Still, one question kept derailing her job search: What are
you currently making? Chapman was earning about $25,000 a year working a desk
job at a university in Boston while she was in graduate school. She hoped to
double that figure by moving into a new industry. But when she told recruiters
her salary, lo and behold they would tell her that’s how much they were
A trap. “Why would I want to go to another job and make the
same salary?” said Chapman, now 34 years old and a senior user experience
researcher and designer in St Louis. She stopped answering the question,
instead telling recruiters her target salary. The strategy worked. She landed a
role at IBM that paid $50,000 to $60,000.
Searching for a new job this past year during a booming job
market, now with years of experience at large companies like IBM and Boeing and
at startups, Chapman had a vastly different experience. Now employers aren’t
asking for her current salary. They’re asking for her salary requirements: What
does she want to make?
“And honestly, if they didn’t ask — I would ask them,” Chapman
said. If they don’t answer, she sees it as a red flag.
The salary question has emerged as the thorniest piece of the
hiring process, according to job seekers, recruiters and negotiation experts.
The question itself is seen by some as progress — asking a requirement is
better than asking salary history, and 16 states, including Massachusetts, New
York and California, have completely banned asking job candidates their pay
history — but it is still full of pitfalls.
Asking for salary requirements kicks off a back-and-forth
that, for job seekers, is rife with confusion and occasional bouts of shame and
regret. Even as employers are having trouble filling roles and employees across
industries are asserting more power, the high stakes of this question can upend
Candidates try not to reveal their number, worried they’ll
leave money on the table. But recruiters often decline to move forward without
one. The common advice is to turn around the question and ask recruiters what
their range is for the role. In some states, employers are now required to tell
Job seekers can say something like, “It’s early in the
interview process, and I’m still getting to know the role and doing my
research, but if you’re trying to fit into a certain range, that would be
helpful to know,” said Jordan Sale, founder of 81cents, a pay equity startup
she started in 2018.
If the candidate has done research and has a sense of what the
position should pay, Sale proposed, she could say: “Based on all the research
I’ve done and conversations I’ve had, I’m thinking this role should probably
pay $XX in terms of base salary plus bonus, equity and other benefits. I wonder
if that lines up with what you’re thinking.”
Candidates should answer the salary requirements question only
if they’ve done their research — otherwise, they are very likely to offer up a
number that’s too low. Plenty of candidates, particularly women, research
shows, might end up undervaluing their worth.
“Some companies want to get away with not paying enough,” said
Sara Noble, an executive recruiter in Boston. She recommends that candidates
stall when they’re asked the requirements question and do serious research,
maybe even call recruiters they’ve spoken with in the past.
“I’ve seen too many instances where the offer is well below
what they were planning to pay,” Noble said. “You’ve shot yourself in the
In the past, employers would typically just ask candidates for
their current salary and base a new job offer on the number provided, maybe
offering some small percentage more. Scholars and advocates for gender equality
argue that this strategy perpetuates wage inequality. If a woman was paid
unfairly at one employer, she would be anchored to that lower salary throughout
Banning the question, they argued, would help close the pay
gap between men and women. On average, women earn 83 cents for every dollar a
man makes, according to 2020 census data. The gap is wider for Black and
The argument resonated, and over the past five years, in
addition to the states that passed salary history bans, a handful of cities and
counties also prohibited the practice. Rhode Island and Nevada passed bans in
2021 that also require employers to disclose salary ranges to applicants.
(Colorado and Connecticut recently passed laws requiring companies to disclose
salary ranges for positions.)
At a time when most policies aimed at helping parents,
especially women — like paid parental leave and child care support — are
stalling out or facing resistance, the bans on salary history have been far
less controversial, often garnering bipartisan support, said Andrea Johnson,
who has pushed for these laws through her work at the National Women’s Law
“This issue really resonates with people at a gut level,” she
The bans are still so new that it’s hard to really judge how
much has changed. Massachusetts’ law, the first in the country, went into
effect in 2018. There is some preliminary research showing that pay for women
who change jobs has increased slightly in states with the bans. But other
research shows less promising results.
“Before these laws were passed, women were underrepresented in
high-wage jobs. That didn’t change,” said Ethan Rouen, a professor at Harvard
Business School, who looked at data in one state that passed a ban and wound up
not publishing his research because he didn’t see any significant change.
What is clear: The bans shifted the culture of salary
negotiation, along with a growing willingness among Gen Z and millennials to
talk more directly about money and demand better working conditions, and a job
market where labor finally has a bit of an edge. Also, there is a growing
awareness, especially among women, that negotiating pay is crucial.
Several job hunters in their 20s and 30s said they had never
been asked for their current salary.
When it comes up, and it still does, it remains a tricky
question. One 29-year-old New York woman said she still felt guilty for
revealing her current salary to a recruiter who asked. She got nervous in the
heat of the moment. When she said the number, in the low $100,000s, the
recruiter said the company could match it. This woman felt instant regret.
