Avoiding this pay question can hurt women job-hunters

The practice of asking about a job applicant's salary history has increasingly become a lightning rod in the debate over the gender pay gap. Career experts often advise women to nimbly avoid giving an answer because it could lock them into a lower pay offer. 

But new research from Payscale suggests that approach may backfire, but only for women. When men are asked what they made at previous jobs but refuse to answer, they're rewarded with 1.2 percent higher pay than men who disclose the information to the prospective employer. 

On the other hand, women who refuse to provide their salary history end up earning 1.8 percent less than women applicants to discuss their previous pay, the study found. 

The findings may provide some fuel to the push to outlaw employers from asking job applicants about their current or previous salary history, which is based on the theory that it perpetuates the gender wage gap. The thinking is that women and people of color, who tend to earn less than white men even when experience, skills and educational background are similar, get locked into perpetual cycle of lower earnings partly because of the question about previous pay history. 

But why would women get dinged for sidestepping the question, while men are rewarded? While the survey didn't ask employers about their reasoning for their pay decisions, it could be due to unconscious bias, said Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at Payscale. 

"In unconscious bias research, both men and women don't actually react well when women negotiate for themselves," she said. "It's somehow seen on the women's side as impolite or uncooperative, and they pay a social cost for negotiating."

She added, "Obviously, it's not malicious intent on the part of the employer."

Frank noted that she had previously advised women to avoid answering salary questions, but now she said the research is prompting her to rethink that strategy. 

"You have to read the situation," she noted. "My advice would be essentially to move the conversation very quickly to the value of that position you are talking about. You can say, 'Here's what I'm currently making, but based on the competitive market rate I would place more around here. Is that what you were thinking?' Get your number off the table as fast as possible."

Prospective employers ask about previous pay history because they're trying to figure out if they can afford a job candidate, or if the prospect is out of their reach. On those grounds, turning the question around to the employer about what they plan on paying could help both sides understand if they're a good match, while avoiding a focus on an applicant's previous history. 

Some municipalities and states are crafting legislation to bar employers from asking about salary history, viewing it as a tool for battling the gender wage gap. Women make about 79 cents for every $1 men earn, which has a lifetime of consequences, including lower Social Security checks in retirement and having less money available for savings. 

Massachusetts passed the first law of its kind almost a year ago, although it won't take effect until 2018. New Jersey may become the latest to follow suit, with the state Senate passing a similar bill this week. It will now go to Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican.

"Women continue to make less than men for the same work, so basing a hiring salary on someone's previous wages only continues the pay discrimination they may have suffered," said state Senate majority leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), according to NJ.com

Higher-paid workers are more likely to be asked about their pay history, the survey found. Lower-paid workers, or those earning less than $25,000, were the least likely to be asked about their previous pay. That's probably because there's less of a pay variation for jobs that are at the minimum wage or slightly above. 

Only 15 percent of workers earning less than $25,000 said they were asked about their previous earnings, compared with 47 percent of those earning $100,000 to $200,000. 

About half of all prospective human resources managers reported being asked about their salary history, the highest share of any job title. The lowest was physical therapist, with about 21 percent reporting the question at a job interview. 

The most forthcoming about their salary history are outside sales representatives: About 22 percent said they volunteered information about their pay history. 

"Some people willingly offer up their salary history because they feel it's a reflection on their performance and want to demonstrate how valuable they are," Frank said. "In some ways, your past history can help you."