On Our Minds
by Sarah Grayson (she/her) and Nakia James-Jenkins (she/her)
Candidates are making benefits a priority when considering a position. Whereas we used to see candidates and employers bring up benefits at the end of the process, often close to a job offer and after conversations about compensation, now we’re seeing candidates proactively asking about specific benefits from the very beginning of the process.
In part, this may have to do with the rise of increased transparency around compensation. But, as the pandemic normalized the remote work model and made many of us reconsider our expectations around work-life balance, access to work-from-home options, a flexible schedule, and more time off have become increasingly important to many job seekers.
This shift brings up important questions, concerns, and opportunities for both candidates and employers.
Considerations for employers
Key questions for employers to ask themselves
- How do our PTO policy, health insurance plan, and policies around medical, parental, and bereavement leave reinforce our core values?
- Are there areas where our benefits fall short of our core values?
- Where can we make adjustments to our benefits package to entice a top candidate without compromising equity? What are the hardlines?
- How may the benefits we offer change in the coming years?
- What limitations do we have around the benefits we're able to offer? Consider our equity commitments, budget, and organizational capacity.
Use your benefits to reinforce your core values
Your benefits should tell a story about what your organization values. Do you believe in a flexible work environment, so you lean heavily into your hybrid or remote work options? Are you deeply committed to wellness, so you offer increased PTO, wellness days, or robust mental health resources?
When talking about your benefits to a candidate, think of them as evidence that shows that your organization really does function according to its stated mission and values. As a result, candidates will not only understand the tangible benefits your organization offers, but they’ll gain a deeper understanding of the organizational culture as well.
Of course, first make sure your benefits align with your core values. If they don’t have internal conversations with your HR and leadership teams to discuss any necessary corrections.
Have a solid framework for adjustments
To ensure that you’re maintaining your commitment to equity, it’s crucial that you have a framework in place to determine if and when it is appropriate to offer additional benefits to a potential hire. Be transparent both with your current team and with the potential hire as to why you’re able to make this exception and how it fits into your standard hiring practices.
For example, some organizations will offer a signing bonus to candidates who will take a major pay cut as a way to keep the new hire within their compensation bands, while still making the offer competitive. To make this practice equitable, there need to be clear guidelines around offering a signing bonus: What determines the amount of the bonus? Is there a maximum amount the organization will offer?
The ability to offer benefits packages creates both an opportunity and a challenge. Benefits can entice a candidate to join your organization in today’s competitive job market, especially when your pay band prevents you from offering higher compensation. But they still need to adhere to a policy to avoid undermining equity. And, as a representative of your organization, you need to be able to explain the reasoning behind that policy to your staff and potential candidates.
Prepare to talk about what you can’t offer
A candidate may request an exception to a policy or the addition of a benefit that you are unable to make because it would undermine equity at your organization. If this happens, you need to be prepared to give a firm no and to explain why the current policy must stand.
As we said previously, your benefits should serve as proof points for your core values. Be honest and transparent about why you decided on the current policy. Many candidates we’ve worked with who are moving to a new organization want to match or increase their salary, their vacation days, and receive full health benefits, but they are also mindful of equity. While an explanation won’t necessarily convince them to take the job, it will show them that you are transparent and thoughtful when it comes to prioritizing the well-being of your employees in an equitable way.
You can also consider the other tools in your benefits toolbelt to offer as alternatives. More and more, we’re seeing organizations offer creative benefits like student loan repayment and shortened work weeks. When you have to say no to one request, consider whether there is something else you can offer while staying on budget and without undermining equity.
Consideration for candidates
Key questions to ask during interviews
- When was the last time you instituted a cost of living adjustment? When will you be making another adjustment?
- How often do employees take advantage of [a specific benefit]?
- You mention you offer unlimited PTO/discretionary time off. How many days/hours of PTO/DTO do employees typically take?
- I see this position is listed as “hybrid.” How many hours a week do employees spend in the office?
- Can you give me an example of how employees take advantage of your “flexible” work environment?
- I haven’t heard you mention [a benefit that matters to you]. Is that something you do or would offer?
Ask for examples
Over the past few years, we’ve seen an immense amount of movement in the job market. Many folks left their organizations because they received a big, shiny offer from a different organization for a position with phenomenal-sounding benefits—but once in their new positions, some of these folks found that these benefits were actually difficult to access or weren’t being administered as advertised.
The good news is, savvy candidates can dig a little deeper to ensure that an excellent sounding benefits plan is not too good to be true.
If an organization has a bonus structure, ask them how it has played out in the past couple of years: How frequently have employees actually received bonuses? How generous were these bonuses?
If an organization advertises annual cost of living adjustments, you may want to find out if those adjustments are location specific. As more organizations go remote, some are adjusting employee compensation based on the cost of living in their area. If you move to a less expensive area, would you be required to take a pay cut? If you relocate to somewhere more expensive, will your compensation be increased?
These questions can and should extend beyond compensation benefits as well. Are employees actually using up their annual PTO and sick leave? If the organization offers unlimited PTO, how much are employees actually taking?
Actions speak louder than words, so ask your interviewer about the organization's past actions to determine how likely it is that you’ll actually receive those benefits in the future if you accept the position.
Buzzwords like “flexible,” “hybrid,” and “balanced” are often used in job descriptions, but they can look different in different work environments. If an organization says they have a deep commitment to building a “flexible work environment,” ask them for an example of what that looks like in practice. Then, if that example doesn’t align with your definition, you can ask follow up questions and better assess whether the work environment will really work for you.
This isn’t to say that there is one correct definition of a “flexible work environment” or that the organization is trying to misguide candidates, but rather that expectations and definitions of many of these benefits vary depending on your industry, position, and organization.
Make sure that you and the organization you’re interviewing with are on the same page when it comes to what a benefit actually looks like in practice.
Be upfront about what matters to you
Sometimes we get seduced by the good things we're hearing, and we don't necessarily take a pause for ourselves and say, "What I haven't heard you talk about is your medical leave, or the number of holidays, or the cultural holidays that you all either celebrate or honor as days off."
As a candidate, you’re going to need to engage in self-assessment at the beginning and throughout the hiring process to determine whether or not an organization will really meet your needs. Decide what benefits are non negotiable for you, and find out whether the organization you’re interviewing with offers those benefits early on in the process.
Some benefits just won’t be attainable in certain roles because of the structure of an organization, the job duties of the role, or the organization’s internal equity commitments. But it’s better to know that early on rather than finding out later when you and the organization have devoted time and effort to a hiring process that doesn’t work out.
In today’s highly competitive job market where there are more positions available than active candidates, candidates have the power to probe, ask more questions, and find the organization, culture and benefits that work for them. Employers can navigate this often unfamiliar terrain by making sure that their benefits really reflect their organization’s core values.