Once, at the end of a long job interview, after discussing everything else under the sun, I asked the interviewer what the pay range was for the position. Her lips thinned; she was clearly offended. She said it wasn't something the company was comfortable sharing.
As frustrating as her response was, it was also typical. Anyone who has ever looked for a job probably has experience with companies being cagey about pay. But often we accept it as the way the negotiation game is played, like it’s a dance you've got to know the steps to. The problem is that companies and job applicants aren't standing on an even playing field. One side — the employer — usually has a lot more information, and therefore leverage, in figuring out how to pay as little as they can to recruit the most talented candidate they can find.
Sometimes, you might not have a good idea of what the role might pay until you've gone through several interviews, maybe after you've already dedicated time and effort into a sample project or presentation to prove your qualifications. Even if you get a rough idea of salary (or share your own salary expectations) during an initial screening, that comes after you've already crafted a cover letter and fine-tuned your résumé for this particular job opening. Any job seeker today knows how much time goes into submitting an application, let alone the rest of the job search process. We put ourselves through the job hunt gauntlet in hopes that an exciting, well-paying role might be waiting at the end. We have to deal with the so-called discomfort companies feel about pay transparency.
"Last week, I interviewed at a company for an Executive Business Partner role in L.A.," says Monique, 35, who currently works in Atlanta. "I looked on Glassdoor and Ladders to obtain the salary and pay band info, since it was unlisted. Ladders had the role listed at $85k to $100k annually."
"When I was asked about my salary expectations for the role, I said the number I had seen previously," she says. "Not only did the interviewer laugh — she insisted that information should not be public and still never said how much the job paid. The interview lasted 15 minutes before I was told I wasn’t fit for a role I have 12 years of experience in."
The reality is, experiences like Monique's are far too common. "I work in PR, and pay range is almost never included in the job description," says Ella, 29, who works in L.A. "Typically — but not always — salary expectations are discussed in the initial vetting call with the company recruiter."
Ella usually uses Glassdoor to do her pay research, as well as a Google sheet that’s been shared among people in her industry. But sometimes, no amount of outside research is enough — and you find out after time-consuming interviews that the job isn't going to pay you what you need it to. "I spent six weeks interviewing for a role I was really excited about in the tourism sector," Ella recalls. "I finished the interview circuit and one of the higher-ups responded to my thank you note with the salary band. Unfortunately, the high end was my current salary. She encouraged me to stick with the process due to the company's 'compelling benefits package.' But when I met with HR, they told me benefits were pretty standard. At the end of the day, there was no salary flexibility, so I turned down the opportunity and shortly after landed a job that paid $30K more."
"I once interviewed for a job and didn’t hear the pay range or offered pay until I got the job," says Lindsay, 18, who works in Dallas, Texas. "It was for a test prep business, which is outside the industry I work in now. I went to two interviews for this job and it actually ended up paying less than what I was making at my retail job at the time, with worse benefits. I would not have gone to those interviews if I had known. I explicitly asked about the pay range in the second interview, but the interviewer skirted the question, and I didn’t want it to press the issue in case it hurt my chances of getting the job."
"I recently had an in-person interview and they offered me a job, but never told me the pay range," says Jane, a 29-year-old who works in HR in Maryland. "I will not be accepting the offer because I accepted a different one, but I found it fascinating that pay was not brought up by the employer." She finds it shocking that so many job ads in her field don't disclose pay.
Carla, 36, works in Cincinnati, Ohio. "I was literally through multiple rounds of interviews and gearing up for a final presentation to the CMO before we discussed salary," she says. Although she does her research, incorrect information has led her to low-balling her salary before. "At my first job I was extremely underpaid, and it set me back years," she says.
"I’ve never had salary info before the first interview," says Wanda, 24, in NYC. "In my most recent job, the HR lady told me up-front that the starting salary was $38,000 and it was non-negotiable. I was shocked that such a major company wouldn’t pay a living wage in NYC — but I still took the job for the résumé value."
"Honestly, I just take what they give me," she continues. "It feels like if a company is going through 100 to 200 applicants for each job, I don’t have room to ask for more money, because they'll just find someone else."
It's ominous that it’s become so normal to waste the time of job seekers, many of whom need a job to survive, and aren't just trawling job boards as a hobby. Employers who refuse to be more transparent about pay seem confident that they can rope in potential employees based not on the merits of the job, but based on employees feeling that it's a sunk cost — they've already dedicated so much time and energy into interviewing for this job, and looking for another job will just mean repeating the cycle again, so they might as well accept whatever they can get.
So many job listings are a novel-length list of every possible quality a company wants a candidate to have — a "rock star" with 20 different hats stacked on top of their head — and yet never reveal how much money those qualities are worth to them. Thus, the job ad fails to actually advertise exactly why every talented person should be clamouring to work for them, a devastating reflection of just how uneven the power dynamics typically are.
