how can I tell an employer that their benefits suck?

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A reader writes:

A few weeks ago, I interviewed with a small nonprofit (maybe 8-9 employees) for a full-time coordinator/mid-management-y position that I was extremely well qualified for. Although I didn’t feel like I clicked on a personal level with the other coordinators I interviewed with, I still felt that I answered their questions well and was confident in my abilities to find solutions to the difficulties that they expressed the organization was currently having. I wasn’t surprised a day ago when I got a voicemail message offering me the job.

I followed up with an email asking them about pay, benefits, hours/schedule, paid time off, organizational structure, etc. None of which had been discussed in the initial (one) interview I had with them. The email I got back from them actually made me gasp in horror. The offer was so bad and so offensive that I don’t know what to say in response. Horrible pay (I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector my entire life, so I guess I shouldn’t be shocked by anything…), very little vacation, unexpected terrible schedule, but most offensive – a terrible sick leave policy and not very good benefits. It’s always been part of my core beliefs that one should care for others and leave their community a better place than when they joined it and I aim to work for organizations that share this belief. I thought this organization I interviewed with fit that, but after getting this offer from them I worry they either don’t know how horribly they treat their (potential) employees or don’t care.

I don’t know if I even want to negotiate this into an offer I could ever accept, so what I’m wondering is… Is there a way (without burning bridges) that I can tell an organization that things like their sick leave policy (totally changeable in my opinion) and benefits (may not be as changeable, given how small they are) totally suck and that they should be ashamed of themselves? You know, in a nice way. :)

Absolutely. I’d just be straightforward and say something like, “I’m very interested in working with you, but the benefits package is far outside the range of what most organizations in our sector offer.” If you want to try to negotiate, you could add, “I wonder if you have any flexibility there.”

But if the benefits are truly bad and there’s no compelling explanation for it, I’d steer clear. That’s the sign of an organization that isn’t committed to building the most competitive team it can so that it can meet a high bar, in terms of performance and impact. (Competitive candidates are the people least likely to accept terrible pay and benefits, which also means that you’d probably be working with people who accepted their jobs because they didn’t have better options — meaning they’re either on their way out once they find something better or they’re not particularly high performers.)

By the way, I find it bizarre that they made you a job offer without mentioning salary and made you ask what they were offering, which is another sign that this organization might not really know what it’s doing. Since this is a nonprofit, I’d take a look at what its impact has been in the world, which will give you more information about whether it has its act together. What are its goals, are they ambitious without being unrealistic, and does it regularly meet them?  Is it getting things done in the world? That might point you toward whether it’s somewhere worth working, if indeed you’re able to come to terms on salary and benefits.

{ 29 comments… read them below }

  1. Wilton Businessman

    Just tell them that you were looking for a full time position and from the compensation package you assumed it was part-time.

  2. Adam V

    I’m with AAM – every phone call I’ve ever had where a company was offering me a job had “…and your salary would be $X” in the conversation. The fact that you had to respond just to get that information tells me that they’re clueless.

    AAM, would it be out of line to respond with something more pointed like “based on my (X years of) experience in the nonprofit sector, I expected benefits more along the lines of X sick days per year, X vacation days, etc. etc.”, just to lay out exactly how far behind on *all* those categories they are?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Not out of line at all! I’d say go for it. My one caveat there would be that if you’re giving precise numbers, err on the conservative side so that they don’t brush you off as being unrealistic.

  3. Cruella

    And remember, a company will usually try to get you at the lowest possible salary that you will agree to accept. That is where negotiation comes into play.

  4. Anonymous

    I don’t think it’s proper to tell an employer their benefits suck. It’s proper to just pass on the position. If their offer is so terrible, it certainly doesn’t sound like a place one would want to negotiate too much with – you may start with more but with little building from then out.

