Salary negotiation is one of the toughest phases of the hiring process, and it can kick in earlier than you’d like. Some employers ask for your salary requirements as early as the phone screening interview.
Some employers go a step farther: they ask not only how much money you’d like to make, but how much you’ve earned in the past. Can employers really get away with asking for your salary history—and what happens if you don’t want to give it to them?
The answer is: it depends. Learn when the hiring manager can ask you about salary history and how to deal with the question if it comes up.
Why Keep Salary History a Secret?
There are good reasons to keep your past salary to yourself, especially if you’re a member of a group that’s often underpaid. Women still earn less than men—about 82 cents for every dollar earned by male workers. There is also a racial pay gap, which affects workers who are Black,Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). Women who are part of a racial or ethnic minority experience both pay gaps, further depressing their pay.
When employers ask about salary history during the hiring process, they can reinforce these pay gaps. For example, let’s say that you are a Black woman who earns less than your White male colleagues with similar jobs. Understandably, you decide to look for a new position at a different employer. But if prospective employers insist on basing their compensation on your salary history, you will still earn less than you’re worth.
Many states and localities have laws regarding salary history questions. Some areas prohibit the question outright; others restrict the employer’s ability to make hiring decisions based on an applicant’s refusal to answer.
How To Handle Employer Requests for Salary Information
If you live in an area that doesn’t legally prohibit employers from asking about salary history, you have several options:
- Provide salary information. This is the easiest solution, although it doesn’t solve the problem of potential low offers based on your previous pay.
- Refuse to supply the information. You might cite confidentiality issues or similar concerns.
- Attempt to steer the conversation back to the current role. This is fair—your new job will differ from your old one, even if the job titles are similar. Your compensation should be based on what you do in each role, not what you’ve done for previous employers.
- 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.
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 checks 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.