Can Employers Ask You How Much You Made in Your Last Job?

Is there anything more nerve-wracking than a job interview?

My worst job interview ever was my second year of law school.

For a law student, the first step to a prestigious, intellectually challenging career (and, if you’re into money, a six-figure salary) is landing a spot in the summer program of a BigLaw firm.

“BigLaw” is an industry nickname for the nation’s largest law firms. They have the best starting salaries. But they work their associates like dogs. Think 60-80 hour work weeks, working on the weekends, cancelled vacations, and ruined holidays.

So back to the interview. I’m sitting in a cramped cubicle at UT Law being interviewed by a senior partner who clearly wanted to be somewhere else. Slouched in the chair, he absentmindedly rattled off the typical interview questions. He then glanced down at my resume on the table, blinked a couple of times, and suddenly sat up in his chair.

“You know, you spelled the name of your undergrad wrong. It’s “St. Mary’s” not “St. Marty’s”.

Damn spell check. I turned bright red as he laughed for a solid five minutes. Apparently he must of had a few embarrassing typos in his past because I still got the job.

The most problematic question people get asked in a job interview is how much did you make in your last job.

Why? If a prospective employee’s current pay rate is always extrapolated from his or her previous one, one job where he or she was underpaid can result in a career of jobs where he or she is always underpaid.

This tends to have a bigger impact women, who are paid less starting with their first jobs. Even controlling for other factors like personal demographics, occupation, college major, hours worked, and location, the average woman’s first job will pay 6.6 percent less than a man’s.

Now that we know why previous salary information can result in pay discrimination, when you apply for a job, do you have to give your previous salary information? How do you avoid providing the information without taking yourself out of the running for the job?

Can employers ask how much you made in your last job?

Bad news. For most people, asking what you made your last job is a perfectly legal question for an employer to ask you (and for them to base your salary on).

There are a few exceptions.

There are a few state and local laws that ban employers from asking job applicants how much they were paid in their last job. California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Delaware, New York City, and Philadelphia have laws banning the question for all employers.

Tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google also don’t ask job applicants about their current salaries.

So what if you are applying for a job in the Dallas, Texas office of a California company? Be prepared to answer the salary question because the California law does not apply.

How can you avoid answering the question without taking yourself out of the running for the job?

Sure, you can refuse to answer the question. But, let’s be honest, if you really need the work, you’re going to answer the question.

So how can you take the bull by the horns and respond to the salary question? Here are some recommendations from career experts:

  • Liz Ryan (of Forbes) recommends using your current target salary (the salary you want to make). Put that figure in the application form anytime the form asks for the starting and ending salary of each of your past jobs. In the comments section (or cover letter), put “All salary figures reported in this application reflect my current salary target.” A true  and correct statement. All the employer needs to know is your salary target. They want to make sure that they can afford you.
  • Another way to keep the focus on the salary you are seeking, “My previous employer considers that information confidential, but I am seeking…”
  • If you were underpaid at your last job, Lelia Gowland (of Forbes) suggests saying “My previous salary was below market value at [current salary], so based on my skill set, experience, and research about this position, I’m seeking [salary range].”
  • Turn the question around and ask what the position’s salary range is and say you are willing to accept a “competitive offer.” Be prepared to make the case, based on your credentials, that you should be placed in the upper range of the position’s salary range.
  • If you are filling out an online form, Ms. Ryan suggests entering “n/a” or “negotiable.” If you are required to enter a number, enter “$0” or a number that obviously isn’t your salary like “$100.”

Why not lie? There’s no way they are going to find out, right?

They might find out. And there goes your job.

After they hire you, they could require you to produce your previous W-2(s). Remember, it is perfectly legal for companies to ask you your salary history after they hire you.

Also, it is relatively easy for anyone to figure out typical salaries by reviewing online resources.

What is the worst question you have ever been asked in a job interview? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Disclaimer: This website is made available for educational purposes only as well as to give general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this website you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Copyright © 2018 by Siobhán Fitzpatrick Kratovil. All Rights Reserved.

 

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