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10 things you should do (and not do) at your company's holiday party

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.

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.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#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.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

56 comments
kama410
kama410

Apparently you never worked in the IT dept. of a certain prestigious consulting firm with offices in Cleveland's Skylight Office Tower. While I was there we had, not a party, but a weekend seminar. Open bar. Eventually they served appetizers. After everyone was hammered. I think if they had found anyone insufficiently intoxicated they would have been held down and fed beer. Work was not discussed. Professional? Uhm. No. Fun? As the Enron executives said, "I'm sorry, I do not recall the events in question."

jck
jck

If I attend a company-sponsored party at off-company property, then I may act in a fashion as I would as if I was at a bar. I am not there in a professional role, nor am I on the clock. So long as I do nothing to break the law, I don't let them tell me how to behave. As for standing around the food table, any good party goer knows the most acceptable place to stand...is the bar! ]:) (P.S.- yes, I will flirt with the boss' daughter if she's cute enough and of age...i can always get another job ]:) )

Bizzo
Bizzo

I remember those things from a few years back. We used to call them Christmas parties, had them just before Christmas, to celebrate Christmas. But some people got offended by the name Christmas parties and what they were celebrating, as it doesn't apply to their religion. So we started having "seasonal" parties, hosted some time in the New Year, plenty of food and drink to be had by one and all. But some people got offended by the fact that alcohol was being served in the same room as them and alcohol was against their religious beliefs. So the company doesn't fund nor host alcohol-free seasonal parties anymore. I know that some people may think what I've written is racist or whatever, it's not meant to be, especially seeing as a couple of months ago, the Diwali party went so well.

sconyers
sconyers

That was the first thing my company cut when the economy started tanking seriously this year. They're nice to have, but they're also a completely unnecessary expense. Now my office location is still having a potluck lunch, but the company hosted party is gone for at least a year and probably more.

jsaubert
jsaubert

And I'm reminded again why I love my job so much. We have one big luncheon during business hours for the entire office. You don't have to go but nearly everyone does ... free food, funny carols and our annual charity auction take up most of an afternoon. Most of the individual units have their own after-hours parties. Some are fairly formal but most are not, one invite I got this year said "shoes optional" (it's nice living in a climate where you can have a Holiday Party at the beach).

.Martin.
.Martin.

no punching the boss in the stomach? damn, so that is what went wrong :D

cynic 53
cynic 53

I have a very safe policy indeed. As a matter of principle I NEVER attend any works Social Functions. They get 37.5 hours of my time each week for which they pay me and I have no wish to carry my work into my precious leisure time. I can then relax with people with whom I actually wish to associate in comfort, not those I am forced to be with, eating what and as much as I wish, having a drink as I desire, taking a cab home if in a bar or restaurant and I do NOT have to talk shop. Perhaps in these times of "Credit Crunch" businesses may abandon annual Dinner Dances, BBQs etc , my employers have to save money.

WTRTHS
WTRTHS

The main thing you don't want to do, is have fun. Some people might think you're up to something. God I hate office politics. Even more than real politics, because it's usually more meaningless.

jengels
jengels

Some of the stuff listed is overboard. Drawing attention for eating to much???? Who cares!!

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

And what about the comment "what, you are pregnant, who in the world would f**k You?" I think that should be banned as well :^0

Tig2
Tig2

Attending the company holiday party is compulsory. I discovered that the hard way. I took a call from a station at around 4:00 on the day of the party. The client had experienced a bad crash so couldn't do his business. This is Sev One in that world. I spent the next three or so hours talking him through a work around that would at least give me time to get an on-site tech to him. At the end of the call, I called the team that would be sending the tech and made certain that the station had priority for the next day. Then I went home. Bad plan. Fortunately, I didn't know it yet. Next day I get to the office and have my senior, his senior and HIS senior in my workspace. Waiting. Not happy. We adjourn to the conference room. Subject at hand? I didn't make it to the holiday party. What saved me? I had badged out of the office after 8:00pm. It was snowing and the party was black tie. So I would have had to drive home in the snow, change into suitable attire from my business suit, and then drive to the location. It would have been at least 10:00 by the time I made it. I was let know that it was a good thing that I got the station taken care of but in the future, my attendance at company events was expected. I am so glad that I don't deal with that very much any more.

jck
jck

that sounds like the place for me. :^0

JamesRL
JamesRL

You aren't being graded, but you may or may not be noticed. You will be noticed if you are on the extremes. If you are extremely well behaved or very poorly behaved, you may do something which may affect your career. I don't care whether you like it or not. Its the truth, and if you don't like it, work for yourself. Of course, much depends on where you are in the company; younger lower level employees can have sins forgiven, people in key positions are expected to set an example. If a salesperson is an ugly drunk its not hard to imagine what might happen when he/she is entertaining a client. James

jdclyde
jdclyde

We will maintain the illusion of respectability. B-)

