My Salary History Is None of Your Business

Why Not Revealing Your Earning Power Nets You More Earning Power

In my first interview out of grad school, I was required to reveal my “prior salary.” I had been working in a parallel job field, but I was new to the workforce. I reluctantly told my potential new employer what I was making, but I felt the question was unfair, since my job history was sparse.

Turns out, I was right to view the question as unfair, and it was unfair of them to ask it.

New research from SSRN (the Social Science Research Network) shows that women and minorities especially gain no benefit from the salary question, so companies who claim they are committed to closing the wage gap, ensuring that they are not participating in discriminatory hiring practices, and who want to even the playing field, can simply stop asking the question.

This research shows that the real purpose behind salary history (as if we didn’t know already) is to give employers a better position in bargaining. New employees hardly expect a multi-thousand dollar bump in salary, after all.

But why not?

If I am transitioning from one job to another, one company to another, it stands to reason that I believe I’m ready for a boost — in salary, in expectations and responsibility, and maybe in title. So how is one salary history relevant to new salary expectations? In short: it isn’t.

Some HR professionals claim that having a salary history is an important gauge of an employee’s experience and ambition. A candidate who has continued on an upward trajectory, for example, can be counted on to be ambitious, driven, and reliable. So HR teams look to things like salary history as a marker.

But, contradicting this stance is strong evidence that salary history bears no weight in calculating a candidate’s ambition or drive. It merely reflects the reward position of her previous company. There is little evidence that the question offers any real insight.

More importantly, asking for prior history rather than coming from a place of open discussion limits the candidate’s ability to assess a company. At that job right out of grad school, for example, I did not know that the company’s range of offers for my position swung a full $10k. With my credentials, I could have asked for much closer to the top of the range, but when they knew how little I was already making, they had no incentive to offer it. Turns out, a guy with just a Bachelor’s degree was offered the same starting salary I was. The rationale? We both had the same role and title. The important difference? Because of my advanced degree, I was ready for promotion and much more responsibility within just six months of my hire date. He needed a lot longer to transition into the role and learn how to navigate it. But he wasn’t expected to have that larger salary, since he was younger and had less experience.

Why does that initial salary offer matter so much? Take the example of the guy I just gave. We started out at the same rate, and both got 5% raises in year one. I, though, got a new title and new responsibilities added to my plate. The raise was only reflective of company policy.

When I left to go to another company, I had far more responsibility and more successful projects on my resume than he did — but I had the same salary. If I were to reveal that low number to my next employer, it would hardly reflect that my trajectory was faster, more upward, than that guy and that was because I am more mature, have more education, and was generally more prepared for the task. My salary would not reflect real growth.

Not asking what I used to make is the first step toward greater transparency and starting a good relationship at a new office. Instead, companies that demonstrate a “salary range” for a position, and talk openly about expectations and histories are far more likely to hire quality employees. According to Forbes Magazine, banning the salary history question will lead to better hiring, lower turnover, and a keener focus on market rate.

So if your next employer asks what you made, instead tell them what you expect to make. Just be sure to tell them you also plan to make a success of yourself and their company. And politely let them know that as a respectable business, as a growing business, your salary history is none of their business.

Susan is a runner, a mom of 3 grown children, and an avid traveler. She writes about humans, and wrote a book about false accusations of sexual assault.

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