employee perks hero image
employee perks hero image

The *Real* Perks at Work: What to Look for in Your First Job

I remember when I found out Google had a slide in their office.

I was in my final year of college and starting to think about my first job. Being very clueless and not knowing what to look for, I figured a company with a slide seemed REALLY fun. I vowed to find a job in an office that was just as cool as that one.

Spoiler: I didn’t get a gig at Google. But I did get my first job in an office with a ping pong table and Nintendo Wii in the break room.

Over the next year, I played a lot of ping pong and Mario Kart. I perfected my spin serve and learned that I just don’t do well with Yoshi behind the wheel.

I also learned another valuable lesson: having these “innovative” employee perks won’t give you the skills or experience you need to grow in your career.

 

I learned that the real perks at work aren’t flashy. They’re meaningful

The job where I gained the most was the one that probably sounded pretty ho-hum on paper. 

There was no console for post-work gaming. No lobby with a circus trapeze (yes, this does exist). And there wasn’t a foosball or ping pong table in sight.

The perks here were simple:

  • We had a great work culture where everyone worked hard and knocked off before 6 p.m.
  • I had an inspiring mentor and was surrounded by good people.
  • I could suggest ideas and put them into action.
  • There were plenty of opportunities for training and development.

Ultimately, that’s where you’ll find the true upsides of a job: in the not-so-glitzy, but very real benefits that set you up for success and allow you to live your best life, in and out of the office. 

And if you land these perks straight out of college? You’ll fast-track your career path sooner than you can say “office slide.”

So what are the best employee benefits you can get in a first job? Here are five considerations that should be at the top of your list when deciding which company to work for.

 

1. Find a manager who supports you

We all love Michael Scott, but I think we can agree it would be pretty tough to work with this guy:

Regardless of which company you’re working for, your manager has a big influence on your career within that company. They’re the ones that you’ll learn from, give you support and advice, and review your performance at the end of the year. Having a good boss can literally make work insanely rewarding and fast-track your career growth…whereas working with a Michael Scott can make every day seem like a struggle. 

Here’s a story of how that plays out.

I had a fantastic manager-turned-mentor at one company. She believed in my abilities and pushed me to be better. She was my biggest cheerleader in front of the general manager and gave me plenty of chances to build my profile in front of higher-ups. She even nominated me for the company’s future leadership program.

Then she went on maternity leave and another manager replaced her.

I was working at the same company. But my experience was completely different. 

This other manager was constantly trying to impress HER boss, which left very little time for her to focus on her team. It was tough. My colleagues and I felt like we had been thrown in the deepest of deep ends with nobody to help us. 

Even after our old manager had returned, the damage had been done. We had lost our passion for the company and felt disillusioned. I quit my job shortly after that, along with another girl on the team.

 

The bottom line? Who you work with matters 

That saying “people quit bosses, not companies” is way too black and white, but it shows just how important a good manager is.

Look for a company with a person you can learn from. Someone who supports you and has your back. Someone who trusts you and believes in your abilities. 

While it’s impossible to predict with 100% certainty whether your future manager is a Michael Scott, you can do your best to suss it out during the interview process.

Start by thinking of someone you’d like to be your manager: it could be your former boss at a summer job or one of your college professors. Write down the traits that you value about that relationship. Did you appreciate them because of how much guidance they gave you? Or because they let you run with your work and do your thing? These traits are great criteria to refer to when you’re evaluating your potential manager in an interview.

Once you’re in the interview, pay attention to how they treat you. Ask questions like “what will I be doing on a day-to-day basis?” and “how will I learn?”—then see how they respond. Do they talk at you or do they listen to you and provide thoughtful responses? 

P.S: Don’t be afraid to check out their LinkedIn or do a Google search. This can speak volumes about what a person is like as a manager.

 

2. Pick a job where you get real-world experience

“Experience is the teacher of all things.” —Julius Caesar

It doesn’t matter which industry you’re in. An entry-level job at a company is often associated with coffee runs, paper-pushing, and a whole lot of grunt work. I’m talking about the “I had to do it so you have to” and “this is just how it works around here” type of work. 

Unfortunately, too many of us have been there. It’s not just in the workplace. Every type of organization with a hierarchy—from college societies to casual jobs—is pretty much guilty of this. 

That’s what makes finding a company that gives you REAL experience all the more valuable.

One of my most rewarding early career opportunities was at a weekly magazine. I got to sit in on pitch meetings, suggest ideas, and write articles, (90% were obituaries, but hey, it was something). Thanks to that experience, I learned how a magazine really works. I felt like I was contributing and gaining insights that would help me at my next job. Here’s the best bit: I didn’t get asked to do a single coffee run.

I’m not saying you should land a job and expect to give a huge presentation in your first week, or that you shouldn’t grab coffee for the team. But you should look for a job where you actually get to be hands-on and gain the experience you need for career growth. 

Thankfully, it’s not hard to figure this out during the early stages of the job hunt. The job description is usually your first clue. If you see something like this, you’ll probably be spending more time on admin tasks:

Operations office/studio:

  • Distributing and updating production documents, schedules, misc. paperwork
  • Running errands to pick up supplies and materials for remotes

The interview’s another good way to suss out how much real-world experience you’ll be getting. Ask your potential manager (or better yet, the person who’s currently in the role) what a typical day in the job is like. See if there are opportunities to pitch new ideas, join in on team projects, or shadow a more experienced colleague.

 

3. Look for opportunities to level up

This doesn’t mean boosting your XP in Mario Kart.

Alongside real-world experience, one of the best perks and benefits you can get at any job is the opportunity to hone your existing skills and learn new ones.

