How valuable are benefits in a job description?

Well-written job specifications generally follow a similar pattern - a summary of the business and the industry they’re in, the skills and experience they require, desired skills and experience, the remuneration on offer and any benefits the company wishes to offer the successful candidate. Some may omit some of these details, but certainly in the tech sector over recent years the start-up culture has tried to lure people in with lists of benefits to make it sound like an amazing place to work.

But are these benefits really as valuable as the company says?

Realistically the answer to this question is subjective - it very much depends on your priorities in life. If you have a young family then flexibility might be more important to you than social events, for example.


There is a trend that has become more prevalent in recent years - and it drives me absolutely bonkers.

There seem to be two categories of benefits that get thrown about - the “let’s be like Google” with nap corners, game rooms, ball pools, inflatable chairs, bean bags etc. Sounds cool and fun, right? Then there’s the boring drab but responsible X holidays, pension etc type of company.

The fun ones

Many years ago Google started a trend of what is seemingly a great way to approach the welfare of their employees - their offices included slides, ball pits, games. They encouraged employees to make use of them, in a bid to help relieve work stress and make the workplace a happy environment to be. Their 20% time policy - where you essentially spend 20% of your working time on anything you want that you think might benefit Google - sounded like an amazing idea for those who love autonomy and the freedom to create.

Since then I’ve seen many try to emulate as much of Google’s philosophy as possible - from fun corners, bright colours and bean bags, to “half a day a week on learning anything you like”, to unlimited holidays. These sound like great benefits and the kind of things I would have gone for a few years ago. The problem is the value. I once worked for a company who offered time each week on learning - something comparable to Google’s 20% time. And I loved the idea that for a portion of my working week, I’d be able to sit down and dedicate a few hours to learning something that would really help me and the business. Unfortunately, in the time I was there that never actually happened once I was settled in, as the workload never allowed it. Google, according to several reports, suggest that only 10% of their employees are actually using it. What about the other 90%?

Having fun corners and items in an office is great too, until I interviewed at a startup deploying those benefits in the office. Don’t get me wrong - I’m all for making work a fun, comfortable environment, but I think there is a line where fun and comfort are overtaken by distraction.

Unlimited holidays are another one that have grown in popularity, but their value is questionable - it’s difficult to understand how they might work in a real world scenario. It’s not like you’ll ever be able to take two or three days a week off work, nor will you be able to have every Friday off. You certainly won’t be able to take a month off work in the company’s busiest time period. But wait, isn’t that what “unlimited holidays” means? The idea sounds amazing, but as with the 20% time policy, realistically you’ll be pushed into a position where you feel guilty for taking time off work - those I know who have worked for companies like that have all said, “you end up taking less than you would if you had a fixed number of days per year.”

The boring ones

This is where my biggest bug bear is, because the problem is that the majority of “boring” benefits aren’t actually benefits at all. Things you might encounter (in the UK at least) include:

  • 28 days holiday (including bank holidays)
  • Pension scheme
  • Private healthcare
  • X% bonus
  • Flexible working hours
  • Remote working

In the UK, there are some things that are a legal requirement. Such as the first two examples in the list - and this really gets on my nerves.

Calling all hiring managers! It is a legal requirement to provide a minimum of 28 days holiday per year (including bank holidays). It is also a legal requirement to provide a workplace pension scheme, and has been for at least 5 years now. Stop calling them - and anything else you are legally required to provide - “benefits”!

Private healthcare IS a benefit, but comes with caveats that might mean it’s not the right choice for you. And these should be opt-in, but do check the scheme details before you subscribe and obtain advice if you need it. There is usually a personal tax implication for taking a private healthcare benefit, so you should weigh up the cover provided vs the tax implications to make sure it is right for you. I made this mistake and opted out after a couple of months and realising I’d misunderstood some of the details.

“Flexible working hours” and “remote working” are terms being hugely misused. “Flexible working hours” can mean literally anything - am I 9 to 5:30 but I can maybe come in a little late or leave a little early… sometimes? Are there core business hours that I have to be around for, but can flex around them? Does that work for me? Can I work whenever it suits, as long as the work gets done? It would be better to be fully transparent about what this means on the job specification, rather than losing time having discussions that will not go anywhere because they won’t work for the candidate.

“Remote working” - we are, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, in an accelerated scenario where remote working has become more normal for more industries. But again, remote working has different meanings and it would be beneficial to all to highlight exactly what that means. Remote working to me means remote working, so when I ask the question and I get back, “you’ll be expected to be in the office 3 days a week”, that’s actually partial remote working and should be labelled as such.

Finally - bonuses. The majority of job specifications I have seen offering bonuses do stipulate they’re performance-based, and that’s fine. However a, couple of job ads I’ve seen - one a couple of days ago in fact state that the bonus is guaranteed. It is therefore not a benefit and rather than listing it as such to try and make the position sound better, add it to the salary instead. It is taxed in exactly the same way, so it makes no difference how it’s listed on the payslip. The only difference would be if you took a bonus sacrifice - paying it into your pension instead. But you could just take the salary increase and request it gets paid into your pension - same difference.

As I mentioned, whether “benefits” are beneficial to you is a subjective statement. However I get really suspicious when a company lists a tonne of amazing benefits, because when you really look into them they’re either legal requirements or some marketing gimmick to make the job sound amazing. If they’ve having to make the job sound amazing it’s a red flag to me and I’ll start looking for things like high staff turnover, is the job really that interesting, etc.

The old adage rings true here: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”