Basing pay on salary history is a harmful, borderline-unethical practice that we need to abolish


otter-1438378_960_720Hi everyone, Game of Thrones is done for the year, so I am slightly down, so this post may be a little cranky. I was surfing the Nonprofit Happy Hour Facebook group (which you should totally join, because it’s full of brilliant and hilarious people), and saw that a colleague had asked for advice on how to respond to an online job application that asks for her salary history: “I’m worried I will be shortchanged on my pay because my ‘salary’ has been low, but I have actually provided MUCH more value to my org than that.”

I wrote about this practice of asking for salary history a while ago in “When you don’t disclose salary range on job postings, a unicorn loses its wings.” I believe the practice is archaic and irritating, like codpieces and, in a few years, skinny jeans. Leaders such as the brilliant Alison Green of Ask a Manager also think salary history is ridiculous:

Employers who do this generally claim that they need to know what you’ve earned in the past because it helps them figure out how much you should be earning with them, or so that they can screen out candidates who are earning way more than the position pays and presumably won’t want to take a pay cut. But neither of these reasons holds water. First, companies should be able to determine a candidate’s value for themselves; they don’t need to look to their competitors to tell them a candidate’s worth (and if they really do need to, their hiring process is pretty messed up). And second, if they’re concerned that you’ll be unhappy with the salary they’re offering, they can solve that by posting their range up-front or ask you about your salary expectations rather than salary history. So it’s BS, and it’s BS that’s designed to give them the upper hand in salary negotiations.

After thinking about it these past few months, I’m going further to make the argument that asking for salary history is not just annoying, but actually borders on UNETHICAL and all of us need to put a stop to it immediately. Here are some reasons why all of need to agree to drop this harmful practice:

It puts job candidates in a bind: When you ask for salary history, you’re screwing job candidates. If they give their history, you may use that to set your salary level, and that level may be low. On the off chance their salary history is too high, you may eliminate them also because you assume they won’t take a job if it can’t match their history. If they don’t give their history, you may consider them unable to follow directions and may eliminate them. If they are honest and say something like, “My finances are private. I would like a salary range from $X to $X,” you may think they’re arrogant or snobby or not team players or whatever. All these options are risky, and all of it sucks for job candidates.

It punishes those who prioritize missions over money. I know so many colleagues who give up higher-paying job opportunities because they are committed to awesome, but smaller organizations. When we base pay on salary history, we assume that there is a correlation between pay and responsibilities across the field: “Hm, this person made a bunch of money at their last job; they must have had a lot of responsibilities and gained some kick-ass skills. Conversely, this person only made 35K, so they must have been a lazy, good-for-nothing, unwashed entry-level bum.” The correlation between salary level and skills is tenuous—evidenced by the plethora of overpaid idiots in the world—so basing pay on salary history just punishes those who decide to work at lower-paying jobs because they believe in the mission.

It keeps underpaid people underpaid: Salary history perpetuates a system where people who have been underpaid remain underpaid. Imagine hearing someone say, “I’m sorry, but because you’ve been poor, I’m going to offer you a wage that will keep you and your family as poor or slightly less poor than you were.” That sounds gross, right? That’s because it is. Basing pay on salary history is like saying, “What kind of food do you normally give your kids? Spaghetti, huh? Great, we’ll adjust your salary accordingly. And you, sir, your family is used to caviar and foie gras? Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you can continue to afford your salty fish eggs and goose liver.” How about we just pay people based on the responsibilities of the current position? 

It discriminates against women and people of color: And of course, people who are underpaid tend to be women and people of color, and especially women of color. As a field, we talk about equity a lot. And yet we continue to harbor terrible practices that are completely counter to the work we’re trying to do. Eliminating salary history requirement is one quick and simple way to ensure that we do not perpetuate the inequity that we’ve been harping about.

It violates people’s privacy. People’s salary histories and general finances are none of boy-666803_960_720anyone’s damn business. What people made in the past has no relevance to the position to which they are applying, so to ask them for this information is a serious violation of their privacy. Here’s a simple test, which I am going to call the Symmetric Privacy Integrity Test (SPIT—I’ll come up with a better name later). Basically, a question during the interview process violates a candidate’s privacy if that question cannot be counter-asked of anyone on the hiring team without causing offense. All legal interview questions should pass the SPIT. Now imagine if a candidate turned to the hiring panel and asked, “So, I’d love to hear from each of you what you made at your last job.” If you’re not comfortable revealing your salary history to job candidates, why would you think it’s OK to ask it of them?

