The Job Seeker’s Guide to Understanding Employee Benefits

By Robert Half February 5, 2020 at 5:00pm

Although salary is a key factor when comparing job offers, your decision on whether to accept a position should not be based solely on money. A strong employee benefits package can (and should) be a critical component as well. Due to the current talent shortage and low unemployment, job candidates are not being shy about negotiating salaries and benefits. So, don’t be hesitant to request a solid benefits package if the initial offer is lacking.

Here’s a Q&A to understanding employee benefits to help you identify which benefits and perks are best for you once you receive a job offer.

When should I ask about a company’s benefits package?

The initial phone interview or the in-person interview itself isn’t a good time to inquire about benefits. Why? Because the main purpose of the interview for both sides is to determine whether you and the job are a fit. Discuss salary and benefits at this stage only if the hiring manager or HR representative brings up the subject. At that point, it's fine to ask one or two general questions, like when you would be eligible for health care benefits or how much paid time off new hires typically receive.

Once you receive a job offer, employers typically expect you to ask about their benefits package, especially if they haven’t already broached the subject.

What kind of benefits should I expect?

Most companies offer:

  • Health care coverage — This normally consists of medical, dental and vision insurance. Some companies pair health insurance with a health savings account or health flexible spending account. Others provide a health reimbursement arrangement as a substitute to health insurance. These health benefits are tax free for employees. Note that policies vary by employer. For example, the length of time it takes for coverage to begin after employees’ hire date may differ among companies.
  • Retirement savings plan — Employers usually provide a voluntary 401(k) or similar plan. Some organizations match a certain percentage of employees’ contribution.

What other benefits should l look for?

To attract talent, many employers also offer these programs of value to job candidates variously depending on their personal situation: 

  • Life insurance — For numerous job candidates and employees, particularly those with a spouse and children, life insurance is a must. Employers often provide basic life insurance and the option to purchase extended coverage.
  • Paid time off — This generally includes paid vacation and sick time. Some employers allocate vacation and sick hours separately. Others combine them into one PTO bank, which permits employees to take paid time off for any personal reason, up to the total hours allotted for the year. Also, an increasing number of states and cities are mandating paid sick or family leave. So, depending on where you work, you may be entitled to paid sick or family leave.
  • Work-life balance programs — Benefits that facilitate flexible work hours, telecommuting, compressed workweeks, or a job-sharing arrangement can help you balance work and personal demands as well as reduce the amount of time and money spent commuting to and from work. Some companies also offer family support programs, such as on-site day care centers, adoption benefits for adoptive parents, or dependent care assistance for employees who are caring for elderly parents.
  • Professional development — To help employees reach their career goals and keep their skills up to par, some employers deliver learning and development opportunities, such as job-specific training and industry conferences or seminars.
  • Tuition reimbursement — If you’re hoping to go back to school to complete your bachelor’s or obtain an advanced degree, tuition reimbursement — also called tuition assistance — can save you considerable money. Essentially, your employer pays your school fees, provided your classes are work-related and you maintain a specific GPA, as defined by the company. Tuition reimbursement is usually offered by larger, more-established organizations.
  • Employee assistance program — EAPs are designed to help employees overcome personal issues that might interfere with their job responsibilities and productivity. For example, employees with work or personal problems, such as substance abuse, marital discord or mental health issues, can access qualified counselors through the EAP. These counseling services are confidential.

What perks are nice to have?

Perks are benefits that are not essential but may still influence your decision about a job offer. This is an area where employers often get creative.

Examples of perks:

  • Free or subsidized snacks or lunches — Whether it’s free coffee and bagels in the morning or a healthy meal (at a reduced rate) for lunch, you’ll likely appreciate this fringe benefit.
  • Gym memberships and on-site fitness classes — This perk is more common at larger companies. If it’s offered to you, it may be just what you need to boost your overall health.
  • On-site amenities — At some organizations, the workplace might seem more like a mini-resort than an office building, with relaxation lounges, nap rooms and even massages for workers. Far from frivolous, these perks are meant to lower workplace stress and elevate productivity.
  • Matching gift programs — More and more job seekers want to work for employers committed to supporting their local communities. Matching gift programs allow employers to donate a certain amount of money for every dollar an employee raises for a nonprofit or every hour they volunteer. This lets you get involved in causes you care about. Some companies also give paid time off for volunteer work.
  • Subsidized transportation — Employers in large cities are most likely to offer this resource. It can take the form of discounted bus and subway passes, or carpool options. Some employers offer IRS-qualified commuter benefits, which let employees pay for transportation benefits — such as transit, vanpool, parking, and ridesharing — with pretax money.
  • Reimbursements and discounts — These may include reimbursements for business-related expenses and discounts at athletic facilities or local retail outlets.

Hiring? We can help with that too!

How do I find companies with great benefits?

Many employers now post at least a partial list of their benefits on their website. You can also review Best Places to Work lists to get an idea of what businesses attractive to employees are doing in terms of appealing benefits. Major publications such as FORTUNE magazine rank some of the largest firms in the country; local publications such as business journals do the same for smaller, regional organizations.

Conduct some research and reach out to people in your professional network who currently work for or have worked for an organization you’re considering. These contacts can be important sources for understanding employee benefits at the company, offering an insider’s look on the finer points of certain programs and perks. For example, if the company offers telecommuting arrangements, how often can employees work from home, and is the program restricted to just certain positions? How costly are employees’ medical premiums and deductibles, and how extensive is the health care coverage?

If possible, get a copy of the company’s employee handbook, which likely includes a thorough description of the benefits you can expect to receive. 

How do I measure the value of a benefits package?

When weighing benefit offerings from a potential employer, consider whether they align with your needs. A gym membership, for example, won’t mean much to you if you rarely exercise. Ask yourself: Are the health care coverages sufficient for you and, if applicable, your spouse and dependents? Is a 401(k) match crucial to you? If so, how generous is the employer’s matching contribution?

With talent scarce today, you shouldn’t be afraid to negotiate when it comes to perks and benefits. If you’re qualified for the job, employers are likelier to compromise and offer a benefits package that meets your expectations.

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