What You Need to Know About Salary History Questions From Possible Employers

businesswoman in interview in corner office with exec looking at tablet

There are numerous questions that often come up in job interviews that most people hate. Examples include “What’s your greatest weakness?” and “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

But one that can be a minefield for job seekers and employers alike is, “How much did you make at your last job?”

Many state and local governments have adopted laws and regulations to stop employers from requesting salary history. Pay discrimination usually is defined as occurring when “employees performing substantially equal work do not receive the same pay for their work.” That’s slightly different than what is being discussed here. However, pay or compensation discrimination is broadly prohibited by a variety of laws, including the Equal Pay Act, Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

In the interview process, under federal law, employers with 15 employees or more cannot make decisions on the basis of: race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, disability, or genetic information. If the company has 20 or more employees, it also cannot make decisions based on age if the applicant is at least 40 years old.

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Numerous states now also have laws prohibiting employers from asking about salary history. California, for example, enacted a law on Jan. 1, 2018 that prohibits employers from seeking an applicant’s pay history. In addition, the law also requires employers to provide pay scale data if the applicant requests it.

On a more local level, on July 1, 2018, San Francisco put in place regulations saying that employers may not disclose current or former employees’ salaries without consent of the employee, prohibits employers from asking for pay history, and prevents employers from using pay history in considering an application.

Some of these laws are broadly related to anti-discriminatory policies. In 2018, Massachusetts enacted its Pay Equity Act, making it against the law for employers to pay men and women different rates for “comparable work.” There are exceptions. Alissa Parr, Consulting Manager at Select International, wrote in a blog, “In particular, employers can offer different pay if it’s based on a bona fide seniority system, merit system, or system that rewards production goals as well as if it’s based on geographic location, education, or experience levels. In the absence of these circumstances, if an employer violates this, they would be liable to pay the amount of the employee’s unpaid wages to the affected employee.”

She goes on to point out that this part of the law isn’t really new, but what is unique “is that employers will not be allowed to ask job candidates about their salary history as part of the screening process or during an interview. Employers will have to wait until a formal offer is extended to ask about salary history. The final piece of the law is that it allows employees to openly discuss their salaries without retaliation from their employer.”

According to HR Dive, there are currently 11 state-wide bans (excluding Puerto Rico) on asking about job salary history: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

Two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, have enacted laws that prevent the state or local governments from enacting bans on requesting salary history. Some of the other state laws are being challenged in the courts.

One big question is: Should you volunteer the information?

Generally, salary negotiations are tricky, and releasing your salary history is a lot like underbidding as part of a salary negotiation. You probably wouldn’t want to immediately tell a potential employer how much you want to make, and you wouldn’t want to low-ball your potential salary by providing what might be a low floor bid. Of course, you also don’t want to scare off a possible employer if your former salary was much higher than what they are likely to offer you.

Yes, it’s difficult and often maddening.

One suggestion is to do your research, so you have some idea of what the type of job pays in the market. There are numerous online resources specific to types of jobs as well as to specific companies.

If the job advertisement asks you to disclose a salary history, consider saying in your cover letter that your salary expectations are the job’s market value. You might also just give a range of your salary expectations, noting that it’s negotiable. It’s not a terribly strong negotiating position, but that’s unfortunately often the case unless you’re uniquely qualified for a position.

Another suggestion, particularly once you start talking to actual people instead of communicating via letter, email or online application systems, is to say something along the lines of, “From my research, I have a pretty good idea of what the pay range or market value of this position is, and at the appropriate time, I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”

It is, undoubtedly, yet another difficult aspect of job hunting. In a Forbes article, John Feldmann, Communications Specialist for Insperity Recruiting Services, wrote, “Delaying a salary discussion between employer and job seeker can add both time and frustration to a job search. Employers may be reluctant to divulge what a job pays in order to ensure they hire candidates who are committed to the work and not solely money-motivated. When employers are also forbidden from asking about salary history, candidates may be forced to complete the entire application and interview process, then wait to receive an offer before learning whether the salary falls within their desired range. By sharing salary history early in the interview stage, candidates can avoid adding weeks or months to their search by pursuing jobs that don’t meet their needs.”

The bottom line? Know the laws. Do your research. And decide if there are advantages or disadvantages in divulging your salary history.

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