How to negotiate your benefits package—not just your salary
When I was negotiating for my last job, I worked myself into a tizzy figuring out how to ask for the salary I deserved. I did all the things we’re meant to do: I talked with people in similar positions, I went deep into the Glassdoor archives, I came up with a data-supported goal number, and I checked my impostor syndrome at the door.
And it worked. The offer increased. But it wasn’t until long after I’d started the job that I realized I could have and should have been looking at more than just my salary—I should have thought about negotiating benefits, too.
Pay is only one aspect of how we are compensated for our work. Benefits are the other. But it’s hard to negotiate for something you don’t know much about. That’s where this guide comes in. It’ll walk you through how to think about your compensation holistically and negotiate benefits, whether you’re facing a new job offer or thinking about renegotiating with your current employer.
The Benefits Smorgasbord: What’s Your Ideal Compensation Package?
First, let’s talk about benefit categories. They go far beyond health care plans, though those are a key cornerstone of a good package. After talking with several HR professionals about potential types of benefits, I’ve defined the following general categories:
Flexibility benefits include a flexible schedule, the ability to work from home or from other offices, on-site daycare, and being able to bring pets to the office.
Health and wellness benefits include health care plans, dental and vision plans, vacation days, personal days, sick days, short- and long-term disability, flexible health spending accounts, and parental leave.
Long-term benefits include 401k plans or pension plans, life insurance plans, and stock option or stock purchasing plans.
Training and tools benefits include technology like phones, laptop, or tablets and ongoing training like conferences, workshops, and classes.
Industry-specific benefits can include almost anything, like free trips at travel companies, discounts on merchandise at apparel companies, or special pricing at car companies.
Relocation benefits can include rent assistance, moving costs, and travel back to where you’re moving from, if applicable.
Depending on your experience, goals, and values, you’ll choose the benefits that are important to you. Perhaps you’re thinking about becoming a parent and rock-solid parental leave and health care are vital. Maybe you’re single and looking to travel extensively in the next few years, in which case you’ll want to see a solid flexible work policy.
“Progressive companies put together benefit packages reflective of all the different generations that are at their company right now,” says Carolina King, chief people officer at executive search firm Lucas Group. If you’re in negotiations with a potential employer and you find that they don’t offer the benefits you care about (and they’re not willing to discuss them), it’s a good sign that your values aren’t aligned with theirs and that the opportunity there probably isn’t the right one for you.
How to Negotiate Your Benefits
You’ve identified the benefits that are important to you—now it’s time to ask for them.
The easiest time to do this is after a company has offered you a job and before you’ve accepted it. “Since the company has decided they want to hire you, they are more than likely to work with you on accommodating your benefit needs,” says Michelle Armer, chief people officer at CareerBuilder.
Going into that conversation, be confident. Have your goal result clear. King gives some suggested language to introduce your asks: “I’m accustomed to” or “I’m looking for” X—three weeks of vacation, being able to work from home two days a week, opportunities to further your education on the job—versus the standpoint of, “This is what I received in the past.” Using that language gets around the potential that you were previously unfairly compensated, whether with salary or benefits or both, which is likely, considering the gender pay gap. It instead focuses the conversation on what is appropriate for your experience level and the organization or industry you’re in.
Understand that not all benefits can be negotiated. In bigger organizations, benefits packages might be defined by HR on an annual basis, says King, which would make it difficult for you to introduce benefits they don’t already offer. In those cases, you’ll likely have more success asking for one-time benefits like relocation support, and it may be harder to negotiate company-wide benefits like different vision care.
If you’re interviewing at a startup or smaller company, however, you may find lots of flexibility in defining your benefits. Ask about their current offerings and their strategy to add to those benefits over time, says King.
And if you’re not in the interview phase? You can have this conversation with a current employer, too, though it’s a little trickier.
The first step is to make sure your manager is on board. King recommends that you express your desired changes (more vacation, more flexible working hours, getting your phone bill covered by work) to him or her first. Ask for their support to bring the conversation to HR. Once you have that support, go to your HR team and say something like, “I’ve discussed this with my manager, and he/she knows and shares my position. I want to see what can be done about Y.”
Armer suggests starting that conversation at an annual review or performance check-in, when you’re already discussing your contributions to the company and it’s a natural transition to discussing how you’re compensated for them.
