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Workplace Culture

States expand bans on asking job applicants for salary history

Meghan McCarty Carino Aug 1, 2019
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A job seeker fills out an application at a career fair in midtown Manhattan, New York City.
John Moore/Getty Images

Illinois and New Jersey this week enacted laws that ban all employers from asking for job applicants’ salary history. At least 18 states and as many cities have adopted bans in some form as part of a push to address long-standing disparities in pay between men and women or racial and ethnic groups.

Critics say pay inequity is reinforced when applicants are asked to divulge their previous salary.

As a former state prosecutor, Stephanie Hoffman didn’t have much choice in answering the salary question early in her career as her payment details were public record.

“Every job that I’ve had since then I’ve always been asked, ‘What are you making?’ and then been offered a little bit more.”

She believes that’s put her at a disadvantage. She once asked a male colleague fresh out of law school about his pay.

“And he was making about $12,000 more than I was even though I had seven years of experience in the industry.”

Anne Hedgepeth with the American Association of University Women said questions about salary histories hurt women and minorities the most. Female workers still make about 80 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the same job, and the disparity is even greater for women of color.

When employers ask about past salaries, “that can mean that they bake in the past experience of a gender pay gap, of bias and discrimination into your future earnings,” Hedgepeth said.

But businesses say not having a job seeker’s past salary hurts their ability to sort through applicants and offer a fair wage.

“You get an idea of where they’ve been, and you get an idea of how they’ve been building up their career,” said Nikki Cimino, a manager in operations and human resources for a nonprofit in Denver. With salary data out in the open, it’s easier to hone in on candidates who will be a good fit, Cimino said, while avoiding wasting time with overqualified applicants. She’s pushed for her company to include salary details in its job postings instead.

Research by John Horton at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed hiring can take more time and effort when salary history is withheld. But he said when it came time for companies to make an offer, “they hired people who historically had earned lower wages.”

Whether a state has these laws or not, workers can find a way around the question, as Yolanda Gartner, an engineer in Florida does.

“I will put in the very minimum that I’m willing to take that position at, or I will put in that salary field, ‘negotiable,'” she said.

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