Can Employers Ask for Salary History?

w-2 form with a calculator

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Can employers find out how much you made at your last job? If they ask you for your salary history, do you have to give it to them? What are the options, if any, for providing information to prospective employers on how much you earn now or how much you made at your last job?

Managing Employer Requests for Salary Information

Candidates often have to deal with employer requests for salary history, either on job applications or during salary negotiations after successful interviews.

However, in some locations, it's illegal for employers to ask, so you may want to consider state or city laws in your area prior to responding. States and cities that have passed statutes prohibiting employer inquiries have done so on the grounds that such questions can impact pay equity. Women often have lower salaries than males for similar jobs, in part due to discrimination. Progressive cities and states believe that establishing future compensation based on these artificially lower salaries will only perpetuate wage inequity.

Massachusetts and New York City, for example, have passed laws prohibiting employer questions about salary history effective July 2018, and November 2017, respectively. New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh have passed similar laws. New York State has banned such questions in the screening process for employees in state agencies and the legislature is considering a ban for private employers in the state. California has a weaker statute that indicates: "Prior salary alone shall not, by itself, justify any disparity in compensation." 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many other states are considering legislation, including: 

  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • Georgia
  • Iowa
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Maine
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • North Carolina
  • New Jersey
  • Oregon
  • Rhode Island
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Pennsylvania
  • Vermont
  • Washington

On the federal level, Democrats have introduced a bill banning salary history questions, although the proposed legislation has been stalled in committee.

Options for Responding

Applicants have several options for responding to past salary inquiries:

  • Provide salary information (the easy solution).
  • Refuse to supply such information on the grounds of confidentiality or legality.
  • Provide total compensation information without specifying the salary component.
  • Provide salary and mention bonus without specifying that component.
  • Place dashes on applications to show that you saw the question but decline to comply.

There are arguments both for and against each of these strategies, but candidates often wonder if employers will be able to verify any past salary information they supply.

The complex answer is maybe. However, the simple advice is that it's dangerous to falsify salary information since it can be grounds for withdrawing an offer or for dismissal after you've been hired.

Another important factor is that if you decline to tell a prospective employer how much you've made in previous roles, you could knock yourself out of contention for the job. The employer doesn't have to continue the hiring process if you don't comply with the request.

What Employers Ask for as Proof of Salary

Some employers will ask candidates for proof of past salary such as W2s. Others will conduct background investigations that might cast doubt on any inflated salary figures or outright disprove them. It's relatively easy for employers to figure typical salaries by reviewing industry salary surveys and online resources.

If the salary you provide is out of line with industry standards, the company will be more likely to ask for proof of how much you made at your last job.

What You Can Do

It's fair to ask employers for the typical range of salaries for comparable positions at their firm or for what they have budgeted if you disclose your salary.

This will give you a chance to make the case, based on your credentials, as to why you should be placed in the upper range of the company's salary structure. Alternatively, if you're overqualified, it will give you an opportunity to explain why you would be willing to take a lower paying job.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.