By Janet Perez
October 2000 - As recently as a few years ago, most work benefits packages were limited to vacation time and health and life insurance. But as the job market has tightened, benefits offerings have broadened.
"There are many other things nowadays that are considered benefits, particularly because we have such a tight labor market and you can negotiate," says Graciela Kenig, president and founder of Graciela Kenig and Associates, a career consulting firm in Chicago. "It all starts with what's important to you. If an employer isn't willing to give you what you need or want, maybe you don't want to be there. You have more of a choice than in the past."
Benefits that are becoming standard at many companies include telecommuting, personal days, generous family leave, childcare, and relocation costs. Some companies help employees find homes in desirable neighborhoods near good schools. Others help spouses find work. Some larger high-tech firms in pricey parts of the country, such as Silicon Valley, even help prospective employees with down payments on homes.
Forms of extra-salary compensation such as deferred payment, stock options, and bonuses also have grown in popularity.
"Typically, benefits such as deferred compensation are for a higher-level executive who makes $200,000 or more," explains Nelson Rodriguez, partner and managing director of Cristal Partners, an executive-search firm in Chicago.
"[Lesser benefits] such as telecommuting usually are open across the board, as are extended types of vacations and awards. For many companies, you have to be at a certain level to receive stock options. Some pre-IPO companies give stock options to everyone as a way to lure people to the organization. Within the last four or five years, equity options have been a key reason that people have made professional moves, along with different types of 401(k) packages and traditional health packages."
Meanwhile, perks that were popular 20 to 30 years ago have dropped by the wayside as a result of employees measuring success by a different yardstick – and companies looking for tax loopholes.
"You don't see things like health club and country club memberships anymore," Mr. Rodriguez says. "One of the reasons is that they are no longer tax write-offs. People are as interested in those things as they've always been, but they are also looking at how they can maximize their financial situation."
Along with a tight labor market, the new dot-com economy has helped change the way we view benefits, or even the lack of them. For instance, some newer companies that are unable to offer extensive benefits packages may instead offer larger salaries, says Ms. Kenig.
"That's where you have to make the decision what you need now and what is going to be best for you in the long run. If you're going to make good money but don't have adequate health insurance, you're going to have to spend it there. It's a balance," she says.
While a wide selection in benefits packages is generally a good thing, it also means that employees have to ask themselves what they want from a job aside from salary and a title. In terms of negotiating compensation, job candidates – particularly those with sought-after skills – often enjoy an advantage.
"It really depends on the demand for the job you are looking for," Ms. Kenig says. "If you are one of a few people offering a certain set of skills, you can negotiate as much as you want because the demand (for you) is higher than the supply. Where you are in the food chain, how high up you are, how needed you are – these also are important considerations in gauging negotiating room."
However, even highly sought-after employees can try the patience of a company by asking for too much, Ms. Kenig and Mr. Rodriguez warn.
"You don't want to go too far. First you test the waters. Find out what they offer everybody else and keep in mind that they won't do too much for you that's different. If you have a laundry list of 10 things that are hugely important to you, you should probably ask for the first five and see what happens," Ms. Kenig says.
A third party such as a headhunter may be able to ask questions on behalf of a prospective employee without alienating the company. But for those who don't have the benefit of a third party, Mr. Rodriguez offers these strategy tips.
"If [applicants] are not going through a third party, they need to first make sure that everyone's on the same page so no one's time is wasted," he says. "Once that's been established, move on to interviewing and see if it's a good fit. After that, if the company makes an offer, don't be afraid to assess that offer in relation to what you need to make a move. What are you currently getting, what do you expect to get in your new role? Make sure the whole package is to your liking."
Another key point to remember is that no matter how much a company wants you, they can't move mountains. As Ms. Kenig points out, if a company doesn't have a 401(k) program, chances are they're not going to create one just for you. You could try asking a prospective employer to pay for a financial planner to set you up with a savings plan. But for the most part, companies are unwilling to stray too far from what they offer current employees.
"Companies have to have guidelines that give every individual at each level certain opportunities to receive those types of benefits," Mr. Rodriguez says. "If they start making exceptions for you, they have to make them for everybody else. The company has to look at it as a whole."
Some newer startups, however, do offer wiggle room as far as compensation is concerned, especially, Ms. Kenig says, if they're in a position to pay higher salaries or other forms of monetary compensation in lieu of vacation time or comprehensive health insurance. But there is a caveat.
"A salary is a very temporary thing," she says. "For most of us, we have it now and we spend it now. We don't think about putting it away for when we need to make up for the poor benefits. I would go with such a situation only if I knew I was really good and disciplined about saving money."
And depending on where you stand career-wise and in terms of your personal life, more money may not be your first priority anyway.
"When people can maximize financial earnings, they are more willing to forgo some of the other niceties," Mr. Rodriguez says. "At the same time, if you have to travel five days a week, that could get old no matter how much a company pays you. More and more today, individuals are seeking a balance."
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