Avoid Career-Damaging Mistakes At Your Office Holiday Party

Rick Schwartz will never forget the manager he never had. He was working as an inside sales rep at a Fortune 10 company, and the newly hired district manager was invited to the office holiday party to get to know the team a few weeks before she started her job. “She had a bit too much to drink and about 90 minutes into the festivities, she decided to get up on the bar and dance for the crowd while removing her shirt,” Schwartz says. “We neither saw nor heard of her again.”

Unfortunately, embarrassing moments at office holiday parties are not uncommon. Four in 10 Americans report that they’ve either done something embarrassing at an office party or know someone who has, according to a new survey from Adecco Staffing. The most common behaviors to regret later involve too much alcohol, getting too friendly with bosses or co-workers, or just behaving in a less than professional way.

For instance, at her office holiday party, Peggy Sanchez was test-driving a Segway, a two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicle, and “got a little cocky,” she says. When she took a turn too sharply, she and the Segway both went flying — she broke the handlebar off the vehicle and fractured her wrist. Although she didn’t have to pay for the damages, estimated at $2,000, she did have to face all her co-workers at the office the next day.

To avoid incidents you might regret later, “pretend you are not at a party but in the office and maintain a professional demeanor,” says career coach Kera Greene, M.Ed. “An office holiday party should be considered as an office gathering, with the same rules of behavior that you would have in the office. It is impossible to change a negative impression once someone forms it.”

To enjoy your office party without regretting it later, start with these tips:

  • Dress appropriately. The proper attire depends on your office, “but you can rest assured that those ties that light up and sing, as well as those dresses cut down to there, should be saved for personal parties,” says Jodi Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Remember, your outfit should say ‘polished professional,’ not ‘party animal!’”
  • Limit alcoholic drinks. Most career coaches and etiquette experts recommend drinking no more than one or two alcoholic drinks at your office holiday party. “No one’s professional demeanor ever improved with the consumption of alcohol,” Smith says. “Be sure to eat something before you start drinking. And after one or two, skip to the soft drinks. Getting drunk should be saved for when you are with friends and those you trust.”
  • Get out early. “Most of the big-wigs tend to arrive early and leave early,” Smith says. “You too should plan to be on time and leave before things get too messy.” Smith says you’ll know it’s time to leave if the music gets loud and the lights get low, if one or more people begin to remove necessary clothing, if someone drunk is talking into a microphone, or if more than one-third of the guests have already left.
  • Take advantage of networking opportunities. While at the holiday party, it’s a great time to mingle with and talk to people outside your work group, especially executives, says Arden Clise, a business etiquette consultant. “This is a rare opportunity to get to know these folks when they aren’t busy at work,” she says. “Don’t talk about work or be a Debbie Downer. Be upbeat, complimentary and interested in others. Don’t complain, gossip or talk about controversial topics like politics or religion.”
  • Remember your manners. Even if this year’s party reflects the struggling economy (as it probably will), don’t talk about it. “Your boss does not like to be reminded about the lavish parties the company once had,” says etiquette expert and publicist Susan Blond. “Eat your carrot sticks and enjoy.”

Have you had an embarrassing moment at an office holiday party? Let us know (but please keep it G-rated)