In 2016, Massachusetts became the first state to pass legislation prohibiting employers, public or private, from asking job applicants for salary history. Twelve states, including California and Colorado, have since followed suit. Asking for salary history is one of several hiring norms that businesses use to underpay employees; if a candidate’s previous salary is less than what a company has budgeted for a position, businesses have an excuse to lowball. This practice disproportionately hurts women and people of color, who generally make less than white men and therefore report lower salaries when asked for history.
While these laws move the needle, the fight for pay equity is far from over. What’s the next step? Make it illegal for employers to post jobs without salaries listed.
Policies prohibiting businesses from asking job candidates about their salary history function by hiding wage data; policies mandating that employers post salary ranges would function by revealing wage data. But both steps can shift power from businesses to workers.
Online job sites like Glassdoor and LinkedIn have made it possible for employees to anonymously report salary data, which can aid job seekers in their searches, but it’s still difficult to ascertain what employers actually pay. This obfuscation is intentional. Liz Ryan, a former human resources executive who now is a widely read career adviser, pointed out in Forbes in 2017, that there is always a budgeted salary range for a new position. “When a recruiter contacts you about a job opportunity and you ask ‘What is the salary range?’ and the recruiter says, ‘The company hasn’t decided on the salary range yet,’ you are being lied to,” Ryan wrote.
Since the point of employment is payment, hiding wages is not only unjust, but also absurd. Hiding pay on job ads wastes time for potential employees, who may pursue positions that aren’t right for them. Additionally, when compensation isn’t listed, employees fly blind into negotiations, where employers have outsize power.
Leaving salary ranges out hurts all working people, but, just as when employers request salary history, the practice especially disadvantages women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. There is conflicting evidence about how often women negotiate pay compared to men, but the data on how they fare when they do negotiate is clear: Not as well. According to “Do Women Ask?,” a 2018 study in Industrial Relations: A Journal of Economy and Society, women receive raises 15 percent of the time when they ask. For men, it’s 20 percent. Mandating salary range transparency could level this playing field by taking the guesswork out of pay negotiations.
Unfortunately, discussions about compensation still are often taboo in the United States. One attempt to change this is pending in Massachusetts, where a recent bill proposed by Representative Josh S. Cutler would mandate that certain employers provide salary range information when potential hires or current employees request it.
The perception that talking about money is gauche is probably the byproduct of pay secrecy policies that are often illegal. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 enabled most private sector employees to speak to each other about earnings, yet the idea that wages shouldn’t be discussed has stuck. The crushing power of workplace culture has kept us silent. Laws that promote pay transparency would rectify that. Ideally they would go further than the proposed bill in Massachusetts, however, and require employers to post salary information rather than forcing job candidates to request it.
From a traditional business perspective, employers might seem to have little incentive to share information about compensation. Yet pay transparency can help attract applicants who are a good fit and make the hiring process more efficient for companies. Additionally, this openness indicates to potential hires and current staff that an organization values and respects the people who work there. Pay transparency has also been shown to increase performance.
The fact that posting salary ranges is good for business is a bonus. Ultimately, compensation should be public for people seeking work — full-time, part-time, freelance, or otherwise — simply because it’s just. Many large employers, including government agencies and universities, already publicly disclose salary ranges. And according to a 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, mandatory wage transparency narrows the wage gap.
Companies may argue that they already compensate equitably, or if they don’t, that they can make changes without government pressure. To that, we say: Publish all salaries. If employers are adamant that their current pay practices are fair, what’s to fear?
Rebecca Long is an editor and freelance writer who has contributed to the Guardian, Vice, and other publications. Larisa Klebe is a member of the Salary Range Transparency Working Group sponsored by the Gender Equity in Hiring Project.