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4 questions to help you decide between job offers
Hint: Look beyond the paycheck
An enviable but delicate situation.
An enviable but delicate situation. Thinkstock

We know, we know. Competing job offers? In this economy? To dream!

But it does happen. Just ask Jessica Walton, 27, a health-care consultant based in Atlanta. After graduating from Emory University with a master's in public health in 2010, she received offers for consulting positions with three different companies.

The offers ranged from $65,000 to $80,000, but when the time came to make a decision, her potential salary was only one of several considerations. Walton asked herself numerous questions to help her make the best choice: Where could she see herself growing a career? Did she like the people she'd be working with? Did she feel that their personalities and work ethic were similar to hers? What was the reputation of each firm in the marketplace?

Ultimately, she accepted a position from a company that wasn't offering the best salary but whose reputation she respected. "I knew other people from my graduate program who had joined that particular firm and they were satisfied with their choice," says Walton. "I wanted to make sure I didn't just go where the money was." Once she made her decision, however, she negotiated with the company, which matched the higher offer she'd received.

If you're on the job hunt, you may think you'd be lucky if your search turned up one offer. But who knows, in the course of your career, you might find yourself in the even more fortunate position of choosing between two (or more!) opportunities.

In which case, ask yourself a few key questions before you make your next move.

1. Is the company interested in helping its employees grow?
Joseph Terach, founder and CEO of Resume Deli, a professional résumé-writing company, advises all of his clients to consider how the company culture affects employees over the long haul. Do your research to find out if the company is invested in its employees as assets (think perks like tuition reimbursement and a hire-from-within commitment to developing talent) or if the company just does the bare minimum when it comes to employee satisfaction and career growth.

"There are some people that only want to clock in and clock out each day, and if you're one of those people, then this area certainly might not be important to you," says Terach. "But for people looking to grow, such as young professionals, this is a question that needs to be asked."

When you're interviewing with the company, inquire about career development programs, or get even more specific and ask the interviewer to share one or two specific examples of employees who have climbed the ladder in the company. But, Terach says, make sure to tread lightly as you dig for more information.

"The best way to bring up this matter is to ask a question that is open-ended and non-threatening, such as, 'Could you give me a sense of what a new employee's trajectory is like over a one-, two- or three-year period?' or 'Where might a new employee today find him or herself three years from now?'" he explains. "You don't want to directly ask if or when you'll get promoted. That might be what's going through your head, but you have to ask about it in a positive way."

2. What is the matching and vesting schedule of each company's 401(k) plan?
Depending on where you are in your career (and how soon you plan to retire), this question could have a huge impact on your long-term financial health. And getting a company "match" on your 401(k) is like getting a raise — albeit one you can't cash in on until you retire.

"A 401(k) plan is a very cost-effective way to build a nest egg for the future," says Terach. "Certain companies will give you different matched contributions toward your plan. The more generous those contributions are, the less you as an individual need to set aside from your own net income to build up the same amount of long-term savings."

So, ask if each company will match a percentage of your own contribution, and then if you find that one company offers a more robust company-matched 401(k) plan, take note. To set your expectations, not all companies offer a match at all: According to the 401(k) Performance Survey, conducted by American Investment Planners LLC, 42 percent of American companies don't offer any match — but that means the majority do.

Another question you should weigh: How soon can you invest in the plan (six months? one year?), and what's the company's vesting schedule? In other words, do you have to work a certain number of years in order to keep the company's retirement contribution? According to CNN Money, the most common vesting schedules are 33 percent or 25 percent per year, thus requiring employees to stay for at least three or four years, respectively, before they can claim the full company match at departure. Employees typically receive only a portion of the company match if they choose to leave the company before that deadline.

Terach suggests spending some time thinking about how long you realistically expect to stay at each company. "If you stay at one company for a short time, what will you walk away with at the end? At some companies, you only receive your own investment if you leave within a year," he says.

3. What's the work-life balance like?
Of course, a job offer doesn't just come down to compensation. You also have to weigh what stage of your career you're at, and how the company culture will impact your lifestyle. A lucrative offer may come with an expectation to work weekends or evenings as needed, or to forgo using your vacation days in the interest of taking on more responsibility at the office.

On the other hand, a more relaxed work environment — one in which employees regularly take time off, rarely respond to emails outside of the office and generally leave right at closing time — may be worth a lower salary if a clear boundary between your work and personal lives is a top priority.

"While the typical workday at each company may have been outlined for you, having a sense of what is expected outside of those hours can help you better determine the true work-life balance available at each company," says Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting From College to Career."

Some information you might want to suss out in the course of the interview process: What does a typical day look like? How many vacation days will you receive? Do people leave their desks for lunch? Is it the kind of workplace that requires firing off or responding to emails at all hours of the day or night? And so on.

Just as with career-growth questions, it's important to remember that, first and foremost, it's your job as a candidate to convince an employer to hire you. Couch these questions gently, and consider asking a recruiter or HR person, as opposed to firing them off during an interview with a hiring manager, or ask around if you know other employees at the company to see what kind of feel for the culture you can get.

4. Do I like and respect the person I would be reporting to?
"Your boss has a huge impact on both your day-to-day life and your longer-term prospects at a company," says Pollak. "A major reason people quit their jobs is because of a bad relationship with their boss." Good bosses are rare and invaluable to any career, so think about what benefits you'd gain from working with this person, as well as what lessons he or she might teach you.

And be sure you're clear about what's expected of you: How does your manager, and the company, define success in the job you'd be taking? Let those criteria help determine which role would be the most fulfilling for you — after all, it feels good to win, and being confident about doing a good job at your job is a tip-off that it might be a great fit.

How to turn down an offer
Once you decide which job to take, your next order of business is to turn down the other offer(s). Telling another employer that you're declining their offer might seem awkward, but keep in mind that it's not personal; you've simply made a decision about which company is the best fit for you.

"First and foremost, say that you're flattered — and, if you can, do it over the phone instead of email," says Debra Shigley, author of "The Go-Getter Girl's Guide: Get What You Want in Work and Life." "Explain that it was a tough decision, and pick one reason why you chose the other job. Just keep whatever reasons you give focused on the job itself as opposed to personal reasons."

Shigley also notes that turning down a job offer can also be a networking opportunity. "By the time you get to the offer stage, you've met with different people at a company and really gotten to know them," she says. "Things may or may not work out with your current job. The best way to keep opportunities open is to remain top of mind with other people who know you well." Be sure to represent yourself well all the way to the end, and send thank-you notes to all your interviewers for having considered you.

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