JamesRL
JamesRL

We have some devout muslims here, and some Hindus, and they attend our formal Christmas parties, the ones that serve alcohol and pork products, and as long as there are alternatives made available, they are happy. Some people are just looking to complain. The same devout muslim family comes to the kids' Christmas party, and the kids sit on Santa's lap. We make sure we have a few pork free pizzas and everyone is ok. I don't see any racism in what you wrote, and I've taken diversity training. James

jdclyde
jdclyde

don't need a reason. I still think that people that don't believe in Christmas should not take the day off, nor should they get holiday pay for it. Treat it like any other day, keep the business running, and give them a free day of their choosing later in the year. Merry Christmas.

OnTheRopes
OnTheRopes

I'm pretty sure they're out of their gourds.

JamesRL
JamesRL

The plans were for an offsite party at a resort - we would pay the price for the hotel room, and the company would pay for the dinner. But we were directed to cancel even if we had paid a deposit - they sent a memo to every branch we have in the world. Given the state our customers are in, we will probably not have one next year. I will probably enjoy the potluck just as much. James

EliSko
EliSko

I think punching the boss is somewhat of a worse idea than getting drunk and vomiting on his (or her) shoes. But I can assure you that you can be fired for the latter! ;^) Of course, a friend of mine was fired because he parked in the CEO's spot for "just a moment" as he ran upstairs to show us the brand new car he'd just picked up at the dealer. Of course the boss chose that moment to pull in to work. A.T. had the last laugh, though. The boss didn't know that while he was relocating the company had put him up in a corporate apartment (which is why he was also buying the new car.) So after being told that Friday that it was his last day, he took his severance pay and called up everyone he knew, posted signs at the local college, and had the BIGGEST party you ever saw. The company was even less amused when they were given the police complaints for noise, on top of having to repair damages both to the corporate apartment and to various neighbors' windows, the shrubbery that was run over by a car, etc. It was a H*** of a revenge, and I've always kept a warm spot in my heart for that crazy Russian. (I was fired from that job two months later because I was caught doing crossword puzzles in my cubicle during my lunch break. "Projecting an unprofessional image" don't you know? :-/ )

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

You mean your resignation wasn't effective [u]before[/u] the party started? Silly boy! :^0

lazerous200
lazerous200

I believe exactly the same way. I hate Office Politics. Office Holiday parties? Bah! Humbug!

jdclyde
jdclyde

"She uses her personality as birth control". B-)

Jaqui
Jaqui

you don't use the old: I wouldn't f%^k you with HIS Dick! or: How much did the sperm bank charge?

cupcake
cupcake

Never expected that one Scummy! I read that one halfway through a drink and Diet Coke went up my nose! Totally worth it though! (That was something I have wanted to ask some women in the past!!)

road-dog
road-dog

Three levels of management to deal with non-attendance of the company party. I bet that organization was a LOAD of.... fun. Did you have all of the hourly folks in the company submit timecards for the duration of the affair? After all, absence was considered a serious breach of compulsory attendance. The way I see it, if you tell me I need to be there as a function of work performance, I GOT to get paid!

jkameleon
jkameleon

> I was let know that it was a good thing that I got the station taken care of but in the future, my attendance at company events was expected. Happend to me once. My answer was: "Thanks for invitation, but... you know, it's bad enough to spend >8 hours a day with same people each and every bloody workday for years on end. You can't expect me to party with them on top of that. Sorry, but I just can't bring myself to it." There were no consequences, and I wouldn't care if they were.

jck
jck

Yeah well, I have seen far more upper level people act in appropriately where I worked. Lower level people were too scared with management around. Besides, I don't care if they don't like it. They can get rid of me for that, just like I can get rid of them for being uptight idiots. Like I said, I can understand if you do something illegal. But if I don't do anything morally wrong and I have some drinks and have a good laugh with co-workers, no one should be able to tell me I was "too unprofessional". I can understand being harsh to the extremes...someone sexually harassing a co-worker...someone damaging facility items...etc...should be punished. That's illegal. However if I'm on my own time and not serving in a professional capacity, how should me doing something considered "inappropriate for the workplace" (like telling a dirty joke) be considered inappropriate for an extracirricular activity? Just because the company pays for the drinks doesn't determine they can dictate how I behave on my own time. Unless of course, I agree to a morals clause ;)

jck
jck

is for people who have no pride in what they're really like and have no issue with misleading people or lying about their true intentions or attitudes. I'll keep job hopping, and you and your kind can keep being deceptive to people you supposedly respect or have some professional relation. Enjoy living a lie...lifer.

