Let’s make basing pay on salary history illegal in all 50 states


cat-205757_960_720Recently, Massachusetts became the first state ever to make it illegal for employers to ask for job candidates’ salary history before making a job offer. This is so awesome that I ditched work and got some soy ice cream to celebrate.

For a while, I’ve been arguing about how crappy it is for employers to not disclose salary ranges in job posting, and how ridiculously archaic and bizarre that we still base people’s salaries on their previous salaries. Nothing else in our society operates like that. Imagine if someone goes to a restaurant, and at the end of the meal, the waiter comes by and the customer says, “So, can I ask how much the last person who ate here paid? $24? Well, then I’m paying you $26.40 for my meal. That’s a generous 10% increase.”

As Massachusetts realizes, basing pay on salary history is not just weird and irritating, it is also inequitable. Basing pay on salary history is a great way to make sure people who are underpaid remain underpaid, and women and people of color on average get paid less for doing the same jobs.

Others are starting to catch on. Public Advocate Letitia James in New York will this week introduce similar legislation to the City Council to make asking for salary history illegal. She actually calls this practice “outrageous and immoral,” so I’m upgrading my judgment of it from “borderline-unethical” to “yeah, unethical and should be illegal, #DownWithSalaryHistory!”   

All of this, plus the soy ice cream, is making me excited. Dude, y’all, we can do this! We can make salary history illegal everywhere! 

Squeaky Wheel Gets the Worm

One thing I learned through my nonprofit work in the past few years, it is that the loudest voices in our society get heard. The squeaky wheel gets the worm, as the saying goes (or it does right now, at 1:48am). This reality, unfortunately, has left behind so many people in our community. I sat in a school board meeting once after it was announced that due to budget issues, certain schools would have to be closed. Groups of parents came, often wearing t-shirts. Each parent testified for two minutes, passionately arguing against their kids’ school being shut down. It was great to see community members mobilizing, until I realized that the parents of low-income kids, of kids of color, would never be able to be as loud, to write as many emails, to attend as many meetings. They often had to work in the evening, or they had no transportation, they couldn’t speak English very well, or they simply were too terrified to be in the limelight. And so their schools were more likely to get closed.

A system where only the loud voices are heard will always leave people behind. This happens all the time, everywhere, and it is not changing any time soon. So we nonprofit Jedi Knights, who fight to bring balance, should embrace our roles in helping people who speak softer to increase their volume and to speak for those who ask us to be their voice, even as we work to break down this inequitable system.

All of Us Are Advocates

Many of you work for advocacy organizations, so you are heavily involved with campaigns to change inequitable laws and put fair ones into place (thank you!).

But this may be part of our challenge: We seem to think there is a dichotomy between advocacy and direct service. We think advocacy is something only the advocacy orgs do, because we do not have the skills or the time to do it. This is something we all need to reexamine, though, because I think it may be holding us back from being able to address systemic inequity. All of us need to be more involved in advocacy, even in small ways.

With all the writing I do, rarely do I actually write to a lawmaker. I didn’t think my one email or phone call about some random issue such as salary history would make much of a difference. But what has happened in Massachusetts and what is happening in New York made me see that all of us have way more potential to change policies than we think.

The Rule of 20

I know, because many of my drinking buddies work in advocacy organization, that advocacy work is complex. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. We think about the scale of the work, and it can seem very daunting and time consuming. But there is so much we each individually can do. Micro-advocacy, where a bunch of us do small bits of advocacy work, can lead to major changes. In fact, with the prevalence of social media, this may be one of the most effective forms of advocacy.

And honestly, getting something to go viral, with thousands or millions of hits and likes, is great, but even a handful of people in concerted effort can make a huge difference. A while ago, someone told me of the Rule of 20. Basically, if you can get 20 people to write to the Mayor, or the City Council, or the Governor, or whoever is in power, you can get whatever you want. 20 angry emails from neighbors about a pothole, and it will get on the city’s radar. 20 infuriated calls about the lack of composting facilities, and it will be taken seriously. In college, I got 20 vegetarians and vegans to demand better vegan food, and it worked; we got tofu and seitan and tempeh bacon galore (“Ahoy, we want soy! Ahoy, we want soy!” That was not a campaign chant, but maybe it should have been.)

Sometimes, it seems really unfair and kind of scary that 20 loud, angry people can shift laws, especially if they all wear matching t-shirts. I’ve seen it used to destructive results, perpetuating the inequity so many of us are fighting to end. Lawmakers who have a grounding in equity and social justice may be aware that 20 people do not represent the entire community. But many more will see the flood of 20 or so emails as proof that their constituents deeply care about an issue. 

If this Rule of 20 has any validity, and I’ve seen plenty of evidence that it does, then we should use it to our advantage to shift unfair policies and systems. 

Let’s Start Right Now

Lots of brilliant, attractive, charming people read this blog each week (especially bunny-1567479_960_720if a post includes pictures of baby animals). If the Rule of 20 holds true, imagine how much stuff we can get done if we start working together in concert. Moving forward, I am going to try to encourage us all to take more active roles in addressing specific issues of inequity. We can start this week by getting the practice of basing pay on salary history to be illegal in all fifty states. We can do this! 

Those of you who believe that basing pay on salary history is a harmful practice that should be illegal, please spend a few minutes today sending one email to your City Council, Mayor, Governor, members of Congress, or all of the above if you have time. Emails in your own words are always more convincing, so I am just going to list a few talking points:

  • Please make basing pay on salary history illegal in our city
  • Massachusetts just made it illegal statewide. New York’s City Council is considering doing the same.
  • This practice ensures those who are underpaid continue to be underpaid
  • Those who are underpaid tend to be women and people of color
  • According to the US Census, women are paid 79 cents for each dollar men earn for the same jobs
  • People of color are paid less for doing the same jobs too
  • [Insert personal relevant personal stories if you have them]
  • Making it illegal to ask candidates for their salary history will reduce the wage gap and make our community more equitable

Especially if you’re in New York, please email your Council Members this week. Thanks, everyone, for being awesome, and for making our world more just.


Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page and enter in your email address. Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organization, Rainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Oh, and support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.