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Home > Reading Room > Asking the right questions about benefits and salaries

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Asking the right questions about benefits and salaries

By Karon Reinboth Speckman

When graduates want answers about hiring, it’s important to understand that benefits are usually not negotiable, but often salary is. A Des Moines Register reporter who graduated three years ago says that it’s very important to ask questions about such things as drug coverage, out-of-network charges and salary requests.

“Do research on benefits — be more prepared to ask questions,” said Melissa Walker, who started her reporting career in August 2002 as the sports editor at a small family-owned newspaper in southeast Iowa.

She wanted to stay in the Des Moines area because her husband lived there. For that first job, she didn’t know how much to ask for in salary and advises graduates to research salaries for that market before the interview.

Walker said that in her first job, she was just happy to get a job with benefits. The paper paid 100 percent of the health premium but no dental or vision benefits. She stayed at that job until October 2003 and then joined the Register. When she moved to the Register, there wasn’t any negotiation room for salary. She did, however, have to make a decision because her health insurance wouldn’t kick in for three months. Thus, she had to choose whether to go with COBRA or a private insurer for those three months.

Joe Grimm, the Detroit Free Press recruiting and development editor, advises that graduates realize salaries are flexible.

“It’s important for them to realize that they’re not powerless,” Grimm said. “They do have the right to negotiate, and they have something to offer, so it’s going to be OK to negotiate for time or money. And, it’s very good practice for later when they will be negotiating two job offers.”

Grimm has written about negotiating job offers on his JobsPage Web site (, and he’ll soon be adding a page about health benefits.

“We’ve seen employers at all industries reducing benefits for their employees and their retirees, so we need to go into the job knowing what benefits we receive,” Grimm said. “In some cases, a company that gives very good health benefits may have a better total compensation package than another company that offers a high salary.”

He suggests that most questions are better answered by human resource officers rather than the future supervisors. He gives these questions about benefits:

• When would my benefits begin? When would I be covered? That coverage may depend on the start date, and changing one’s start date may mean that the benefits may come in one month earlier.

• What’s covered? Do I have my choice of insurers? Do I pay for part of my health insurance? Are there co-pays on items such as medicine and office fees? Do I have dental or optical coverage?

• What kind of insurance benefits would dependents have?

• If employees don’t need very many benefits, they may ask: Do I have a choice? Can I opt out of something to make my paycheck bigger?

However, Grimm said, he’s conservative and would take all of the health benefits. Although medical benefits are not usually negotiable with employers, benefits can make a difference when comparing two positions.
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