How to negotiate better pay and benefits


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Imagine that a hiring manager offers you a job.

Do you lunge at the opportunity? Before signing an acceptance letter, take time to finesse a sweet compensation package from your prospective employer.

The problem for many job seekers, though, is they would rather go to the dentist than talk about salary and benefits.

They may be afraid that if they ask too many questions, they won’t get the job. Or they may not understand the benefits package because some can be fairly complex, says Michael Zwell, author of “Six-Figure Salary Negotiation.”

Zwell, a human capital consultant who heads Zwell International in Chicago, says job seekers who don’t negotiate or ask questions are likely shortchanging themselves, especially if they don’t know the salary range of the job position or the value of the benefits package.

The reality: Both may be malleable, which is why negotiating a good compensation package is the culmination of a successful job search process.

Follow these tips for negotiating the best deal possible.

Delay talking salary

Most people work for the almighty paycheck, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, some experts contend it could turn off potential employers if you broach the topic of salary too early.

“The general rule is that you don’t want to talk about compensation until very late in the process,” Zwell says. “If you talk about money too soon, it raises a red flag to me that you’re not interested for the right reasons.”

That doesn’t necessarily prevent hiring managers from asking job candidates to name their price during the initial interview.

The initial interview is a time for employers to find out as much as possible about you, and you should likewise use that time to find out as much as you can about the corporate culture and working conditions before you commit to working there.

Know your true value

The best way to prepare for the inevitable salary question is to do your homework and know what you are worth in a given job market.

“Most people, not just job seekers, but currently employed people, don’t have a good understanding of how valuable their benefits are,” says Julie Stich, the director of research at The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

She says the cost of benefits, including the money the employer contributes for Social Security, unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, health care and pension added together can be 30 percent or more of the payroll.

Wages and salaries for workers in the civilian sector, for example, accounted for almost 70 percent of employer costs while benefits made up about 30 percent in September 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The civilian sector includes most private employers and state and local government employees, but excludes the military and federal workers.

“I definitely think a job seeker should ask the employer if they’ve calculated that (cost of benefits) and tell you how much that is,” Stich says.

The more information you have, the better position you’ll be in to negotiate a good compensation package, says Randall S. Hansen, who holds a doctoral degree in marketing and is author and founder of Quintessential Careers, a Web resource for job seekers.

Hansen, a former college business professor, says job seekers should research salary ranges in their local market using online tools provided by, or other reliable resources.

Consider finding out from a company insider what the company is willing to negotiate if you can.

“There are some companies that are not willing to negotiate salary, but it’s a pretty small percentage,” says Hansen.

Start at the midrange

There may be times when calculating a salary range is difficult because your job description is unique and not easily categorized.

Your best bet in this case is to be direct with the company.

“There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask human resources when you get an offer, ‘What’s the salary range for this position?'” Zwell says.

It’s an obvious question to ask, he says, but people are afraid to ask it.

If you don’t know the salary range for a position, you could wind up pricing yourself out of a job or find that you have no room for future pay increases.

“You’ll get an increase much more easily if you’re at the middle of the pay range, then you can go up from there,” Zwell says.

There may be times when a salary offer falls short of your income needs. Don’t be afraid to ask for a higher amount. Just make sure that your request is tactful and based on research, not on personal needs, Hansen says.

“Make sure you thank the employer for the job offer,” he says. “And if you’re going to make a counteroffer, do it based on research. You always want to focus it on research and business reasons.”

Negotiate the perks

Money isn’t everything, although many job seekers may disagree.

Other benefits and perks that don’t fall under the salary umbrella have value to you as a potential employee, and these can be negotiated.

Such benefits as vacation and workplace wellness programs (gym memberships, for example) may be negotiable, although some companies are cutting back on these programs.

“If you’re single and just out of college, your benefit needs might be different than if you’ve got a young family or you’re midcareer,” says Stich. “If you have a family, for example, ask them what kind of group life insurance they offer.”

The toughest part of analyzing a compensation package is determining the value of insurance benefits such as disability and health care.

Ask the human resources person if they have a document called an annual benefit statement for you to see.

This document allows you to assess the value of your compensation package by spelling out the dollar value of each benefit, including salary.

“Sometimes they call it a total compensation statement,” Stich says.

Not every company provides annual benefit statements to their employees.

Ask for enough time to evaluate the offer

Depending on your situation, you may still have a couple of interviews in your pipeline by the time you get a job offer.

The temptation to rush and say “yes” to the first job offer could be costly, though.

Realistically, you need enough time to evaluate positions at other companies, but you want to avoid making the company that’s already offered you a job question your interest level if you take too long to evaluate its offer.

So what should you do?

“In those situations, I tell job seekers to call the other company and see if they can move that other interview up, but use a little leverage by being polite about it,” Hansen says.

“If you ask for a week and they give it to you in this environment, you can’t tell them you need another week.”

Try to buy more time than you need so you don’t have to rush and make a quick decision, Hansen says. The company will better appreciate an early decision than a late one, he says.

Once you’ve made the decision to accept a job, make sure you contact the hiring manager as soon as possible.

Send a response in writing, but at the very least, call the hiring manager or send an email so that the company stops considering other candidates.

Get your offer in writing

Finally, you should insist on getting the meat and potatoes of the deal in writing.

It’s a smart way to protect yourself against misunderstandings. Most organizations have no problem doing that because they view it as a way to protect themselves, as well.

Important details beyond salary and benefits should be included in your offer letter.

Many offer letters will spell out whether you’re an at-will employee; salaried or hourly; your work hours; and other such details.

The offer letter also protects you in the event personnel shake-ups compromise agreements you made with the hiring manager.

“Everything should be in writing,” Zwell says. “There are so many cases where a manager promises something and then the manager leaves and all you have is a verbal agreement, which doesn’t hold a lot of water.”