Asking about job candidates’ salary history should be illegal, along with asking about their religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, plans for having kids, medical conditions, etc. I don’t think most people who perpetuate basing pay on salary history realize how harmful it is. I think most of us mean well. But intention is not enough to justify perpetuating a gross and destructive practice. Imagine if someone says during a job interview, “We’re asking if you plan to have children just so we can make sure we can budget in toys for during the holidays.” That’s sweet. That’s also illegal. Or “We just want to know what your religion is before you accept this job so we can be thoughtful about accommodating your practices.” That’s very thoughtful, and also illegal.

In the same vein, “We just want to know what you used to make in the past so we can be sure to match it and give you a little bit extra” should be considered just as illegal, as it discriminates against the low-income, women, people of color; screws job candidates; and violates people’s fly-21685_960_720privacy. It also screws people who don’t mind making less than what they’re used to for a new job they really like. This harmful practice borders on unethical and needs to end immediately, especially in our sector, whose charge is to advance equity and justice in the world. We cannot do that well when we keep doing something that is hurtful to our colleagues and thus toxic to our field.

Employers: Figure out a position’s salary based on your budget, the responsibilities involved, and the industry average for your geographic location. Then POST THE DAMN SALARY RANGE. Stop wasting people’s time and your own time. Read “When you don’t disclose salary range on a job listing, a unicorn loses its wings” to understand why not disclosing salary range is inequitable, harming women and people of color. Stop asking for salary history. Don’t use it to screen people. If you won’t consider a candidate unless they disclose their salary history, you’re perpetuating a system of inequity. Remove it from your online applications. If you are still not convinced, at least change the question to “What is your desired compensation for this position?”

Job candidates: I’m sorry if you are ever in a position where you are forced to reveal something as personal as your past financial situation. It sucks. If you are ever asked to reveal in a cover letter your salary history, I agree with Alison of Ask a Manager. Just ignore the request and put, “I’m seeking a salary in the range of $X.” That should get them the information they need. If they have issue with that, they suck, and you probably don’t want to work for them.

Everyone else: Let’s advocate for the ending of this practice of asking for salary history, and the normalizing of posting salary ranges. Every time you see a job posting that does not have a salary range listed, send the hiring lead this nice email:

“Hi (first name). I noticed that your job posting for (position) does not list the salary range. I am writing to ask you to reconsider. Not listing the salary range wastes everyone’s time, as candidates may go through several rounds of interviews with you before realizing they may not be able to live on the salary you are offering. Even worse, it is inequitable and discriminates against women and people of color, who are often unconsciously punished during salary negotiation. Please read this article for more details. Thank you for considering, and for all you do to make our community better.”

And if you hear of an organization asking for candidates’ salary history, send them this nice email:

“Hi (first name). I saw that you are basing the salary for (position) on candidates’ salary histories. I am writing to ask you to reconsider. Basing salaries on candidates’ past history ensures that those who are underpaid remain underpaid. It discriminates against women and people of color, who are often the most underpaid. Please base pay on the position and not on candidates’ salary history. Read this article for more details. Thank you for considering, and for all you do to make our community better.”

And, while we’re at it, if you know a colleague who hasn’t been watching Game of Thrones, send them this nice email:

“Hi (first name). I heard that you haven’t been watching Game of Thrones. I am writing to ask you to reconsider. Game of Thrones is awesome. There are powerful families scheming and jostling for power, and good people who do unintentionally harmful things, and there are dragons and ice zombies. Really, nonprofit work is a lot like Game of Thrones, except we have less frontal nudity. Give it a try (the show, not the nudity). I think you may like it. Thanks for considering, and for all you do to make our community better.”


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33 thoughts on “Basing pay on salary history is a harmful, borderline-unethical practice that we need to abolish

  1. Sherri R

    LOVE this. And I laughed a little…with no frontal nudity, which would be comical.

  2. Carol Clarke

    I have no use for marriage, but Vu, I want to marry you. (I know, you’re taken, but I can dream can’t I?) As an educated, good looking and highly effective woman of colour, this is the very first time in 40 years of employment that I have encountered acknowledgement of my employment dilemmas, and why the unnecessary struggle may continue until retirement. It’s a rough, tiring and nebulous ride of invisibility. “The correlation between salary level and skills is tenuous—evidenced by the plethora of overpaid idiots in the world” – and the underpaid geniuses. You are my hero.

  3. Mary Cahalane

    Oh, if only there were a good way to communicate someone’s VALUE instead of salary history. Like results. Or recommendations.

    Another really important one, Vu. Thank you so much!

