I’m one of those people who’s been waiting all year to quit my job and just did it. Your advice about negotiating salary (explain your value) worked great! But a careful reading of the offer and benefits (thanks again) revealed I’d get only two weeks’ vacation time! I’d be walking away from five weeks at my old job. Do I really have to give up my hard-earned vacation?
This is the perfect time to negotiate assertively for what you want because employers are dying for good talent. If you’re really good at your work, you have excellent negotiating leverage in the current economy and labor market. I’m glad to hear you got a good salary offer. Now let’s work on that vacation time!
Many companies want a new hire to start earning vacation time all over again — but that doesn’t make it a done deal. If you want the vacation time you deserve, you must negotiate to get it.
I have never understood why companies claim vacation time isn’t negotiable. Their position is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s the policy.” What a company means is that it won’t be able to keep a lid on vacation policy if it negotiates special deals with new hires. But that doesn’t make sense. Just as some people are worth more salary, some are worth more vacation time.
Salary history & vacation time history
Employers demand to know your last salary because they want to base their offer on it. “The only fair way to structure an offer is to look at what you’re already earning,” they explain. So if a job offer is based on your last salary, why shouldn’t your vacation time be based on the amount of vacation time you received at your last job, too? When a company asks for your salary history, why doesn’t it ask for your vacation history? Both reflect your industry seniority and your value.
So what does it mean when a company offers you a job with a paltry two weeks of vacation, and you’ve been taking four or five weeks off at your old company? Okay, let’s get to the advice part of this column. But please remember: this is advice, not a guaranteed way to get five weeks of vacation.
Time off is compensation, not a benefit
The reason you can negotiate salary but not vacation time at most companies is because salary is part of your compensation. Vacation time is not. Vacation time is considered a benefit. Salary can vary, but benefits are fixed. (Or so companies would like you to believe.)
But there is no rhyme or reason to this distinction.
In my opinion, time off is compensation just like cash is because “time is money.” You get compensated for your work with money, and you get compensated for your work with time off. Your expertise, experience and seniority make you worth higher compensation because you probably do more and better work than most junior employees. So it makes sense to give you more time off. Your work still gets done.
I think vacation benefits are negotiable if you have the leverage of expertise and experience (or “seniority”), and when the company isn’t policy-bound.
Negotiate all compensation
My advice: Wait until the offer has been made, then diplomatically and matter-of-factly explain that just as you wouldn’t take a lower salary, you wouldn’t accept less vacation time for your level of seniority in the industry.
Of course, you must decide in advance whether vacation is a deal-breaker for you. In fact, you could test an employer by bringing this up before you agree to do an interview — make vacation a condition, just like your desired salary range. Some companies will balk at this. The more they need you, the more likely they are to negotiate. When employers aren’t flexible, you might want to take an alternative approach.
Tips from an HR insider
To get a well-rounded perspective on this issue, I turned to an expert I respect. Marilyn Zatkin is a veteran HR manager and consultant in Silicon Valley. Her perspective on both the policy and practical sides of this question is solid. She reveals that some companies will be flexible because they understand that vacation is a form of compensation. They also don’t want to lose a great candidate! Here’s what she has to say about this:
“Most companies do not like to alter their vacation policy and create internal equity issues. There are alternatives to granting more vacation than policy allows, such as giving the person a sign-on bonus equivalent to the desired vacation amount, and then letting the worker take the extra time off without pay in the first year. A company can also take that ‘extra vacation value’ and include it in the total compensation package. However, they usually try to limit a special deal like this to the first year.”
I’ll point something out: The moment Zatkin (or any HR manager) concedes that there is a dollar value to vacation time (after all, she’s offering a cash bonus to pay you back for less time off), we have established that vacation time is, indeed, part of compensation. The only thing left to negotiate is how much. I don’t see why that sign-on bonus or “extra compensation” can’t be permanent. (See also Can’t negotiate a higher salary? Ask for more money.)
This may not solve your long-term vacation problem, but it suggests to me that companies are indeed aware there’s an issue they have to face. So I say, negotiate and be as firm about vacation time as you are about salary.
Is time off a benefit, or part of compensation? Have you sacrificed vacation time when changing employers? If not, how did you negotiate it? Do you think you’d have more negotiating leverage nowadays if you changed employers?