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The salary games some employers play

Marielle Segarra Jun 6, 2022
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Pay transparency laws aim to prevent pay discrimination. But some employers act like it’s inappropriate to even ask about pay.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The salary games some employers play

Marielle Segarra Jun 6, 2022
Heard on:
Pay transparency laws aim to prevent pay discrimination. But some employers act like it’s inappropriate to even ask about pay.  Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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Maysun Valles, 25, lives in Chicago and works in customer service. The other day, she posted this video to TikTok. 

“I need these companies and these hiring managers to grow up and, like, get a grip on reality, OK?’” she said.

Valles recently applied for a job as a receptionist at a medical spa. She got an interview and, at the end, the hiring manager told her the pay, which she said was too low.

“And he was like, ‘Yeah, you know, here’s the thing,’” Valles said. “‘There’s a lot more here to gain than just money. And we’re looking for people that are motivated by more than just money.’”

Valles thinks he meant a sense of community, or maybe that the spa was a nice environment to work in. 

In this way, an employer or a hiring manager can make you feel like it’s shameful that you want more money, that you’re even being greedy — as if a job isn’t an exchange of labor for money.

“I don’t know what fantasy world you’re living in, where people are letting you pay them in like gold star stickers or whatever,” Valles said, “but I live in the real world where people need money to survive.” 

I talked to Valles later, and while she didn’t actually say all of this to the hiring manager, she did tell him: Yeah, I have to consider money. 

“At that point, he was just kind of like, ‘All right, well, you know, I guess this concludes the interview,’” she said.

Valles didn’t have another job lined up and she was fine with that. “I have no problem turning stuff down, even if I don’t have a backup plan, like, I am not going to accept less than I think I’m worth.”

More than a dozen states either have or are considering so-called pay transparency laws. That can mean companies have to post salary ranges in job listings, that they’re not allowed to ask applicants how much they made at their last job, or that they’re not allowed to punish workers for talking about their pay openly. The idea is that these laws can help prevent pay discrimination.

Still, depending on the industry, a lot of companies approach the interview process intending to offer the lowest salaries they can, especially as wages rise nationally. And that doesn’t work as well in an age of people being more and more open about salary.

Some employers act like it’s inappropriate to even ask about pay. 

Quinn Ponds, a coordinator for mental health programs who’s 34 and living in Portland, Oregon, recently applied for a job. 

They emailed her, she asked about the pay, and they said “that they couldn’t even, like, share that, that it was an HR situation — meaning you have to apply, interview, I guess, get hired, and then they’ll tell you how much you’re making,” Ponds said.

The thing is, people put a lot of work into job interviews, Ponds said. They might have to take time off, pay for gas, get dressed up and do some sort of homework — often for free. She decided to say something. 

“I professionally just let them know that that was just not acceptable,” she said. “That, as somebody who is a person who hires — that I would never tell somebody that they’d have to jump through all those hoops before telling them.”

The company never responded, Ponds said.

Why are companies so reluctant to share salaries with applicants? Chris Collins, who teaches HR studies at Cornell, said it’s about the escalation of commitment. 

“If I were being cynical, the more effort you put in as an applicant, the harder it is to turn down the offer,” Collins said.

Waiting until the last minute to reveal the pay is a terrible practice, Collins said, because companies are wasting time interviewing people who may never take the job.  

He suggests that smaller companies that can’t afford to pay market rate should be upfront about that, “but list or give them information on all the other things that maybe make up for it, whether that’s additional benefits, or time off, or flexibility.”

Whether it’s a four-day workweek or working from home, those things can have value. The last couple of years have been hard; people are burned out and working more hours than ever. 

“They’re really skeptical of these messages that companies have about, ‘We’re all a family, we care about you,’ those sorts of things,” said Jamie Kohn, a research director in the HR practice at Gartner. “And they’re saying: ‘Actually, I provide a service. And you need to pay me fairly for that service.’”

Sometimes that means walking away from job interviews when the pay is too low — or when the pay is a big secret.

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