Recently, a number of states (Oregon, New York and Massachusetts among them) have made it illegal for a company to ask a job candidate about their salary history. The law has been heralded as a way to close the gender pay gap, but the benefits will be shared by all. If employers are barred from inquiring about a candidate’s past (or current) salary, workers have a slight advantage in salary negotiations, since the employer is no longer able to use the candidate’s salary history as an anchoring position.
But that doesn’t mean a candidate’s salary history will never come up in an interview. A candidate can willingly disclose how much they make in their current job. Indeed, they might want to if they get a job offer for less than their present salary.
Then the question becomes an ethical one: Can’t you just lie about what you make?
The answer, according to several human resources experts, is of course you can lie. No one is going to stop you, and the police won’t arrest you for doing so. A worker negotiating an artificially inflated salary is a largely victimless offense, so if you can pull it off, good for you and yours.
If you do lie about what you make, however, you better hope your employer doesn’t find out. Because not only will you (probably) get fired, you might even get sued.
“It’s not something I’d ever advise a client to do,” says Barbara Wally, an executive coach who consults on salary negotiations. “It just isn’t worth the risk of getting caught later. It certainly could be the basis for dismissal, and it’s not impossible that it could be the basis for a fraud claim brought by a (former) employer.
“Further, for individuals who have to maintain a license (such as lawyers, doctors and teachers, to name a few), they risk being reported to their licensing board and the consequences that might flow from that.”
That’s a huge price to pay for a minor lie — and probably much larger than whatever incremental salary increase might come from lying about how much you make now or made in the past. Yet the motivation to lie about what you make is still so enticing. Fudging your salary by a good 10 or 20 percent can help you leverage a life-changing salary increase. Plus, how would your prospective employer ever find out about your little white salary lie anyway?
The idea that companies can’t verify your past salary is a misconception, however, according to MEL’s resident HR expert Terry Petracca. Truth is, that information is easily obtainable. The right to verify your past compensation is one of the many things you grant a prospective employer when agreeing to a background check. And since many companies use third-party vendors such as ADP to process their payrolls, it’s easy for a prospective employer to gain access to those records, Petracca explains.
“A better strategy is to research the market salary range [via online tools such as PayScale, Glassdoor and Indeed], and demonstrate why your superior work performance and experience put you in the high end of that salary range,” Wally says.
“Show them that you’re smart, and that you know your stuff,” Petracca adds. “So when they ask you what you think you should be paid, you can say with confidence, ‘I’ve researched the industry, and based on my research and experience, I’m worth X amount.’”
Other negotiation experts suggest forcing the employer to make the first offer since the employer might come out with a figure that’s above what you were planning to ask for.
Whatever you do, though, don’t lie.
Or if you do, don’t get caught.
Because if you are, you’ll be forced to tell any potential new employer that your current salary is zero.
John McDermott is a staff writer at MEL. He last wrote an ode to house pants.