Starting salary is undoubtedly a key determining factor as job seekers compare employment opportunities. But choosing the right firm for you — especially if you're juggling multiple offers — is often more complicated than just going with the highest bidder. A solid employee benefits package can (and should) be a critical factor in your decision as well.

Below, you'll find tips on how to learn more about the types of benefits to look for during your job search and how to identify which packages are best for you.

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

The first interview, usually a short telephone call, is never a good time to inquire about benefits. Why? Interviewers will think it's the only reason you're looking for a new job, just as talking about starting salary might make you seem money-driven. Same goes for the second interview. But if the hiring manager or HR representative broaches the subject, 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 get a job offer, however, if they haven’t already, employers will expect you to ask about the benefits package. That’s why we assembled the advice in this article — to help you gather as much information as possible about employee benefits in general before you accept the position.

What kind of benefits should I expect?

There are two standard benefits that most companies offer:

  • Healthcare coverage — These usually take the form of health insurance and/or health savings account plans. Companies have different policies about which family members can receive coverage (some will cover children, but not spouses) and how long you must be employed with the company before medical insurance takes effect.
  • Retirement savings plan — Many organizations provide their workers with an optional RRSP or similar plan, and some will match a certain percentage of the employee’s contribution.

What are some other benefits I should look for?

Many organizations also offer the following plans, or some variation of them:

  • Work-life balance programs — Jobs with benefits that allow you to work flexible hours, telecommute, choose a compressed workweek or participate in a job-sharing arrangement can not only help you better balance work and personal demands but also cut down on the time and expense of commuting to and from the workplace. Many companies also offer family-leave support programs for new parents and employees who are taking care of elderly parents. Other work-life balance benefits that are becoming more common, if not already required by law, include nursing rooms for new mothers and on-site day care centers.
  • Professional development opportunities — To help workers keep their skills up to par, many companies now offer to pay for education and professional development opportunities, such as industry conferences or seminars. Subsidized training gives you valuable opportunities to build and sharpen your skills and increase the likelihood you’ll be prepared to move up the corporate ladder more quickly.
  • Tuition reimbursement — If you’re hoping to go back to school to complete your bachelor’s or even an advanced degree, this benefit — also often called tuition assistance — can save you a lot of money. In essence, your organization will pay your school fees as long as your classes are work-related and you maintain a certain GPA, as defined by the company. You’ll typically find tuition reimbursement at larger, more-established organizations.
  • Leaves of absence — These variable timeout periods are usually employee-requested and cover personal circumstances, such as bereavement or accidents. Employment effectively continues, and the choice to pay or not pay an employee — or maintain core benefits such as health and dental insurance — are made in accordance with company policy.
  • Employee assistance program — EAPs are designed to help staff overcome personal issues that might interfere with their job responsibilities and productivity. These programs make available qualified counselors for employees facing work or personal problems, such as alcohol or substance abuse, marital discord, or depression. Their services are confidential.

What perks are nice to have?

These days, some companies offer benefits, often called perks, that are not essential but may still influence your decision about a job offer. This is an area where employers often get creative. Here are some examples:

  • Free or subsidized snacks or lunches — It's hard to find anyone who wouldn't appreciate having their favorite soda, candy bar or healthy snack option available in the company kitchen.
  • Gym memberships and on-site fitness classes — A perk that is perhaps more common at larger companies than at their smaller counterparts, this benefit can help you increase your fitness, energy and 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 to enjoy. Far from frivolous, these employee perks are meant to help reduce your workplace stress and allow you to take better advantage of your time.
  • Matching gifts programs — More and more job seekers want to work for companies that are committed to supporting their local communities. These programs, through which firms donate a certain amount of money for every dollar a worker raises for a not-for-profit or every hour they volunteer, allow employees to get involved in organizations they care about. Some companies also offer paid time off for volunteer work.
  • Subsidized transportation — Employers based in large cities are most likely to offer this resource. It can take the form of discounted subway or bus passes, or carpool options.
  • Reimbursements and discounts — These types of perks include and discounts for employees at local retail outlets, athletic facilities and service providers.

How do I find companies with the best benefits?

Step one is to check the website of the firm or company you're targeting. Many employers now include at least a partial list of benefits offerings. Then, find where a company ranks on Best Places to Work lists. Major publications such as The Globe and Mail rank some of the largest Canadian companies; local publications such as business journals do the same for smaller, regional organizations.

Finally, reach out to contacts in your professional network who currently work for, or have worked for, an organization you’re considering, as they can be especially helpful in understanding the finer points of certain benefits and perks. For example, if the firm offers telecommuting options, how often can employees realistically work from home, and is the program restricted to certain positions? How costly are medical premiums and deductibles, and how comprehensive are the services provided? 

If you’re able, get a copy of the employee handbook. It will likely include a thorough discussion of all the benefits you can expect to receive and provide details about company policies on floating holidays, vacation time, sick days, and leaves of absence. 

The true value

When it comes to employee benefits, consider what value an organization's package will truly have for you. Are the health care and retirement coverages sufficient for your needs? If you need other benefits, like a flexible schedule or professional training, does the company offer them? And are you likely to take advantage of perks that can be enticing but might, ultimately, not mean that much to you? When you consider all these questions, you’ll have a better understanding of the job offer as a whole — and you’ll be better equipped to decide whether the job is the right one for you.