magic8ball
magic8ball

Some people are just looking to complain. My first job was working at the local burger hut. One family that came in quite regularly ALWAYS had something to complain about. If it wasn't the food it was the store being dirty or a window had a streak on it or whatever. One time one of the managers was pretty fed up with these people and asked why they kept coming in if they always had something to complain about. That pretty much left them speechless and they didn't come back in for a while. Eventually they started coming back and complaining as usual. Some folks can never change.

cmiller5400
cmiller5400

[i]I was fired from that job two months later because I was caught doing crossword puzzles in my cubicle during my lunch break. "Projecting an unprofessional image" don't you know? :-/[/i] Wow. That is about the only word I can think of that is permissible on a public website. I don't think I would have put up with that atmosphere very long. I guess I am very lucky to be working for a great company. I love to attend any of the functions that I can because we are so large I don't get to see everyone that I deal with on a regular basis and it allows me to have some "face time" with the higher ups as well.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Did you by any chance mean "Hear! Hear!"?

jdclyde
jdclyde

No, why? Because I can't believe someone would f##k you more than once..... :0 B-) that one always makes me laugh.... ;\

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

If you drink enough, they get real pretty. Even physically unattractive people need luv!

Tig2
Tig2

And I can't say that hourly staff were compelled to attend. Salary staff absolutely were. What blew me away was that their attention wasn't on whether or not the customer was taken care of. They were worried about a stupid holiday party. It was even suggested to me that in the future I should bring what I would be changing into with me to the office and change there. That way I would have been able to attend after fixing the customer's needs. I can't say that it hurts my feelings any to not be working for them any longer.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

If I'm expected to be at the holiday party, hold it during the work day or pay me to be there. No pay, no attendance.

jck
jck

Why I tend not to go to a company function usually. As for telling a dirty joke: If you worry about what I do outside of the office away from my role as an employee for you, then you have too much free time as my manager and need more on your plate. A party is a social environment, not a venue of professional conduct and an absolute measure of moral and ethical conduct in the workplace. I can understand if it is a party thrown for clients and where they would be at it. That would be a place where you are representing your firm and representing the company in a professional environment. However, no one owns me for 3 free drinks in a 3 hour period. That's why whenever I was a contractor and we had a "working lunch", I did not eat the food. Why should I work an hour for $3 in pizza and soda? Compensation is compensation. And, offering me 2 slices of pizza and a 6 oz glass of diet coke as 1 hour of pay is a slap in the face. But, that's typical corporate mentality. BTW, I've never gotten sloshed at a company function. But, I have told dirty jokes. However, I always told them to other people I knew were of the same mindset. But if someone "overheard" it by chance, then that's their issue. They didn't have to listen to me. If I wasn't directing my jokes to them, then it was their own fault for listening to my conversations with someone else. And, yeah I can have a good laugh without dirty jokes. But, I also have freedom of speech. And if I want to tell a dirty joke and direct it to someone else I know will enjoy it, I'm going to do it. So long as I am outside of the professional environment where I'm being paid to perform my profession, I am not on the company time or dole or responsible to them...again, so long as I don't have a morals clause. But, I choose to exercise my freedom of speech here in America. So if I wanna tell a joke I heard Dave Attell tell, I will tell it. If someone gets all worked up about it at a party, they need to lighten up and get the politically correct/religious goody-two-shoes stick out of their arse.

Michael Jay
Michael Jay

It is just as important to look good on the job as off the job.

JamesRL
JamesRL

If you tell a dirty joke at a company event, and I overhear it, I have to think. 'Does he act that way in the office?' I've seen and heard things and company parties that I let slide. But if you sexually harass someone, get to drunk to walk, etc., I"m going to wonder about your judgement. You wanna let loose on your own dime at a non company function, feel free. There is a fine line between having a good time and overdoing it. The former is fine, overdoing it is poor judgement. You can have a good laugh without dirty jokes. James

jck
jck

where I worked until 2 years ago, there was a woman who was always cow-eyeing me...smart, nice looking, etc etc. but, i would never even consider asking her out as a co-worker. i would be too worried that things would go wrong and i'd have to walk by her cubicle to go to the copier or my boss' office or the door to get to my car. i feel awkward enough being around a lot of people, let alone one i know dislikes me over personal issues.

