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The Dreaded Salary History Question

There are practices employers pursue for no better reason than "because we've always done it this way." Sometimes these practices interfere with our ability to accomplish our goals. One such practice is asking candidates their previous salary history.

"Before we will consider you for this job, we need to know what you earned at your last job."

Wait, what?

Overwhelmingly, from a candidate's perspective, it's an awkward question they dread answering. Savvy candidates will know how to answer this question without actually answering the question.

From the employer's perspective, the logic is they can ascertain whether a candidate is right for a job based on what the candidate has earned at prior jobs. For many reasons, like going from nonprofit to for-profit, for instance, or moving across industries or changing occupations, prior salary is an imperfect measure.

Indeed a job should pay what a job should pay.

The more insidious reason why salary history should be abandoned as a perfunctory part of the interview process is that it perpetuates wage inequality as explained in the article, Amazon Won’t Ask Prospective Hires For Salary History Anymore:

The goal of removing an applicant’s salary history data from their application process is to make compensation more equitable. When an employer knows how much an applicant is currently making, it’s easier to figure out the lowest possible offer a new hire is likely to accept. And while it’s technically illegal to pay women less than a man for doing the same job, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that it’s perfectly fine if the reason for paying a woman less is that she made less at her last job. Given that women and people of color already tend to earn less than their white, male counterparts, this system only serves to further existing inequities. Removing prior pay data from the equation altogether makes it less likely that a new hire who’s already being underpaid will continue to be underpaid in a new position.

Four states (California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon), four cities (New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) and one U.S. territory (Puerto Rico) have laws currently or set to take place against asking candidates about their previous salary histories.

While your state might not prohibit you from asking about prior salary history, it is time to shelve that imperfect practice in favor of better ways to get at the information you actually need to make an informed decision.

Kris Dunn offers an alternative approach in his post, How To Ask About Salary (Without Asking About Salary Expectations), which appears below in its entirety.

You know what’s stylish right now? To say that you shouldn’t ask for someone’s salary as part of the hiring process. Actually, it’s more than stylish—it’s the law in several states. And if we know anything, it’s that states and even companies usually follow suit and fall like dominos on progressive issues. More from Quartz:

Amazon has promised to hire at least 100,000 new employees in the US this year. And it won’t ask any of them about their prior job history.

According to a report in Buzzfeed yesterday (Jan. 17), Amazon is pledging to do voluntarily what many companies are now being forced to do by law: bar its US hiring managers from asking job candidates their prior salary.

The policy is an attempt to help correct a gender pay gap that’s perpetuated when starting salaries are based on previously low salaries. On Jan. 1, California became the largest state in the US to institute a law barring the practice, joining Massachusetts, New York City, and other states and cities with similar laws.

The problem with all of this, of course, is if you tell your hiring managers they can’t ask about salary history, they don’t talk about money at all until the offer stage, at which point everyone (managers, candidates, HR, execs) gets pissed off and starts wondering who is in charge and why anyone didn’t have a plan.

But there’s a better way. Let’s break it down:

1–You can’t ask about prior salary history. Got it.

2–If you don’t talk money, you’re going to get surprised at the offer stage. So you need to talk about money. Check.

3–There’s a segment of our industry that says the job pays what the job pays, and you should make that offer to anyone who takes the job. I say that you still should have the ability to negotiate, and you should reserve the right to make a competitive offer based on your view of the marketplace. You want this right regardless of the race/gender/other segmentation of the candidate in front of you. Even if they are a Patriots fan or, god forbid, watch Shark Tank on CNBC compulsively.

4–Here’s how you negotiate salary from the first conversation without asking the person in front of you for their salary – simply frame a range that an offer will come in at. Example – “Rick, if we get to the end of the offer process and you’re right for us and we’re right for you, the offer is going to come in between 70K and 76K. If we get to the end of this process, is that an offer you’ll accept if this job is right for you?”

5–At this point, you haven’t asked for the candidate’s salary history. You’ve framed where the offer will come in and you’ve asked them to react. It’s yes or no. They can share more, but you didn’t ask.

6–Using this technique allows you to put your expectations out there, including a range, which allows for some negotiation room.

One of the greatest lies going around is that you can’t and shouldn’t engage on salary with candidates anymore, and that it’s not a fluid process. It remains fluid and you have flexibility, it just requires a different technique.

PS – you’re still responsible for making sure that women get equal pay, as well as other protected classes.

But thinking that means that every candidate should have access to the same salary, regardless of knowledge, skills and ability?

That’s a sucker’s play, and you’re better than that.

The original post, "How To Ask About Salary Without Asking Salary Expectations," written by Kris Dunn, appears at Fistful of Talent.

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