Why Not to Ask Job Applicants for Salary Requirements

In the past few days, I’ve seen three job postings from terrific, mission-driven nonprofits asking applicants to submit not only a resume, but also their salary requirements.

It’s time to bring this frequent practice to an end. Here’s why.

First, an applicant, hoping to get an interview, has a perverse incentive to low-ball their “requirements,” fearing that a high number will send them automatically to the “do not consider” pile.

Second, a person applying for a job does not have a salary requirement. They might have a goal, a hope, or an aspiration, but they don’t have a requirement.  Most likely, there’s a number below which they can’t afford any job, but why should they divulge that number to a potential employer who they haven’t even met?

Third, this request is a de facto beginning of a negotiation. The applicant doesn’t know yet if the employer has any interest – and doesn’t know whether the job is truly an attractive opportunity.  It’s simply premature to begin this negotiating step.

Fourth, this request underscores the power imbalance between employer and applicant.  “I have a job you might want, so I want you to tell me – right now! – the absolute lowest salary you’ll consider.”  From the standpoint of the employer, this minimum can quickly become the maximum.  “Maybe if, after a couple rounds of interviews and talking to references, we decide to make an offer, we can start with 10% less, and if they resist, maybe we’ll come up to the figure they included in their application.”

If asking for a salary requirement is unfair, asking for salary history is also inappropriate for other reasons, not least of which is the fact that tying a salary offer to what the person made in a different job at a different organization can perpetuate salary disparities between men and women, and between people who are white and people of color.  It’s also becoming illegal in a growing number of states and cities. As of mid-2019, more than 15 states prohibit some or all employers from asking salary history. The trend is clearly in the direction of outlawing this common practice.

(At my executive search firm, I asked for salary history for many years, and found it a useful tool to learn more about an applicant’s career, but I eventually realized that it was a practice that I should abandon, which I finally did about a year ago.)

So, if it’s unfair to request “salary requirements,” (and inappropriate or possibly illegal to ask for salary history) what should an employer do?

How about stating in the job announcement what the anticipated salary will be?  For example, “the anticipated salary is $60,000 to $70,000, plus benefits,” or “the anticipated salary will be $120,000, plus benefits.”  The figures stated should reflect research into current market rates for comparable positions at similar organizations within the same metropolitan area, along with consideration of internal equity issues so that the new person’s salary isn’t out of whack with what peers within the organization are making. The figure, perhaps, could leave a little room for increase in case a stellar candidate who leaves everyone else in the dust holds out for a slightly higher figure, as some savvy job applicants might try to do once they receive an offer.

I can imagine some employers thinking “But if we say early on how much we’re willing to pay, we might overpay since the person we select might have been willing to accept less. So, let’s keep the salary secret even if we don’t ask for salary requirements or history.”

It’s understandable to think that, but my experience after leading scores of searches for the past 20 years is that when an employer casts a wide net and considers a range of talented people, the person who ends up being Candidate #1 is rarely available at a salary below market value.  It does happen from time to time, but not enough to compensate for the time wasted reading, interviewing, and considering candidates who will walk away once they learn the salary is below what they can consider.

So, dear employer, please stop asking for salary requirement (or salary history), and simply include the anticipated salary (or salary range) in the job posting. If you like the idea of transparency – perhaps it’s already one of your organization’s explicit core values – this is a good way to walk the talk.

Agree? Disagree?  Please comment below.