Situation: Receive job offer and have questions and desire to make a counteroffer. Assume this offer has been communicated via email after a phone conversation but these principles would apply for a followup phone conversation as well.


Does the order in which you do the following matter (with respect to a formal job offer):

  • Asking questions/clarifications regarding benefits, vacation, start date, etc
  • Make counteroffer on salary
  • Discussing perks like sign-on bonus, relocation assistance, etc

Additionally, should all this be communicated in a single email reply or should it be broken into a series of conversations?

It would seem like the order you bring these topics up could have an effect on likelihood for successful negotiation, etc, but I really don't know how this would be received by HR/hiring managers. Maybe a list of intelligent questions followed by a proposed higher salary would make it seem more likely you are really seriously considering the offer and make it more likely to be accepted or have a bit of a sunk cost investment on their part?


These days, the things you mentioned are often discussed as "total compensation".

My approach has generally been:

  1. Compile a list of detailed questions - usually I get packages with lots of detail, but inevitably, something I care about deeply is skipped. I don't assume they left it off intentionally, I ask - and I try to ask as many nuance questions as I can about things like how benefits accumlate or are earned, what is considered acceptable use, how availability works, etc. This is every item on your bullet list - tangibles, intangibles, conditional bonuses. Also lifestyle and culture stuff may come up - like flex time, expected hours per day, etc.
  2. Go through them with HR. Usually I mail them because they are detailed enough to require some research - and I leave the option open that we shoudl set up a meeting and discuss it, as many of the answers are likely to have nuances that won't be easy to understand in email or other text based formats.
  3. Consider the package - I probably won't discuss it with the company, but before I start asking for things, I figure what will really improve my life - it's rarely just the cash. Extra time off, training opportunities, publication opportunities, a way to improve my commute - all that counts very high, so I figure out what that's worth to me, and what I really want. I also clarify what I will trade on - for example, I don't care HOW they pay for my eyeglasses (medical or dental) I only care that it's covered. I don't care whether I can buy an extra week of vacation or whether I automatically start with 4 weeks... as long as it isn't 3 weeks. I do, however, care if something isn't assured from year to year.
  4. Raise the whole pile while leaving the option open - I usually state it in terms of problem/solution - what I want, what I'm not getting, and what can they do for me? That leaves as much flexibility as possible. As we communicate, I look for explanations of why, to get a sense of the business and what flexibility will be available in the long run. On the surface, all benefits can look alike, but the nuances can make a big difference years down the line, so I try to clarify as many as possible.
  5. One round. Done. Over - if I have to negotiate for the job like I'm buying a used car, going back and forth, back and forth - I"m out. I ask what they can do, I listen to the response, and I decide yes or no on the total package. If it's a bad package and I say no, they can change the scene... but I don't expect it.

As far as the flow, I take it as it comes. I tend to prefer to send them my analysis and questions by email, because the numbers and details get complex enough that reviewing it in writing can help a great deal, and it lets me get the details right. But conversations about "how likely", "why" and "what if" are often best by verbal communication, as there are nuances that can be conveyed by tone of voice. Final offer accept/decline is something I always do in writing for formality.


Once you have clarification on your questions, including perks, then it is time to make a counter offer.

There is no point in giving a counter offer without having all the details you want to have - you will be acting on incomplete data (or as complete as you are likely to get).

In terms of perception - I expect that asking questions about the benefits, perks, bonuses etc... would be expected by HR/hiring managers and would be expected before any counter offers on salary are made. Don't forget that not only salary is negotiable - you can negotiate on other things (vacation, start dates, notice periods, bonuses etc...).


Beware of getting too much into the "slice the salami" negotiation. That is, first you negotiate salary. When that is settled, you put sign-on bonus on the table. Then relocation, then vacation, etc etc. Your counterpart will see this is you constantly moving the goalposts and most people don't appreciate that. They want everything on the table so they can negotiate the entire package, not piecemeal.

Worst case, they'll just call the whole thing off. Or they will go back and say that if you want to negotiate sign-on bonus then you'll have to go back and revisit the salary discussion. Only this time around, he or she will treat you as a more "hostile" negotiation partner and you will have lost some amount of trust and goodwill.

Better, I think, is to view it as a package. Indicate that you want to discuss the terms of your hiring and that you want to put together a package including salary, bonus, relocation and all other things. Then everything is on the table and the hiring manager/HR rep can feel secure that you are negotiating in good faith and that you won't come back with additional requests once an agreement has been reached.

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