Rivaled perhaps only by "what's your biggest weakness," the question job applicants hate the most is undoubtedly "What were you making in your last job?" Posing inquiries about salary history used to be as common as checking references, a standard means for employers to establish a compensation baseline. Now to remain in HR compliance, companies have to remove it from their interview questions.
At best, this line of questioning enabled both candidate and potential employer to determine if a good fit was in the offering, at least with respect to the money involved; at worst, it was a way for employers to feel out how cheaply they might be able to bring a particular worker on board, thus hindering their own talent acquisition process.
This awkward question is fast becoming one for the books, though. In August of 2016, Massachusetts broke ground by becoming the first state to outlaw the asking of this question during job interviews. According to this law, employers are not permitted to inquire about a candidate's salary history until after they've made a hiring offer complete with compensation.
Since that time, more states and local jurisdictions have jumped on the anti-salary history bandwagon and struck this question from the employer's standard repertoire - here's the complete list as of February of 2021:
- District of Columbia
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Carolina
- Puerto Rico
- South Carolina
Finally, in 2016, the Pay Equity for All Act of 2016 (H.R. 6030), made employers subject to a fine of up to $10,000 for asking questions about an applicant's salary history, as well as specific damages of up to $10,000 plus attorneys' fees.
Thus deterred, companies are left without the knowledge of where a prospect is on their career earnings journey to prepare offers based solely on that prospect's skills, capabilities, and suitability for the position in question.
Imagine that! Leveling the playing field in this manner is precisely why the movement to abolish the salary history question got its start.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
The legislation that prevents employers from inquiring about salary history comes largely in response to the wage gap in this country, one that sees women paid less than 80 cents on the dollar as compared to what men make for doing the same job - and that's on a good day.
This bias occurs with people of color as well, and when you combine gender and color, you soon find that the rate of comparison for minority women is even less: For example, black women earn an average of $0.62 for every $1.00 earned by a white man.
With this systemic bias baked in, compensation growth that's continually predicated on whatever salary has come before it stands no chance of evolving out of its discriminatory paradigm. Therefore, taking the salary history question out of the mix takes at least one step toward equalizing the situation.
Unsurprisingly, some employers haven't been happy to have the tool that is the salary history removed from their hiring arsenal and have fought back. Lobbying has won statewide laws against salary history bans in both Michigan and Wisconsin, earning big business the right to acquire and use this data when screening new employees.
The courts recently gave validity to the pro-ban side of the fight, however, as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling in April of 2018 siding with plaintiffs in a class action to find it is illegal for companies to justify paying a woman less than a man doing the same job based on her salary history.
This decision set an important precedent in the matter that, combined with the ever-growing list of jurisdictions adopting laws in this area, make it likely that salary history will permanently fade into the past.
Of course, in this volatile regulatory and legal environment, it's just about impossible to say definitively that matters are going to go one way or the other, but it's incumbent on employers in currently undecided states to move toward working without a salary history when hiring.
You've become accustomed to asking about salary history because that's the way you've always done things when hiring, but now that you've considered the inherent drawbacks posed by this question, you'll see there are other, different ways you can do things when you're screening candidates.
You know those perky TV nutritionists who always tell you to substitute zucchini for butter when you're making a cake? Much like that, there are other questions that are "healthier" both for your company and for your prospective employee that you can ask instead to help elicit similar data for you to consider.
- What are your salary expectations for this role?
- What type of compensation motivates you the most - money? Time off? Flexibility?
- If you were to accept this role, how could we make you feel valued?
- Our range for this position is $A to $B. How do you see yourself fitting into that range?
So, pack this ungainly and outmoded interview question up in mothballs where it belongs. Steer away from salary history and you'll have the opportunity to turn this potential minefield into an opportunity to harvest insight into your candidates with just a few simple tweaks to your thinking.