Disclosing Previous Pay: Ask the Expert

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Q: Can my current employer require me to provide my prior salary history?

After working for my current employer for a few months, human resources personnel went back through all current employee files to fill in missing information. Missing in my file was my "salary history," which was requested on my original job application. I declined to provide this information before taking the job, and I declined to fill it in as a current employee. I think access to my previous salaries now is both private and irrelevant. The company insists on having it. Should I comply?

A: Our panel of experts gave a resounding, "Yes!" A failure to comply, in what may simply be a clerical exercise, could lead you to lose your job.

Rod Williams, a job market consultant with New York-based Lee Hecht Harrison, says that in all likelihood, the company is just dotting its 'i's and crossing its 't's' in the event that it ever has an issue with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"If they have said information for everyone else, they may simply be looking to maintain consistency in the event of an external audit," says Williams.

Say your old salary was a lot lower than you're currently making. So long as you did not lie about that in the interview, you may be viewed as a skilled negotiator.

But not making that information available only raises questions.

"It gives the appearance that you have something to hide, which could mean a lot more intense scrutiny and even suspicion," says Williams. "It's probably best to provide the information even though you can't see its relevance."

Deborah Rivera, founder of New York-based Succession Group, believes it's pretty standard for an employer to request your salary history. She adds: "We have not run across one that has not."

Rivera suggests your employer may want the information now for any number of reasons. It may simply be a routine follow-up, where human resources personnel have been asked to complete all paperwork and make sure all information requested was indeed provided.

"Perhaps someone (erroneously) issued the offer without collecting the information. They realized you hadn't provided it, and now they want it," says Rivera.

An employee's compensation history tells a story. It shows how your prior employers valued your work. Of course, there are times when employees are undervalued, and it's the thing that prompts them to leave a job. If that's the case, your current employer should be told that.

Regardless of their reasons, your vehement opposition sends up red flags, says Rivera. And their curiosity may now be piqued in light of your unusually strong reaction to what is a perfectly normal request. Like Williams, Rivera believes a failure to provide the information will make it appear as if you're hiding something. And that could be seen as an indicator of misrepresentation.

"They hired you at a certain level - with a certain compensation - and they now may feel you are not performing at the agreed-upon price," says Rivera. "They may want to rescind your offer based upon one or more misrepresentations, one of them being your compensation."

Remember, they can find this information whether you provide it or not. They could access your W-2 forms or run a credit check, which usually indicates a certain income.

Indeed, from a legal perspective, misrepresenting your prior salaries can certainly become a basis for termination, according to Kenneth Taber, an employment law attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

As a general rule, there is nothing discriminatory or improperly invasive about an employer asking employees for their prior salary histories, Taber advises .

"As a legal matter, there is no reason your employer cannot ask you your prior salary history," says Taber. "From the employer's perspective, such information could certainly be relevant to setting your current and future compensation."

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