Actually, Asking for Salary History is a Mistake

I see many “issues” with the reasons presented in this article. These are outdated thought processes that do not apply to the new talent-driven market we are in. Add on the fact that jobs have changed dramatically and there is no standard “ladder” that most people follow.

Here are 10 issues I have.

  1. Growth in salary is an indicator of continued performance improvement. This is not always 100 percent true. Some organizations recognize great performance are are unable to pay for additional performance. Just because someone is earning more money doesn’t mean that they are a more solid performer.
  2. It might indicate that someone is a hungry candidate. The key word here is “might.” Why not have a conversation with the candidate rather than assuming we know what is important to them?
  3. It provides an outside/second opinion on a candidate’s value. No, the wage they are making could provide an opinion of how the job they are doing is valued. Most companies benchmark the position. If we hired based on how we think we value individuals, we would have no standard compensation structures.
  4. It reveals if a candidate can successfully negotiate. There are other ways to measure if someone can negotiate. This is not a good reason.
  5. It quickly reveals those who we can’t afford. Here we go again with assumptions. There are many candidates that I talk to who are looking for a job that offers other things of interest, and taking a salary cut is not a key driver of the decision. They know what the position is valued at and they have made the decision to continue having the conversation.
  6. It shows that compensation matters, which attracts money-driven people. If that is your compensation philosophy, then go for it. I don’t think that applies much outside of sales roles.
  7. The question shows how a candidate can handle stress. Again, there are better ways to measure how someone handles stress than asking this question.
  8. Knowing the history of both genders allows a firm to take proactive action to fix inequities. It is not your job to fix the history of what people made prior to working for your firm. It is your job to have a pay philosophy in place which compensates people fairly and without bias.
  9. Recruiters will guess anyway and that may hurt candidates. Good recruiters won’t guess. Good recruiters can use market data to have a general idea, but the history doesn’t matter as much as if the individual is qualified to do the role for the particular salary range they are applying.
  10. It helps recruiters refine the firms they target. While they may not compete direct on salary, they might have something better to offer that is more attractive. This is another assumption that candidates won’t leave a role unless it is more money.

We can’t afford to assume things about candidates in today’s market. There are many motivators people have which are all unique to the individual. Don’t guess.

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Beth Mathison is director of employment services at MRA. She enjoys identifying improvements and new opportunities to help industry colleagues be successful in the primary areas of recruiting and retention. She looks to connect the talent strategy with the organization’s business strategy. Her primary area of expertise is partnering with C-suite and senior leadership to identify and implement actionable changes to advance the talent lifecycle. She enjoys partnering with leaders to build the business case for desired talent strategies and help companies ensure the best return on investment for their talent acquisition and offboarding strategies. She was recognized as No. 1 sales executive in the U.S. for an international staffing firm.


15 Comments on “Actually, Asking for Salary History is a Mistake

  1. So is the current thesis based on incredulity at the origianl thesis, or is it assumptive that the OP is asserting that salary history be the only data point used? Just curious and concerned that any one in our field would be willing to make conclusions based on single data points.

    1. Unfortunately many people make conclusions based on single data points. I’m simply saying the way of thinking about salary and what it tells us needs to pivot as times have changed.

      1. I agree in principal, but times won’t truly change until we (TA as a whole) learn to use multiple data points 😉 My concern is that the OP was based on mights, and could be’s, and so was this post. It essentially every point with the inverse argument. If times have truly changed, we should be able to look at the performance or lack of performace (economic) effect based on whether they do or do not ask candidates to provide past or current salary information. The only way something will change is if there is an economic imputus to do so. I would be curious of the data fromt he Top 100 performing companies, what percentage ask for salary information? Does anyone have that research? We could start with that as a corrollary data point and then maybe folks would be willing to work to see if there is causality?

