You’ve graduated optometry school
, interviewed at several promising offices, and have maybe even received some enticing offers. The hard part should be over, but for many, the most intimidating aspect is yet to come: contract negotiations.
I’m here to tell you that this task doesn’t have to be met with dread. Instead, negotiating can be seen as an enjoyable part of building your job
from what things look like on a “day-to-day basis” to well into the future (or at least the next 3 to 5 years per the terms of your non-compete).
Breaking down contract negotiations
Companies may offer the same “standard contract” to everyone, but assuming that every eyecare professional WANTS the same things in work and life is a gross oversight.
Hence: negotiations. Negotiations give you the chance to sit down and tell your employer what’s important to you. All you have to do is figure out what you'd like to prioritize.
In this article, I’ve broken down 4 major contract negotiables:
We’ll discuss aspects of each to help you decide how to prioritize your list to create your own customized negotiation strategy.
1. Income: salary, bonuses, raises, and cost-of-living adjustments
It’s not uncommon for many people to start by negotiating their income. When you’ve just graduated, you’re looking at an astounding amount of debt, and the salary you agree to is the largest modifiable factor in paying it down. For that reason, it makes sense for most new optometrists to put their greatest effort towards this negotiable. But don’t make the mistake of simply negotiating your salary without considering bonus structure, raises, and cost of living adjustments (hello, inflation!).
So where do you start? By letting them start first. Your employers have been in the industry far longer and should have more knowledge than you do about an appropriate starting salary
. Unfortunately, at some point, you may run into the question, “So, what are your salary expectations?”
Here are some optional responses based on your unique situation:
For the residency-trained or more seasoned new OD:
- “I’m looking for a competitive salary that reflects my experience”
For the highly sought-after OD:
- “I’ve had multiple competitive offers within the “X” to “Y” range.”
For the budget-conscious new OD:
- “Based on cost of living, I’d be most comfortable with a salary range of ‘X’ to ‘Y.’”
For the “deer in headlights” new OD:
- “I’d really feel more comfortable if you shared what you’re willing to offer.”
Hopefully, one or all of these phrases should be enough to start the negotiations rolling. While it may be more effective to negotiate face-to-face, it is becoming more acceptable to negotiate over email or virtually. In the past, I have offered, “If you can put a contract together, I’d be happy to look it over and go from there.”
Understanding the initial offer and bonus structures
There are many variables based on years of experience, practice modality
, and competing offers that will impact the initial offer. If the starting salary isn’t meeting your expectations, consider other income negotiables that may help get to your desired number, such as bonuses, cost of living adjustments, and raises.
These are all ways to ensure that well into the future of your employment, you have a bigger take-home. Bonus structures are very common, but it’s important to get clarification on how bonus structures work within the practice.
For example, when it comes to your bonus structure, ask questions like:
- Will this be based on gross or net production?
- Is the bonus based on optical products, or does it include all exam services?
- What’s the typical bonus for a new employee?
- Is the bonus paid out on a monthly, quarterly, biannual, or annual basis?
When negotiating, I used Dr. Chris Lopez’s Optometric Career Consulting services. He reminded me to discuss a “cost of living adjustment” (COLA) into my contract, and with inflation reaching a rate close to 6%, I’m sure glad I did!
So how does that impact your income from a negotiating standpoint?
Let’s say in your first year of employment, you accepted a salary of $120,000. Now imagine your second year: your employer offered a $5,000 increase. A take-home of $125,000 sounds like a fair offer, but considering a 5 to 6% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), you’d actually be working for $1,000 less than you did the year prior.
Using COLA as a starting point, inter-office dynamics
like relationships and subspecialties that add value back into the practice can support you in negotiating your next raise.
2. Paid time off in contract negotiations
While income is typically the highest factor for negotiations, it may not be the most valuable for every new optometrist. Maybe you have dependents, or you need frequent health checkups. It’s possible you’re super involved with industry and travel frequently for lectures or conferences. Or perhaps your significant other is from Switzerland, and you visit their family every year.