Careers are a never-ending process of learning and growing, so the more training opportunities you get, the better. Be a sponge: Look for opportunities to soak up knowledge with formal and informal training courses. These opportunities can be technical skills, like using Excel and Photoshop, or soft skills like public speaking or project management.

You don’t need to get accepted into a cadetship or a grad program to get these opportunities either. More and more companies are offering training budgets for their employees for career development, or even partnering with training organizations to offer free learning tools. 

Even if a company doesn’t have these, you can still pitch a course to your manager (as long as you can show how it will benefit the team and the company).

 

Think transferable as well as technical

Transferable skills are skills that can be applied in multiple jobs and situations—and they’re insanely valuable in your career. Whether you’re trying to move up in your current job or take the leap into a new industry, transferable skills help you make that transition and thrive in your role.

You wouldn’t think that a door-to-door salesperson would become one of the world’s biggest entrepreneurs, right? But that’s exactly what Sara Blakely did. She took the resilience she learned from her sales role and applied that to an entirely new job: running her own business.

I didn’t realize that selling fax machines door-to-door was really laying the groundwork for me to be able to be an inventor and create a product that had never been done before and bring it to market, because doing something like that requires hearing the word ‘no’ a lot. The cold-calling to sell fax machines was an amazing training ground for hearing ‘no.’ I just learned that there’s a formula, you have to go through a certain number of ‘no’s to get to a ‘yes,’ so don’t let it discourage you.

—Sara Blakely

In fact, three in four employers said that they prioritized transferable skills at the same level as, or above, technical skills when looking for new recruits.

Here are four transferable skills to work on early in your career:
  1. Problem-solving and critical thinking
  2. Oral and written communication skills, whether it’s via email or presenting to colleagues
  3. Adaptability to different situations
  4. Teamwork and collaboration, both working with people in your department and from different departments

If you can find a job that helps you build on any (or all) of these skills, it’s a keeper.

 

A great company should also give you opportunities to grow within the organization

Development opportunities matter at every stage of your career, whether you’re a fresh grad or a senior executive. There’s NOTHING more frustrating than putting in the work at a company without knowing what the next step is or how to get there. 

Unsurprisingly, a lack of career development is one of the main reasons why people quit their jobs. 

 Source: INC

Your goal should be to work in a company within that 56%. When you’re applying for jobs, check out the company website and see if they list opportunities for development, and ask your interviewer about career progression. 

Don’t be afraid to talk to the person who is currently in the position either. If they’re being promoted or moving to another job within the company, that’s a pretty good sign that there are opportunities for growth.

 

4. Get that work-life balance 

I have a confession to make. When I started out, I was TERRIBLE at achieving work-life balance. I thought that the person who stayed the longest worked the hardest—and unfortunately, the company culture rewarded that. It was something that every person wore with a badge of honor. Like staying the latest was a sign that they cared more than everyone else.

Burning the midnight oil is one of those things that everyone does at some point or another (hello cram session). But take it from someone who’s done it before: it’s not sustainable. Assuming you retire at the average age of 62, you have roughly 40 years of work ahead of you. If you spend 12 hours a day at work, 5 days a week, that equals 14 years of your life spent in the office.

 

You need to play the long game in your career

That means finding a company that knows that work is enriching and important, but gives you enough time to explore other hobbies or pursue a side hustle.

How do you figure it out?

The easiest way is to ask about the company culture and working hours. Some managers will point-blank tell you that they expect everyone on their team to work hard and get the job done, which is a sign that you’re in for some long nights. 

But even those that SAY they have a good work-life balance might just be paying lip service to potential candidates. That’s why it also helps to do your own recon. Do a Glassdoor search and check out what people have to say about the working hours. See if the company offers scheduled time off, days off for volunteering, parental leave, or mental health days. 

Don’t be afraid to get creative too. I once asked for an interview at 4 p.m. for precisely this reason. When my interview was over, so was the work day—and the majority of people were packing up to go home (including the general manager). That alone spoke volumes about the company’s culture and how much the team valued work-life balance.

 

5. And last but not least…salary DOES matter

A living wage is one of those things that the modern work world has grads convinced they have to…well, earn. I worked as an unpaid intern for years before I landed my first job—something my industry (thanks journalism) touted as a rite of passage at the time. And while I did get invaluable experience from it, I was also exhausted from working two jobs to supplement my lack of income.

 

Here’s the thing. You shouldn’t have to pay your dues to get paid.

Read that again. 

You shouldn’t have to pay your dues to get paid.

Your time, ideas, and experiences have value. Even if you don’t bring years of experience to a job, the right company will recognize your potential and either:

  1. Offer you a fair salary and company benefits package, or
  2. Give you the opportunity to earn more by reaching targets or kicking butt at your job. 

Sure, it probably won’t be in the 6-figures. But it should be competitive and show that they value your time — especially given that salaries for college graduates have climbed 8.5% since the pandemic started.

Side note: there are some opportunities worth taking even if they have a lower salary, particularly in the start-up space where you’re trading off a higher salary for the chance to gain real-world experience you wouldn’t necessarily get in another role. Making this trade-off can be worth it, particularly when it’s early on in your career. Just make sure that the experience and opportunities you’re getting are worth the financial sacrifice.

 

You only get one first job. Make it count

Landing your first job is one of the most exciting events in the early stages of your career. But before you sign anything and buy a new work wardrobe, you need to put #1 first.

Make sure that you’re getting as much out of it as you’re putting in.

If you can find a company that offers all of these job perks, you know you’ve got a winner on your hands.

Finally, don’t be afraid to negotiate if something doesn’t meet your expectations. Even as a fresh grad, you’ve got plenty of bargaining power. Use it to create the first job you want and deserve, and take control of your tomorrow.