  4. Mehitabel

    Maybe it’s because I’ve been around the block a few too many times, but I don’t disclose salary history if asked anymore. I just say, very nicely, that I don’t feel comfortable disclosing private information. And if the employer decides that makes me ineligible for hire, so be it. I’ve no interest in working for an employer that thinks that this is a ‘best practice’.

    1. toriadoria

      As I mentioned in the Facebook thread, the problem is when an online form requires it.

      I’m also at a stage in my career where I can pick and choose employers to which I apply. But lots of people aren’t (including the person who posted the original query; she was on her way out of an AmeriCorps role).

  5. Patrick Taylor

    I have a friend who was getting paid 30% less than what her (male) coworkers in the same position were getting paid because she had been promoted up and they had come from other jobs – they were offered more based on what they had been making, she was given incremental adjustments based on her entry-level salary. She was arguably a more valuable employee than them, in terms of work output and quality, but was paid much less (until she called her employer on it).

    Employers know what they can pay for a position. Applicants know what they need to get paid to pay the bills, and what they think they are worth. Be transparent about what you can pay, or at least about what the base is. It would save so much time, and be so much fairer.

  6. Kat L

    I’ve been on the hiring side a lot recently and found that salary history isn’t useful from a recruitment standpoint. I just straight up ask for salary expectations (although I haven’t been able to convince our directors/executives to disclose salary info, yet). Candidates are going to want the salary they want nor do I want to rule out a good applicant in case they’re willing to take a lower salary for whatever reason. My org offers 100% employer paid health benefits for employees (about $7200/year value) and a lot of flexibility in work schedule so I try to emphasize the full compensation package when talking to people who are asking higher than we can offer.

    This is especially on the forefront of my mind since I cut my hours by an hour/day, which turned out to be quite a bit of a pay cut, just so I’d have the ability to pick my baby up from daycare on time (long commute). But my work load hasn’t changed and has actually temporarily increased due to a staffing shortage on my team. I wouldn’t want this to influence potential offers as I’m looking for another job with a shorter commute.

    1. Erin

      I’m sorry to hear that you had to cut your hours to pick up your baby. I bet you still do the same amount of work (if not more) even without being in the office that hour. Your employer should still pay you for the full work you do, not how much time you are in the office.

  7. Kelly Pratt

    I wish I wasn’t dealing with this right now, but I am. The issue is so prevalent. Along with the “what year did you attend XYZ university” to be read as “how old are you?”
    and with online applications requiring answers… hard to get around.

    1. Aaron Smith

      Seriously, it’s incredibly annoying- personally, my least favorite one is related to sexuality because in most states, it’s still 100% legal to discriminate against LGBT+ people.

  8. JKoz

    What’s the old saying; “You don’t get paid what you’re worth, you get paid what you can negotiate”.. Requesting salary history is an opening move on a negotiation. I’m not sure how unethical it is, but having hired many over the years I believe it is counter-productive and stopped doing it. This is especially true with candidates migrating over from for-profits and I do not want to cut them out of the potential pool. If I want A list talent, then I’ll have to pay for A list talent….and A list talent knows what it is worth. If I underpay A list talent they’ll just go elsewhere (and I have lost A listers for this reason).

  9. Erin

    As the person doing the hiring, I found it so liberating when I started posting salary ranges in the job announcement. I would dread that part of the interview. By setting it out ahead of time, I was freed of that worry — and I attracted candidates who came from places that paid more. They wanted to work for us and were willing to take a pay cut.

  10. Justus Eisfeld

    YES! On the same note: quit separating ’employment’ from ‘volunteer’ work. Some of my work has been and continues to be unpaid, even though it takes up a significant amount of my time and adds to my professional experience. Rather employers should ask for how much time you actually invested.

    1. toriadoria

      Hmm, I don’t think I agree with this. There is a fundamental difference between volunteering and working. Most (although not all) volunteer jobs aren’t managed in the same way; you’re not held to the same standards. It’s good work, and it matters, but it’s not the same as employment.

      1. Justus Eisfeld

        It sounds like you have specific volunteers in mind – but there are many different kinds of volunteers. A lot of the work that I have done has been building organizations and movements from the ground up – which was full-time, unpaid work at high level and to high standards (I dare say higher than most employees), and much of it transformed into full-time positions, either for myself or for others (or both). So before you judge somebody else’s work, I would like to ask you to think about your own assumptions first. Not all volunteer work is stuffing envelopes or people showing up whenever they feel like it (or not).

