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Not asking for salary history won’t ensure workers will be paid fairly

Banning the question about salary history isn’t enough to make many companies’ pay practices fair to women and underrepresented minorities.

Not asking for salary history won’t ensure workers will be paid fairly
[Photo: Marc Kleen/Unsplash]

Private employers in states and cities across the U.S. including California, New York City, Philadelphia, and Massachusetts were recently banned from asking candidates about their current and past salaries in order to set their pay for a new job. In theory, this provides someone who is currently underpaid an opportunity to break the cycle of underpayment and be paid fairly for their next role.

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Although I wish this solved the issue around equity and pay gaps forever, it’s more just a step in the right direction.

Eliminating that salary history question from a company’s recruiting process attempts to solve only the problem of initial pay equity, which is a complicated, immense issue latent in bias and prejudice. When you peel back the layers, the salary history question is just one of many things that perpetuate systemic racism and prejudice, plaguing the financial success and professional development of those affected by it.

How do we know this? Let’s take a look at the premise of Equal Pay Day, which symbolizes how far into a year a woman must work to reach the pay of white men from the year before. April 10 was Equal Pay Day for white women, while August 7 was equal payday for black women. For Native American women, equal pay day is September 27, and for Latina women it’s November 1.

The difference in dates to reach parity is staggering and underscores how hard we have to work.

While the conversation around salary history is important and the legislation related to it is critical to equity, the real issue at play isn’t the question of salary history–it’s equity history. The recently passed legislation doesn’t change bias and prejudice.

Women, especially women of color, are up against a lot. The deeply entrenched, unconscious biases that permeate society contribute, every day, to inequitable power structures that hold us back. These biases influence what happens on a micro level, at every organization. They impact who is deemed a leader, considered intelligent–who “belongs.”

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The good news is equity doesn’t have to be a far-reaching, distant concept. There are actions that everyone can take to make equity and fairness more attainable and make a meaningful difference.

Create intentional inclusion practices in your company

Creating processes and inclusive frameworks are necessary for companies to make sustainable and ongoing changes that can break those patterns of bias and begin to normalize equity.

At Zendesk, we make sure inclusivity efforts are threaded through our global recruiting practices, how employees are promoted, our formalized Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), various professional development opportunities, and manager training.

We encourage our employees, at a more personal level, to use our unconscious bias training programs to begin to adjust automatic patterns of thought with 2.5-hour in-person learning sessions.


Related: How Massachusetts’s new pay law will help close the gender wage gap (and how it won’t)


We also examine our promotion criteria by implementing a transparent career development program we developed called RISE, which examines Readiness, Influence/Impact, Scope, and Excellence, to make sure our framework is based on standardized merit. Having this in place has fostered fairness, mitigated bias, and helps leaders frame career mobility for employees in a tangible way, leading to higher engagement.

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We also developed five different internal mentorship/sponsorship programs to help cultivate communities and opportunities for underrepresented groups. In the U.S., a significant percentage of the company participates in these opportunities–from individual contributors to C-level staff–which we believe is related to our employees telling us in our latest employee engagement survey that they believe our company is an inclusive place to work. This is because as important as it is for compensation and career trajectories to be fair, the work environment itself also needs to be built for everyone to win.

Don’t wait for the rules to change–change the rules

On a personal level, when you are asked for prior salary information or to provide a preferred range during the interview process, you are still in the driver’s seat. You do not have to answer point blank. Instead, shift the conversation to the work with something like: “I’d actually still like to fully understand the company’s overall compensation strategy.”

Ask yourself questions such as: Is their compensation stock heavy? Bonus heavy? Does the company have the benefits you value most? How often do they evaluate performance and compensation? Who would your peers be? What is the scope of the role? Provide a range after you’ve done due diligence, and not based on the compensation leap you’d like to make.


Related: How to dodge questions about your salary history on job interviews


At an organizational level, companies that are not located where salary history legislation exists should take action anyway. From a recruitment perspective, ceasing to ask about salary history should not be a big deal. It does force hiring managers to calibrate more thoughtfully before giving someone an offer, and requires paying a lot more attention to the researched market rate than legacy company pay practices.

At Zendesk, we were methodical about communicating why not to ask about past salaries to all of our recruiters (“Asking for salary history can propagate the wage gap and here’s why that matters”) and to the entire company at a town hall meeting, so that the new way of thinking stuck.

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This sets you up to be able to investigate other palpable ways to make pay parity a reality and inclusivity a best practice. This year at Zendesk, for instance, we conducted our first-ever annual internal pay audit across gender globally and racially in the U.S. We then made compensation adjustments based on that audit. After we’d made the adjustments, we took time to explain why it was important that we do this at our companywide town hall, where the news was generally well-received by both those affected and not affected.

Take a holistic look to ensure pay equity and accelerate change

If you are a C-level or senior leader at your company, commit to using your agency and influence to create opportunities and challenge the status quo. And if you are not, consider ways to raise this important issue to your leadership and advocate for the change you’d like to see. Systemic biases will only keep disparities thriving across industries for as long as we allow it. If we commit to the measures outlined above, we can change lives, break cycles of inequity, and create a workforce where everyone belongs and succeeds.


Khalida Ali is the senior manager of diversity & inclusion at Zendesk

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