Is It Legal For a Prospective Employer to Ask Me What I Make?

By Stephen Viscusi

Dear Stephen:

I am in the process of changing jobs, but I am running into some unexpected roadblocks and questions. I am a sale representative in the office furniture industry. Specifically, hiring companies keep on asking me what my “base salary” is, and what was on my W2 for last year? Who do they think they are? Are they just doing this to nickel and dime me and offer the lowest possible number? One manufacturer even wants a three year “salary history,” including a pay stub. Is this even legal? What nerve!


Some Boundaries, Please


Dear Boundaries:

I am not a lawyer and cannot tell you what is legal and what is not legal. It also, quite frankly, depend on where you live and where you plan to work. I can tell you that it is in fact illegal to ask a job applicant for documentation of their current pay in California, New York City, Massachusetts, Delaware, Philadelphia, and Puerto Rico, among others. Different cities and states all have their own laws but, you get the idea.

But here is the thing; you mentioned you are in the contract furniture industry and many major furniture companies are based in Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. In other words, they’re in the Midwest and down south. The truth is that, for better or worse, these are states without these laws and where the laws likely won’t be changing any time soon. Of course, if the job is in San Francisco or some other place I mentioned, then local laws will apply and it’s more than just a nerve these companies have. But if you are elsewhere, a request for your salary history might not only be legal, but standard operating procedure. If, however, the company is in the Midwest, but the territory is Los Angeles, for example, then the local Los Angeles laws apply. Can’t ask, don’t have to tell!

Understanding why these companies ask is important, though. If you work in sales, your job is designed to drive company revenue and your pay for that job is awarded according to your success in that one metric. What this really means is that your income is a direct and literal reflection of how well you can do your job and how much money you can make a company. A low income often means that you may not be a great salesperson and refusing to furnish your paystubs may lead companies to draw the worst conclusions. (In fairness, it could also mean you just have a really bad pay plan, but that is a topic for another column!) It really is that simple. If they ask for it and it’s legal, give it to them--no matter how much you don’t like it.

Now, this is not always a hard and fast rule; in other areas of the business such as non-revenue generating positions--like sales assistants, customer service reps, showroom managers, designers, project managers, and operations and marketing roles--income is not a fair barometer of an employee’s worth and is often times completely arbitrary. A low quality operations manager at one company may be making $100k more than their exceptionally talented counterpart at a rival company. That is just the way things shake out.

I understand that precluding companies from asking about wages is a nice political talking point, and I can certainly see how it can directly benefit the lives of some people (especially those making low hourly wages), but the truth is that I simply do not see these sorts of laws spreading. Sorry, Boundaries, but you are stuck.

And guess what, while my clients would never ask for a documented income statement in a place where it is illegal (such as the whole state of California) it is more often than not expected that candidates for sales job will give an example of their income entirely unsolicited. It isn’t illegal, if they don’t ask. They can certainly ask you what your sales goal was and/or what your sales revenue was for the previous three years. That is the norm, and if you’re uncomfortable with it, it might be tough to find a sales job in this world. Most quality salespeople see the number on their W2 as a badge of honor to be compared to that of the next guy. Those who are worried about sharing their income with their prospective employer may not have what it takes to get the job. And legal or not, here is the dirty little secret you should know: employers tell me that if a candidate is cagey about sharing their income history and will only tell their prospective employer what they want to make, that story only ends one way. The company will very politely thank the candidate for their time, and then forget they even applied for the job.