What is your current salary?
Whenever that question comes up during a job search, you’re stuck wondering if you should answer honestly (which could result in an offer that’s lower than you want), lie (which feels shady and could easily backfire), or perform some interview gymnastics to get out of sharing it.
So you might’ve been relieved to learn that cities and states are starting to fight back against it (including California, Delaware, New York City, and more). No, it’s not just because it’s awkward, but because it might perpetuate pay gaps.
As Ariane Hegewisch, employment and earnings program director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research explains, it’s pretty typical for companies to hire somebody and give them a percentage increase from their previous salary, say 10% or 15%. Groups that face discrimination in the labor market are more likely to come in with a lower previous salary and therefore start their next job behind as well—to be repeated on and on throughout their careers with almost no hope of catching up.
“The wage gap between women and men in New York City is unacceptable, especially for women of color,” says Seth Hoy, spokesperson for the NYC Commission on Human Rights, which enforces the law in the city. The goal of the ban is “to break this cycle of pay inequity and ensure that people who have been systemically underpaid their entire lives are able to negotiate competitive salaries based on their actual skills and qualifications rather than their previous salaries.”
The good news is that the laws can give an advantage to anyone who feels they were paid unfairly in their previous role. But we all know that just because something’s illegal doesn’t mean it’ll never happen.
So what can you do if you get the question anyway?
1. Avoid Putting the Number in a Form
You’re filling out the application for a job you really want and it’s asking for your current salary.
Muse Career Coach Emily Liou recommends putting “N/A” or “Flexible” in that field. If it forces you to enter a numeric value, she suggests writing “0” and finding an appropriate text field elsewhere on the application where you can add something like, “Note: I entered $0 on the salary question however I want to clarify I am flexible if we determine there is a mutual fit.”
2. Deflect or Reframe the Interview Question
Theoretically, you can simply tell an interviewer politely and respectfully that you’re not legally required to answer that question. “But that response is intimidating,” says Muse Career Coach Arik Orbach. “The important thing here is to not overreact or let your emotions get the best of you if you feel that you are being targeted.”
Liou adds that you can always deflect the question, and make sure you end on a positive note. “If asked, ‘What were you last making?’ a savvy candidate can answer with, ‘Before discussing any salary, I’d really like to learn more about what this role entails. I’ve done a lot of research on Company and I am certain if it’s the right fit, we’ll be able to agree on a number that’s fair and competitive to both parties,’” she says.
You can also answer a similar question instead of the one you’re being asked. Applicants “should not disclose their previous salary but instead reframe their answer to express their salary expectations or requirements for the job,” according to Hoy. In other words, tell them what you expect to make, not what you’re currently paid.
3. Do Your Research
“Companies love data and the more you can come prepared with factual information and evidence, the more likely you are to convince an employer you deserve $X,” says Liou. (And this article can help you get as close as possible to a realistic figure.)
Give a “well-researched salary range with the lowest point of that range being a salary offer you’d still be willing to accept,” Orbach says. “A fun little tip is to provide an uneven range to demonstrate you’ve done your homework,” such as $47,000 to $51,000 rather than $45,000 to $50,000.
4. Know Your Worth
Research is crucial. But “it’s also important to back up your reasoning with your own personal qualifications, which include years of experience, certifications or degrees if applicable, or anything else that may separate you from other potential candidates,” Orbach says. “Know your worth before an interview.”
If you’ve already shared the number or feel you can’t get out of stating it, you can also be ready to explain why you feel it was low or below market rate for your position or experience, Hegewisch says.
5. Share Your Salary (if It’ll Help You)
Hear me out. It may be illegal for employers in some areas to ask about your salary history, but that doesn’t usually mean you can’t volunteer the information. If the new offer’s significantly less than your current pay, you can use the higher number as leverage in your negotiation.
6. Report the Incident
Even if you sail through the online form or the interview with one of the strategies above, you can always report the incident to the appropriate city or state body. In New York City, for example, you can contact the NYC Commission on Human Rights at 718-722-3131 or online, and you can choose to remain anonymous. Just a few months in, the commission was already pursuing more than a dozen cases involving violations of the salary history provision.
So check if your city or state has a salary history law and prepare to face the question anyway with the strategies that feel most comfortable to you. Next time you hear those dreaded words, you’ll be ready to fight for the salary you want and deserve.
Photo of people waiting for job interviews courtesy of AzmanL/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author