It's the holiday season and, as a dues-paying member of the Guild of Workplace Advice Dispensaries, I am legally required to weigh in on the greatest threat facing American workers: the holiday office party.

I've received an onslaught of emails lately desperately promoting experts who can explain how to "avoid holiday party conflict and controversy." There are legal experts, psychological experts, etiquette experts and leadership experts, and they all need to get their messages out RIGHT NOW before we all die of office parties.

On behalf of every rational worker out there, allow me to say this: Enough.

We are not children, and the annual holiday party is not a complicated event.

It's a work event. Don't drink too much; don't Xerox your butt.

If they put me on the "Today" show to offer holiday party advice, I would smile politely, look into the camera and say, "Don't be an idiot." Then I'd go hang with Al Roker and talk about high-pressure systems or something.

Moving on.

A reader emailed recently with an interesting job-search question. She explained that when she interviews with prospective employers, human resources officials always ask about her current salary.

"I am willing to share a target salary but prefer not to share my current salary," the reader wrote. "It seems that an individual who has not jumped jobs every few years is behind on average pay. By sharing this information with a prospective employer, the underpaid dilemma has an opportunity to persist."

She then asked whether she's legally required to provide salary information and if there's a delicate way to handle the situation when she doesn't want to reveal her current pay.

This is an issue I'd never considered, and since I've yet to achieve omniscience (only four more classes to go!), I consulted an expert.

Craig Annunziata, regional managing partner at the employment law firm Fisher & Phillips, said it's 100 percent legal for an employer to ask a job candidate about salary or wages.

"There's no prohibition on that," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with it. I think it's more appropriate than not to do that."

Annunziata explained that while it's easy to suspect an employer wants that information for nefarious reasons, like trying to keep a job candidate's pay as low as possible, that's rarely the case.

"The reason most employers ask about wages is usually a benevolent one," he said. "They want to make sure that if it's an employee they really want, they can be competitive with their offer."

Part of the reason they ask the applicant is because former employers won't reveal wages. They'll confirm information like dates of employment or last position held, but nothing about money.

So the only way a company can know what you've been making – and thus what ballpark it needs to be in if it wants to make you a competitive offer – is to ask.

Annunziata added that even if your current salary is low, it's not in an employer's best interest to lowball you on its offer.

"There has to be some harmony within their organization," he said. "So let's say the new employer decided to underpay the new hire by 30 percent. That person is eventually going to find out what she makes compared to her peers, because that always happens. And that would invariably cause some problems."

There are always exceptions, of course, but I think what Annunziata is saying makes good, pragmatic sense. You shouldn't view a question about salary as an attempt to minimize what you'll get paid if you're hired.

And since it's legal to ask, I don't think there's an artful way to dodge the question. You'd do best to just give them an honest answer.

But ... pause here for dramatic effect ... you shouldn't stop after giving that answer. Quickly pivot to information that makes it clear you were outperforming your previous salary. Give some concrete examples of the skills you bring to the table.

You're not in a salary negotiation; you're in an interview. You need to sell yourself to the company before you worry about what you'll get paid.

Convince the interviewer that you're the most qualified candidate and that you're a good, likable person who will fit in well with the company's culture. The time for talking money is after you've left an indelible impression on the interviewer and he or she calls a few days later and offers you the job.

If a company's final offer still seems low, consider these two things:

Is the job good enough to take the lower pay? (There's value in being happy.)

Does it present room for growth and a chance to increase your pay? (Nothing wrong with being confident that you'll impress them and move up quickly.)

That should be enough for you to make a decision, safe in the knowledge that you can always say no.

Oh, and one more thing. You might want to ask if they allow butt-Xeroxing at their holiday parties. I consider that a rather sizable perk.



Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.


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