It Can Be Done: Success Stories of Women Negotiating Beyond Salary
A brief aside: When I was interviewing women about their negotiating experiences for this piece, several asked if their stories could be made anonymous. They didn’t want their current employer finding out they’d talked to me, or for their coworkers to see the piece and realize their own benefits packages were lacking. That’s an understandable impulse.
We’re conditioned to not want to share these things for fear of repercussions. We think maybe someone else having more means we’ll have less. We worry we’ll somehow be punished for helping someone else to advocate for themselves. But having transparency around compensation makes workers more productive, not less. When we know what’s fair, we’re more likely to get it.
So in the spirit of sharing, here are three stories of women who successfully negotiated their benefit increases, both at current jobs and in the interview process—names changed (*) where requested.
Mary*, 28, was working as a travel advisor for a small international travel company. She was at drinks one night with two of her female coworkers, and one of them let slip that she was planning to quit. She was unhappy with her salary and health care plan.
Mary and her other coworker shared the woman’s concerns. Beyond that, they knew that if the woman left, the two of them would be bear the brunt of her work. The three of them decided to try to negotiate a situation that they’d all be happier with. Mary sent a text message to a male colleague on their team, inviting him to join them.
The four of them met at a coffee shop and wrote out what they wanted to say, and two days later, they presented it directly to the founder of the company. Their final asks were a salary increase for their team, a better health care plan, getting HR more involved with internal issues, and team-building options like hot-desking between departments.
All of their asks were approved, and not just for the four of them. All new hires to the company now start at a higher salary and with a more comprehensive health care plan.
“I’m a big fan of transparency,” says Mary. “It can be an awkward conversation, but it’s worth it. Just getting a sense of where you are is the first step into knowing you have the right to get more.”
Be Willing to Walk Away
Dani, 27, was a product marketing manager at an education technology company who had a goal of seeing the world.
She approached the director of her team and her boss about why she wanted to take her job remote and work fewer hours. She was ready to leave the company if they weren’t open to it.
They were skeptical but open-minded, and Dani prepared a detailed proposal of how it would all work. She and her boss decided on a six-month test period where Dani would work 25-30 hours a week remotely. They came up with an hourly rate based on her salary minus cost of living adjustments (going from being based in the Bay Area to being based in South America meant that dropped big time) plus a “contractor boost” to account for the fact that she would be losing her full-time benefits, like health care and a 401k plan, and would need to pay for those out-of-pocket.
“I knew there was a chance it would work out—I knew my worth and how it hard it was to hire for my role, so I had that on my side,” says Dani. “And worst-case scenario, I had a backup plan; I had found job boards for remote jobs and had started applying.”
Six months passed, in which Dani had moved to Argentina, met her now-fiancé, gone on several big trips, and taken on several additional clients, all while successfully maintaining her responsibilities for her former employer. Dani and her boss decided to keep their remote arrangement going indefinitely, and now she’s planning her next adventures.
Play the Field
Skye, 26, was interviewing for a role as a senior sales manager at two national hotel management companies. She got both offers and knew she wanted to take the one with the same chain she’d worked for in the past. She liked their remote work policy and their perks for management, like covering phone bills and offering discounted hotel rooms. But they were offering a lower salary and less vacation time.
After prepping with her then-boss, with whom she’d built a good relationship, Skye responded to her recruiter. She told them about the other offer and about the benefits she received at her current job, asking them to match them. They matched both the other salary offer and her three weeks of vacation.
Skye realized there were other benefits she was looking for and entered another round of negotiations, this time asking for unlimited sick time and a relocation package.
“I felt comfortable [asking for more] because I knew I had options, and I knew that if they wanted me, they would give me what I needed,” explains Skye. “I have a disability and a chronic illness, so I wanted the flexibility to take time and go to the doctor’s office.”
They agreed to her requests, and Skye’s now been at that company for nearly a year. She’s happy in her role, but if she finds herself on the job market again, she says she’ll remember to highball her benefits asks to give her space to come down in negotiation.
All of the women I talked with were nervous about negotiating, but they found a mechanism—linking up with coworkers, having a backup plan, enlisting a boss’s advice—that helped make them feel comfortable enough to ask for what they wanted. As you prepare to enter your own benefits negotiations, try some of their techniques. And when they work, pay it forward. Make it easier for the next woman to get what she deserves. And the next one after her.