A New Illegal Interview Question: How Much Did You Earn In Your Last Job?

Massachusetts just passed a new law that, among other things, prohibits companies from asking how much you earned in previous jobs. That’s right–those salary history questions in MA will be illegal starting in January 2018.

While I generally dislike regulations placed on businesses, I can’t say I’m too worked up about this one. Basing current salary on a previous salary is a pretty dumb and lazy thing to do. To read more about it, including advice from an MA employment attorney click here:

This Popular Interview Question is Now Illegal In Massachusetts.

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22 thoughts on “A New Illegal Interview Question: How Much Did You Earn In Your Last Job?

  1. Not only dumb and lazy but it perpetuates salary disparity. The only way for women and minority employees to ultimately be paid fairly instead of a percentage of the standard wage for white men is to divorce them from previous pay.

    As long as previous pay is a metric the gap will never close. Particularly since it’s been shown that when women and minorities try to negotiate better pay they’re often looked down upon for it. Women are often labelled as being pushy if they do the same things men do in order to try and get higher pay.

    1. I’m not seeing how this helps in many rules with any sort of disparities or perceived disparities that exist for a variety of reasons.

      Take for instance the role of business analysts. I work with some who’ve discovered 100 software flaws and saved the company a few million dollars, and I’ve worked with some who’ve done cosmetic changes and done some reporting but didn’t have much impact. Same job title, same pay range, but it would be an injustice to not take past pay into consideration, at least as a part of the picture.

      The reasons….. most employers aren’t going to have a five hour interview to go over every one of your accomplishments. If your going into a different industry, they’re not going to understand half of your accomplishments anyway (they may seem to an nod their heads, but not fully grasp what was involved, and saying “it was really hard because of xyz” doesn’t always come across great in interviews either).

      We often talk about paying what the job is worth, but in business analysis at least, so much of that depends on the person. And you don’t know for sure what they’re going to accomplish with your system until they work there, since so many of your issues will be company specific. So past salary can be a good way to start the salary negotiation.

      The law also makes a huge assumption that salary discussions always hurt candidates. I’ve worked mostly at small companies where this isn’t the case though. We create a new role. Manager wants low salary. Most candidates make more than low range of salary. Most good candidates make much more. Then you get your boss to expand the pay range based on the information you learned be asking about past salaries. Going on glassdoor doesn’t convince them, but coupling a real person with specific accomplishments with a realistic description with what they did will convince management to up a salary.

      This is especially pertinent if the candidate is already employed and getting a raise is part of the reason they’re looking for a job.

      Personally I made s@@@ in my 20s but am very proud of the income growth I had in my 30s due to a bunch of huge accomplishments, helping a startup grow as a lead ops person and then saving another company a bundle from money they didn’t even know they were losing. There was a period of workoholism that had negative personal and health effects, but I’m still proud of income growth I had. How on earth would it make sense not to discuss my past salary? And how would it make sense to even out my salary with the folks who left at 5 all of those years and had summer vacations and handled smaller problems, because they have to create a pay range for a job with no current salary information?

      I feel like this is the type of law that ends up shifting who gets hurt, but doesn’t actually fix the issue. You want to close a pay gap? Lean more towards pay for performance. Jobs with the same title and requirements can get different pay, but you need metrics on how to calculate how to earn more than the base in the range. Lower performers get fired quickly. High performers get uncapped raises. Accomplishments and projects completed are tracked so management has concrete information to base decisions on. If possible, dollar amounts are tied to accomplishments.

      I also must note that with regards to pay disparities, they exist even among white men. I’ve racked my brains as to why certain coworkers earn more but do so much less. We’re they hired at a better time? Did they go to a good school, but that doesn’t translate into good work? Was it because of salary history? Did they threaten to quit so got a raise (and yes I’ve seen this a few times!), threaten to leave for a higher paying job, gotten a raise, but didn’t improve their performance? Was their job supposed to include more higher level work, but they only focus on the day to day stuff (this I’ve seen many times).

      I think that if you are going to solve pay disparities between different demographic groups, we need to figure out why they exist in the first place even in homogenous groups. Because all of the BS in the last paragraph is unfair but is going to keep happening and this law isn’t helping that at all.

  2. Great article! Looking forward to seeing if this movement carries into other states (wouldn’t be surprised if CA takes it up).

    One typo:

    In this paragraph, you have “say” twice in the second sentence: “The fix is easy–instead of asking a candidate about her current salary, the recruiter will need to share the salary range for the position. Then the candidate can say either say thanks or no thanks.”

  3. MA resident here! Rightly or wrongly, whenever I’m asked this question, I assume they are asking so they can offer me the lowest salary possible. Why else would you need to know that? What’s wrong with saying, “what is your salary range for a new position?” Let’s say the range they had in mind for the position was 75-85k and I’m making 60k – well, 68k may going to sound great, even though it’s 7k below the lowest point in their range. I love Suzanne’s suggestion for the recruiter to just, you know, do the rational thing and tell the candidate what they want to pay, but we all know how rare that is.