Whatever your unique situation is, you value a better work-life balance, and for that reason, paid time off (PTO) ranks high on your negotiating tier.
I often joke that working as a 1099 contractor
for 10 months after residency “ruined me.” If I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid, plain and simple. So paid time off was novel for me. While crazy for most, I don’t mind taking unpaid leave if it will serve me better in the long run. I would rather be present in the work I do and try to reach my bonus through high production. And I’m not the only one.
Observations of generational differences in PTO expectations
We've seen major shifts in employment trends since Gen Z entered the workforce. They tend to put a lower emphasis on salary and higher emphasis on workplace opportunities, utilization of their talents, and companies' abilities to have a positive impact on society.
A recent study suggested 82% of Gen Zers wanted mental health days
from their employers. However, PTO is more costly to the employer. An employer may have to pay out $500 of your daily rate per day, but they will lose far more from your lack of production.
“My advice? If it’s important to you, be strategic about it.”
When you’re in the clinic, can you be flexible on taking more add-ons and walk-ins? Can you increase your medical billing or perform more self-pay procedures? Would you help market your services to ensure your books are always full? Little considerations may make the employer more open to giving more time if there’s something to mutually gain.
3. Location in contract negotiations
Talking about your departure may feel a little odd before you even start working, but rest assured, a poorly negotiated non-compete can have a huge impact on not only your future opportunities but your personal life as well. You may not consider this while young and carefree, but if you’ve already bought a house or have kids in a nearby school district, the weight of a former decision can add additional stress to your personal life.
There are three aspects to negotiate on non-competes: radius, number of offices, and duration. The radius stipulation on your non-compete may differ depending on where you practice. You can often expect a non-compete clause of a smaller radius for urban practices, while rural practices often stipulate a larger radius.
When I reviewed my non-competes, I used this resource
to draw out the radius limits from each office I would be limited from. If working in a multi-centered practice, it is VERY important to ask how many offices the non-compete will apply to. It very well could apply to some offices you’ve never set foot in, so ensure you have clarification before signing!
The last aspect is the duration of time. If you come to love an area and could see yourself putting down roots, negotiate hard (but subtly) on how long it will be before you return. Often, noncompetes are tough to change. But every mile matters!
4. Benefits in contract negotiations
If you’re a full-time employee, most companies will offer a standard benefits package through third-party human resources services. They may include but aren’t limited to health insurance, life insurance, dental/vision insurance, retirement accounts, health or flex savings accounts, continuing education
days, and association/licensing fees.
“Knowing when you can access these benefits is important.”
Health insurance may not kick in until the first of the next month, while contributions for retirement may start after 6 months. If state or national association dues are important to you and the way you practice, communicate that! If you’re required to work at multiple locations and have branch licensing fees, justify it to them! Paid holidays may also be a nice benefit to assist with your income while enjoying some needed time off.
What happens if I negotiate and get nowhere?
I always thought that I would feel good at the end of negotiating, but in truth, there have been times when I’ve been disappointed. You can only hear “No” or “We just can’t make an exception for you” so many times before doubt starts to creep in.
There are a few things to consider if negotiations are winding down and you’re feeling underwhelmed with where things landed.
1. Be honest with yourself about how much it’s impacting you.
If negotiations leave you feeling undervalued,
it may not be the right decision to move forward. There are a lot of stressors
that even the best offices are sometimes unimmune to. Clinics run behind, staff members call out unannounced, admin tasks pile up—the last thing you want to think of in these moments is regret that you signed the contract you did.
If you don’t like what you see on the table, start with a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself if you’d truly be able to accept the offer at hand.
2. Be persistent and follow up.
Sometimes a “no” really just means “not right now.” If there is something you really want, maybe reply with something like, “I understand it may not be an option right now, but it is important to me. Can we revisit this in 3 or 6 months?”
As you start to work, what you need may change, but it’s important not to lose sight of working toward your larger career goals.
3. Be ready for future renegotiations.
About 2 months before my 1 year anniversary, my partners came to me ready with a proposal. I was a little caught off guard, but thank goodness it was a fair offer. Take my advice and always be ready for future renegotiations.