Three Scripts for Sidestepping Illegal Salary Question
The good news: Local governments (CA, OR, MA, DE, Philadelphia, and NYC) are taking the lead in banning salary history question ("What did you make in your last job?") that perpetuates the gender wage gap.
The bad news: Bad hiring practices still dominate most of the country.
Check out the podcast for three concrete strategies and scripts for sidestepping the dreaded question so you can get paid for your value, not for an irrelevant past.
Full Episode Transcript
Hello! Welcome to Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I am your host, Jamie Lee. I am a leadership and negotiation coach and you can go to jamieleecoach.com for more information.
I’m curious. How are you thriving today?
Yesterday, my dear older sister gave birth to a baby boy. So, yesterday afternoon I had the mind-boggling privilege of holding a twelve-hour old newborn infant. I don’t think it’s very often you get to do something like that, and it was amazing.
I immediately fell in love. Immediately.
He is pure perfection. And yes, you can call me Auntie Jamie now. Well, at least he can.
I was holding him in my arms and I was counting his ten little perfect fingers, ten little perfect toes, and I also saw he had his full capacity to emote, his full capacity to express himself, to wail, to get our attention, which meant he had his full capacity to engage the people around him, his full capacity to enrapture grown adults who were all just goo-goo gah-gahing, and all of us head over heels in love with this newborn infant.
And I had the thought, “Here is a little fella who is truly born to thrive.”
He’s got everything he needs. He’s exactly who he needs to be and he is thriving.
He is loved.
He is connected.
Today I was walking around the streets here in New York City, and of course, we have this incredible diversity of people: old, young, white, black, brown, yellow, all colors of the rainbow. And I thought, “Wow. All these people around me with their incredible diversity, we were all once a tiny little, perfect newborn baby.”
We were all born to thrive.
So, that’s how I’m thriving today.
Today I have three scripts for you that you may want to either bookmark or share with somebody who is in the process of looking for a new job or negotiating a salary.
The thing is, it’s three scripts to sidestep an illegal or ill-advised question.
And that question is: What did you make at your last job?
It’s the attempt that employers make to peg your future earnings to your past history instead of your potential to contribute and add value.
Now, it makes sense from the perspective of hiring managers and employers. It may make sense to ask this question because it is in their best interest. They are incentivized to hire the best talent for as little money as possible. It’s good business, right?
And so if you ask this question - What were you making in the last job? - and you were making something that is under market rate, then they might attempt to just pay you either an increment more than what you were making or at the same rate so that they can hire the best talent for as little money as possible.
And you see the problem here is that this perpetuates the gender wage gap.
We know from numerous studies and research that women tend not to ask as much as men do and that men tend to be rewarded with salary increases, raises, and promotions more often than women without them asking, and that when women do ask, we tend to encounter gender blowback or feedback that we’re being bossy, intimidating, aggressive, etc., which are considered unfeminine, therefore unbecoming attributes.
So, you know what? I’ll just say it. It’s not fair.
It’s not fair for employers to ask this question, What were you making in your last job?
It perpetuates the gender wage gap. It shows this intent to pay you for, not what you’re truly worth, but for your past history, which is irrelevant to your future potential and your ability to add value.
Here’s the good news. This ill-advised question is becoming illegal in several places around the country. Particularly coastal states and cities. So, if you live in Oregon, if you live in California, if you live in Massachusetts, if you live in New York City, if you live in Philadelphia, and if you live in Delaware, this question - What did you make in your last job?- is illegal for employers at both public and private companies to ask you as part of their hiring process.
So, that’s the good news. That laws are being passed to really make an impact on closing the gender wage gap. This is great.
However, the bad news is that bad hiring practices still dominate most of the country.
So, if you don’t live in New York City, if you don’t live in Philadelphia, if you don’t live in Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon, California or we should add Puerto Rico where it’s also illegal, it’s still very much legal for employers to ask this question, even though it is ill-advised.
It gives them the upper hand and it gives them the opportunity to peg your future earnings to an irrelevant past.
