Here, then, are my thoughts on garnering all that is due to you from an employer. I am not a financial planner, lawyer, human resource officer, or labor relations specialist. I am an American worker in the early 21st Century with 15 years of employment experience, who is simply sharing some wisdom and caution that — like anything you read on the Internet — should be verified independently and customized to your specific needs. There is a universal appeal, however, in watching out for your own ass.
Paychecks: Karl Marx was a dingbat in a lot of ways, but fundamentally he was right: We sell labor for money. You may love your job, but you're not a charitable organization. Take every dime due you.
Know what you are worth. Research your profession online. Contact career counselors. Survey hiring managers and human resource experts. Go into the interview armed with the salary range your experience and job responsibilities command in the market. Like a martial artist's years of sparring, this knowledge will give you a confident stance from which to engage the interviewer. Once you are hired, let the employer mention a figure or range first. Request more: in cash, but also in benefits, the date your healthcare begins, earlier salary review, options vesting — they expect you to bargain, and the vast majority of negotiations win at least some additional concession. This is your first contact with your human resources officers, and possibly with your future managers (who will sign off on any future raises and perks). Show them now you are unafraid to speak up for yourself.
Benefits: A wide range of overt and hidden benefits await the modern white-collar worker. Take them all.
- 401(k), 403(b), or other tax-deferred plan: A shocking number of my coworkers do not participate in my company's 401(k) plan. This is suicidal. Even a conservative portfolio of index and bond funds has a far greater chance than Social Security does of surviving the depredations of inflation, taxation, and Congressional kleptomania. Contribute as much as you can. Learn the Federal maximum for the tax year and strive to max it out. If you are servicing debt, like student loans or a mortgage, at least defer enough from your paycheck to exploit fully any employer matching contributions or profit share. Employer matches are free money.
- Company stock: Some companies offer discounted commissions on purchases of their shares. Others offer them as tax-deferred elements of retirement programs, or as options. These all can be excellent bargains, but — HUGE caveat — as part of a diversified investment portfolio. I can name the reason why in two notes: Enron. Do all the research on your company's business prospects that you would do when buying securities of any other corporation. Don't let any feelings of loyalty or sentimentality blind you. Be as cold and dispassionate as your company's board of directors would be in selecting an acquisition target.
- I add on both of these counts that most companies consider retirement education a participant-driven activity. Aside from quarterly account statements and flyers from the fund company, annual reports, and maybe a yearly visit from a harried fund rep 'round enrollment time, you will be left to do your own homework. High schools and colleges provide almost no personal-finance education. Ransack your fund company's Website and your library for solid financial-planning information and the skills to give your retirement money the best chance to grow.
- Flexible Spending Accounts and transit benefits: Again, many of my coworkers eschew these benefits. Be smarter than they are. Medical expense FSAs can be used for a wide variety of procedures and expenses. And as our parents age, the dependent care FSAs can be vital in obtaining compensation to give them the quality care they need when they can no longer care for themselves. More recently, companies have offered the same sort of plan to offset mass transit or parking costs. All of these reduce your taxable income and are far saner ways of lending the Feds money than having it taken out of your paycheck and getting it back with no added value or interest.
Face it: If you're a white collar worker, you (a) don't get overtime and (b) have been asked or at least pressured to work beyond the usual 8 hours. Should your boss approach you for this, don't panic. Enact what you might call a graceful exchange. If a supervisor asks you in person to stay late, make acceptance of this request conditional upon recompense. Time off in exchange for extra work is the most obvious way, but has a fatal flaw. If you leave amicably or are laid off, few if any employers will financially compensate you for this extra time the way they might for unused "official" vacation or sick time. To compromise, tell your boss on the spot that you would like to take that time off within that pay period. You want to come in later one day, or leave earlier the next Friday. Don't offer a reason; state your demand confidently and without an attitude. You are setting the terms on which they will request this of you in the future, so it's best to tell them early that you will not be a pushover.
Before end of business that day, summarize this verbal exchange in an email that forces your boss to repeat the answer in writing. For example: "To review what we discussed, will I be able to take next Friday off in compensation for the extra time you have asked me to work this week?" Maneuver the manager into answering your question. You therefore document that you addressed it, and you can smoke out the sort of manager who refuses to back up words with written confirmation. You know the cliché about verbal contracts. Show them you see through their game.
