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Employers Should Stop Asking for Salary History, But Not for the Reason You Think

Several U.S. states or cities have recently introduced, or are considering, a ban on employers inquiring about the salary history of job applicants as part of more extensive equal pay legislation. The reasoning? Because women still face a pay gap in comparison to similarly qualified men – 2.4 percent based on PayScale’s most recent gender equity report released in December 2016 – it was hypothesized that revealing salary history would perpetuate lower pay for women over the life of their career. And, we do see that the pay gap grows as women advance in their careers. At the executive level, women make more than 6 percent less than their male colleagues (when holding all else constant except gender).

So, we decided to dig into the salary history question a bit more and figure out who’s being asked, how they respond and how that impacts their pay. In a new report released today, we surveyed 15,413 job seekers who had active job offers in hand about whether they disclosed their pay at previous jobs at any point in the interview process.

The possible answers were:

  1. No, and they did not ask
  2. No, but they asked
  3. Yes, they asked about my salary history
  4. Yes, I volunteered information about my salary history

We expected that the original hypothesis would hold true. We were wrong. Women who revealed their salary history actually had higher job offers than women who refused to disclose their pay. What was surprising is that refusing to disclose salary history didn’t have a negative impact across the board – just for women. Women who were asked for their salary history and didn’t disclose it had job offers that were 1.8 percent less than women who answered the question when asked. However, men who didn’t disclose when asked actually had offers that were 1.2 percent higher than men who did disclose. We controlled for all variables that could impact pay such as job title, company size, location, industry, etc. to ensure we were looking at similar candidates when evaluating the compensation offer differences.

So, why are women and men having different results when withholding salary history information during the interview process? I don’t know for sure, but I have some educated guesses.

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Unconscious Bias Rears Its Ugly Head…Again

We know for a fact, based on numerous studies, that human beings carry bias about other human beings. We all do. We make snap judgments about other people influenced by our own upbringing and value system, by societal norms, by our anecdotal experiences.

We know that when people act counter to someone’s expectations, it can elicit a negative response. So, is it possible that hiring managers and/or recruiters are reacting negatively when women refuse to disclose their salary vs. when men do the same? It’s quite possible.

In one well-known study by Harvard researcher Hannah Riley Bowles titled, “Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask,” it was shown that both men and women react negatively when women initiate negotiations and advocate for themselves in negotiations.

Anchoring to a Number

Another argument in ditching the salary history question has been that employers might inadvertently be anchoring to a pay number thrown out by a candidate rather than sticking to the range they set for the position. But, what if female job candidates are anchoring to their own salary history number even when they withhold it from a new potential employer? Too many times, I’ve heard people seeking salary advice say they weren’t sure what to ask for so they just tacked $5K or $10K on to their current salary. That equates to pulling a number out of a hat.

So, with this new data in mind, how should we proceed on the salary history question? Even though the results of this study are different than we might have expected, ultimately, the salary history question is still causing problems. What’s the path forward?

  1. Stop asking the question. It puts candidates in an awkward position of having to decide whether to disclose, and apparently, it could be negatively impacting female candidates – just not in the way we previously suspected.
  2. Price the job, not the person. The best way to price a position has always been to use market data and ensure that data is driving the decisions regarding compensation rather than anecdotal evidence. A candidate’s salary history is one data point. You don’t want it to unreasonably influence the offer. If it does, you could end up with internal pay inequities that lead to higher employer turnover.

For more, download our complete whitepaper on Salary History Question Alternatives for Recruiters and Hiring Managers.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your policy on the salary history question? We want to hear from you. Weigh in on this issue in the comments.


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Connor Bourkefrance pelis Recent comment authors
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Connor Bourke
Connor Bourke

If a candidate demanded to see the full salary details of the last 4 people who held the position would the recruiter give them that? No of course not. Well what is good for the goose….
People have a salary expectation when applying for a job. That does not necessarily have to be x% more than their last job. So long as the candidate’s salary expectations align to the employer’s salary expectation you have a match – past salaries are irrelevant.

france pelis
france pelis

Regardless of the legislation, we still ask for prior/current salary history. A candidate’s salary history has very little impact on his or her actual salary offer (we use a salary scale with differentials for various skill sets), but it helps me immensely in getting a feel of his or her career journey and being able to “seal the deal”. Salary history is only one, even though a very important one, of the many factors we take into consideration to determine whether we are able to recruit a candidate and whether he or she will be a good long-term fit (not… Read more »

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