Ask the Headhunter: Why do employers hide the benefits?
In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.
Question: I've received a good job offer from a very large company. The offer letter states that I am eligible for benefits, but it doesn't say what the benefits are. I asked the headhunter who was working to place me, and he said the company's policy is not to disclose the benefits until after I've accepted the position. This sounds really bizarre. The headhunter has assured me that the benefits package is very good and that I shouldn't worry about it. He says I'll be happy with the package. Should I take his word for it and accept the job, or should I run the other way?
Nick Corcodilos: You've run up against one of the most perturbing and ludicrous practices of many companies: They will not divulge the details of their benefits package and/or their employee policy manual until after you have started work.
What's the reason for the secrecy? Honest, this is the usual answer: "Our benefits package is a competitive secret, and our employee manual is confidential."
The message is you can play the game, but you can't see the rules in advance. You can make an investment in the company, but you can't see the financials. You can buy the house, but you can't do an engineering inspection first.
Did you ever ask to see a menu at a restaurant only to be denied? "You'll love what we serve you, and you won't mind the prices, which we'll disclose after you order."
You are right to be skeptical. Please rest assured, the company you're dealing with is being foolish. This secrecy has cost them other job applicants. You may be tempted to run away, but instead, call the office of the CEO and very politely explain that you are sitting on a job offer that you're ready to accept, but you have a question no one — including the HR department — seems able to answer to your satisfaction. Decline to say what the question is until either the CEO or the CEO's representative (someone who is not in the HR department) agrees to talk with you. Be polite, be respectful, but be firm.
I'll bet you dinner (I'll even show you the menu) that the CEO's office has no idea that HR withholds such basic information from potential hires.
If you get to talk with a sensible company representative, say something like this, rephrased so you're comfortable with it:
"I am very impressed with your company, and I am eager to come to work with John Jones, the manager of your finance department [or whomever]. However, I cannot accept this offer without knowing all the terms of employment, any more than your company could sign a contract without knowing what it was committing to. I'm sure you understand. Could you please send me your employee manual, benefits package and any other documents that would bind me once I start the job? Once I have these, I will promptly respond. I look forward to accepting your offer and to making a significant contribution to your business. Please don't ask me to talk with your HR department — they have already refused to provide these basic documents. I hope I can count on your help, so we can all get to work."
Although a company's refusal to show you the benefits details is sufficient justification for declining an offer, I should warn you that the more serious risk lies in taking the job before you've seen the employee policy manual. This is where things like noncompete rules, prohibitions against moonlighting, surrender of invention rights and other funky terms are sometimes hidden. (For a discussion about one particularly dangerous rule, see "I lied about my salary to get a job. What if my employer finds out?")
If you balk at these rules after you've started the job, your only option is to quit — without the luxury of being able to fall back on your old job. However, be aware that those rules may still apply after you quit. A job offer is a contract, and certain terms of that contract may survive your resignation or termination. A company's employee manual is usually incorporated by reference into a job offer. When you accept one, you accept the other.
Be very careful. Question authority. Question such policies. They stink, and there's good reason to say so. You risk getting the company upset, but as I asked earlier, would you order dinner at a restaurant without seeing a menu? (In some European restaurants, they go a step further and graciously invite you into the kitchen where you can see how the food is prepared and check out the bubbling pots for yourself.)
There are many things HR departments do that cost companies excellent job applicants simply because those job applicants aren't stupid and aren't willing to compromise themselves. Withholding benefits information is one of them. For more about this problem, see "How HR optimizes rejection of millions of job applicants" and "Why HR should get out of the hiring business."
Not all companies have such policies. While I respect a company's need to keep competitive secrets, I don't see any justification for keeping benefits secret from job applicants. I discourage you from signing a contract (for example, a job offer) from a company that will not divulge everything you need to know.
Dear Readers: Have you ever accepted a job only to learn the benefits stink? What did you do? How would you advise the job applicant in this Q&A?
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