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Recruiting and “Off-Limits” Questions about Salary History – What Employers Need to Know

By October of 2017, NYC employers – and their recruiting agencies – will no longer be allowed to ask about an applicant’s salary and benefits history during the interview process due to a recent amendment to the NYC Human Rights Law. This law follows Executive Orders signed in November 2016 by Mayor de Blasio, and in January 2017 by Governor Cuomo, banning questions about salary history for NYC and NY state public-sector applicants prior to a conditional offer of employment. In addition, private employers in Philadelphia as of May 2017, and Massachusetts as of July 1, 2018, will also be banned from asking applicants about their compensation history. These laws are intended to help break the perpetuation of salary inequities by prohibiting reliance on prior, possibly inequitable compensation levels, as a means to set salaries and other compensation for incoming employees. Public Advocate Letitia James co-sponsored the NYC bill after a study conducted by her office found that women in New York earn $5.8 billion less in wages than men every year, or 87 cents for every dollar that men make, and the wage discrepancies were worse for minority females.

What does the NYC law prohibit? 

It will be a discriminatory employment practice to do the following.

(1) Ask an applicant, or their current/prior employer – either in writing or during the interview process – about the applicant’s wage, benefits or other compensation history. This prohibition extends to inquiries made by search firms on behalf of the prospective employer. However, applicants can be asked about their historic productivity metrics, such as their level of revenue or sales at their current or prior employers.

(2) Conduct internet or other searches of public records in an effort to determine the candidate’s salary history. Employers are still permitted to conduct background checks of applicants, but if the background check discloses an applicant’s salary history, the employer may not rely on such disclosure for purposes of determining an applicant’s compensation.

(3) Rely on the compensation history of an applicant in determining what to offer the applicant with regards to salary, benefits or other compensation, unless the applicant “unprompted” and “willingly” discloses that information. However, this exception is not necessarily that helpful as employers can expect that the issue of whether a disclosure was truly “willing and unprompted” to be the subject of much debate.

What are the penalties for violations?

The NYC Commission on Human Rights will enforce the prohibition, and may impose a civil penalty of up to $125 for an intentional violation, and up to $250,000 for an “intentional malicious violation.” Plaintiffs’ employment lawyers will also file private cause of actions, and will likely seek discovery related to recruiting practices in an effort to ferret out potential violations they will cite to as evidence in support of disparate impact sex discrimination claims.

What should employers do now? 

Employers are watching to see if these laws will be challenged before implementation. For example, Philadelphia’s law is currently being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed in early April by The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia seeking to block implementation of the law on ground of violation of First Amendment rights. The NYC law is also expected to face a challenge from industry groups, although the Bronx Chamber of Commerce has publicly supported the new law.

Until a challenge is successful, employers should consider the following action items with regards to the NYC law:

  • Remove salary history questions from job applications, including online applications.

  • Provide notice, in writing, to recruiting agencies and background check companies, to exclude salary history inquiries as part of their process, and direct them not to provide salary history information to your company as the potential employer. You can also work this into contract renewals and any Statement of Work or recruiting search request, along with an indemnification obligation if a lawsuit ensues due to an agency’s failure to comply.

  • Train HR, internal recruiters and other employees who interface with job applicants not to ask about salary/benefits/compensation history, but to explore other permissible areas. For example, the NYC law allows employers to discuss an applicant’s compensation expectations, including with regards to unvested equity or deferred compensation that an applicant would forfeit if they left their current employer to accept a new job offer. Interviewers are also still able to ask questions to probe the candidate’s level of experience and proficiency such as performance results, management experience, etc.

  • Train these same individuals about the need to document, in writing, when a candidate makes an unprompted disclosure of his/her salary history.

  • Consider posting salaries, or salary ranges, for open jobs. The new NYC law does not require this, but the bill suggests to businesses that they post salaries for jobs instead of relying on salary history to set compensation.

  • Don’t ignore ongoing obligations to audit to protect against potential pay inequities. As we have been discussing, all private employers with 100 or more employees will likely have to report pay data broken down by gender and race as part of the new federal EEO-1 reports due in March 2018 for 2017 data, and California employers must comply with record keeping requirements imposed by California’s Fair Pay Law in effect since 2016. California’s Fair Pay Law was also amended, effective January 1, 2017, to provide that prior salary will not, by itself, justify a disparity between the salaries of similarly situated employees.

Also, keep in mind that while removing prior salary history from the hiring process may help limit perpetuation of wage gaps, the practical reality is that a candidate’s ability to negotiate a higher salary will likely still drive salary differentials. Employers will need to protect against unintended pay inequities resulting from the recruiting process.

©2017 Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP. All Rights Reserved

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About this Author

Lynne Anne Anderson, Labor, Employment, Attorney, Drinker Biddle, law firm
Partner

Lynne Anne Anderson is a partner in the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group.  Clients trust her implicitly to counsel them through the ever-growing maze of labor and employment laws, and to defend them tenaciously in the event of litigation.  Lynne, a practiced jury and bench trial lawyer, has handled a wide range of employment litigation, including retaliation, discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination and breach of contract claims, in various state and federal courts, as well as claims before arbitration panels and government agencies.  She also has...

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