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Asking about a candidate's salary - MA law (or not)?

Posted by Pattie Hunt Sinacole  May 14, 2012 07:13 AM

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Q: I recently had an interesting issue come up with a recruiter. A recruiter claimed that there is a new MA state law that requires all employers to verify the current/previous salary of all new hires. He claimed that this is to ensure people get a "fair" salary. I did some research online and found nothing. I have a strong feeling that this is just a negotiation tactic used by some recruiters to probe for low salaries. Does such a law exist?

A: You have good instincts! As of this writing, there is no Massachusetts law which requires employers to verify the current or previous salary of an applicant in order to ensure that the applicant receives a “fair” salary in his or her new position (or for any other reason). However, many prospective employers can lawfully ask applicants to provide their salary histories and may seek to verify that information directly with the applicants’ prior employers, through independent research or hiring a third party to conduct a background check. A background check could include verifying a candidate’s salary history, educational records, credit history or criminal history.

I consulted Jeffrey Dretler, a partner in the Employment Law Group at Prince Lobel Tye LLP. Dretler offers, “When an employer engages a third party to gather this type of information, the inquiry is governed by the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and requires the employer to obtain the applicant’s advanced written authorization. If the employer contemplates making or does make a decision not to hire the applicant based on information contained in what is referred to as a ‘consumer report,’ the employer must provide the applicant with a copy of the report, notice of his or her rights, and a reasonable opportunity to explain or correct any errors in the report.”

Dealing with a candidate’s compensation can be a challenge. As a candidate, you can choose to not share your salary history with a recruiter. However, if you do respond with false information and the employer later discovers that you intentionally supplied false information, your sharing of false information could constitute grounds for termination of employment.

You have touched upon an issue that has attracted a bit of attention recently, which is the balance between an employer’s interest in screening prospective candidates and the candidates’ right to privacy. For example, some employers are requesting applicants share their passwords or log-in information to social networking websites such as Facebook or LinkedIn in order screen the applicants’ connections or conduct. Dretler warns, “Employers should think twice before adopting such practices. Maryland recently became the first state in the country to make such an inquiry illegal and similar legislation has been proposed in Massachusetts. Even without specific legislation, such a practice could constitute a violation of the candidate’s statutorily protected right to privacy, although no Massachusetts court has yet ruled on the issue.”


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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

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Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.

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