    2. Aaron Smith

      Likewise, it would be nice if people would stop invalidating my self-employment. While some people do say “self-employed” to feel better about not having a job, a lot of people bust their asses day in and day out, no different than another employee(aside from the tax obligtions and usually short-term nature of contracts).

      In certain fields, it’s incredibly difficult to find “stable” work anyway- for example, most companies don’t constantly need a web developer around, just every now and then to update stuff and build the site.

  11. Arthur T. Himmelman

    I enthusiastically and completely agree with everything you say about these issues. I have even written to organizations advertising positions that I am not applying for telling them they are missing the salary range. I also tell those who ask for my assistance in finding someone for a position that I will not do so without a salary range included in the job description. I think this very important information is essential for establishing trust and respect in a possible working relationship. Although not the same, I also find it irritating to be asked to send a proposal for my consulting assistance without knowing anything about the budget an organization may have for such assistance. Without this knowledge, it is very difficult to prepare a proposal given the range of things that may be highly desirable, and even necessary, for doing the best job possible as a consultant. Having said this, I always try to work within the financial constraints of possible clients.

  12. yikesarama

    1. You lost me at “Asking about job candidates’ salary history should be illegal…” In virtually any field, it’s relevant as a proxy for achievement, as evidenced by prior employers’ investment in you. I’ve hired and managed many IT professionals around the world, and this is in the top 3 of relevant questions when assessing someone’s potential. 2. “You put candidates in a bind.” If their salary progression and recent earnings history is a mismatch, that’s what’s put them in a bind. (Conversely, making this blind to the hirer puts that person in a bind. Why are we dancing around with this? If you’ve achieved, step right up. If not, you’re not ready.) 3. If they’ve underachieved in terms of salary, they’re already in a bind. 3. “Missions over money?” HAHAHAHA. Money IS the mission. 4. Keeps underpaid people underpaid? Their salary progression is their responsibility and their are proven ways to fix it– i..e, the many aspects of job performance. In that sense, everyone is paid perfectly. 5. Discriminates against women and people of color? No, it discriminates against poor performers and those who don’t pursue their careers aggressively. The whole argument sounds like sour grapes actually.

    1. margarite66

      You are totally missing the point of this post (and blog). This is about NON-PROFIT salaries, so yes, it is mission over money. Non-profits do not exist to make a profit; they exist to fulfill a mission. In the non-profit world, salary is a lousy proxy for achievement. Read the post; what VU says is true.

      1. JKoz

        Margarite, yikesarama is a bit blunt in her/his critique, but not entirely off point. If nonprofits want to be treated like competent, professional organizations, then it is important to demand competent, professionals in our hiring process. Questions around salary are a question of ‘value added’. Salary, for better or worse, is a price signal about value. As I mentioned in my previous comment, I don’t believe it is a productive inquiry for organizations to take with candidates, but also don’t believe it keeps people underpaid or is discriminatory as Vu claims.

        1. margarite66

          But that’s not at all what he was arguing. His comment about money makes it clear that he is clueless about the non-profit world.

          I worked for a non-profit where over 90% of the funding was heavily restricted government and foundation grants. We had very little flexibility in the salaries we were able to pay which is very common for smaller grass roots organizations. A lot of our employees were very committed to our mission and had excellent skills; what we were able to pay them was not a good proxy for their “worth” by any means. Also, not sure why you don’t believe Vu’s views as there is a lot of evidence supporting them.

      2. Aaron Smith

        To be honest, even in the for-profit world, salary doesn’t necessarily correlate to accomplishment either. Actually, it’s in the management’s “best interest”(by their metrics, not necessarily the best metrics) to discount accomplishments for the purpose of pay raises whenever possible as long as the employee doesn’t go postal.

        For example, if I find a way to start making my employer $150/hour after a couple years of making them $100/hour, they’re likely to just pocket the difference rather than give me 50% more pay, let alone the entire increase in profit.

        Furthermore, salary history often ignores benefits- for example, I’d rather have $40k with a 1:1 match on a 401(k) than an otherwise-identical organization that pays me $42k with no 401(k) because that’s an extra 6% in my pocket- same goes for healthcare and other “intangibles”.

  13. Dina Elenbaas

    Here in Australia, we have awards levels for certain jobs, including community sector jobs (aka SCHADS awards). These are a set amount depending on experience that is reviewed every year for cost-of-living increases and so forth. I think it’s a good way to do things, although as with everything else it can be problematic (like offering people a lower award than they’re worth).

  14. Phil Broyles

    We never ask for salary history because I know we are offering more than everyone else in this community for the type of service we provide. They are probably trying to get the most they can from the new hire so the higher ups get their share and then some.