You might be told that extra time is routinely expected of all employees, perhaps out of some nebulous sense of gratitude for having a job or working for their fantastic corporation. This is especially true in workplaces where you're supposed to take the example of your coworkers, all laboring well past 5:00 or arriving before dawn, as an unwritten prompt for your own behavior. I disagree. Their gratitude for employment is demonstrated every other week in the form of a paycheck. Any other time they take from your life should incur a debt to you. Do not be afraid to exact it.
Maybe your industry prides itself on short-term sacrifice for long-term rewards, such as the first few years of law practice, game programming, Web design, or the like. Keep in mind that these benefits might lie over a horizon that you never get the chance to reach. Employers can and will lay you off with no warning, explanation, or recourse. Even in fields where such early-career monasticism is the norm, take something for yourself on a regular basis. Don't let duty or tradition turn you into a perspective-challenged robot for the sake of a fat future salary or a portfolio full of options.
You might fear not being perceived as a "team player." Fuck that noise. Ask to meet the rest of this mythical team, and whether its members would be willing to pick up your kids, shop for your groceries, get your car inspected, enjoy a midweek date, or do any of the other things you might pack into an already crowded day, while you sit in the office for a few more hours. Ask them if the team will give you that time back at the end of your life. You got that job on your own, you'll retire from it alone, and though you may be part of a group layoff, expect no support from this "team" when you make that long last walk to your car. Give your employer nothing without getting something tangible in return.
Vacation and sick/personal days: This is not grammar school; you will not be graded for attendance. If you are, you work for hypocritical control freaks and you should start job-hunting.
My father took every sick day he was granted each year, whether he was ill or not. Never underestimate the power of what my friend Dave dubbed the "mental health day." And if you are sick, take a sick day and stay out until you are no longer communicable. Why else would the company grant sick days unless it wanted to you recover and avoid infecting the staff? Stay home, get well, respect your coworkers, and avoid catching something worse in your weakened state. Unless you carry a weapon for Uncle Sam, you will not receive a Purple Heart.
As for vacation time: Plan to take it all. I frequently hear complaints from coworkers who claim not to be "able" to take a vacation day. Too many people get into the habit of believing they "can't" take time off, only to take vacations in haste and with little planning at the end of the year for fear of losing the days. Chart your time off early and make your plans known to your boss and your workmates. The only reason not to take regular breaks is when you are soon leaving the company and they are compensating you in cash for those days.
In your obituary, nobody will eulogize you by writing, "He never took a day off." Take every day offered. Refresh your mind, fill your lungs with outside air, and let the sun shine on your face, whether from your front porch or a tropical sky. Enlightened employers recognize the benefits of well-timed and frequent time off. More common is the sort of employer that will do nothing to remind you of the time they owe you.
Training: A wise boss once told me, "When you stop learning, you're dead." Accept the chance to learn new software, procedures, and the functions of other departments. Attend seminars (which also afford you networking opportunities.) If your company offers regular training or sponsors continued certification, take them up on it. Keep yourself fresh and competitive in the market. If they actually offer tuition reimbursement, seriously consider continuing-education courses or graduate studies. This will pay a double dividend: You get a boost on paying for the education, and you will increase your potential future earnings.
Don't be afraid to ask for any of the above. If your company doesn't offer these opportunities, perhaps nobody's requested them yet! You ought not to be disciplined for requesting the skills and tools to do a better job. If your employer refuses to offer training in your field, begin searching for a new job. Don't stay in a workplace that discourages education.
Miscellaneous perks: Computer-purchase loans, auto leases, society or professional memberships, life insurance, accounting or tax-preparation assistance, subscriptions to technical periodicals in your field, payment of entry fees for creative work into competitions, and discounted tickets for entertainment or sporting events are all worthy of consideration.
Use your company's willingness to provide anything I've discussed as a gauge on how long you stay there. Get out when they no longer serve you. They employ you. They do not own you. They don't govern the course of your career. Only you can decide when your work and your interests no longer follow the same track. Identifying and accepting this sort of discrepancy is not a mark of failure. I define a failure as someone who neglects to collect every cent of compensation and every hour of time off he or she has earned, who instead works weekends and Federal holidays because they think this will impress their bosses. Don't work for your boss. Work for your professional development, for the satisfaction of meeting your goals, and for the means to enjoy a comfortable, well-rounded life. Work for yourself.