  2. What a great post! What if the candidate was working for an organization that didn’t fairly compensate their employees for their contributions, motivation, and skill set? Which in many instances may be the reason why a high performer seeks opportunities elsewhere. Would you take advantage of that to adjust the salary? Or assume they were not able to execute the outcomes they were hired to execute? If you’re hiring, you should run a salary survey, identify the alignment between the role requirements and what the candidate brings to the table and pay fair market wages. Don’t get so caught up with salary and try to validate the candidate’s passion and drive for success and their desire to make a positive impact in any and all organizations they have worked for. Great read!!

  3. Thanks for adding to this topic, Beth. It’s an important ongoing discussion. While I share your disagreement with many of the OP’s “Top 10,” I do find that talking about compensation early and often is an important aspect of the recruiting process.

    At the end of the day, none of us are volunteers – we get paid for what we do. To ignore that basic fact is to undervalue the importance of compensation in the hiring process. Typically, it’s not the top factor in the decision making process but it’s almost always top 5. And as a recruiter I want – I NEED – to understand the motivators behind my candidate’s decision making process. To do that effectively, I need to know at least something about their current, and ideally previous, compensation.

    In my experience, knowing salary history does not lead directly to a conclusion. For instance, I don’t know if the person is overpaid or underpaid, if they are “hungry” or not, and certainly I don’t know if they are a good negotiator. But knowing this data point, along with knowing the compensation they are targeting, informs additional questions I ask. How does their current compensation impact their openness to another opportunity, and their likelihood to accept my opportunity? On the surface, it’s about the money. But underneath, it’s about attitude, motivation, culture fit, longevity, and more. Is there a risk of bias or inequity? Sure. But if the sole goal of the recruiting process is to avoid the risk of bias, then go ahead and kiss the in-person interview goodbye.

    1. I actually agree with you regarding talking about compensation early and often. The difference is it can be a challenge whether you are a recruiting consultant or an in-house recruiter. I have always felt that recruiter consultants have the ability to have a different level of conversation around compensation vs. an in-house recruiter.

      I love the fact that you point out compensation is in the top five and there are other motivators. I do still run into a lot of hiring managers that use that as the primary driver for determining if a conversation is a good idea. I hope that others see your comments and take them to heart!

      1. I still argue that what someone did job A for has nothing to do with what they are willing to do job B for. Why do you care? What matters is what they want. Anything else is frankly not our business as recruiters.

  4. I see a lot of assumptions about assumptions that may or may not be made by hiring personnel and/or recruiters. If you know the salary range for the job and you know the hiring range that the individual will look at you have all the data you need to go forward or pull the plug on that single point. However IF this is the only data you are using to make determinations then you are in the wrong field. As “The Postman” said in his comment, there are many other factors that must be considered to know if you have a viable candidate for a role OR a viable role for the candidate – lack of either …. move on.

    1. Great comment, Jim in your first sentence and I completely agree. But the fact is that these two things are often not known. Companies are not up front about sharing compensation and many will turn the question back to a candidate when salary range comes up such as ‘Well tell me what you are looking for.’

      There are a lot of people making hiring decisions on those assumptions because they are thinking of traditional career ladders that I think don’t truly exist anymore. I’ll hear managers say ‘well if they were making $80k and they take my job for $70k….they’ll be gone as soon as they find something more in line with their career level.’

      I think overall this topic is a great one to talk about and educate/discuss with one another because the hiring market has changed. We shouldn’t look at hiring the same way we did 10 or even 5 years ago. People want different things and each individual needs to be looked at as an individual vs. broad assumptions.

      Thanks for the comments!

  5. Sing it sister!! Pay transparency. It’s what’s for dinner! States are moving toward making it illegal to ask (2 so far, more to come) so let’s get on board and start asking “what do you want” which is what really matters anyway!

  6. Nice Article Beth, to debate or discuss. Well i am quite concern with one of your point: “how a candidate can handle stress”. This tradition must be change because some traditional question will not decide about the candidates stress handling. To discuss and have more opinion can find here: MorgenAll

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