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How to Respond to the Salary History Question and Why It's Being Banned

Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

A person using their smartphone. On their desk is their laptop, a calculator, a newspaper, a cup of coffee, a pen and a clipboard

There's a trend sweeping across the nation with big implications for job seekers: new laws banning interviewers from asking job candidates to disclose their salary history.

As of publication of this post, 11 states and 9 localities have enacted some form of a ban on asking candidates what they’ve made in previous jobs. And all those laws have been passed in just the last two years.

If you’re looking for a job, it’s time to pay attention to what’s happening in your state capitol or local governing body. Even if elected officials aren’t considering a ban in your area (yet), read below to learn how giving your salary history can affect your job search and what to say if you’re asked the question during your interview or application process.

Why some places are banning questions related to salary history

These laws are a new wave in a decades-long quest to achieve pay equity, particularly between men and women, but across other lines of as well.

In 2017, women working full time, year round were paid only 80.5 cents per dollar earned by men working the same hours—unchanged from 2016. Women of color and women with disabilities typically experience an even larger wage gap due to a number of factors, including discrimination and occupational segregation that can steer them into lower-paying jobs.

There are several steps that employees, employers, and policymakers can take to help close the gender pay gap. In contrast, asking job candidates to disclose their salary history can actually perpetuate the pay gap.

Think of it this way: If you were underpaid at your first job, and then your second job bases your salary off of the first job, then you’ll likely be underpaid at your second job, too. And if your third job bases their offer on your salary history … you can probably see where this is headed. Even though your salary increases, the pay gap persists and is likely getting worse, as your peers who were paid fairly in their first jobs continue to make more and more money based on past salaries.

Banning questions about salary history is one way to interrupt the cycle. If an employer doesn’t know your salary history, this can help to keep salaries competitive and moving in the direction of equity.

How to respond if you’re asked for your salary history

Despite the wave of new laws, most cities and states continue to allow interviewers to ask for your salary history, so it’s still likely to come up. Let’s look at three scenarios where you may get asked for your salary history and how to respond in each one.

In a city or state where the question is not permitted

Ideally you won’t get asked for your salary history if you live in a place that has banned the question. But keep in mind that some employers may be unfamiliar with the new law.

One option, if you’re comfortable with it, is to address the illegality of the question directly but respectfully and then pivot to a different topic. For example: “I don’t think that’s appropriate for us to discuss with the new law, but one thing I would like to talk about is…” and then ask about the office culture or what they would expect someone in this position to have accomplished in their first year.

Another option is to go straight to the pivot with language like, “Before we talk about salary, I’d like to learn more about the role. Could you tell me more about what you would expect someone in this position to have accomplished in their first year?” With any luck, your interviewer will have forgotten about salary history by the time they finish answering your question.

No matter how you choose to handle it in the moment, you can always report the incident if you want. Check the law for reporting procedures, or call your elected representatives for help finding those details in the statute.

During an interview where the question is allowed

In this situation, the pivot is again your friend. But if that strategy isn’t working and your interviewer keeps asking about salary history, you have a few choices.

Alison Green of Ask A Manager recommends redirecting the question to what salary range you’re seeking, with language like:

  • “I keep that information confidential, but the range I’m looking for now is…”
  • “My previous employers have always considered that information confidential, but I’m seeking….”
  • [Or, if it feels like humor could work in the situation] “That’s not something I share with anyone but my accountant, but I’m seeking…”

Pro Tip: Do your research before the interview so you’re prepared to give an appropriate salary range in this scenario.

If the interviewer still pushes for your salary history, Green says you’ll have to decide if it’s worth answering the question or potentially losing out on the opportunity by refusing to answer.

If you decide to share your salary history, frame it as one part of a comprehensive compensation package and reiterate your expectation that you’ll be able to agree on a fair salary that works for both you and the organization if the role turns out to be a fit.

In your cover letter or initial application

This is one of the most frustrating places to encounter the salary history question because it feels harder to avoid answering; you can’t pivot to another topic, and sometimes you can’t skip the field on an online application form.

Once again, you’ll have to weigh if it’s worth answering the question directly and potentially losing leverage in the salary negotiation phase vs. declining to answer and risking your chances of moving forward in the interview process.

If you choose to decline the question on an online form, you can enter “0” in the required salary history field and then mention in the notes field or in your cover letter that you prefer not to disclose your salary history.

If you decide to answer the question, Green of Ask A Manager advises against giving your full salary history. Instead, she suggests, use language like, “I’m currently earning $75,000 and would be glad to discuss what I’m seeking in my next position after learning more about your opening.”

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Deborah Swerdlow profile image

Deborah Swerdlow

As a nonprofit advocacy professional living in Washington, D.C., Deborah works with groups across the country to educate their communities and lawmakers about public policies that can help low-income residents make ends meet. She is passionate about helping people connect their interests to a cause they believe in and empowering them to take action.

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