There are a lot of hard questions during most job interviews, and there’s one in particular that’s as welcomed as it is dreaded: salary history.
The question of salary history is a promising sign that a potential employer is seriously considering hiring a particular candidate—they’re looking at their budgets and seeing what they can afford. But answering can backfire, resulting in lower pay, and some recommend the safe route of refusing to disclose it, or the even ballsier approach of lying about it. The premise for the latter option: The game isn’t fair, so don’t play fairly.
In behavioral-economics-speak, a potential employee’s salary history is information that can result in anchoring—the cognitive bias that makes people focus around a number once it’s been stated, with only some small room for adjustment. Hence why lying about one’s salary history is useful: One study on the effect of anchors on salary offers found that even implausibly high anchors resulted in better compensation.
But this can have unintended—and unfair—consequences: Beth Cobert at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the federal government’s HR department, argues that the question can perpetuate gender inequality. Last week, Cobert issued a memo advising federal agencies against an over-reliance on salary history for determining compensation.