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Have you ever been asked, “How much do you make?” in a job interview? This question usually shows up during the first phone call.

You’ve applied online. The HR manager calls you. The conversation seems normal at first. They ask, “Why did you apply for this job?” and “Tell me about yourself.” The all of the sudden, bam! “How much do you make?” Or, they may try, “How much have you made in the past?”

These questions are tough, and they have more of an influence on your future than you may think. Whether you’re currently underpaid or overpaid, answering this question wrong can completely eliminate you from consideration. And, answering too low can also put you at a disadvantage.

A number of states and cities have started to reduce or eliminate this question altogether. In 2017, Delaware and New York City banned employers from asking about salary history. In January 2018, California banned questions around a candidate’s pay history. In July 2018, Massachusetts will join suit. In 2019, Oregon will ban employers from asking. New Orleans and Pittsburgh are also implementing this rule on city agencies.

It may not be clear right away what’s wrong with this question. Many companies think of it as finding out if the person fits into their budget.

But, the problem is this. If someone has ever been underpaid for any reason, including discrimination or just an unfortunate circumstance, that person will likely always be underpaid going forward. Asking the question, “How much do you make?” ensures that your future salary is based on your current salary.

But, what if you’re switching between industries and one pays much higher salaries? What if you’re switching between a higher education job and a corporate job? What if you’re moving from an inexpensive city in the middle of the country, to a pricey city on the coast?

Once you’re behind in salary negotiations, you will likely always be behind. Unless you’re protected by a rule that bans the question completely. Banning it puts the responsibility back onto the company to decide what a particular role is worth to them. It forces the company to pay employees more fairly, based on the work they produce – rather than their negotiation abilities.

If you find yourself being asked this question, do your homework. Before you’re asked how much you make, know the response you want to give. The less you need the job, the riskier you can be with your answer. I often advise job seekers to ask the company if they would feel comfortable to share their pay range with you. This allows the company to share their salary instead. Alternatively, you can offer your target range. But, base this range on data. Scour websites like for as much salary information as you can find about your job.

Pushing back on this question helps guarantee that everyone will be paid more fairly going forward.

Angela Copeland, a career coach and founder of Copeland Coaching, can be reached at

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