Reader: In job interviews, I absolutely refuse to give past salary history to potential employers. They have no reason to know that private information. Of course, during an interview they may ask, and I may deflect. If they refuse to hire me solely on that basis, that’s their loss.
However, multiple organizations require salary history in online applications. An application can’t even be submitted without putting a number into the box, ruling out answers like “private” or “n/a.” Lately I have put in an annual salary number that is clearly false, like $10,000, a number they should interpret as, “I am not answering that question.”
Do you have advice on handling the salary history box on forms when applying for a job? Does HR notice, or do employers pay attention to nonanswers? I think there should be a law allowing job applicants to refuse to answer salary history questions or preventing employers from asking.
Karla: Asking for salary history provides an easy way to sort applicants into an employer’s desired price range and helps the employer calculate the lowest offer that will still entice a candidate. But an increasing number of U.S. states and cities agree there ought to be a law against it. Massachusetts, Philadelphia, New York City and Puerto Rico have banned salary history questions on applications and in interviews, and similar proposals have popped up elsewhere, including Congress.
Why? Because when it comes to a candidate’s suitability for a job, salary history is a subjective and often misleading indicator — and it may most affect “the people who have already been illegally treated,” says Katie Donovan, a salary negotiation coach and one of the authors of the Massachusetts law.
Candidates who start their careers underpaid because of the gender or race wage gap, a bad economy or a cheap boss find that this lowball figure continues to weigh them down throughout their career. At the same time, senior victims of layoffs or age discrimination have difficulty being hired because employers assume they’re not interested in or are overqualified for lower-paying positions.
In an interview, you can deflect salary history questions by steering the discussion to what you’re looking to make.
On an automated form, Donovan recommends a tack similar to what you’re already doing: Enter $0.00, or some other number that is clearly intended not to deceive, but to demur.
Of course, there’s always a risk doing so will cost you opportunities. But Ronda Wakefield, owner of NW MT HR Solutions, says that when she receives an application with an obviously false salary history, she’ll still follow up if the candidate interests her. “I personally don’t want to miss out on a great candidate because they didn’t want to answer the question initially,” she says.
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PRO TIP: Conduct research on Glassdoor (glassdoor.com), Salary.com and with trade associations to make sure your desired salary range is reasonable given your skills, the market and the employer’s resources. And don’t forget nonfinancial options: flex hours, extra leave and other benefits can flesh out a skimpy compensation package.