  15. tepstein

    Vu, I love this blog, I love everything you have to say, and you make my Mondays suck so much less…but I find the fact that you like Game of Thrones really surprising and antithetical to so much of what you write. The show treats women in such a derogatory way, primarily (though of course not exclusively) as sexual objects with – yes – lots of frontal nudity that is hardly matched by that of men. I understand that in the most recent seasons that has been toned down a bit, and I know there are some very powerful female characters, but everything down to the camera angles are designed to show women in a powerless way (yes, I get this treatment is based on the books – a whole other story but that’s a thin veneer to justify exploitation of women’s bodies).

    And don’t even get me started on the almost total lack of actors of color on the show. Game of Thrones has a serious diversity problem. We can’t just tackle inequity in the nonprofit world – we have to tackle it everywhere, and that includes questioning how women and people of color are portrayed (or not) in “harmless” entertainment.

    Sorry for the off-topic rant, but you did mention it!


    1. Rob Mason-Brown

      Not sure if you are a regular watcher of Game of Thrones, presumably not, but i wanted to clarify some of the accusations in your post.

      Yes, there are elements of women being subjugated, as the show takes place in a horrible, brutal medievalesque world where women are treated like property at times. There are however, some of the best written female characters you will find on TV. Daenerys, Cersei etc are multi layered, complex and strong characters who use their brains to play the political games and violence when that doesn’t work.

      There is nudity, and violence, but these women are not pawns, they are players, they just use weapons like politics and sex to get what they want rather than a sword.

      People of colour I would accept there needs to be more done in this area, as I can only think of Missandei and Grey Worm being regular characters who aren’t white. This may have been influenced by the Medievalish Britishy setting, and the fact that so many characters are all from the same four families, limiting casting possibilities possibly?

  16. Terri Forman

    Thank you; you had the temerity to say publicly what I have been saying privately for a long time!

  17. Michael Brand

    I advocate a ‘floor’ not a ‘range’. That way we open ourselves to someone of exceptional talent who might be of value beyond the bounds of the job description. Most of us don’t have the flexibility of a Facebook, but I like their approach to hiring the best talent and then figuring out how to put them to best use. So with a floor we’re saying “Here’s the minimum we will pay for this position, but you are exceptional we can go higher….much higher if needed”

  18. JL_Laurie

    And when someone does post a salary, write and say thank you and tell them why you are glad they did it (even if you aren’t applying for the job).

  19. Ani B.

    When negotiating for a prior job, I’d just read this article ( and even though the online form required a number I literally entered “–” and it went through. No one from HR brought it up until the very end, when they’d already told me what their salary range was.

    On another thought, would this blog be willing to host a List of Fame with employers that follow best practices (i.e. they post a salary on their job advertisements, they do not ask for salary history…)?

    Would it be a very short list? Happy to provide some data from ArtsTie.

  20. Andrew Arnott

    I once interviewed for Google as a Microsoft employee. They pressed very hard for my current salary but I refused, explaining that in my offer letter from Microsoft, my salary was said to be confidential and I intended to honor my commitment to confidentiality. It took several recruiters up the chain before they finally accepted my refusal and offered me a position. Although I ultimately refused the offer, I considered it encouraging that I was able to hold to my convictions and still win an offer.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your points here.

  21. Lee A. Saylor

    I have 3 comments on this. 1> Several years ago, when I worked for a University Performing Arts Organization, I received a call from one of my colleagues in the region asking if I would be willing to share my current salary as they were getting ready to create a similar position at their University and wanted to make sure that they were in the correct range. When they discovered what my salary was, they politely asked if it was okay if they did not include me in the survey because they deemed it too low and didn’t want their administrators low-ball their prospective candidates. I appreciated their due diligence and used it to create a better salary for myself. 2> After that I worked for a local arts organization, who constantly asked staff to try to find more ways to cut costs and take on more responsibilities. When I left them the original job I was hired for was less then 15% of my total responsibilities. Since I left, my original position has seen a turnover of at least 5 people in the last 5 years, plus one of the programs I was responsible for was cancelled and the rest of my duties have been divvied up between at least three staff members and 2 or more outside consultants/contractors. My salary did not reflect the fact that I worked 5 jobs in one. 3> Recently I interviewed for another University position (that had not posted a salary range) and had to turn down a campus visit as a finalist when they revealed the salary and asked if that would be a problem. It was less than half of what I made at that time. Post the salary range upfront and save both sides time and trouble!

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