that you put aside some savings. Some companies contribute nothing, and others contribute 25¢ up to $1 for every dollar you sock away.

Education: Larger companies, and a growing number of biotechnology firms, offer education assistance. Some people have used this program to get law degrees, additional science training, and MBA's--all while being reimbursed by their employer.

Other Company Perks: In addition to the more frequently encountered perks listed above, each HR department develops a smorgasbord of benefits designed to make their company as attractive as possible to candidates. Some companies offer EAPs (Employee Assistance Programs) that aid their employees where an alcohol, drug, or mental disorder has impacted their family. Other companies have child care centers, or a reimbursement program. You will also find companies that offer health club memberships, and even some that offer paternity leave along with the more frequently encountered maternity leave.

The Golden Rule of Perksmanship

The two elements that make up good perksmanship are research and strategy. In short, your job is to gather as much information as you possibly can so that you can plan a strategy to implement when the offer arrives. Never jump into an offer discussion without a clear understanding of each element of the offer, for as you can see, the base salary is only one piece of the pie.

The Golden Rule is Don't build walls--build bridges. You must negotiate as if you are already on their team, because you're probably going to be talking with your future boss. Don't set yourself up as a tough negotiator if you aren't ready to walk away from the offer completely. Instead of threats and empty bluffs, find a way to build a bridge to an acceptable offer and a package that includes the perks that you would find attractive. And if you don't get a personal parking space, don't sweat it. There's always annual review time!

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