Ask Mr. Happy Work – Employer Asking for W-2 Forms During the Interview Process?
Welcome to another edition of “Ask Mr. Happy Work”, where you ask me questions about work, careers, education, life, (or anything really), and I answer them!
Today’s question is about a request from an employer to provide old W-2 forms as part of their interview process. Why would employers want these? Is it even legal for them to ask for these? Should you provide the W-2s or not? Let’s dive in a take a look!
Ask Mr. Happy Work – Volume 3
Hi Mr. Happy Work. I just started interviewing for a new position and I ran into something I’ve never encountered before. After an initial phone interview that I thought went pretty well, this potential employer requested that I send them my W-2s from all the companies I’ve worked during the last three years. They say they need them to verify my income and employment history, and that this is the next step to move forward to further interviews..
I’m very confused by this. I consider these documents to be relatively confidential and I don’t really feel comfortable sending them out to a company that may not even hire me. Am I just being paranoid? I have never heard of this before.
– Worried about W-2s
Hi Worried About W-2s,
I don’t blame you one bit for being cautious about this request. It’s not a good practice for employers to request W-2s as part of the interview process, especially before a job offer has been presented! The information an employer is usually looking for on these documents (employment and salary history) can often be obtained through better methods and the employer is risking a lot themselves by making this request. Not to mention the downside of turning off potential job candidates because of the sensitive and confidential nature of these documents.
From a legal standpoint, there isn’t currently any federal law that prevents employers from asking for your W-2 forms. However, there are some states and cities that have created laws that DO prohibit this practice. These laws often prohibit employers from asking for these documents at all while others require that they can only be asked for after a job offer had been presented to the candidate. As a job seeker, it would be important to research your local and state laws to see what is allowable or not as an employer may be breaching the laws with this request.
I personally have some major concerns with this type of request. First and foremost, our W-2s do contain sensitive and confidential information including our social security numbers. I would be extremely leery to give my social security number to a company that I’ve only started interviewing with, especially with no promise of a job offer. There are definitely valid concerns here around privacy and potential identity theft. Who knows what else a company may do with that data.
In most cases, however, employers are most interested in your employment and income history when they request your W-2s. This is definitely important for employers but getting it from a W-2 is the WRONG way to go about it. There are better ways for employers to obtain this information. Most good companies will call employers referenced on a resume and ask to speak to a Human Resource representative who can verify employment dates and salary.
Companies can also present a job offer to a candidate and make it contingent on the verification of this information. At this point, job candidates can feel more confident about providing their W-2s, if needed, since the job offer has been presented. I still don’t recommend the practice of asking for W-2s in any stage of the hiring process, but having a job offer in place is the least that can be done. I recommend that job candidates redact their social security numbers from these documents before submitting them to an employer in these cases.
Information on a W-2 is Not Always Clear
Another issue with acquiring employment/income history from a W-2 is that is it may not present that information most clearly. W-2s won’t show specific dates of employment or statuses that discern between full-time or part-time. Income verification presents many other challenges. A W-2 does not easily show an actual salary or hourly rate (if paid hourly). An employee may also make all manner of contributions to various accounts (health savings, retirement, insurances, etc), and they may also receive other financial earnings such as paid health insurances, bonuses, gift cards, or other perks. A W-2 also won’t account for any raises received throughout the year.
If an employer is looking to verify how much a candidate has earned in the past, a W-2 is not really going to do the best job of disclosing that information. I would go as far to say that employers should put minimal emphasis on a candidate’s prior earnings and instead focus on the position itself and current market conditions. Employers should strive to offer compensation that is competitive in the job marketplace per the job’s requirements, experience required, geographic considerations (cost of living), and the company’s own financial standing and performance.
What To Do
I would NOT recommend providing your W-2s to this employer. I’m not keen about this type of request in general. I feel it’s a bad business practice and potentially a sign of a bad company. It also seems very early in the interview process yet and it’s odd to me that they would make this request after having only done a single phone interview. Perhaps they have short-listed you for hiring, but there could also be dozens of other candidates they are making the same request to. Would you be OK giving them your W-2 forms and not hearing from them again? Is this really the only way they can get your prior employment/income information?
Here’s a couple of other options for how to move forward. Start with researching your local and state laws. Is there any legislation in place that prohibits this practice? Even laws preventing salary/income questions during interviews would extend to requests for a W-2 in many cases. If you find this request is against the law, you may want to heavily reconsider working for this company, or simply turn down the request. If the employer presses further, you can politely let the employer know they can’t request that information. Even if it is legal for them to ask the questions or make the request, I would STILL turn down the request, especially without a job offer.
If you still are interested in pursuing this job, I would recommend letting the employer know you understand their concern about verifying employment/income history but that you don’t feel comfortable sharing your W-2. I would then go on to let them know you would be happy to allow them to verify your employment/income through other means, such as calling your past employers. You can even press them for a conditional job offer noting that you would feel more comfortable with their request for W-2s knowing you’ve been selected for the role upon verification of your employment/income history.
Some Last Thoughts
Overall, I think it’s important that we strive for what is fair and just during the interview process as job seekers. Employers often have candidates bending over backward and fighting to the very end to secure a coveted job offer. They may ask all manner of over-reaching questions or make odd requests during hiring processes, but that doesn’t mean we should automatically agree to them.
I agree with you that this request for W-2s is not typical and I don’t think you’re being paranoid in the slightest. You definitely have a legitimate cause for concern and if you don’t feel comfortable with the request (I don’t blame you), you don’t need to go along with it. Employers should, and can, be able to verify your employment and income history through other means. I hope this helps!
– Mr. Happy Work
Do you have questions about work, careers, education, life, or anything else you want to know? I want to hear from you! Send your questions in today.