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Her old salary? Don’t ask.

Tracey Samuelson Aug 6, 2015
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Say you’ve made it to the second interview for that new job you desperately want. The hiring manager asks a question that’s considered taboo in most other situation – how much do you currently make?

Well, the federal government wants to make that question a bit more taboo in the hiring process, too. The theory is that not relying on past salaries to set future pay might help close the pay gap between men and women.

This move came from the Office of Personnel Management, which found last year that women in government made almost 13 percent less than men in 2012. Some agencies have been required to use current salary info when hiring new employees. OPM now says that’s only one factor that may be used to set pay.

But doing away with that practice completely would be a good thing, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“You try to assign pay to the job, so you say, ‘OK, this is job that requires x, y, z,’” he says. “Then you look find best person for the job.”

Using current salaries can penalize women who took time off to have kids or chose more flexible jobs, says Randy Albelda, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Plus, “there’s lots of research that shows women are terrible negotiators over salaries compared with men,” she says. “And where you start determines where you end up.”

This would be a fresh slate, making sure past discrimination doesn’t carry into the new job.

It won’t totally solve the gender pay gap, says Eileen Boris, a professor at the University California, Santa Barbara, but the government can be a model for the private sector. 

“Because it has set best practices that many employers then follow, particularly those who rely on government contracts,” she says.

Boris says if the feds really want to close this gap, Congress could pass equal-pay legislation.

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