The holiday party is full of opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot -- but you may also get a chance to do your career some good. Calvin Sun offers a list of party do's and don'ts to help you steer the right course.
Time flies, doesn't it? Already it's approaching the end of the year, and the inevitable office "holiday party" is looming. Watch yourself -- it's possible to hurt your career at this party. But it's possible to help your career, too. Here are 10 things to keep in mind when that party rolls around.
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#1: Be careful about actually "partying"
You're going to a party, but you should be careful about actually partying. Remember, you're still at a company function. John T. Malloy, the author of Dress for Success and Live for Success, reminds us to imagine that at the party, we're being watched by someone without a sense of humor.
#2: Don't be a pig
Even though the party will have tables of food, don't station yourself by it. Spending large amounts of time there, or making numerous trips to the table, will call attention to yourself. Should you forgo eating altogether? Of course not. Just use moderation. If you really want to be safe, think about eating something before you arrive to avoid going overboard at the buffet.
#3: Dress the part
Find out what type of dress is expected. If the invitation or announcement doesn't say, ask the organizer whether you should come casual, business casual, formal, black tie, or something else. When in doubt, it's better to overdress than underdress. If you're really in doubt, maybe bring a set of more casual clothing in your car so you can change if you need to.
#4: Stay sober
Need I say anything more? This advice applies to your condition when you arrive, your condition during the party, and your condition when you leave. Don't jeopardize your career by being inebriated. You might easily do or say something that will hurt you.
#5: Watch what you say
Even in the absence of alcohol, it's easy to get into trouble by what you say. I'll go into more detail below, but in general I recommend staying away from the usual dangerous subjects of religion and politics. In addition, if and when you're reminiscing about the previous year, give things a positive spin, rather than complain. For example, instead of saying how crazy and disorganized a particular project was, talk (if you can do so truthfully) about how, in spite of the heavy workload and tight deadlines, you were happy about what your team accomplished.
#6: Be careful about discussing spouses
It's happened to me twice, and it's embarrassing. During the holiday party in year x, I see co-worker A with his or her spouse. Then, at the holiday party in year x+1, I stupidly ask A, "How's [name of A's spouse]?" Twice, I received the same answer: "I don't know; we're divorced."
What's the best thing to do, when you're in year x+1, and see A without his or her spouse? I recommend that you avoid discussing the spouse unless and until A brings up the topic. Think of a criminal trial as an analogy: The prosecution can't, by itself, call the defendant to the stand and start examining that person, because doing so violates the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. However, if that defendant voluntarily takes the stand, the prosecution can (cross)-examine the person.
#7: Beware assumptions about pregnancy
It's fine to note to yourself, mentally, that a woman appears to be pregnant. But be really careful about asking her about it. It's definitely wrong to do so in an employment interview, but it's also inadvisable in a party context. What happens if the answer is "no"? You have absolutely no way of retreating gracefully, other than, "Excuse me while I take my foot out of my mouth."
The same advice may apply in reverse. If a woman starts talking about her pregnancy, you might want to avoid a comment such as, "Oh, I didn't know you were expecting."
#8: Be careful about work topics
The chances are high that you will be chatting with senior-level people of your organization. When doing so, be careful about what you discuss. A previous point cautioned against complaining about the previous year. Similarly, avoid talking about promotions and salary increases (or the lack thereof). Avoid talking about personal work issues you are facing. The party is the wrong time to discuss these things.
What about offering suggestions? If you're going to offer suggestions at all, the safest ones (compared to "stop doing x" or "start doing y") fall into the category of "I like policy/practice z, can you do more of it?"
#9: Have an elevator talk prepared
The other alternative when talking with company execs is simply to introduce and talk about yourself. For this reason, have your 15-second elevator talk ready. It's the talk you would give to someone about yourself and your job if you were in an elevator and had only 15 seconds or so to give it. In this talk, discuss your role, your accomplishments, and why you like the job (assuming you really do). It's also good form (again, if you can do it truthfully) to put in a good word about your immediate boss.
#10: Beware of inappropriate behavior
Even though you're at a party, and away from the office, the normal rules of conduct still apply. Don't do things that will cause you to be accused of harassment. Confine your physical contact to a handshake, and MAYBE a brief hug, if that. Other gestures beyond these can lead to trouble.
Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.