Seven secure tips to unlock a sign-on bonus

By Robert Half on 1st December 2014

If you're a talented, experienced professional with niche skills and an impressive career record, the chances are you'll be in strong demand in the jobs market. Organisations across the UK are looking to recruit new employees to support their expansion plans, but a shortage of skills in many industries is creating recruitment challenges. Faced with stiff competition for the best people, many employers are willing to pay a premium for the industry expertise they need. This is leading to rapid salary inflation at the high end of the market, and enabling in-demand candidates to command more attractive benefits packages.

Employers may not be writing blank cheques at present, but they are certainly willing to stretch a little further to access the talent they need. As such, many professionals are in a position to significantly improve their remuneration, and in turn, quality of life. By moving to a new organisation, or asking for a promotion with their existing employer, they can secure higher salaries, more attractive benefits and improved working conditions. Are you in a position to do the same?

Securing a better deal

What determines whether you can secure increased wages, a sign-on bonus or other benefits? Essentially it is supply and demand. If you are able to provide a service that few other people can, there will be greater competition to hire you, pushing up your value and, in turn, earnings capacity. Conversely, if you've got no specialism to offer - and an employer has various other candidate options - you've got limited bargaining power when it comes to contractual terms.

If an employer needs you more than you need them, then you have the opportunity to push them a little further on pay and benefits. Assuming you have multiple organisations chasing your signature, you have the chance to opt for the most lucrative offer. Having spent years developing skills and expertise, and becoming a specialist in your profession, why shouldn't you maximise your income?

Securing a sign-on bonus

If you've emerged as the preferred candidate in a recruitment process, you're in a strong bargaining position. By making a job offer, the employer has expressed their desire to bring you onboard, and this is to your advantage when it comes to negotiating terms. Knowing that the employer is eager to appoint you, it may be possible to secure a higher salary, improved benefits, or even a sign-on bonus.

These 'golden hellos' are more common in certain industries than others. They are typically paid to senior-level professionals, but could be available to any in-demand job candidate - it all depends on how highly their services are valued. If you're a much-coveted professional with a number of career options, employers may consider this joining fee a small price to pay for your services. If the alternative is to see you walk away from negotiations and join another firm, they may be happy to pay the extra cash sum.

There are a number of other instances where employers may be willing to offer a sign-on bonus. Firstly, a cash sum could be paid to secure someone for an earlier start date. For instance, if a candidate gets their bonus paid out in February but a company wants them to start in November, they may pay the candidate the sum they have sacrificed by switching jobs. Similarly, if a candidate has equity in their current business, and this will be forfeited by moving, the new employer may offer a cash sum as compensation. A third scenario could be where an employee is due a redundancy package, but the new employer wants them to leave before this is paid out. By offering the equivalent sum, they may encourage the individual to waive their right to redundancy pay.

In a survey conducted by Robert Half, 64 per cent of chief financial officers said they are more willing to offer sign-on bonuses to new starters than 12 months ago. The increasingly competitive nature of the jobs market - and the war for talent - means employers seem prepared to stretch further to hire the people they need. The question is, can you benefit?

Can you secure a bonus?

As a job candidate, you need to weigh up your prospects of securing a bonus before asking for one. If you feel fortunate to have been offered a particular job - perhaps due to the level of competition for the role, or the fact it is a higher grade - this might not be the time to be pushing your luck. Where employers have other options, and a number of talented applicants waiting for a job offer, they may take a 'thanks, but no thanks' attitude towards your request. Having misjudged your standing - and over-estimated your potential value to the hiring organisation - you could see the job offer disappear right before your eyes.

It's all about looking for clues - the signs which indicate whether you are in a strong or weak negotiating position. For instance, how eager was the employer get you to interview? How much of an effort have they made to sell the organisation to you? Has the employer hinted at a willingness to negotiate on pay? Employers will aim to avoid paying bonuses where possible, but if in-demand candidates request them, they may be used as an acquisition tool.

Asking for a sign-on bonus

If you think an employer is willing to offer a 'golden hello', you've got to ask for one. This might not always be a comfortable conversation, but it could prove to be a very profitable move. It's important to test the waters rather than go in all guns blazing - ask whether the employer would consider paying a one-time bonus, rather than specifying it as a condition for accepting the role. Attempting to negotiate too aggressively could alienate the employer and cause them to withdraw the offer altogether.

One way to increase your chances is to provide evidence of previous bonuses, as evidenced by your P60 and the key performance indicators you have worked towards. Employers may be willing to match historic payments in order to meet your remuneration expectations. Providing evidence of the financial value you have added to organisations in the past may also be helpful - it may convince the employer that the sign-on bonus is worth paying.

Using a recruitment agency

Another way to raise the matter of a sign-on bonus is through a recruitment agency, as they have more direct knowledge of the challenges the company has faced in recruiting for the role and what may be on offer for the right individual. The recruitment consultant should have an idea as to whether the employer is willing to offer a bonus, and what sort of figure will be available. If they are not party to this information, they are in an ideal position to speak to their client and find out on your behalf.

Working as an intermediary, the recruiter is able to negotiate for both parties and arrive at a figure everyone is satisfied with. By delegating this role to a specialist consultant - someone with knowledge of the jobs market, industry, the client's outlook and pressure points - you can spare yourself an awkward conversation with your new employer. If they are unwilling - or unable to offer a bonus - the recruitment consultant can simply relay this information back to you.

7 top tips for unlocking a sign-on bonus

  1. Do your research on the market and your prospective employer
  2. Assess your chances of success in securing a bonus - don't jeopardise your job offer
  3. Decide what you are happy/willing to accept as a bonus
  4. Pick the right opportunity to raise the issue - always agree salary and other terms first
  5. Be polite, respectful and courteous in negotiations
  6. Remain flexible - you may have the chance to secure other benefits, if not a cash sum
  7. Where possible, allow a recruitment agency to lead negotiations

Robert Half is a leading executive search agency. Send your CV to a specialist executive search consultant or if you are looking to hire senior leadership talent then tell us your hiring needs.

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