How to Avoid the Salary History Question — and What You Should Say Instead

A potential employee shakes hands with the person who is interviewing her for a job position.
laflor/Getty Images

It’s standard practice for some employers to ask job candidates about their salary history during the interview process.

Hiring managers sometimes use the information as a preliminary screening tool or to determine the likelihood an applicant will accept their job offer.

However, asking workers to divulge their salary history puts the candidate at a negotiating disadvantage and contributes to the gender wage gap.

And that’s part of the reason it’s illegal for employers in Massachusetts and New York City to ask job seekers about their salary history.

Providing Salary History Can Come Back to Bite You

You may think that providing your salary history to a prospective employer is no big deal or that divulging it will make you look like a team player.

Think again.

Keeping your salary history to yourself can help you — here’s how.

1. Dodge a Lowball Offer

Once you provide your salary history, employers can use that information to calibrate the compensation included in a job offer.

For example, if you were paid $10 per hour at your last four jobs, an employer may assume you’ll jump at an offer of $12 per hour — even if they budgeted for $20.

Sure, you can (and should) negotiate for better wages, but divulging your salary history is equivalent to showing your hand at the poker table. It’s hard to unring that bell.

2. Beat the Elimination Round

On the flipside, employers may also use salary history information to disqualify you from the applicant pool if they think you expect significantly higher wages than they are prepared to offer.

Maybe you’re changing careers and are willing to work for less pay in exchange for experience. Perhaps you inherited a cash windfall that makes you less reliant on a paycheck. Whatever the reason, you need to get your foot in the door to explain.

3. Close the Gap

The gender wage gap is a well-documented issue in the U.S., and salary history requests during the hiring process may have something to do with it.

Women already make 6.6% less than their male counterparts. “If this disparity can begin from the moment you go to your first job, and it follows you throughout your career, it will never be rectified and the wage gap itself will never be rectified,” notes Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.  

4. Choose Your Own Value

Employers determine how much someone should make based on the value they bring to the company (or at least they should). By sharing your salary history, “you’ll have branded yourself, appropriately or otherwise,” says human resources expert Liz Ryan. “You have allowed a completely different employer to set your value, no matter how different this new job opportunity might be.”

How to Sidestep the Salary History Question

No one likes to be asked their salary history, but unless you live somewhere it’s illegal, the question is very likely to come up.

Here’s how to handle it.

1. Do Your Homework

Use websites like PayScale and Glassdoor to get a general idea of what the average pay is for the job you’re interested in. That way you’ll recognize a lowball or a fair offer when you see it.

2. Knowledge Is Power

Gather as much information about the job as you can during your interview. “Verify the job’s scope before you talk about salary,” Monster contributing writer Carole Martin recommends. “It is difficult to discuss compensation before you have sufficient information about the position and level of responsibility.”

3. Practice Makes Perfect

Decide — and practice — ahead of time how you’ll respond to a request for your salary history. “The best thing you can do when an interviewer asks about your salary history is to reframe the question into what salary range you’re seeking,” says career consultant Alison Green.

(That’s why the first two steps are so important!)

No matter how you decide to handle this awkward interview situation, there’s one thing all hiring managers agree on: Never lie about your salary history.

But you already knew that.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She wishes she had this advice early on in her career.