Care About Fairness? Stop Negotiating Salaries.​

By Christina Greenberg

States across the country have recently adopted new salary transparency laws, mandating that companies post the salary ranges for the positions they are hiring for. But transparency is just a starting point. It’s time to put a stake through an underlying practice that’s undermining fairness: salary negotiations.

This year, New York City lawmakers voted to require most job postings to be accompanied by a minimum and maximum salary range for the position. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Nevada and Washington already have salary-range disclosure laws in place, and Rhode Island soon will, too. This long overdue measure intends to help rectify unfair wage gaps that have plagued too many workers for too long. 

A 2020 study from the Pew Research Center found that women earn 16 percent less than men working in the same position. So, women with the same education, qualifications, experience and title make 84 percent of what their male counterparts do, meaning they would have to work almost six more weeks in a year to balance out that inequity. This gap is even wider for women of color.

These gaps are well-known. Less obvious is an insidious practice that perpetuates them: salary negotiations. It’s something we see frequently in leadership searches. In one recent job search to find a team leader for a large education nonprofit, everything seemed to be going right. The organization was interested in an excellent applicant with strong qualifications and experience. But when it came time to prepare an offer letter for this Latina candidate, things went sideways. They offered her less than the salary range internally discussed, saying they assumed negotiations would happen, so we should “leave some wiggle room.” 

It’s an example of why salary negotiations must be relegated to the past. I don’t believe this organization lowballed the applicant because they are intentionally racist or sexist — but my instincts tell me they wouldn’t have undermined their own salary offer with a similarly qualified white man. 

There’s an old canard that women get lower salaries because they don’t ask for more, so they are encouraged to “push back” and “lean in.” It’s not just insulting and victim-blaming, but factually wrong — women aren’t helped, and are often set back further, in such negotiations. A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research reported, “Although substantial resources are used to improve negotiation skills, there is limited evidence of the impact such training has on salary negotiations,” largely because no matter how strong their negotiation skills are, women continue to face gender-based bias. 

Women suffer in negotiations not because they are incapable, but because their perspective is rooted in a current salary that is already too low — a self-reinforcing form of disadvantage. Worse, women are damned if they do, damned if they don’t — they get lower salaries if they don’t negotiate, but if they do, research shows their reward is more likely to be reputational damage than additional dollars. 

The unavoidable conclusion: it’s time we stop trying to “fix the women,” and fix the deeply flawed system that created a Catch-22 for both women and people of color. In our view, asking women to keep playing cards with a stacked deck unfairly puts the onus for change on the victims of an inequitable system.

Hiring through negotiations is inviting a game of darts in the dark. Enough with the games. It’s time we turn on the lights and approach hiring with eyes wide open. Here’s how organizations serious about equity can fix the negotiation problem:  

    1. Adopt a non-negotiations policy for employee recruitment. Employers have prejudices that affect salary offers, and “salary ambiguity” opens the door for discrimination. If you don’t offer negotiation, candidates will be relieved. They don’t want to leave money on the table, so letting them know that’s not the case early builds trust from the get-go. New employees will feel they are in a situation where they are supported, not like they will need to constantly advocate for themselves. 
    2. Do the market research and make sure pay offers are fair and competitive. These “salary assignments” should be determined based on the job description, level of responsibility and experience. It’s long past time to stop offering new candidates pay based on what they currently make. We know there is a wage gap, so why would we base salary on what people currently earn? Pick a range that’s fair and stick to it — don’t change the rules of the game halfway through.
    3. Commit to transparency. Publish your pay ranges along with the position description and when you make an offer, explain that not negotiating is rooted in a commitment to equity. 
    4. Talk about salary early and often. If it’s just coming up for the first time in the offer letter, it’s too late. 
    5. Communicate when there will be opportunities for salary adjustments. Throughout the course of the year, there may be times to reassess. 

It’s time to bring sunlight and fairness to the process, and push for systemic change. These mandates in states across the country are a good first step, but we must take it further. It’s time to end the negotiations game, which only leads to suspicion, distrust and inequity, and adopt employment practices that are worthy of the organizations – and employees – they are meant to serve.

Christina Greenberg

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We believe equity isn’t a box to check. It’s a daily action. Someone’s unique identity isn’t something to overcome–when paired with the right opportunity, it becomes one of their greatest professional assets. We exist to empower social impact organizations to recognize and overcome unconscious bias, racism and sexism so they can build a workforce that reflects and strengthens the communities they serve.