When you’re interviewing with a new company, pay attention to their benefits. Even the ones that aren’t important to you personally.
Benefits don’t just include health/dental/vision insurance and retirement/pension (I’ll call these “core benefits”). It includes life insurance, disability, maternity leave, vacation, sick time, as well as “perks” like free snacks in the lunch room, paying your cell phone bill, or a company retreat to Napa. Every one of these are important considerations.
Benefits are a window into company culture
I honestly believe that company benefits tell you more about a company than any formal interview will. The benefits that a company offers to an employee are a sign of how you’ll be treated if you work there. There is definitely a correlation between great benefits and happy employees.
Companies who respect their employees will express that respect through their benefits. (The inverse is also true–companies often have poor benefits because they do not respect their employees.)
Sometimes, terrible companies have great benefits and vice-versa. Benefits are just one of many factors to think about. However, it is an important factor. Don’t dismiss it, or wait for the last minute to consider it.
Occasionally (rarely), an employer will have a decent summary on their website. Hunt around for it, but if you can’t find it, ask. A potential employer will market their most impressive-sounding benefits to you (free bagels every Friday morning!), but won’t volunteer the less impressive benefits unless you ask (the health insurance plan involves a shaman and a magic wand?).
Benefit packages vary wildly
Every company will have different benefits, so there’s no one-size answer to “what are good benefits?” In particular, the benefits from a very small company will be completely unlike those of a large company.
Very small companies don’t usually have great buying power for core benefits. For things like insurance, expect to pay a little bit more, or to have less coverage. This is just how the American insurance industry works.
Even though small companies aren’t usually able to offer amazing insurance benefits, they usually make up for it with other perks. Often, these perks are really fun: PlayStation in the break room, company outings with big budgets, or a pub for a lunch room. Other perks might have a real cash value to you: I worked at a company that paid the bills for my mobile phone, home internet, and bought me a new laptop every 18 months.
With small companies, you need to look at all of these perks together. Yes, you should consider whether you will take advantage of them–but look past that, too. These perks are designed to keep employees happy and engaged. They reflect the personality and uniqueness of each small company. How is this company unique? What is their most special benefit?
Big company benefits are often inverted from small company benefits. Buying everyone a laptop, and doing whole-company vacations simply don’t scale up to a thousand employees. Flexibility goes away, and is replaced by well-structured benefits to ensure fairness.
You can generally expect large companies to offer better core benefits, thanks to the buying power of insuring more people under one group. Look at how generous the insurance and retirement benefits are. Are they pretty standard, or is the company trying to do something extra?
Also, the perks might not match up to very small companies, but they should never go away. Are there free snacks or soft drinks in the break room? What sort of company parties or outings does the company do?
Benefit bell weathers
There are three items in particular that I always look at. I think these are tells for company culture. Are these benefits just flashy marketing, or are they really part of who the company is?
Do employees take advantage of these benefits?
During your interview, take a moment to ask every interviewer about company culture. Find out what perks they love the most. How popular are the company outings? If the company has “unlimited” sick time, how many sick days do employees actually take? Does the PlayStation in the break room get used? Are the snacks in the kitchen any good? Are spouses invited to the company Holiday party?
If employees don’t make use of these perks, then you should question if it’s an actual perk, or just a shiny (but empty) promise.
I encourage everyone to look at this benefit, even if children aren’t in your future. I especially encourage men to ask about maternity leave.
Yes–some employers will (illegally) hold this question against women in the hiring process. That’s one reason why it’s important for everyone (men included) to ask about this policy. I also encourage you to simply ask for a copy of the employee handbook, or the benefits section of the handbook. This will implicitly include maternity benefits, so you don’t have to ask explicitly about it.
Maternity leave is a benefit that not everyone will use. However, it is critically important to new mothers. Starting or expanding a family is, quite literally, one of the most important times in an employee’s life. There’s often quite a bit of stress and expense that goes along with this time, and having support from your employer makes it easier.
You should look for a policy that shows that the company respects how challenging of a time this can be. Does the company offer the bare minimum required by law, or do they do a little bit extra? What benefits are extended to new fathers? Are there benefits for families who choose to adopt?
Does this employer give back to the community? Do they facilitate employee volunteer opportunities? Do they match employee donations?
Like maternity leave, this might not directly affect you, but it speaks volumes to the company culture. In addition to respect for employees, this shows respect for the greater community. It helps identify who the company views as their community.
Even if the company has an active philanthropy program, consider what causes they contribute to. Again–this tells you a lot about the company culture. Are you proud of the causes your company supports?
Go with your gut
I have no magic formula to translate a company’s benefits into a measure of company culture. My advice is to simply look at them, and think about them. Think about whether the benefits reflect the company’s respect (or lack thereof) of an employee. Is this company looking out for your health, your well-being, and your happiness?
Think about how the company’s benefits reflect the company’s culture. Think about how you fit into that culture. And don’t dismiss your gut instinct about whether you’ll be happy being a part of that culture.