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

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | Alaska Workplace
  • Updated: November 15, 2016
  • Published November 15, 2016

Has a prospective employer asked for a copy of your W-2? You have a few options for how to respond. (Thinkstock)

Q: When I interviewed this morning for a job at a large engineering company, 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 two new questions and also furnish my 2015 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?

A: Employers can ask for an applicant's prior year W-2. This 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 the 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 employee.

Second, W-2 forms may include information on dependent care benefits and Alaska's discrimination laws protect 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 such as Rhode Island prohibit employers from asking for an applicant's W-2.

Employers who request W-2 information, particularly if it's electronically furnished, 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 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 as 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.

Finally, 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.

Q: My boss and I have a love/hate relationship and I plan to resign tomorrow. I don't, however, want to burn a bridge, as Anchorage is a small town. How can I leave goodwill on the table?

A: Craft a well-written resignation letter, thanking your boss for the opportunity to work with and learn from him. Mention two or three qualities of his leadership you particularly valued.

Before you deliver the letter, let your boss know you plan to resign, in person, and before you talk to any of your coworkers. If he asks why you're leaving, explain what intrigues you about the offer you've taken, and don't air current or past grievances.

Provide your boss two to four weeks of notice, and let your boss know that if he wants you to leave earlier, you'll completely understand.

Outline for your boss how you'll hand off any work that you haven't yet completed.  Also, offer that your boss or replacement can call you in the future with any and all questions.

If your coworkers ask you why you're leaving, mention what interests you about your future job or employer.  Remember, anything you say may ultimately be reported to your boss even if you ask for confidentiality. After all, if you talk about a problem with a coworker who has a similar issue, that coworker may use your discontent to buttress his issue when he later presents it to your boss.

Finally, don't slack off. Work up until the last minute, so that the final impression you leave is that of a highly committed employee.