Do’s and Don’ts of Office Parties

You are the picture of professionalism. Your colleagues admire your work ethic, your drive to succeed, and most of all, your dignity. And then comes the holiday office party, where you grab the karaoke microphone and deliver a punk version of “Take This Job and Shove It,” complete with brilliantly descriptive hand gestures.

Go to enough office parties, and you’re bound to see a few good reputations crumble. While some people go down in flames — dancing on tables, passing out in the nachos, etc. — others make more subtle missteps that can be nearly as damaging to their careers, says business etiquette expert Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of the New York City-based consulting firm Etiquette International and author of the book At Ease… Professionally (Bonus Books). Office parties offer a great opportunity to mingle and network, she says, but nobody should step onto that minefield without a game plan and plenty of common sense.

People who prefer to have their fun without their boss watching may consider skipping the office party completely, but that would be a mistake, Klinkenberg says. “It’s a smart move to go to office parties,” she says. “You can meet and mingle with people throughout the organization, including people you don’t usually get a chance to see.” Without a doubt, many important business relationships have been formed around the buffet table or the bar.

Go light on alcohol

The number-one rule of office parties is almost too obvious to mention, but many people evidently need to be reminded: Go easy on the alcohol. “People have a few drinks and let their hair down,” Klinkenberg says. “They say and do things that are less than professional, and it can sink their careers.” Klinkenberg says partygoers should start with something in their stomachs and limit themselves to one or two drinks.

Avoid romancing coworkers

Going light on the alcohol will prevent a lot of embarrassment, but even sober partygoers can make serious missteps. For one thing, the already complicated world of office romance can become even thornier in a bar or restaurant. Most workplace dynamics are still in place, but inhibitions and common sense can fall away, blurring the already fine line between a romantic overture and sexual harassment. (Companies could potentially be liable for any harassment that occurs during an office party, a fact that worries many financial officers.) According to Klinkenberg, the only to way avoid disaster is to make sure that all romantic gestures between colleagues are discreet and reciprocal. Even if you do think your feelings are reciprocated, it might make more sense to act on them at another time.

Inappropriate attire

Holidays are a great time to wear glitzy clothes, but find out if the dress for your party calls for casual business or formal attire. You don’t want to walk into a black tie affair with a pair of slacks and a Hawaiian shirt, or come to an informal party wearing a tux. If you want to maintain your reputation around your bosses, it also isn’t the best time to break out anything too tight, revealing, or low-cut to be considered professional. This should apply even if you’re the date at your partner’s office party.

Missed manners

Basic manners can be another trouble spot, Klinkenberg says. Too many people overload their plates, talk with their mouths full, and make other blunders in full view of their bosses. And it drives bosses crazy. “They think to themselves, “If my employees can’t master these basic manners, how are they acting when they’re with clients?” she says. Many employers have asked her to give seminars on manners after seeing their employees talk with their mouths full, she says.

Loose lips

When it is time to open their mouths, employees should be careful about what they say. Business etiquette expert Naomi Poulson, director of The Etiquette School in Dana Point, California, says a little tact can prevent a lot of trouble. Office gossip, for example, should be strictly off-limits. “It can make you popular briefly, but it hurts you in the long run,” she says. “You don’t want to be thought of as the one with loose lips.” Salaries are another taboo topic. Beyond that, partygoers can talk about practically anything. Some old-school etiquette experts suggest avoiding such topics as politics and religion, but others say these are fine subjects for discussion — as long as they don’t attack the core beliefs of anyone else.

To avoid long, awkward pauses, Poulson recommends coming up with five or so icebreaking conversation starters before going to a party. (Criticizing the food or dcor definitely shouldn’t be among them.)

Pulling rank and level-jumping

It’s a good idea to introduce yourself to top management, but being falsely chummy isn’t. Neither is inquiring about your boss’s personal life or sharing drinking stories like an old fraternity pal. It should go without saying that overly boisterous behavior at a holiday party may have its consequences. At one normally subdued Christmas gathering, a group of employees brought their own 10-foot limbo stick and music. Although the limbo livened up the party, the next year, the holiday party was canceled.

Another grievous faux pas is pulling rank. Asking a subordinate to get you a drink or a plate of food shows a lack of class that will not go overlooked by those around you — including someone who may be your next employer.

Thank the host

With all of the caveats and cautions, it’s easy to forget the final rule of office parties: They’re supposed to be fun. Every job is laughable on some level — even if it’s a comic tragedy — and this is the perfect time to let it loose. Be friendly or at least cordial, and thank whoever is paying the bill. And if someone else decides to rush the stage or do the limbo with pool cues, remember: You can stay quite contented on the sidelines. And when the next workday rolls around, you won’t have to hide behind your desk.


Interview with Hilka Klinkenberg, founder of Etiquette International.

Interview with Naomi Poulson, director of The Etiquette School.

Holiday office party do’s and don’ts. Randall S. Hansen, PhD.

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