    Though this is not the OP’s situation, I have run into a few individuals coming from the for-profit world into the non-profit, and have given me versions of the “you suck” speech. It hasn’t changed anything about the offer – but then I remember them and can tip off a colleague who is hiring. For example, “I remember them – really great but they don’t seem to understand the non-profit end…”

    Please note: I am up front with the pay/benefits; either these examples respond negatively right away or think they can negotiate for it later, which I am not in a position to do. (There is a potential raise at 90 days, which I mention when stating the pay.)

    1. fposte

      I’m going for “It depends.” I have a picture in my head of a small, newish organization with one location, maybe headed by people who have other income streams (like are largely supported by spousal income). The places I’ve known like that often don’t have a good template for dealing with actual rather than legacy staff, and might have told another candidate a different thing about benefits–one person gets told there’s a week of sick time, another gets told four days. I don’t know if that’s the case here or not, but places like that are often genuinely puzzled as to why they can’t get or keep good staff. It wouldn’t hurt to give them a hint.

      1. Original Poster

        I’ve seen new organizations suffer from not knowing how to attract or keep staff, but this organization has been around for 30+ years, although being small may have kept them from having to do “heavy lifting” when it comes to HR policies and employment benefits.

  5. Original Poster

    I’m the OP. I really appreciate everyone’s imput on this situation. I’ve worked in the non-profit world my entire life, (in two different countries), and have really seen the spectrum of benefits/pay that can be offered. But, seeing the benefits offered with this job just about killed me inside.

    Because I work in volunteer management and outreach, I worried about this organization’s communication and management styles when they were “dealing” with me. Nevermind that it felt like the person who offered the job was just “dealing” with me and had very little enthusiasm. As a friend I discussed it with said to me, “Uh, I doesn’t even really sound like they want you all that much. They just want the spot filled.” After a lot of thought, I didn’t feel like if I took the job that it would end up being a good situation. The coordinators I met with seemed burned out, (happens all the time in their type of organziation), and I felt like it was going to be a huge, uphill battle to get the staff on my side to be able to build a great volunteer program. I felt like neither one of us wanted the other all that much in the end.

    I sent them a polite email declining the offer prior to AAM answering my question in her blog, so I didn’t include comments about the benefits in it. I didn’t want to negotiate the offer because I see enough red flags that I no longer want the to work with the organziation.

    Hopeful and optimistic that another opportunity will come my ways soon.

    1. Anonymous

      Instead of getting into with them about their less-than-desirable benefits, it’s good you went with your gut about other red flags you sensed and saw.

  6. Anon.

    I find it strange that a job off was made on voice mail – seems rather inappropriate and and half-ass. I’ve always been offered on the phone usually with a follow up email which includes the pay and benefits which were already agreed upon. Am I off here about the voice mail offer being strange?

    1. Kimberlee

      I don’t think a voicemail offer is off at all. I mean, what is the practical difference? If you’re there, they talk to you. If you’re not, they leave a message and you call them back. I think seeing it as a potential red flag or something like that is taking it a bit far.

      1. Anonymous

        No offense, but I would be very taken aback by a voicemail offer! What that essentially does is hand the entire conversation over to the employer. It also looks lazy because it indicates that they can’t be bothered to call you back at a later time.

      2. Mike C.

        This issue I see is being told one thing and being paid/compensated something else. Having a written/paper/e-mail copy means that there won’t be any funny business.

        1. Original Poster

          In my perfect world, every offer to me would come written in an email, along with a phone call/voicemail letting me know to expect the email, (to rule out any technological mishaps).

      3. Esra

        Agreed, @Kimberlee. My current job left me a voicemail offering the job and setting up a followup call to discuss compensation etc. I’d rather know sooner via voicemail, than wait till we catch each other otherwise.

        1. Anonymous

          Agreed too. My recent employer (a public bank) and other past employers have offered me a job, via phone message, and to have me call them as soon as I can to discuss salary and benefits. I prefer it this way rather than to play phone tag and not knowing what’s going…who wants to play the guessing game? Anyway, just my preference so I see nothing wrong with this practice.

