There are few situations you will face in your career more delicate than negotiating a salary, unless you are negotiating a more abstract benefit, like a four-day workweek or enhanced medical coverage.
Negotiating for those intangible benefits puts a job seeker on shaky ground.
Say you want to be able to work an early schedule to pick up your child from day care. Or you'd like to be able to work from home three days a week so you can help care for an elderly parent. Or maybe you don't know what you'll need to help you achieve a healthy work/life balance, but you'd like the ability to flex your time when necessary.
You don't want your prospective employer to think you're not committed and hardworking. On the other hand, you want to make sure you are being upfront about your needs and that the company you are interviewing with is one where the corporate culture makes sense for you. You also want to be sure you are compensated properly — in salary, benefits and intangibles — for the value you bring to the company.
How, and when, do you negotiate these issues?
Hiring manager John Robak said he wants transparency from the get-go, but there’s no need to present your demands before you’re offered a job. Robak, chief operating officer and executive vice president for Greeley and Hansen, a global environmental and engineering consulting firm, said he would prefer to have an idea of a potential employee's expectations before they’re already at work. "If you have an idea of what somebody's expectations are and you can work with [those expectations], I think you get a higher degree of flexibility out of the gate."
The best opportunity to negotiate for intangibles is once you have a job offer — after you've sold a potential employer on your skills and capabilities, he said. "It's a turnoff in some ways when somebody comes in and right out of the gate says, 'Hey, I need you to be flexible with me because I have all of these demands and this is how I need to work,'" said Robak. "What I think is more effective is for job seekers to come in first and talk about their skills and articulate clearly the value they bring to an organization."
With all of that said, all the strategy in the world won't help if the company you are interviewing with is not inclined to approve the request for intangible benefits like flextime and work-from-home schedules.
If the ability to, say, work from home two days a week is as important to you as a certain salary and title, then you need to seek out companies that embrace flexibility and nontraditional work arrangements as part of their culture.
"Many companies now promote flexible schedules and work-at-home days as part of their benefits/perks plan," said Karla Porter, director of workforce development and HR for the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Business and Industry in Pennsylvania. "Job seekers shouldn't have a difficult time finding out what the company offers in this area through networking and the interview process. If flexible schedules and work-at-home time are that important to you, it's something you need to be sure is within the parameters of the company policy before you go through the interview process and most definitely in your offer before you accept."
If you did not negotiate for things like a compressed workweek or flexible hours before you accepted a position, that doesn't mean they are out of reach. Consider negotiating for a trial period. Robak said any flexible work arrangement at his company is done on a trial basis. This gives Robak the opportunity to assess how effective an employee can be with a modified work schedule, as well as an escape route if company needs change or if the demands of the company's clients change.
Robak said he structures such arrangements on a 30-, 60- or 90-day basis, then assesses along the way how things are going. Robak suggested that employees or potential employees can do the same thing in reverse: "Employees can say, 'I would like to try a compressed workweek schedule. Can we meet in 30 or 60 days to reassess? If I am not meeting the needs of the company or the clients, we can go back to the way it was.'"
Tony Deblauwe, the founder of HR4Change, said you can ask for these things after you have proven yourself to your new employer on the job — just give the request a little time. "When you start, you want to demonstrate that you were the right choice based on performance," said Deblauwe. "You want to get to know the team and other important contacts. You have to pay your dues before the trust and comfort level exist to allow flexibility in your working arrangements."
In the end, your negotiating prowess will be measured by the extent to which your most important requirements — be they a six-figure salary or a four-day workweek — are met.