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What to Say When You’re Asked About Salary History

Salary history in an interview

During a job interview, you might face a question about your salary history. This question often is a stumbling block for candidates. If you answer the question truthfully, you might end up earning less than you deserve, based on the too-low earnings you received in your previous employment. At the same time, you don’t want to lie, and side-stepping the question can be tricky.

Because the question is such a catch-22, many states have, in fact, banned companies from asking it. According to the work equity group Women Employed, these questions about salary history significantly contribute to the wage gap between men and women, especially women of color. Career coach Sarah Stamboulie agrees, arguing that women’s wage gap starts during the interview process when they don’t negotiate the way men often do.

These so-called “Salary History Bans” exist in 16 states, along with several cities, counties, and territories. States that have banned this question include:

  • Oregon
  • Delaware
  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • Vermont
  • Pennsylvania
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Michigan
  • North Carolina
  • Washington
  • Alabama
  • Maine
  • Illinois
  • New Jersey
  • New York

Territories, cities, and counties that have banned the question are:

  • Puerto Rico
  • Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Montgomery County, Maryland
  • Richland County, South Carolina
  • Jackson, Mississippi
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Louisville, Kentucky
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • New Orleans, Louisiana

If you’re applying for a job in one of these states, cities, or counties, your employer isn’t legally allowed to ask about your past salary. However, that doesn’t mean that every employer has caught up with the patchwork of Salary History bans throughout the country. Further, there are still 33 states where you still might be asked this question in an interview.

So, how can you answer a question about your salary history with aplomb? What’s more, if you’re a white woman or woman of color, how can you answer the question without perpetuating the wage gap that may have followed you throughout your career?

Here, we’ll describe how you can effectively address questions about your salary history in your interview.

How to Answer Questions About Salary History

1. Don’t feel like you have to answer the question.

Stamboulie wants candidates to remember that “you don’t have to answer every question that’s asked” in interviews. Sidestepping a question may feel strange to some of us, but it’s key here. Don’t directly answer what could be a key question that will guide your salary future if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.

2. Redirect the question.

The problem with salary history question is that you could state a considerably-lower figure than the employer intends to pay. Then, they think your salary expectations start out below their lowest paygrade.

Instead of answering this question directly, then, redirect the question. Stamboulie suggests riffing on the following script:

Since salary is only one piece of the puzzle for me, I’d like to find out more about the job before determining my salary requirements. Can you tell me a little bit more about [your questions about the position]?

3. Delay the question as long as possible.

If and when you do discuss salary history, make sure it’s as late into the interview as possible. Make sure that you’ve given the employer enough information about who you are before entering into salary negotiation. Once the employer is certain they want to hire you, then you’ll have a more favorable discussion.

Stamboulie also advocates for avoiding talk of salary altogether until the employer has made a formal offer. She suggests asking, “To clarify, are you making me a formal job offer now?”

4. Focus on what matters to the company.

salary questions in an interviewThe logic behind delaying the salary discussion is so you can share why you’re a desirable candidate. If you’re able to describe what value you’ll add to the company, your salary will become less relevant. In other words, share specifics about what you’ll bring to the role by describing your past successes. Stamboulie advocates “wowing” the hiring manager with a particularly-compelling win with measurable outcomes.

The value you brought to your previous employment should be much more important to the hiring manager than what you were paid there. So, if you are asked about your salary history later in your interview, you can reference the value you brought to your past employer instead.

5. Show the employer how excited you are about the company.

The company you want to work for will hire the candidate who best fits their company culture, not the person who will accept the lowest salary. If not, is this really a company where you want to work?

Before your interview, research the company so you can prepare specific examples to answer the questions they’re likely to ask (aside from salary history). Further, develop questions you plan to ask them that demonstrate your excitement about the position. Enthusiasm for the role and company fit are most employers’ priorities, even if they do ask you about salary.

6. Research typical salaries for someone in your role.

There are many reasons you think your salary history isn’t an accurate indicator of what you’d expect to be paid in this role. In your current position, you may not be paid what someone with your skills, years of experience, and profession is typically paid in your area. Alternately, if you’re moving from one city or another, the salary range for people in your role may vary.

That’s why it’s important to come into the interview with a salary range of what people in the role for which you’re interviewing are paid. Then, if the hiring manager asks you about your salary history, you’ll come equipped with these figures instead.

7. Focus on your value, not your salary history.

Even if you live in a state where this question isn’t prohibited, there are still many reasons not to disclose your salary history. Perhaps you’re changing industries, or cities. Perhaps your previous employer wouldn’t pay you the raise you requested (which is why you might be changing jobs in the first place!). Perhaps you just don’t want to reveal your salary history because you think it’s unfair to other candidates who may earn less after answering.

Whatever your reason, explain to the employer why you don’t want to answer the question. Instead, reiterate what you’ve told them about your skills, history, and unique abilities. For example, you could say:

“Salaries for this role are not the same here as they were in my previous city, which had a lower cost of living. I would prefer to focus on my skills and the responsibilities of this role to decide a fair salary for this position.” 

Questions about salary history in your application or interview materials are unfairly loaded. The bottom line is that you don’t have to answer this question, even if it’s asked repeatedly. Instead, focus on your value, typical salaries for this role, and the salary range the employer would expect to pay. The goal here is to earn what you’re worth – whether or not that is line with what your previous employer paid you.


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