The holidays are a harbinger of good cheer. Holiday office parties, on the other hand, are notorious for transforming mild-mannered accountants and meek managers into booze-fueled party minions with all the sound and fury of a Disney Christmas parade gone wrong.
Want to avoid cringe-worthy moments at your next holiday party? You’ll need to brush up on the finer points of workplace wisdom and time-honored etiquette to ensure the conversations you have at work in the days following your party aren’t one long twinkle-light string of “I’m sorrys” and “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
How to Dress: Keep It Classy
Experts across the board are united in their opinions about several aspects of office parties, attire included.
Lisa M. Grotts, a San Francisco-based etiquette expert, says your holiday party isn’t your chance to go overboard with gaudy outfits.
“Just because an office function is after work hours doesn’t mean it’s an invitation to dress flashy or wear a revealing outfit,” Grotts said. “Skirts should hit your knee and nothing should be too tight. Skip the cleavage-bearing tops.”
We heard the same sentiment from Jacquelyn Youst, a Pennsylvania-based etiquette consultant.
“Office holiday parties are an extension of the office. This is not the time or place to wear your short skirt and low-cut blouse,” Youst said. “Maintain a professional level of decorum.”
This isn’t your chance push your “I’m casual so I dress casual” agenda, says Laura Handrick, an HR analyst at Fit Small Business.
“This is a time for your co-workers to see how you look all cleaned up,” Handrick said. “If you’re a plumber, like my husband, wear non-work slacks and iron them. Wear a shirt with a collar, more like you’re heading to a golf club than a BBQ.”
Worried about whether you’ll be under- or over-dressed? Read the invitation, ask your coworkers what they’re wearing and go from there, says New York Times best-selling workplace author Joseph Grenny.
“Ask around to find out what others are wearing. The invitation may suggest the attire, but you never know how the suggestion will be translated,” Grenny said. “Check with your co-workers, then dress slightly above average.”
How to Drink: Keep it at Two
This is the section you’ve probably been waiting for; all the good horror stories are usually the handiwork of booze and beer. As humorous as these stories can be, jobs and reputations are on the line when you’re four Sazeracs deep and ready to air your grievances.
Carlota Zimmerman, a career expert based in Los Angeles, says you can give yourself a head start by eating before you arrive.
“Even half a sandwich and a protein smoothie will work,” Zimmerman said. “Just get something inside you so that the first martini won’t have you self-righteously glaring at your boss as you mentally assemble your declaration of independence.”
Many of the experts we talked with agree: keep yourself to two drinks.
“Two drinks are acceptable, no more,” Youst said. “This ensures that you remain in control and do not do or say anything you will regret.”
While most of us are able to handle two drinks — beer, especially — Zimmerman says people will take notice if you make frequent trips to the watering hole.
“Don’t presume that your colleagues and managers won’t notice if you make six trips to the bar, [even] if you can hold your booze like a statue,” she said. “Stop after two and drink water. The next day you want people to remember you for how charming you were, not your ability to hold 15 gin and tonics.”
Handrick had the best summary of the two-drink limit: “One drink makes you fun, two drinks make you silly and three drinks make you stupid.”
How to Converse: Keep it Cordial
Office holiday parties require conversational skills — introvert or not, you’re probably going to be forced to talk with someone you don’t know that well.
The rules for conversation are essentially the same as drinking: moderation wins. Don’t get too deep and don’t come off as too superficial.
“Appropriate conversation is any compliment related to the holiday outfit others have chosen or any topic related to the holidays, family time or time off,” Handrick said. “’Will you get to see your mom this Christmas in upstate New York?’ is fine.”
As far as mentalities go, look at this as less of a required social event and more of a chance to get to know your coworkers better, even if the conversations are kept light.
“Use the office holiday party to connect with colleagues and build working relationships,” Youst said. “Keep conversation about vacation travels, children’s achievements, etc. Be mindful not to get too personal or discuss divorces or health problems.”
And what about that clan of boozy bros in the corner engaging in utterly impolite conversation? Greg Jenkins, a partner at Long Beach’s Bravo Productions, says stay away.
“Refrain from any off-color remarks, even if others engage in risqué dialogue or indecent statements,” Jenkins said. “And avoid conversations that are political or religious, as well as those that get into gossip.”
When to Leave: Read the Room
Once you’ve had your chance to have a couple of drinks and engage in conversation, you may be ready to head home or to another party.
If the second party is better than the first, don’t mention that to your colleagues, Grenny said. And if you’re worried about leaving too early, gauge the atmosphere.
“When it comes to leaving, take your cue from the majority,” he said. “Leave when most people are leaving.”
Saying Thank You: The Final Step
Whether you loved your holiday party or hated it, many of our experts said that expressing your gratitude about the party is a professional and polite way to acknowledge the time and money they put into the party.
Amber Hunter, an employee experience director at A Plus Benefits, said that you can leave a lasting impression on your bosses if you let them know you enjoyed yourself and appreciated the company’s efforts to plan a holiday party.
“Send a quick email or thank-you note to your company leaders after the party,” Hunter said. “It will go a long way.”
J.R. Duren is a personal finance reporter at HighYa.com, where he covers credit cards, credit scores, student loans and more. He is a three-time winner at the Florida Press Club’s Excellence in Journalism contest.