Hiring Based on Previous Salary Perpetuates Inequality

HB 1696 and SB 5090 prohibit screening job applicants based on income history

Last year, Washington’s Legislature took an important step in closing the gender and racial wage gaps by updating our state’s equal pay law for the first time since World War II. But more is needed to end the legacy of centuries of discrimination. This year, legislators are considering another step that will bring us closer to wage equity.

House Bill 1696 and Senate Bill 5090 prohibit the common employer practice of asking job applicants about their wage or salary histories before an offer is made. The bills would also require employers to provide the pay range for a particular position to the applicant or an employee upon request.

Asking job candidates about their previous salaries is a seemingly neutral practice that in fact perpetuates inequality by gender, race, and other factors.

Social scientists have documented that women of all races and men of color face more barriers to getting to the final stages of the hiring process than do white men. When women do get to that final interview, negotiating too hard can backfire. Men who ask for more are viewed as natural leaders, while women who do are seen as pushy and poor team players. This is true regardless of education level.

One recent study found that two thirds of all women scientists and 77 percent of African American female scientists reported having to provide more evidence of competence than men. They also reported that being assertive triggered negative backlashes.

In the restaurant industry, another study found that white candidates were twice as likely as people of color to be offered positions. That study additionally found that women of color in restaurants made 71 percent of white men’s pay.


Other studies have found hiring biases against women with children – but not fathers, and that people with “black sounding” names are less likely to get an interview than people with the same credentials and “white sounding” names.

So that question about salary history comes after women, and especially women of color, have already endured an especially daunting job search, knowing if they set that number even a little too high or ask for a little too much, they are right back to square one.

Starting at lower pay compounds over time, with raises, bonuses, and pension contributions all typically based on a percentage of pay.

In this day and age, would-be employers have easy access to information on wage ranges for different positions. The Employment Security Department publishes wage ranges for hundreds of occupations by county, and of course there are many other online sources of information.

At the same time, job candidates usually have no way of knowing a particular employer’s wage range. As someone who has participated in hiring dozens of people over the years, asking employers, upon request, to provide a pay range for a position is a perfectly reasonable requirement.

Employers who ask the question about previous salary history may not intend to discriminate. But that’s the result, and it’s time to end this practice.

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