So, here’s what you can do when you are asked to reveal salary history in these other places where the questions are not yet illegal:
First, you can redirect the flow of conversation. Remember, negotiation is simply a conversation with the intention of reaching agreement. So, redirect the flow.
You can say, “You know, before we talk salary, I’d like to establish that this is going to be a good fit for both sides. Would you tell me more about your expectations and how you measure the success of this position?”
Alternatively, you can pivot or redirect the flow of the conversation by saying, “You know, I first want to establish that this is going to be a good mutual fit,” and ask different questions.
You can ask, “What are some of the challenges you expect the person in this position to face?” and this question gets them to share information that’s going to really help you better understand what this position is going to be like.
Another really good question you can ask is, “Thinking back to the people you’ve seen do this work previously, what differentiated the ones who were really good from the ones who were really great at it?” I like this question a lot because then it gets people to really tell you how you can excel in this position and then you can see for yourself whether you are a good fit.
Or, you can also ask, “What’s your timeline for next steps?” “Whom should I speak with after this conversation so that I can establish that this is going to be a good mutual fit?”
So, those are some questions you can ask to redirect the flow of conversation instead of answering this salary history question.
But, of course, some employers will insist or they’ll tell you that you can’t move forward in the process unless you answer that question, in which case another thing that you can do is that you can turn the table around and give some advice.
Here’s the script:
“Did you know that local governments and companies like Amazon are banning that very question because it perpetuates the gender wage gap? You know, I’m trying to look out for you, and it may be in your best interest to reconsider asking that question as part of your hiring process, especially if you want to continue to attract high-quality candidates who care about pay equity and social justice issues.”
I think this script will work really well to your advantage if you can be in control of your tone. If you feel angry and resentful and your voice becomes abrasive or defensive or accusatory, it’ll sound really different.
Take for example:
“HEY! Did you know that local governments and companies like Amazon are banning that very question you asked?!” The subtext there is: Hey, what is wrong with you? Don’t be stupid!
So, yes, it’s a script that can work, but I think it does require more self-management.
Here’s a third script, or third strategy:
Instead of answering a question by sharing your salary history, anchor with your salary expectation.
And if you’ve been listening to my podcast, you would know that anchoring is one of the key strategies for negotiation success. It makes good use of our very common cognitive bias of leaning towards the first piece of reasonable information that enters the conversation.
In other words, if you get to tell them first what you want, you’re more likely to get something that is very close to what you want.
So, to anchor, you might say something like, “You know, I’m looking to be paid x amount of dollars, which is the high end of the going market rate according to my research, and that’s because my unique background, my skill sets, and strengths can help your company meet its goals and objectives.”
What you’re doing is you’re tying your number to how they will benefit from your potential to create value, which has nothing to do with your past salary history.
So there you have it. You have three core strategies.
You can redirect the flow of conversation by saying something along the lines of, “You know, before we talk about money, I first want to make sure that this is going to be a good fit and I have some questions for you.”
Number two, you can turn the table around and give some advice. “Hey, did you know that that question is becoming illegal? You might want to reconsider asking that question. I’m looking out for your best interest here.”
Number three, anchoring with your salary expectation, not history. “I’m looking to be paid x amount of dollars, and that’s because of my unique strengths, my skill sets, my background and my potential to add value to your organization.
If you want to learn more about the strategies, feel free to check out my previous podcast episodes.
I did one that addressed the three most frequently asked questions around salary negotiation and I most recently did an interview with Katrina Jones, who is an HR, diversity and inclusion expert, who explained how leading tech companies like Vimeo establish their compensation philosophy and the work and the research that goes into putting together an offer.
The bottom line in that interview was that if you are getting an offer, you have the upper hand because they really want you to say yes.
So, in conclusion, next time you’re asked an illegal or ill-advised question, remember, you do have the power to redirect, to inform and to anchor for what you want.
And remember that if they’re talking to you, that means you have something they want. They want your skills, they want your contributions, they want your unique blend of strengths and experiences and background and education.
You have leverage and you can thrive.
If you’d like to learn more about my negotiation and leadership coaching services, please come check out jamieleecoach.com. Talk to you soon!