Do’s and don’ts for office holiday parties 

How attending the festivities can provide a boost to your career. 
by Courtney L. Vien 

Do’s and don’ts for office holiday partiesThe office holiday party can feel like a social minefield. You want to have fun and enjoy the free food and beverages, but, at the same time, you’re conscious of the fact that all the managers and partners will be there. It’s hard to know how to navigate this hybrid of work and play.

But, done properly, the holiday party can be a boon to your career. Such events are valuable networking opportunities, says Jonna Martin, president of business etiquette training and consulting firm AdvanceMe Associates.

“Holiday parties give you the chance to speak to managers and partners you don’t get to see on a regular basis,” she says. “You can get your voice heard by someone who might not normally interact with you.” 

Parties are also a good opportunity to get to know your co-workers better, as the festive atmosphere encourages people to open up. “You can talk about things that let you see the personal side of your co-workers, like kids, hobbies, and community activities,” said Alison VanOtterloo, vice president of internal audit at Pharmacists Mutual Insurance Co. and a 2014 graduate of AICPA’s Leadership Academy. “You can learn things about people that you might not in an office setting.” Building stronger bonds with your co-workers can only benefit your career.

But at the company party, as at any business event, there are guidelines. Below are Martin and VanOtterloo’s top tips for holiday party success:

  • Do attend. If you’re a new hire, you may be tempted to skip the party. That’s a mistake, Martin says. “Being new is all the more reason to go!” she said. “When you’re not expected to know everything, you can ask networking questions that someone with more seniority might not be comfortable asking, such as what career moves someone’s made or how he or she came to the firm.”
  • Do your homework. “You can incorporate the same strategies for networking at a holiday party as you’d do in any other situation,” Martin says. “Review the employee directory or company website beforehand so you can put names with faces and you won’t be struggling to remember names at the party.”

Martin also suggests checking LinkedIn or the company intranet to see if anyone has a recent promotion or other accomplishment you can use as a conversation opener. “People love it when you know something about them,” she noted.

  • Don’t be a wallflower. VanOtterloo advises getting out of your comfort zone and talking to people you don’t normally interact with. “Don’t just stay at one table or with one group,” she said. “Work the room and introduce yourself to people. You might meet your next boss or be invited to work on a new project.”
  • Don’t talk about work all night. Though work topics will naturally come up at the party—it’s what everyone has in common, after all—Martin suggests keeping shop talk high-level. “The party’s not the time to pitch big ideas in a detailed way,” she said. “At most, ask if you can meet with someone when you’re both back at work.”
  • Do bring your spouse or significant other if guests are invited. “Meeting your spouse or significant other lets your co-workers see you in a multidimensional way,” said Martin. Your spouse can benefit from attending the party as well, VanOtterloo said. “You spend a lot of time at work,” she pointed out. “It’s good for your spouse to see what your work environment is like and be able to put faces with names.”
  • Don’t belly up to the bar. Avoid becoming the topic of next Monday’s water-cooler gossip by limiting your alcohol intake. Martin recommends sticking to a one-drink maximum, not just at holiday parties but at any work-related function. “Always keep in mind that a holiday party is still a business setting,” she said.
  • Do wear the right thing. “Aim for something festive but conservative,” Martin said. “You can ramp up your daily work wear, but keep your outfit consistent with your professional brand.” “It’s essential to know the dress code in advance,” said VanOtterloo, “as appearing too casual or too formal can be awkward.” You should also avoid wearing anything too revealing. “If you question whether you should wear something, then don’t,” she said.
  • Don’t stray too far from your work persona. Holiday parties are all about getting to know people outside of the office setting. But if you act too differently from how you act at work—like busting out the karaoke tunes when you’re normally reserved—your co-workers may not know how to react, VanOtterloo said. Any out-of-character gestures can permanently affect how they view you.  
  • Do be careful about what you post on social media. “Don’t post any pictures that might embarrass people,” Martin said. In fact, less is best and always get permission first.

Above all, enjoy yourself, both women say. “You can be professional and still have fun,” said VanOtterloo.

Courtney L. Vien is an associate editor at the AICPA.

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