I Can’t Ask Your Salary History? Thanks!

The Mayor of Philadelphia recently signed a measure that would ban Philly employers from asking candidates about their salary history. The intent of the bill is to curb wage discrimination and close the wage gap.

The Chamber of Commerce and Comcast (one of the city’s largest employers) have threatened legal action, citing the First Amendment and concerns about Philly being able to compete with other markets. There are similar bills being considered across the US, and Philly’s bill was inspired by a similar one in Massachusetts last year.

I say, “Good”, for two reasons.

If removing the salary history requirement will help end gender wage disparities and discrimination, that is something we should all be on board with in our industry (and any other). The optics of gender in technology aren’t good, and whether the reality is better or worse is up for debate.

I’m also grateful for the new law in a more selfish manner.

Talking Money

As a recruiter, asking about salary history was often a point of contention when screening a candidate, and the first question that might start to break the trust between us. The reason I would ask history was driven by my clients (hiring companies), who would typically require me to provide salary history and expectations on all candidates submitted. When a candidate was submitted without history, it wasn’t uncommon to have the client respond with a request to go back and get that information.

I was trained to save any talk about salary history until late in a conversation, with the theory that if you have built some rapport with the candidate you are more likely to get honest answers. You can’t just call someone and say “Hey, how are you and how much do you make?” The conversation about their background and interests might be going great, and at some point you’ve got to segue into the money talk.

Usually I would make that segue after a question about job search criteria. I might ask “What are the top three things you are seeking in a new position?” If one of the answers was related to compensation, I’d transition into drilling down a bit on those details. If there was no mention of money, I would say something like, “Well nobody works for free. Let’s talk about salary for a minute.

At my first recruiting job, I was instructed to abruptly end conversations with anyone unwilling to answer the question (usually after being asked in a few different ways).


Taking the salary history question off the table may enable recruiters and their candidates to have a bit more of a trusting relationship. This bill doesn’t do much to alter any natural misalignment in incentives that exist between recruiters and job seekers, but it will at least prevent recruiters from having to ask (and candidates from having to answer) a question that they were probably not all that comfortable with from the start.

What’s Next?

I hope more bills like this pass elsewhere. I expect they will.

But even without a law in place, there is nothing preventing employers from instructing their recruiters (both internal and third-party agencies) to explicitly stop asking for salary history. Employers can work to solve this issue without legislation.



  1. Mike S.

    Thanks for that update, interesting! Just two weeks ago I listened to an interview with a software engineer that provides salary negotiation coaching for other software engineers, and he advised deflecting the salary question. He said he had never seen it backfire. ( http://www.se-radio.net/2016/11/se-radio-episode-275-josh-doody-on-salary-negotiation-for-software-engineers/ ) – interesting that at your first job, you were flat out told to stop negotiating with candidates that wouldn’t provide that information.

    I normally think ethical dealings all around is the only way to go. But what do you think about flat out lying in your answers to that question? (Not, to be clear, lying about your work history or skills.) Picking your target salary, and then when asked about your current salary if you can’t deflect questions then just name a figure 10% lower?

    • fecak

      The deflection of salary questions is pretty common advice (most popular item on that is likely this http://www.kalzumeus.com/2012/01/23/salary-negotiation/). Obviously it has backfired, whether he’s seen it or not, but that’s not all that relevant, and most engineers will use the ‘sour grapes’ approach if it does backfire (“I wouldn’t want to work for any company that requires me to provide my salary history anyway”).

      I’ve never cared much about salary history, which I’ve said before. It’s often irrelevant. Entry-level grads making $25/hr in school automatically become more valuable when they get the degree. People who move to different areas of the country or world have a salary history that isn’t relevant (even when adjusting for cost of living in many cases).

      My standard answer to this is “Engineers who truly understand their market value have no reason to fear sharing salary history or expectations” – but most don’t know their value, and it’s often difficult to calculate.

  2. pauldburton

    Of course, as a recruiter who gets paid a percentage of salary for placing people, the result of this is that you may well up your income ;-).
    Companies should pay an appropriate amount for the role they are looking to fill.
    Previous salary shouldn’t really play into the equation other than (perhaps) giving an insight into the ‘value’ that previous employers put on that employee and the level they saw them at. But without knowing the pay structure in that organisation or salary history, you cannot use this as an indicator. Best to shut it down and evaluate candidates on the current role and how you think they may fill it.
    In general I think this will drive salaries up even faster.

    • fecak

      Hey Paul. Actually, as a recruiter who gets paid flat fees (http://www.fecak.com/why-flat-fees/), the result of this is not likely to up my income at all. Though for most recruiters, you would probably be correct. But if it raises the income of others in the industry who are deserving, I’m happy for them.

      I’ll be curious to see how quickly this might drive up salaries. I’ve yet to find the actual legislation (though I hadn’t searched too hard), but I assume the law will apply to both hiring companies and their agents (people like me).

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