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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