jdclyde
jdclyde

I have never had any romantic or sexual interest in co-workers. You don't sh1t in your own back yard, ya know? If/when things go bad, you still have to be able to work with that person, and I have never met anyone at work that was worth quitting my job over. Well, you have your rum, I am off to the bar. Last night of dart league, and I took tomorrow off because we are going to be closing the bars tonight. B-) as long as we don't lose, we will hold out being the first place losers. ;\

jck
jck

You call it need to know, I call it you hiding your true self in shame :-p I have enough control to keep my personal and professional lives separate. I have never dated nor asked out a co-worker. Have you, Mr. Control? ;) I am never hard up for a drink. I keep plenty of booze at my house, thank you ]:) I know what you mean. A couple of co-workers said i should go out with them to the nudie bar up by where they live...2 hours from my house. I don't feel like: a) having to get a hotel room for $90. b) having to drive the next morning, rather than being home already c) spending a bunch of money on women who are just out for money Anyways...I'm heading home...to my rum stash ]:)

jdclyde
jdclyde

they are on a "need to know" basis. B-) Some of us have enough self control that we can keep our professional lives and private lives separate. I also am not so hard up for a drink that I have to take advantage of an open bar. :p The main thing preventing me from boozing is my hour drive home on the highway afterwords.

jdclyde
jdclyde

A good manager knows when a customer is hurting the company more than helping it by coming in as a customer.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

TFF! I love it when people have a sense of humor about their professions!

jdclyde
jdclyde

one of the classes I had to take was "Presentations". Many nurses in the class, all doing serious presentations on skin wasting diseases and such. [i](hate that)[/i] They asked what my report was on, so I told them "The benefits of drinking beer", but they thought I was BSing them, UNTIL I started to give the report. Great the look on their faces. Nothing in the requirements said it had to be a SERIOUS presentation. The first half was about the medical benefits. The second half was about the social benefits, including allowing white men to dance and ugly people to have sex. Turned out, the instructor makes his own beer, and planned on taking my report home to his wife to justify his hobby. I got my "A". B-)

Tig2
Tig2

The dress code was very strict and there was a requirement that it be adhered to. I used to wear a lot of suits. These days, I tend to resent having to put on shoes, much less anything more than sweats. And it wasn't that bank officers are delicate. More to keep bank officers from getting jealous, I would guess!

EliSko
EliSko

... a Down-Town Manhattan bank I used to work at in the mid-'80's. We were located in a "satellite" building while construction of the new corporate headquarters was underway. For years afterwards I kept a copy of a memo that went around, reminding staff that even though it was permissible to remove one's jacket in one's personal cubicle, that it was NOT acceptable to use the toilet without a jacket, because there was only a single set of toilets per floor, and bank officers were forced to mingle there with staff. It seems that the sight of an employee in shirtsleeves, washing their hands or combing their hair after "doing their business" might have caused emotional distress to a bank officer. Before receiving the memo I'd never realized just how delicate bank officers were....

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Didn't you know? It's not what you do that matters, but whether you kiss a$$! I think it's a branch off the old "It's not what you are that matters, but what you appear to be" attitude.

jdclyde
jdclyde

Ours will be this friday. Work knocks off a few hours early, and everyone brings a small dish (food, not female). The owners will have beer and some mixed drinks available. I don't partake in the drinking because I have an hour ride home afterwords. Last year, people started shotgunning beer cans.... The "lady" in charge of marketing won the races, but when you are paid to drink with clients I guess you get a lot of practice? Some are trying to get me involved this year, not knowing I have the ABILITY to smoke them, but not the desire thanks to that aforementioned ride home. It is on company time though, so I will be there.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

For years we had a catered lunch on site and then took the afternoon off. About six year ago we started having a catered lunch at a reception facility off site so we would have room to play music and have sight lines clear enough to see everybody. Both of these formats were employees only. Last Saturday evening was our first "off site, after hours, not on a work day, bring a spouse / date" party. Not this space cadet. I wasn't nuts about the other formats. As someone else noted, I see enough of my co-workers during the week. I'm not showing up on my time. Mandatory? Man, I knew I should have put air in the tires. Black Tie??? I couldn't find a rental in size 38 extra short.

mdhealy
mdhealy

The official parties at my company do take place during work time.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Telling my boss "Something I ate doesn't like me" has gotten me out of more events than I can remember. In the ultimate irony, I have missed a few eagerly anticipated events for that very reason.

cynic 53
cynic 53

I suppose if these are held during work hours for which one is being paid them one could be required to attend or stay behind and work if that is possible. If however the event is held out of your normal paid working hours then I cannot see that they can demand your attendance. At one place where I used to work many years ago I had no wish to attend such an event on a Saturday night of all days, I had far better things to do. I phoned the manager organising it that afternoon to say that I had been stricken by a severe intestinal upset and was making frequent trips to the toilet but that I would turn up if they really wanted me to. Needless to say I was told to stay home and thus avoided a boring event that I had no wish to attend.