Let’s make basing pay on salary history illegal in all 50 states


cat-205757_960_720Recently, Massachusetts became the first state ever to make it illegal for employers to ask for job candidates’ salary history before making a job offer. This is so awesome that I ditched work and got some soy ice cream to celebrate.

For a while, I’ve been arguing about how crappy it is for employers to not disclose salary ranges in job posting, and how ridiculously archaic and bizarre that we still base people’s salaries on their previous salaries. Nothing else in our society operates like that. Imagine if someone goes to a restaurant, and at the end of the meal, the waiter comes by and the customer says, “So, can I ask how much the last person who ate here paid? $24? Well, then I’m paying you $26.40 for my meal. That’s a generous 10% increase.”

As Massachusetts realizes, basing pay on salary history is not just weird and irritating, it is also inequitable. Basing pay on salary history is a great way to make sure people who are underpaid remain underpaid, and women and people of color on average get paid less for doing the same jobs.

Others are starting to catch on. Public Advocate Letitia James in New York will this week introduce similar legislation to the City Council to make asking for salary history illegal. She actually calls this practice “outrageous and immoral,” so I’m upgrading my judgment of it from “borderline-unethical” to “yeah, unethical and should be illegal, #DownWithSalaryHistory!”   

All of this, plus the soy ice cream, is making me excited. Dude, y’all, we can do this! We can make salary history illegal everywhere! 

Squeaky Wheel Gets the Worm

One thing I learned through my nonprofit work in the past few years, it is that the loudest voices in our society get heard. The squeaky wheel gets the worm, as the saying goes (or it does right now, at 1:48am). This reality, unfortunately, has left behind so many people in our community. I sat in a school board meeting once after it was announced that due to budget issues, certain schools would have to be closed. Groups of parents came, often wearing t-shirts. Each parent testified for two minutes, passionately arguing against their kids’ school being shut down. It was great to see community members mobilizing, until I realized that the parents of low-income kids, of kids of color, would never be able to be as loud, to write as many emails, to attend as many meetings. They often had to work in the evening, or they had no transportation, they couldn’t speak English very well, or they simply were too terrified to be in the limelight. And so their schools were more likely to get closed.

A system where only the loud voices are heard will always leave people behind. This happens all the time, everywhere, and it is not changing any time soon. So we nonprofit Jedi Knights, who fight to bring balance, should embrace our roles in helping people who speak softer to increase their volume and to speak for those who ask us to be their voice, even as we work to break down this inequitable system.

All of Us Are Advocates

Many of you work for advocacy organizations, so you are heavily involved with campaigns to change inequitable laws and put fair ones into place (thank you!).

But this may be part of our challenge: We seem to think there is a dichotomy between advocacy and direct service. We think advocacy is something only the advocacy orgs do, because we do not have the skills or the time to do it. This is something we all need to reexamine, though, because I think it may be holding us back from being able to address systemic inequity. All of us need to be more involved in advocacy, even in small ways.

With all the writing I do, rarely do I actually write to a lawmaker. I didn’t think my one email or phone call about some random issue such as salary history would make much of a difference. But what has happened in Massachusetts and what is happening in New York made me see that all of us have way more potential to change policies than we think.

The Rule of 20

I know, because many of my drinking buddies work in advocacy organization, that advocacy work is complex. But maybe it doesn’t have to be. We think about the scale of the work, and it can seem very daunting and time consuming. But there is so much we each individually can do. Micro-advocacy, where a bunch of us do small bits of advocacy work, can lead to major changes. In fact, with the prevalence of social media, this may be one of the most effective forms of advocacy.

And honestly, getting something to go viral, with thousands or millions of hits and likes, is great, but even a handful of people in concerted effort can make a huge difference. A while ago, someone told me of the Rule of 20. Basically, if you can get 20 people to write to the Mayor, or the City Council, or the Governor, or whoever is in power, you can get whatever you want. 20 angry emails from neighbors about a pothole, and it will get on the city’s radar. 20 infuriated calls about the lack of composting facilities, and it will be taken seriously. In college, I got 20 vegetarians and vegans to demand better vegan food, and it worked; we got tofu and seitan and tempeh bacon galore (“Ahoy, we want soy! Ahoy, we want soy!” That was not a campaign chant, but maybe it should have been.)

Sometimes, it seems really unfair and kind of scary that 20 loud, angry people can shift laws, especially if they all wear matching t-shirts. I’ve seen it used to destructive results, perpetuating the inequity so many of us are fighting to end. Lawmakers who have a grounding in equity and social justice may be aware that 20 people do not represent the entire community. But many more will see the flood of 20 or so emails as proof that their constituents deeply care about an issue. 

If this Rule of 20 has any validity, and I’ve seen plenty of evidence that it does, then we should use it to our advantage to shift unfair policies and systems. 

Let’s Start Right Now

Lots of brilliant, attractive, charming people read this blog each week (especially bunny-1567479_960_720if a post includes pictures of baby animals). If the Rule of 20 holds true, imagine how much stuff we can get done if we start working together in concert. Moving forward, I am going to try to encourage us all to take more active roles in addressing specific issues of inequity. We can start this week by getting the practice of basing pay on salary history to be illegal in all fifty states. We can do this! 

