A Washington man taking a new job insisted that he be allowed to decorate his office with his valuable art collection. Before accepting the position, he got the firm to agree to pay the insurance costs for the paintings.

Another man with a physical disability that keeps him home twice a week took a job only after the new firm agreed to install a bedside business phone and send his secretary to his home on those days.

A Capitol Hill employe got a signed agreement with his congressman boss stipulating that every two years after the November election he can take the rest of the year off to pursue a hobby.

Several Distriict workers dissatisfied with a two-or three-week vacation limit were granted during job interviews a leave without pay for two or three months every few years.

All of these employes obtained for themselves special benefits not normally granted to other workers in the same office. They did it by negotiating signed contracts or letters of agreement before taking their new positions.

"Never work without a contract," says Penny Garner, who heads "Taking Charge," a career-counseling firm. Garner counsels clients and teaches an Open University class on negotiating a contract.

"It takes savvy and skill to negotiate a good agreement with a new employer -- but it's worth the effort," she says. "In fact, it's the only way to guarantee that you'll stay in control of your work enviroment and he paid what you're worth.

"Determine how it is you want to live -- get clear on your life style -- then negotiate so it will happen."

Garner, who gets her class to relax by telling them to rub their hands together like Scrooge McDuck and chant, "Money, money, money," has helped about 100 clients obtain contracts.

Employment contracts, of course, are nothing now in the business world. Unionized workers have them and so do top-level executivies and big-name sports and entertainment personalities. What is novel is that mid-level employes, from secretaries to junior execs, are now seeking them.

Even government employes should try getting a contract, suggests Garner, though government regulations usually restrict what a boss can offer a new federal employe. A job-seeker, she says, might ask for a signed agreement that he or she can always take a week of leave at Christmas. Most bosses can decide that on their own.

Many people, relieved on just being offered a job, may hesitate to make demands on a new employer out of fear they will lose it. "They're not going to want you on the staff," said a woman at one of Garner's recent classes.

Garner says there's "a danger you can talk yourself out of the job," but she offers a couple of ploys to avoid that.

One, she says, is to suggest to the interviewer that negotiating a contract "is good management practice, that all the best managers do it."

Another is to state, without cracking a smile: "If I'm not a tough negotiator for myself, how could I be a good negotiator for the company?" This, says Garner, "demonstrates how good you are."

(Garner advises her clients never to use the word "contract"; instead, she says, call the document a "letter of agreement," although they are the same thing. It sounds less threatening to the employer.)

Negotiating a contract is a skill that takes practice, and a fresh-faced young secretary seeking a first job may not be able to carry it off, although "they need contracts too," Garner aims more at the experienced employe with a good work record who is on his or her way up the success ladder. "This is a kind of tool you develop over a period of time."

One thing going for you, she says, is that "most managers don't have a lot of negotiating experience. Maybe they haven't hired 10 people in their lives -- and they have less firing experience."

Bargaining for more benefits is much like getting the best deal on a new car, Garner says. She believes that enough to sometimes send hesitant clients out to new-car dealers to practice tactics. (Some have come back with tempting prices.)

Garner grew up in Michigan, where negotiating contracts in the auto industry "is a real life style." Some of the give-and-take techniques she passes on to her clients.

First, make a list of non-negotiable items, things you want and won't give up, no matter what, "It shouldn't be too long a list" and it "should be well thought out." An example is a minimum salary of, say, $30,000, or no less than three weeks vacation, or limits to unpaid overtime.

Garner says she has two non-negotiables ready if she ever goes after a new job: "Never again without an office window" and "never again with dirty bathrooms."

Next make a "fairly long list" of things you would like, such as a fourth week of vacation, a week off at Christmas or "three good restaurants in the area you can get out of in an hour."

Finally, "concoct a list as long as you can" of "easy trade-offs -- things you don't care about." These might include paid parking, especially if you walk or take the bus to work anyway, or pregnancy benefits if you're not going to have another child.

The idea is to give up the things you don't really want as a swap for those you do. "You give a little to get a lot."

One caution: "The negotiating process is better if both sides think they're winning more than half the time. Don't gloat on your wins. Do make a big deal of your losses."

Contracts should be as inclusive as possible, including a clear outline of your responsibilities. It may run three or four pages or more. "Agonize over this piece of paper -- it's your meal ticket," Garner says.

Garner believes contracts are particularly valuable in Washington, where people move in and out of jobs rapidly. "This is a town of job-jumpsters. After six months you may not be reporting to the person who hired you," and you could lose benefits promised to you only verbally.

Those who might especially benefit, she says, are minorities, women, "people who are younger or older than the average in their field" or those who are "handicapped in one way or another that effects them in the workplace." And, she adds, people in volatile industries, "like TV news, where the pattern of employment is not long," or in special enviroments where there may be exposure to hazards such as radiation.

Lawyers Liz Williams and Rick Normand, who assisted Garner in the class, say both management and the employe benefit form a contract that spells out an employe's duties. The firm knows what is expected from the new employe. The employe whose job expands beyond the initial duties listed has a good case for a future pay raise.

Often employers will tell the job applicant, "it's not company policy" to give what you are asking for, "Employers like the general rule -- for ease of management," says Garner. Rremember, she advises her clients, "You're somebody special to them. There are no general rules. Everything is negotiable."