Why Your Salary History Is Nobody’s Business But Your Own

Now, I would never suggest you respond to a salary history request by saying, “none of your business,” but ultimately, it is, indeed, nobody else’s business. Not a recruiter. Not a hiring manager. Not an online application. And, in some states and cities, legislation has actually passed to ban employers from asking about your salary history.

I’m assuming, however, that you actually want to get hired by most people that would be asking you about salary history. So, let’s break down why companies shouldn’t care (even if they still do), why this line of questioning is problematic and how you should respond if you’re asked to provide your compensation history during a job application or job interview process.

Employers Should Be Pricing Positions, Not People

Organizations compensate employees to do work that will bring value to the business and drive it forward. While different people certainly bring unique qualifications to a role which could impact pay within a given salary range, the role itself is typically what an employer is placing value on and that should dictate compensation in large part. How much will this role and the resulting work impact the business? How competitive is it to hire people with this set of qualifications in the current job market? What are other organizations paying people in similar roles within the given labor market (taking into account company size, geography, industry, etc.)? Even if you’re the best possible person to fill a role, the role still holds a certain value to the organization and at some point, that value will hit a ceiling. There should be opportunity within a given pay range to make more or less based on your performance, but there’s still a limit. Companies that don’t price positions in this way risk spending more than they should on payroll and hurting the business.

Paying Based on Salary History Can Perpetuate Pay Inequity

In 2010, Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher both received top billing in a film titled “No Strings Attached.” According to an interview in early 2017 with Marie Claire U.K., Portman said Kutcher was paid three times what she was paid, and at the time, she wasn’t as upset as she should have been about it because of a standard Hollywood practice. Actors (male and female) have what’s called a “quote” – the going rate to hire them for a film based on what they’ve made for previous projects. So, their rate can increase over time but is heavily influenced on what they were paid for past work. If there has been any historical bias against certain groups of actors in Hollywood – women, people of color, etc. – how will they ever achieve pay parity when current rates are based on past rates?

This same concept holds true for any worker. Why should the views of your past employer, when it comes to your pay, hold any sway over how a potential future employer values a given position for which they’re hiring? It shouldn’t. That’s why Massachusetts became the first state to pass an equal pay law which includes a provision that will ban employers from even asking about an applicant’s salary history. That’s right. It is illegal as of July 1, 2018 for any Massachusetts employer to inquire about your current or past salary. Instead, employers will be required to publish pay ranges for any roles they’re trying to fill. And, this approach is drawing support from other cities and states, some of whom have already passed salary history bans as part of gender equity legislation.

How to Respond to Salary History Questions

As much as you can flip the conversation to be about salary expectations versus salary history, you should do it. Preparation for any job interview should include understanding what the likely pay range is for the position. You can seek out information in a number of ways including by completing a free salary assessment on this very website. Transparency around pay data has increased significantly in recent years, so make sure you’ve done the work ahead of time so you’re entering any discussion around pay with confidence.

Confidence comes from having the data in hand. Early in the process, you can always cordially respond to pay questions by saying that you’re willing to consider any competitive offer. There are a variety of ways to answer questions about salary range, without actually answering, in a way that is still polite. And, if an online application is tripping you up, remember that you can always reset expectations once you land an interview. Call out early in the process that you think the role you’re interviewing for has a broader scope or other factors that don’t make your pay history as relevant and that you’d be happy to talk about your salary expectations rather than salary history.