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Yours for the asking: better benefits

Diana Lawton started asking for job perks when she was laid off from a marketing communications position.

The company president told Lawton that if she'd work for the company's outside ad agency on his account for one year, he'd pay that agency a retainer fee to cover her salary. She sweetened the terms with a request for more money and company-paid COBRA benefits until the health insurance kicked in.

When she returned to the company fold, she negotiated another raise, an elevated title and immediate inclusion in the company's 401(k) plan. When the company was sold six years later, Lawton refused to accept her initial severance package and wrangled two weeks' extra pay to cover that year at the agency.

Emboldened, she successfully bargained for still higher perks throughout several job changes: a sales bonus equal to the senior executives', extra vacation time available in full the first of the year rather than accrued and additional time off around holidays.

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Recruiters in 2004 say Lawton's story belongs to "the good old days."

"Three years ago it was crazy out there, akin to rock stars demanding only green M&Ms in their candy jars," says Mike Vermillion, president of the executive search firm Vermillion Group in Des Moines, Iowa.

But today's tight market and scandals over favoritism have stripped many of the perks from the table.

Still, says change management consultant Nicole Schapiro, author of "Negotiating for Your Life," people can get more than they realize.

"People don't negotiate because it's a habit not to," she says. "They give up way too soon because they have an issue with authority. Whatever human resources says is right."

Non-negotiable
Expect nowadays to hear "no dice" if you encroach on the hard bennies -- employment areas defined by statutes and tax deductions. That includes health benefits, pension plans and 401(k)s, stock options, insurance programs, tuition reimbursement and day care.

Nor will a court uphold agreements to trade your Uncle Sam-given rights, points out Michelle Lee Flores, of the law firm of Greenberg Traurig in Los Angeles. That means you can't bargain to give up Family Medical Leave Act time in exchange for Fridays off, nor would any judge enforce your offer to work for less than minimum wage, even if you received four weeks' paid vacation for the sacrifice.

Employers who want you might offer a "sign-on" bonus that you can apply toward COBRA payments, college application fees or a nanny's salary. Some bosses agree to waive the 90-day waiting period to put your name on the current health plan's rolls, says Robert Kneip, president and CEO of employer staffing company The Oasis Group.

And if you're truly in demand, it's not impossible for supervisors to arrange dental or visual coverage by seeking an outside insurer to write up an independent policy.

"Then they expense the policy under the miscellaneous column in their budget to keep the costs away from prying eyes. It doesn't affect the policy of the company as a whole," points out M. Rose Jonas, Ph.D., an organizational behavior specialist and former human resources director for a Fortune 100 company.

Thanks to Baby Boomer demographics, the job market worm will turn again in two to three years, according to Thomas Renk, executive director of the Stability Workforce Institute. That means employers will fall over themselves to negotiate specialty benefits like on-site automobile services, laundry service, even paid meals on site.

"Employers first need to feel the crunch," Renk notes. "When employment takes off in the second half of this year, those people who hunkered down hiding under their desks will start seeking new jobs. That will be employers' first wake-up call."

Ask away
Why wait? If the IRS doesn't care enough to tax it, it's fair game. Savvy employees are asking for -- and getting -- non-traditional work hours, extra vacation time, relocation packages beyond the cost of a U-Haul rental, coveted parking spaces, paid jury duty, improved office space and even plants for their office.

Can't decide what to ask for? A generic expense account for business-related items, says Jonas, easily can cover unplanned items such as conference fees or travel necessities that fall outside stated HR policies.

Most importantly, don't walk away without settling a deal for a semiannual written performance evaluation, says Steven Rothberg, president and founder of CollegeRecruiter.com. It's your golden negotiation ticket for future perks as well.

The windup and pitch
In the hiring process, never breathe the word "benefits" until the employer places a firm offer on the table.

"Your new boss just laid out the floor," Rothberg says of this power moment. "When you go first, you set the ceiling. If your ceiling is below their floor, you've done yourself a disservice."

Plan to negotiate benefits separately from salary. You can't lose with this strategy, he contends. Either you've just discovered the employer is easily moved or he's feeling guilty about not meeting your financial needs.

But don't blow it by saying something stupid. "If an employee doesn't realize his true value to the company and asks for something deemed ridiculous or over-the-edge, that could turn an employer off," warns Vermillion.

That's why Schapiro breaks the process into 80-percent homework and 20-percent negotiation. Start by reading the company's employee manual, and dig into the whys behind these policies. For instance, if it states "no flex time," did the experiment fail in the past? That's invaluable data when building your case. Kneip counsels his clients to find an employee with comparable experience in the firm and determine their benefits package.

Finally, arm yourself with empirical data on your job skills' worth in your neck of the woods at calculators like salary.com. Then approach your boss-to-be -- not the HR department, Jonas cautions -- with a complete package request. (Adding items after the first volley jeopardizes everything on the table.) Mentally prioritize your concessionable items from the deal-breakers.

"People don't get what they want in negotiations because they don't ask strategically," says Schapiro.

Begin with three questions the employer can answer agreeably to establish a habit. For example: Since this is an exciting but sometimes stressful environment, do you agree people need to decompress? I've found that it doesn't cost a company hard cash to give time off -- is that your experience? Do you believe that taking unpaid vacation is a good way to save company money in these days when you've cut the budget 40 percent?

Next, couch your request as an open-ended option that partners with the employer: "What would it take for me to get an extra week's vacation this first year?" Sprinkle empathy phrases such as "I understand it would be a risky decision because you've never done this before," and you have a compassionate friend on the other side. It certainly works with Kneip.

"On the hiring side, I've always preferred an honest explanation of the challenge that asks the supervisor to help with problem resolution rather than the person who draws a line in the sand and says, 'Hey, if you want me, take care of these things,'" he says. "By saying you'd like to work within the available solutions, you don't put anyone on the spot or shove them in a position where they skirt good policy or violate an internal procedure."

The nebulous response "that's not fair to the others," is Rothberg's cue to get creative with separate but equal suggestions. For example, could you lump your annual 20 days off as "personal days" whether they are vacation or sick time? Total time off still comes out in the wash for everyone, but you enjoy flexibility within the lines.

Flat "nos" are a gift for those who did their homework, Schapiro insists. Probe how they came to that decision, even if you know the replies. Then spell out your dollar value and intangible contribution to the company, ending with a closed-ended question that gently backs the employer into a corner. It sounds like this: "Given that I have experience in online training which would save the company $30,000, and the fact that dental insurance at $7,000 a year is really important to me, if I do the research and give you some favorable information, would you consider it?"

Accept, too, that a "no" could be a good thing. As Vermillion assures, a "no" could mean the company is smart enough not to jam itself up ethically down the line.

Yet never give up in your quest for the better life, even after you join the company. You hold a stronger hand every time you initiate the conversation, he adds.

"Business and employment is a constant negotiation process," he remarks. "The devil in hand is worth all the devils out there, so managers are more willing to go to bat for the known, trusted employees."

-- Posted: May 20, 2004

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