    1. I don’t think that’s true though. I think it’s a good way to decide if you’re in the general range for a role. Many job titles are ambiguous or have large pay ranges. It helps to know where you think you are in the spectrum, assuming you did research on what someone at your level of accomplishments earns. A good company will know when you’re lowballing or aiming too high.

      1. Right, but if the company knows you’re low balling yourself, are they going to speak up? Probably not. Like I said, I have no issue with the company asking what range the candidate is looking for, but it’s unfair to bring current or previous salaries into it. Let’s say someone goes from a small nonprofit to a large corporation. Should the Fortune 100 company be basing what they offer on what a tiny nonprofit can offer? No, because then the candidate would be lockedl into making less than other candidates. Makes absolutely no sense.

        1. Steve g,

          BTownGirl is exactly right. A company I previously worked for did that all the time. They would offer just over your prior income when the low end of the job was higher than that. If your salary was within the range, they would ask if you could take a 5% pay cut because you were already beyond the range (wink wink).

          1. That’s horrible, especially since it probably only saves a few thousand dollars. I am not contesting it happens or saying my scenarios were more likely, but I have seen it work in the opposite direction. But that was/is more at smaller companies hiring from larger ones, and they don’t feel they are good at setting wages without any internal benchmarks. Some people used that to their advantage to come in at higher salaries than they might get at a larger company.

            But now that I think about it, for every person whose used their past salary history to advocate for themselves and get a fair salary, I can think of someone who (presumably) used their past salary to get a salary that is inflated compared to their actual output at their job. It seems like a no win situation.

            1. someone who (presumably) used their past salary to get a salary that is inflated compared to their actual output at their job

              1. I am all for people getting the highest salary they can.
              2. If someone is not performing, that is not a salary issue, it is a management issue. If the manager doesn’t have the guts to deal with it, it’s on her.

            2. 3. And the job should pay what the job is worth. The worth of the job has absolutely nothing to do with what the person performing the job earned at her last position. Nothing. Using previous salary is just laziness on the part of the employer.

  4. this game that employers play with pay demeans employees and makes employers appear shady. Do they pat themselves on the back when they get an employee at a low rate? Great for the bottom line, stinks for employee morale and retention. Employee just keeps looking to be hired into better pay position. Who wins?

  5. Suzanne, would this prohibit prospective employers from asking the candidate’s previous employer what their salary was? I would think that it could be one way of getting around it.

    1. To my understanding, they can’t do that either. they can only inquire about previous salary after you’ve received a formal offer that includes compensation.

  6. I think it’s a great idea that still might not work. Can they still ask “What salary are you looking to earn?” Because that still puts you at a disadvantage. You could think I’ll ask for a 15% raise and give a number. But you’re still lowballing because your earlier salary was low. Companies will still do everything possible to not name a salary.

  7. “…People won’t want to leave their current jobs for less money.”
    Sounds like you’ve never really worked with engineers. 🙂

    Money is tangible, sometimes there are other things not easily quantified in a job or job offer. Perhaps there’s an easier commute, better flex time, better coworkers, new job is in a state with lower/no income tax.

    Sometimes it isn’t about the money.
    I started pushing back a long time ago on this question during interviews. I’d pretend I didn’t hear it ask, eventually it would get asked again. I’d respond with, “You have a salary range in mind for these requirements, I obviously at least meet them or we shouldn’t be talking, so just make me what you think is a fair offer”. I wish I had taken pictures of the reactions, you would’ve thought I bit the head off a live chicken.
    “We need your salary requirements because we don’t want to offend you with a really low offer” was the answer I typically got. To which I usually chuckled and said “If you think you are making a fair offer, why should I be offended? If it’s unrealistically low, I’ll tell you that”.

    Worst offer I ever got was a lateral salary-wise. Work, coworkers, all the intangibles more than made up for it. But that’s all just me, I decided a long time ago that money was not a driving force in my career, learning and doing things I find interesting would be.

    1. It is so nice to be in a position where I can ask what the job pays rather than having to suck up and take whatever they are offering. You are right – there are things that are worth more than money (once you are at a certain salary), but that’s up to me to decide, not the employer. Tell me what the job pays and I will decide if I want to talk to you.

      I have talked to two recruiters in the past months. They have called me, not the other way around. I work with engineers now (and love being the stupidest person in my group) and have a fabulous boss. It would take a lot of money to make me leave.

  8. I have an easy solution to pay inequality…

    Try asking for what you think you’re worth. If they company won’t pay it, find another company.


    A fair number of companies will try to get away with paying as little as possible. Many times they’re just calling your bluff. If you don’t demand a certain wage, why should the company say “Well, you didn’t ask for enough so we’re going to pay you as much as the [insert privileged class here].”?

    But then it’s the government to the rescue, right? Ugh. It’s not the governments place to meddle in private contracts (although they do all the time). Their job is to enforce them. Oh sorry, I forgot we’re now in an age where people want bureaucrats to intervene on everything for some perceived leveling of the playing field.

    Careful what you wish for.

    1. I hate this question, but I agree with you that it’s not something the government should make a rule against.

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