The Shriver Report – How to Answer Questions About Previous Salary and Ensure Fair Pay
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How to Answer Questions About Previous Salary and Ensure Fair Pay
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Maria Shriver’s recent report on NBC Nightly News included the case of Aileen Rizo that highlights what is wrong with asking and answering questions about previous pay.

Ms. Rizo discovered she was making $12,000 less than a male colleague and she had greater credentials than he. Her employer disclosed that starting pay was based on previous pay and thus non-discriminatory.

As a job candidate, how can you respond to such questions and still be in consideration for the job AND receive pay that is inline with the market value of the job and your credentials (education, accomplishments, and experience)?

First you have to ignore the question. It is on every job application both print and electronic. Skip the question on print applications and skip the question on electronic applications. Some electronic applications have this as a required field. In those situations enter “0”. This should take care of the number requirement. If not, enter “1”.

I know you think that will take you out of the running for the job but it rarely does. Recruiters get many more job applications for each opening than they can read. Typically, recruiters will do a keyword search from the job description to see which candidates are worth contacting for a phone screen. You hurt your likelihood of getting this initial contact more by not including keywords from the job description in your resume or cover letter than from leaving your past salary blank.

Approximately 60% of workers have an explicit (you signed an agreement) or implicit (we frown on people sharing pay information) salary confidentiality agreement at work. I suggest you take what exists to hurt you at your current job and use it to help you at your next job.

The question will come up again so you do need to have some non-answer answers at the ready. Here are a few scenarios and suggestions on how to handle them:

The Recruiter: “Your background looks like a good fit for the job but I see you did not provide your current salary. Please tell me what it is.”

You, the Candidate: “I am sorry but my employer has confidentiality agreements regarding pay. I am unable to share this with you.”

This response should be acceptable for employers who like their employees to honor agreements. Do not use this if you work for a government agency or if your pay is included in any public reporting such as 990 forms for non-profits or SEC filings for publicly traded companies.

Here is an alternative for the people who cannot use the above response or who still were asked to supply pay after giving the above response.

The Recruiter: “I still need to know your pay before I can move you to the next step in the hiring process. What are you making?”

You, the Candidate: “I made the mistake of accepting pay that was too low. I am so underpaid that it really is useless if you are looking to gauge next pay from it.”

The Recruiter: “That being the case I still need to know.”

You, the Candidate: “As long as you understand that I won’t be looking for the typical 10% added to previous pay. I’m making $X.”

This answer gives the recruiter the information but also sets expectations that you are going to be a better informed consumer of job pay than you were in the past and you will not accept low pay again.

The bigger questions are: 1) why previous pay continues to be in the hiring process; and 2) are we as female hiring managers compounding the gap of our sisters and really any group that experience a pay gap, including African Americans and Latinos, by using salary history as a grading system and as a benchmark for future pay?

The median pay of women, Hispanics, and African Americans, is far under that of white and Asian American males. We all cannot be that much worse than white and Asian guys. Using pay as an objective standard becomes very questionable when the vast majority of Americans are being hurt by it.

Here’s a suggestion for the next time you, as a manager, are hiring. Ask Human Resources not to ask that question or at the very least not provide that information to you. Then calculate your initial offer using more objective standards.

Here are some suggestions to consider when calculating a salary:

Getting the Job Offer: The minimum pay on the pay range

Additional Education: Add 1% for each extra year of education above the minimum requirement

Top 100 School: 2% added to pay

Ivy League School: 5% added to pay

Graduated with Honors or Distinction: 2% added to pay

Additional Years of Experience: Add 1% for each year above the minimum requirement

Nice to Haves: Add 1% for each “nice to have” from the job description the candidate possesses

Accomplishments: Add 1% for each impressive accomplishment (true this one is more subjective)

Worked at a Premier Company: Add 2% for coming from a key competitor or company

This list is not exhaustive. It’s really meant to give you a starting point to rethink of how you calculate the initial pay offered to a new employee.

Even though you do not think you are doing anything discriminatory by using pay, the results are discriminatory. As the ruling in Glenn v. General Motors (MI, 11th Circuit) states “prior salary alone cannot justify pay disparity” and yet it does on a daily basis throughout the country.

Let’s work to change that as job candidates and as hiring managers.

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Katie Donovan is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Katie Donovan is a salary negotiation consultant, equal pay advocate, and keynote speaker. Her company Equal Pay Negotiations LLC teaches women pay and benefits negotiation through online courses, mobile apps, workshops, and personal consulting.
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