News & Politics

Have You Been Asked This Discriminatory Question in a Job Interview? It Might Be Illegal Now in Your City

The question unfairly perpetuates the gender and racial wage gap.

Photo Credit: Fizkes / Shutterstock

“What did you make at your last job?” 

Several states have now made it illegal for employers to ask this unsavory question while interviewing candidates. It seems the tides at last are turning against the dated salary history question, as advocates for wage equality are seeing local laws finally affirm their insistence that the question amplifies the gender and racial wage gap.

New York City made the practice illegal this year, and it went into effect October 31. Employers who defy the city ban are subject to a fine of up to $250,000. The new law is a follow-up to one in Massachusetts last year outlawing the question from being asked at interviews, and similar policies have been passed in Delaware and Oregon later in 2016. California, which passed a similar law in October, is the largest state to enact such legislation so far.

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“It's a discriminatory practice to ask someone about what they made previously because it disproportionately affects women and people of color, who historically make less from the outset of their careers," Sarah Brafman, an attorney at the legal advocacy organization A Better Balance, told Refinery29. Employers who think they can grab a qualified candidate for a lower salary by offering them a bit more than they previously made unknowingly perpetuate a wage gap cycle that’s made it particularly hard for women and non-white people to earn as much as white men.

The median salary for full-time working women is still just 80 percent of what men make and hasn’t budged in 10 years, despite feminists’ decades of outcry and focus on the issue. And the pay gap between white Americans and workers of color is even worse than it was during the Civil Rights movement, with the average African-American man making 70 percent per hour of the average white man's rate.

There’s actually some debate about whether salary history inquiry bans like New York's will help reverse the wage gap. One could logically assume that candidates who refuse to give their past salaries have the upper hand when it comes to asking for a higher rate. When it comes to the gender wage gap, though, the Harvard Business Review reports that women who refused to share their salary history were actually offered 1.8 percent less than women who did disclose the number, according to a PayScale survey. “Meanwhile, if a man refused to disclose when asked about salary history, he received an offer that was 1.2 percent higher than a man who did."

PayScale believes this could be because employers react negatively to female candidates who try to negotiate on their own terms or ask for more money.

This thinking is echoed by Emily Martin, general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Women tend to ask for less in negotiations than men, and employers don’t react as well when women negotiate,” she told Marketplace. Employers should instead consider factors like data on salaries for similar positions in that city, plus the candidate’s experience, skills, education, and interview performance.

Liz Posner is a managing editor at AlterNet. Her work has appeared on Forbes.com, Bust, Bustle, Refinery29, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @elizpos.