  7. Anonymous

    I think you made the right decision by declining the offer. I speak from experience. In my last job hunt, I faced a similar situation. The job seemed like a good opp until I got info on the benefits. Hardly any sick or vacation time, no additional paid leave, and the health insurance was laughable. Since benefits are essentially an extension of salary, accepting that job would have resulted in a pay cut in comparison to the job I already had. I later accepted a position with a different company that offers significantly better benefits. Come to find out, one of my coworkers briefly worked with the company I rejected and has told me on numerous occasions that I made the right decision. The lack of decent benefits was just the tip of the iceberg: this company treated her and her colleagues terribly. The lesson is that there is no shame in being picky and trusting your gut.

  8. saro

    This is my pet peeve about working in non-profits (I don’t work in a non-profit now but have for many, many years). Why don’t the people working at non-profits have a right to a living wage with benefits?

    I probably would’ve told them.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Many nonprofits — well, the smart ones — actually offer pretty good benefits, especially when it comes to “free” benefits like vacation and sick time. It’s a way of making up for the fact that they generally can’t compete on salary.

      1. Jenna

        Exactly. My friends are always envious of the 4 weeks of vacation I get, 12 sick days, 4 personal days, paid holidays, etc. Then I point out that in return for the awesome paid time off benefits, I also make somewhere between $10k and $20k less than I could working in the for-profit world. Very big trade off. You get lots of flexibility for work-life balance, but are expected to over-perform with very little or no resources at your disposal. A stressful challenge, for sure. And our medical is atrocious.

        You can never accuse non-profit workers of being in it for the money, that’s for sure. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a masochist:)

  9. Anon

    Personally, I am hesitant to work for non profits. In my experience they seem to take care of the upper level staff and pay everyone else crap. And they always seem to use the non profit status as a crutch whenever they can. There’s certainly a larger than usual disparity between upper and lower level salaries. Seems kinda hypocritical to me.

    1. Natalie

      Hmm, I’m not terribly familiar with the salary disparities in small non-profits, but in my experience the disparities in large non-profits are comparable to the disparities in similarly sized corporations.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yeah, that was my thought too. If anything, the salary disparities in nonprofits are probably smaller, because the top salaries usually won’t go over a certain amount (whereas in for-profits, the top salaries can be many, many multiples of the more junior salaries).

    2. Anonymous

      I bigger hospitals, absolutely! The executives have great benefits and an awesome salary. But smaller hospitals or clinics, they’re pretty fair in compensation.

  10. Anonymous

    This is why I keep telling my boss to change our benefit package!
    You did the right thing

  11. Anonymous

    The botton line is, profit or non-profit, they do it because they CAN. If you don’t take the crappy benefits job, in this economy, someone else will. If they’re offering something truly unbearable, the position will go unfilled and they will learn their lesson and be more competitive. But right now, they don’t have to be. People are clamoring for poor-benefit jobs, undercutting their fellow job seekers by being willing to take lower and lower pay and worse and worse (or nonextistent) benefits, and employers are loving it. It’s simple supply and demand forces at work.

  12. anon-2

    Your comment about people accepting situations because they have no choice is spot on.

    I once worked in a place like that — their benefits were good, but, they also had a policy of low-balling candidates on their first offer. That’s a dumb policy because all they’re doing is setting someone up with a platform from which to find their next position.

    Companies that do that are just too stupid to realize what they’re doing — that is, if employee retention and hiring the brightest and best is a REAL goal.

    Back to the point, on lousy benefits. The best way to deal with that is be more aggressive in the salary negotiations. Of course, you have to have some leverage to do that. “Well, your health care plan is going to cost me $400 more a month than what I’ve got now” affords the company the reasoning to up the offer to you – a $5000 higher salary, for example. And it’s much easier for them, and you, to work that out before you accept the position.

    But if you have no leverage, then you might have to take things as they’re offered to you.

  13. anon-2

    One post-script — I might add, that, yes, if the benefits package isn’t suitable for you and it causes you to decline the position, it’s certainly fair, and professional, to let them know that.

    In a professional manner, of course.

    It might cause them to re-assess what and how they’re doing things.

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