Want to Close the Wage Gap? Stop Asking About Salary History

Jun 02, 2015 -

Hey, recruiters: you’re asking the wrong question.

Are you ready to narrow the wage gap, stabilize salaries across teams and start actually paying people what they’re worth? Then stop asking this one question: (Click here to tweet this question.)

"What's your salary history?"

The single best way for companies “to help solve the persistent and enigmatic problem of the gender pay gap” is to stop asking about previous salary, Google's SVP of People Operations, Laszlo Bock said recently, according to the Washington Post.

Why? Because if companies stop relying on previous salaries, “they’d be less likely to perpetuate the gap between men's and women's salaries,” Bock said. “After all, when employers base someone's new salary off of their former salary elsewhere, they just compound any past biases or negotiation disadvantages.”

Sounds reasonable. And the more the article explores Bock’s idea, the more we see the wide range of problems that come with relying on a candidate’s salary history.

Problem 1: Salary discrepancies are self-perpetuating

Consultant Molly Anderson warned Post reporter Jena McGregor about “self-perpetuating” salary histories. McGregor noted that “employees who negotiate a higher salary early in their career — or are awarded one due to some kind of unconscious bias — benefit for years as they get promoted or take on new jobs.”

Those who don’t negotiate, or who do it poorly? They’re bound to get left behind, over and over again.

Problem 2: Your salary is your brand

If a candidate told you their previous salary was higher than what you expected, you’d assume the quality of the candidate is higher — whether it’s true or not. “Just as consumers think pricier products are better quality, recruiters and managers can have the same reaction when a job candidate has a higher past salary,” Anderson told McGregor.

The Post also highlighted that this assumption could result in certain candidates taking pay cuts while others get a raise. According to Bock, Google’s starting salaries for men and “are identical or statistically identical.”

It sounds like throwing out salary history is more about the good of the whole than what’s beneficial for the individual.

You should still negotiate

Bock’s statement doesn’t mean candidates shouldn’t negotiate. Margaret Ann Neale, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business told the Post, “I cannot say enough about how it’s important for people, women and men, to get a good sense of what their jobs are worth."

But if large companies have the chance to determine pay based on the what the job is worth — instead of what the candidate was worth in the past — shouldn’t they? According to Bock, “If you do that instead of starting from where somebody is today, the problem goes away.”

Recruiters, would you ever consider NOT asking about salary history?


Marian Schembari is a writer, traveler and community manager based in San Francisco.