"Employers who play coy on salary will tell you that it’s because if they share their range, every candidate will assume they’ll be at the top of that range and then be disappointed if their offer is lower because of their qualifications," Alison Green, founder of Ask A Manager, tells Refinery29 over email. "Whereas they might have been happy with the offer if they’d never been told the full range. This doesn’t hold a ton of water, though, because a good employer should be able to explain how their salary scale works and where the candidate fits into it."
"Mostly, of course, employers don’t want to share their salary ranges up-front because they’re at an advantage in negotiating if job candidates have less information — which is exactly why candidates need it," Green says.
In an effort to shift the imbalance, in 2018 Colorado passed a law requiring employers to disclose pay information in job ads, and it went into effect this past January. "Candidates are traditionally at such a disadvantage when negotiating salary, and there’s traditionally been such a lack of transparency from employers about what they’ve budgeted to pay, that laws like Colorado’s are a strong step toward fairness and pay equity," Green says.
But the law has led to some companies explicitly excluding Colorado applicants for jobs that could be performed remotely. The lengths that some employers are going to in order not to disclose pay only seems to strengthen the case for pay disclosure laws being enacted federally, and not just on a state-by-state basis. While states such as California and Maryland have pay disclosure laws as well, they aren't as strict as Colorado's new law, which requires it in the job ad — other pay transparency laws usually require that employers disclose pay if an applicant requests it.
In the past year, many employers have talked a big talk about their commitments to hiring with diversity in mind and pay equity for people of colour, particularly women of colour. But a Payscale report on how companies adjusted (or didn't adjust) their compensation practices in the past year shows that the majority still aren't providing what Payscale calls a "total compensation statement" — which would include information on all opportunities for compensation in a certain position, pay ranges for the role, and what data was used to determine pay.
The report found that only 12.6% of companies published the pay range for a role within the job ad. Of the companies that were surveyed, 9.5% said they shared this info when an offer was made, 15% answered that it was given "upon request only," 14.4% answered "we don't have pay ranges," and 18.8% answered "never." It's hard to see how a company can be fully committed to diversity and inclusion without also being fully committed to pay transparency.
Another recent Payscale report found that U.S. employers are typically very poor communicators when it comes to compensation — and this makes it more likely for employees to believe they're being underpaid, even when they're not. The study found that "57 percent of employees who are paid at market believe they are paid below market," showing that obfuscating pay information within an organization can be detrimental to employers as well. Among employees who are actually paid below the market rate, 72% accurately believed they were underpaid.
Payscale also ranked companies' pay transparency on a scale from 1 to 5. A transparency level of 1 means employees know how much they make based on their paycheck — truly the minimum level of transparency you could have — while level 5 means salary ranges for your role and other employees' actual salaries are available for everyone at the company. The report found that, currently, almost half of all companies surveyed had not progressed beyond level 1. Only 5.1% openly shared all pay ranges and salary information to all employees. Employees at companies with a level 1 transparency were 183% more likely to leave than employees at a workplace with level 5 transparency.
Not having reliable pay information is especially detrimental to workers with less experience, who may not have a career network they can rely on to gather unofficial intel, and don't have the work experience to be more confident about the pay that they can command in a certain industry and in a certain location.
There's evidence that what you earn at the beginning of your working life — whether because you didn't ask for more, because you entered the workforce during a recession, a mix of both — can have a long echo on your earnings. And yet the onus remains mostly on the job seekers to be savvy negotiators, hustling to unearth pay information in the face of tight-lipped employers, instead of advocating for transparency standards and laws that will enforce a more level playing field.
Until recently, for example, it was far more common for employers to include a salary history question on job applications. But a growing number of salary history bans is helping curb this practice. "In California, employers can no longer ask for salary history," says Sarah, a 36-year-old who works in L.A. "Years ago, before that law was in effect, some employers required salary history along with the cover letter and résumé. I always felt like I could never get ahead since a new employer would see that I was working for a low amount and wouldn't feel the need to pay me fairly."
According to HR Dive, there are currently 20 state-wide bans on asking about salary history, with many city-wide bans too. Notably, Michigan and Wisconsin have enacted a ban on salary history bans — because, obviously, employers should be able to know what an applicant earned at every other job they've had, but applicants don't need to know what this particular job might pay them.
The typical career advice telling people to be better armed with research and to become a more skilled negotiator only goes so far. "Without a law in place like Colorado’s, there’s not a lot candidates can do when a company won’t share their range," says Green. "It puts people in a position where, if you want to know something about the company’s range before investing further time in the process, there’s not a lot you can do other than sharing what you're looking for — reinforcing the unequal power dynamics that already exist."
For too long, talking about money at work has been considered "unprofessional" or crass. But it was never really about politeness; it's about power. In fact, discussing pay at the earliest possible opportunity is the most professional thing an employer could do.
*Names have been changed to protect identity