How To Deal With Awkward Questions About Your Salary History

It’s one of the most commonly dreaded interview questions: “What are you making now?”

Or, “Tell me about your salary history.”

Sometimes, “I’d love to move you on to the next round, but I can’t do that until I know what your current salary is.”

Recruiters start asking early and often. I was once asked to share my current salary with a recruiter at a job fair, which I thought was a pretty bold move. When I said I wasn’t ready to share that information at such an early stage, I was met with serious pushback: “Everyone shares it,” she told me. “I don’t understand why you’d have a problem with this.”

Why, indeed?

I’ve always advised my clients to avoid sharing their salary history at all costs. That’s because you want to be paid based on the market rate for the position you’ll be taking on, not based on what you made before. You give up your negotiation leverage if you put a number out before both sides have enough information. Both sides should have an understanding of how valuable you are to the company, and how valuable the role is to you.

In fact, companies in New York City and Massachusetts can no longer legally ask for your salary history. That’s because paying a woman based on her previous role, where she was likely underpaid, perpetuates the cycle of keeping her wages down. On average, this costs women $10,470 less per year in median earnings.

That’s why when I heard the results of a new study from PayScale around the consequences of answering the salary history question, I was taken aback.

The study surveyed 15,000 people who were evaluating offers for new jobs. It asked whether participants were asked about their salary history during the interview process. They found that women who declined to share their previous salaries in interviews earned 1.8% less than women who answered the question. Men who declined to answer earned 1.2% more.

Lydia Frank, PayScale’s vice president of content strategy, shared my surprise. “It took me aback,” said Frank. “My advice was always, don’t get into it if you can help it.”

Frank now suggests getting to a pivot point early in the discussion.

“If you feel like you have to address it, you could say, ‘I put my salary history on the application, and based on our conversation, the job description, and the research I’ve done, I would think this position probably pays in the range of X. What do you think of that?’”

Essentially, you’re turning the question in the opposite direction and making it about your future rather than your past.

This advice differs from what Frank and I have previously advised in that candidates disclose their salary history first, then pivot later.

What concerns me about this is the consequences of anchoring. The first number in a negotiation — for example, a candidate’s current salary — anchors the rest of the conversation around that number. When you use anchoring to your advantage by putting out the first number — your salary expectation — you can think of it as inviting the recruiter to play in your ballpark as opposed to going to play in theirs. On the other hand, when you anchor yourself to your current salary, there could be an assumption that you should be happy with any increase over what you’re making now.

What we don’t have yet is research on which is the lesser of two evils: anchoring yourself to a lower salary, or being penalized for refusing to share your salary history.

“We don't know for sure, but it may be unconscious bias at play,” says Frank. “We expect women to be cooperative and conciliatory, and if they’re asked a question they should answer. So does it hit the hiring manager or recruiter wrong way if a woman refuses to answer?”

More research is needed, but until then, I’ll continue to advise women to avoid sharing their salary history if their research indicates a new role is likely to pay an increase of more than 2% on their current salary.

This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.
 

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Alexandra Dickinson

Alexandra Dickinson is the CEO and founder of Ask For It, a boutique consulting company working to close the gender wage gap by effecting change at both the institutional and individual level. We work with companies, schools, organizations and individuals through a combination of trainings, workshops and consulting. Our goal is for women and men to be paid based on their talents and skills, regardless of gender, and for our company to have been an important part of that change.