Maybe it would have gone higher? She said her parents had even scolded her for
sharing her salary.
Other candidates say that when this has happened to them, they
respond by mentioning that the practice is no longer allowed.
Hiring managers also said some people still volunteered their
salary history. One lawyer, who is earning $280,000 a year at a fintech
startup, tells prospective employers how much she makes because she doesn’t
want to get lowballed, she said. It’s possible they would think she’s reaching
if she didn’t anchor her salary requirements in a real number.
Joel Greenberg, a 31-year-old software engineer, just started
a new job at a startup after interviewing with about 20 companies. He recently
moved back to the Denver area to care for his mother, after living in Boston.
About half of the interviewers asked for Greenberg’s current
salary. He answered the question: About $250,000 a year, including a $155,000
base salary plus equity and other benefits. In other cases, he was asked for
his requirements and offered up a similar number.
“I prefer to be direct about what I’m making,” Greenberg said,
acknowledging that being a man probably made that easier. “It’s part of
straight white male privilege that you can answer that directly.” In the end,
he received six offers and accepted one that was in his range, although not the
highest, because the fit was right.
According to Sale, the consultant, the sort of privilege
Greenberg is acknowledging goes beyond the confidence to answer a salary
question directly. It extends to whom you know and whom you can ask for advice.
Women will seek input from their close networks, which often
might include a lot of women who are, on average, underpaid, she said.
“Talking about money is personal and sensitive, so we tend to
talk about it with people we know well and are comfortable with,” Sale said.
“For most people — that means they’re talking about pay with people who look
Sale’s company is one of a few startups founded to help
candidates navigate this process. The idea is to offer people, particularly
women of color, a network of senior professionals and data they can tap to
navigate salary negotiation, Sale said.
“Employers pay thousands of dollars every year to have access
to compensation data,” she said. The idea here is to level the playing field.
“Like an informal union,” she said.
Devon Meyer, a hiring manager at a mental health startup, does
ask candidates for their salary requirements. He said about 20% won’t answer.
“They say, ‘I’m still calibrating’ or ‘I prefer not to share,’
” he said.
He gets it. He also thinks they usually miss asking a more
important question: What about equity?
Meyer started his career at the tech company formerly known as
Square and now called Block. He said that job had taught him a lesson about
compensation. Specifically, stock can be more important than salary.
“Equity can turn out to be life-changing,” said Meyer, 29, who
had stock in Square when it went public. “I do have a level of security that I
certainly did not imagine I would have at this age.” (Meyer was also briefly a
senior product manager at The New York Times.)
Meyer and others said candidates did not focus on their equity
as closely as their base salary. A recent analysis commissioned by The Wall
Street Journal found that 24% of male employees had company stock compared with
17% of women. And women typically hold fewer shares even when they do own
“The actual gender difference is in stock now,” said Niya
Dragova, co-founder of Candor, a startup that helps tech employees manage their
equity but started off helping candidates negotiate pay more broadly.
What looks like a small gap in stock will only grow wider.
“What might seem like a $10,000 difference could be millions over the course of
somebody’s career,” Dragova said.
Dragova is also the author of “The 10 commandments of salary
No. 4: Don’t give in to the pressure.
That’s one that Chapman, the user experience designer in St
Louis, seems to have followed. She declined to move forward in interviews with
at least 28 employers, she said. (She kept track in a notes file on her
laptop.) She was looking to move on from a role where she made $155,000 because
she felt she had stalled out at the company and wanted to move into a
Chapman did market research, tapping salary surveys, to find
out what companies were paying in her field. She talked to people in her
professional network. She learned negotiation strategy from the National Society
of Black Engineers and, early on, through the American Association of
University Women, which offers a free negotiation workshop. One big lesson:
It’s OK to talk about money.
Her target range was $160,000 to $170,000.
“It was important to me to wait,” said Chapman, who also
founded a consulting company, Nerdy Diva, where she focuses on diversity and
inclusion in tech, design and investing. “I wanted to be strategic, and I
wanted to go somewhere I knew I’d be for the long term.”
As the first in her family to get a college degree, Chapman
felt her salary was about more than just herself. “It’s important to me as a
Black woman that I negotiate for what I’m worth, and I’m negotiating for the
women in my family who did not have the opportunity,” she said.
Some companies tried to get her to take salaries she believed
were too low because she was working remotely from the Midwest. But this wasn’t
only about money. In fact, she turned down a job offer for $170,000 because she
didn’t feel respected during the final-round interview. Interviewers were late,
arrogant — a lot of name-dropping of big clients — and in the interview
acknowledged they weren’t actually prepared to talk to her.
In December, she landed a job offer in her target range, at a
place where she felt respected and noted a commitment to inclusion and
diversity. She’ll also get a stock package — around $200,000 vesting over four
years. She starts at the end of January.
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