Can a prospective employer ask for a W-2 as proof of salary history?

Question:

When I interviewed this morning for a job at a large professional services firm, the interviewer seemed skeptical that I’d made as much as I said I’d made on my most recent job. This afternoon, I got an email asking that I answer seven additional questions and also furnish my prior year’s W-2.

I’ve never before been asked for a W-2. Is this even legal? I called the company’s HR and asked, “What’s the reason?” and this very nice woman said it was to “verify the salary and bonus information you provided.” Does that mean they think I’m a liar?

Answer:

No federal law prohibits employers from requesting that applicants provide W-2s to verify past employer and salary history. Some states, however, have specific laws prohibiting this practice.

Your interviewer asking you to provide your W-2 may be part of the employer’s normal process or because the interviewing manager didn’t believe you. Some applicants inflate their salary history hoping to increase a prospective employer’s offering salary. Employers often like to know an applicant’s salary history before they initiate negotiations.

Employers who request W-2s take a risk. First, they turn off applicants who consider the request overly intrusive. Some applicants see the request as a signal they’re not trusted or that they’ve interviewed with an overly structured, restrictive employer or one who always wants the “upper hand”.

Second, W-2 forms may include information on dependent care benefits, a problem as discrimination statutes in many states protect an applicant or employee’s parental status.

A line item detailing sick pay could give away an applicant’s health history, another category protected under state and federal discrimination laws. For these and other reasons, some states prohibit employers from asking for an applicant’s W-2.

Employers who request W-2 information, particularly if it’s electronically furnished, additionally need to protect the data received, as it includes the applicant’s Social Security number.

As an applicant, you have some options for dealing with a W-2 request.

You can provide the W-2.  If you earned what you said you earned, you potentially will surprise the interviewer and show that you were a straight shooter. Your former compensation may lead to a higher salary offer.

If the interviewer didn’t trust you and you inflated your salary, you’ll prove him right.

If you worked for an employer who paid you less than you were worth, your past W-2 may limit your negotiating ability.

You can say you don’t feel comfortable providing such private information. If so, you potentially eliminate yourself as a candidate because the employer may consider you noncompliant and stubborn.

If you hesitate to provide your W-2 because you didn’t feel your last employer paid you what you felt you were worth, you can provide it along with an explanation that details why it wasn’t a true reflection of your value.

Your hesitation may turn out to be a non-issue. Although some former employers decline to provide a prospective employer with a past employee’s salary history, most provide it, and thus your interviewing employer can get the information they seek through reference or background checking.

Finally, the fact that your prospective employer asked seven more questions signals that they consider you an interesting, viable candidate.

© 2020, Lynne Curry

Lynne Curry, Ph.D., SPHR, is the author of “Beating the Workplace Bully” (AMACOM, 2016, https://amzn.to/30V5JO6) and “Solutions”, https://amzn.to/2GYlnAN (both books are rated 4.8 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com). Send your questions to her at https://workplacecoachblog.com/ask-a-coach/ or follow her on twitter @lynnecurry10.  www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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One thought on “Can a prospective employer ask for a W-2 as proof of salary history?

  1. Interesting commentary here. While it’s not illegal t ask–at least at the federal level–your comments show that there still are very real legal considerations and responsibilities for the employer and applicant. I like the very practical suggestion that the employer could also verify salary in a reference check with the former employer. And you end with the upbeat comment that the fact they asked seven more questions after that may indicate the employer is seriously interested. Let us hope.

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