Can you ask about a candidate’s salary history?

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Q: Is it legal for potential employers to ask what your current salary is and require a specific answer?

A:  Employers can ask a broad range of questions of candidates.  Most employers understand that they should focus on job-related questions.  It is common for a candidate to be asked about skill set, related experience, education or certifications.

Current compensation and/or salary history though is now illegal in Massachusetts.  Massachusetts is the first state to prohibit salary history questions before extending an offer of employment.  The regulation is called the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act (MEPA) and mandates equal pay for comparable work.  Effective on July 1, 2018, the Attorney General’s Office enforces MEPA.  MEPA covers Massachusetts workers, as well as those employees who telecommute to a Massachusetts office.  Full-time, part-time, temporary and seasonal employees are all covered by MEPA.

A candidate can share their salary history with a prospective employer, but they are not required to do so.  Also, employers cannot include such a question on their employment applications. Before 2018, a standard employment application would often ask for the dates of employment at a former employer, as well as the beginning and end compensation and/or salary for each role listed.  The dated employment applications may still be in use by some employers.  An employer can ask about what a candidate’s pay expectations are in their next role.  The law also prohibits “pay secrecy” or “your compensation is confidential” policies.

The law covers Massachusetts workers.  The intent of the law is to ensure that there is equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.  MEPA defines several reasons why pay may be different between genders.  Education and training are one.  For example, if one employee has an MBA and another employee does not, that may be a reasonable justification for a pay difference.  Geography may be another reason.  If one employee is living in Idaho and one employee is living in Cambridge, this also may be a permissible reason.  Especially with the increase in telecommuting, employers will need to grapple with this, as many employees have moved out of state, but are still working for a Massachusetts-based company.

For more information about MEPA, visit https://www.mass.gov/massachusetts-equal-pay-law.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.

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