Those of you who believe that basing pay on salary history is a harmful practice that should be illegal, please spend a few minutes today sending one email to your City Council, Mayor, Governor, members of Congress, or all of the above if you have time. Emails in your own words are always more convincing, so I am just going to list a few talking points:

  • Please make basing pay on salary history illegal in our city
  • Massachusetts just made it illegal statewide. New York’s City Council is considering doing the same.
  • This practice ensures those who are underpaid continue to be underpaid
  • Those who are underpaid tend to be women and people of color
  • According to the US Census, women are paid 79 cents for each dollar men earn for the same jobs
  • People of color are paid less for doing the same jobs too
  • [Insert personal relevant personal stories if you have them]
  • Making it illegal to ask candidates for their salary history will reduce the wage gap and make our community more equitable

Especially if you’re in New York, please email your Council Members this week. Thanks, everyone, for being awesome, and for making our world more just.


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  • Jeremiah Underhill

    This is great news out of Massachusetts. I have had a bunch of nonprofit job interviews over the past several months (in various locations) and every single one asked for salary history. Not every single one asked me the question directly. In fact most were sneaky about it. Some organizations required a formal job application in addition to my resume and cover letter (so frustrating) that required all sections be completed and of course salary history was a section. I completed it by stating “private”. Others organizations nonchalantly handed me a formally job application that I needed to fill out right before the interview which I thought was completely absurd. This practice needs to stop and it needs to stop now. Lastly, I will state that the majority of jobs I have interviewed at listed DOE for salary which again is completely absurd. I need to know what the job pays because I have a family to support.

    • betty barcode

      Dopey question: what does DOE stand for?

      • Jeremiah Underhill

        depends on experience

        • betty barcode

          Ah. Thank you. Also phrased as “commensurate with experience.”

    • Cloggie

      My employer refuses (despite many staff objections and difficulty hiring people) to post salary ranges and makes you fill out an application (by hand) when you walk in for an interview. They do warn interviewees that there’s a skills test they’ll need to allow time for, so the least they could do is email a PDF of the form ahead of time but no “that’s not how we do things”.

      • Jeremiah Underhill

        I’d like to note that I am an attorney and the positions I am interviewing for are either senior legal or executive roles. I am not saying that I should receive special treatment but requiring someone who has litigated more than 50 trials to complete a hand written application on the fly seems quite unprofessional and wholly unnecessary. It really makes me wonder what kind of crazy stuff they are requiring from applicants for entry level positions. The bottom-line is all people need to be treated with respect during the hiring process and organizations that pride themselves on being engineers of social justice need to practice what they preach.

        • Cloggie

          Yeah, this is anyone who interviews and it is all things that should be on one’s resume. You can only get to this point if you have already submitted a cover letter, resume, and writing sample. If you get a job offer, you then have to fill out a form asking the same information (plus a few extra items, but very few) for a background check. They wonder why they have a hard time hiring…

          Also, as a former attorney, I found that my salary history hurt me when moving to non-profit because people assumed I would want a pay bump from what I was doing before (they also assumed I’d be “bored” in the jobs I applied to) despite my addressing both concerns in a cover letter.

  • Melissa B

    Could you also include USAID in the mix? It’s great if states ban it, but when the US government uses this as a basis for their contractors (at least through USAID, I can’t speak for other departments – see the USAID biodata form which is used to determine/ verify your salary history) then what will international development organizations with USAID funding do? You’re right, it isn’t fair. I worked on a project once where USAID required the organization to apply this rule to their national staff (project outside the US) — even to the extent that we had to go back and forth with them when proposing over 10% even when we were proposing it to bring a person up to a minimal standard in line with their colleagues (conversely, they didn’t have a problem with a 10% increase for a proposed staff member whose previous salary was off the charts because it was 10% or less).

  • Irene_B

    I completely agree that asking for salary history should be illegal and applaud my state for leading the way (go MA!). Other related practices that may not directly foster wage inequality but I think do so indirectly are asking people to state the salary they desire before a job offer is made, sometimes even before being granted an interview. You’re basically forced into the position to bid on the job in order to continue the process.

    • Jeremiah Underhill

      I completely agree. If an organization can’t offer a salary range then you shouldn’t have to provide them a number until an offer is pitched. If an organization can’t figure out what is fair compensation for a role on its own then they are completely dysfunctional and their HR is worthless. If the organization knows the salary range it can afford and is just hoping to low ball applicants then it isn’t a nonprofit you want to work at anyway. They almost certainly know what they can afford to pay. This cat and mouse game with salary is a carryover from the For Profit world and it needs to stop. When you consider that most nonprofit roles are significantly below the wages of a similar role in a for profit organization it is ridiculous for nonprofits to play this game. Applicants are already agreeing to make less money by working for a nonprofit therefore trying to low ball them on and already sub-market salary is despicable.

  • Mehitabel

    I am certainly on board with writing to the Mayor and City Council of Seattle, and will do so before the week is out.

    I had the extremely refreshing experience once of completing a job application that included the question “The posted compensation range for this position includes the maximum budgeted amount. Are you comfortable with this range? If not, please consider your application carefully.” That application was probably the only one that I’ve ever completed that didn’t make me want to tear my hair out, because it didn’t ask me to regurgitate all of the information already on my resume.

    I agree with Irene_B about asking people to state their desired salary. I try to get around that by A) going to the Archbright salary survey and seeing if I can figure out what the job ought to be paying, and/or B) looking at the employer’s 990s on Guidestar and estimating based on what I see there, and/or C) replying to the question on the application with “Negotiable”. Sometimes these tactics get okay results, sometimes not so much.

  • Sophia Katt

    I see those kittens, Vu. Who says you don’t pay attention to the comments? 🙂 And to post to the topic, I absolutely agree about not asking for salary history PLUS I agree that the employer’s desired salary range be posted with the job description.

  • LongmontKathy

    Done – idea sent to three State of Colorado legislators.

  • Mary Kimball

    Just emailed the mayor of Seattle, my city council member, house of representative, both senators, and the Governor. Here’s hoping we see some change here!