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A survival guide to company holiday parties

A veteran event planner, Greg Jenkins has seen a fair share of office holiday party gaffes. He recalls one tipsy guest who took down the Christmas tree, having lost his balance and tried in vain to steady himself by grabbing onto it.

Also etched in his memory is the “wardrobe malfunction” at another holiday gathering, when a young female employee in a low-cut dress got too wild on the dance floor.

You don’t have to destroy property or expose yourself to make a bad impression at the company holiday party. Staying glued to your smartphone or complaining about the food may seem innocuous, but such behaviors can hurt you professionally. What you do at these celebrations can also help to further your career.

Now that the holiday season is upon us, here are some do’s and don’ts for navigating these oft-dreaded affairs: 

Show up and mingle: The party may, in theory, be optional, but your managers and co-workers will probably notice your absence, especially if you don’t have a good excuse for not attending.

“It’s not really optional [to attend]. It’s an opportunity to socialize with colleagues and higher-ups. Somebody you meet at the party may be interviewing you in a few months” for a new position, said Barbara Pachter, a speaker and coach specializing in business etiquette and communications.

Working the room may be uncomfortable, but being a wallflower won’t serve you well. Mingle with both people you know and those you don’t -- rather than sitting by yourself, chatting with the same person the entire time or staring at your smartphone.

Make sure also to network with higher-ups. Keep the conversation brief and focused on business, although you don’t have to talk shop the entire time, said Pachter, author of “The Essentials of Business Etiquette.”

The most-common type of inappropriate behavior “is the people who stand in the corner because they’d rather not be there,” said Tom Gimbel, chief executive officer of staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network in Chicago.

“They’re not drunk or hitting on a co-worker, but they don’t talk to anyone and are there just to show face time. That’s a terrible way to behave at a holiday party or any company event. If you need to be at an event, make the most of it” professionally, added Gimbel.

Don’t tie one on: Companies often serve alcohol at holiday parties to loosen things up. But that doesn’t mean you should overindulge and risk doing or saying something embarrassing. Pachter suggests setting a mental limit for yourself in advance of the party.

“In college, nobody really loves the person who throws the toilet out the window at a party. It’s funny, but people who are out of control, at any age at any type of event, usually aren’t the most beloved people in the friend group,” said Gimbel.

Keep the conversation upbeat: Companies are under no obligation to throw holiday parties, so don’t appear unappreciative by complaining about the food or liquor. It’s also bad form to gripe about work-related issues (such as the size of your bonus or pay raise), or gossip about your boss or colleagues.

“If it’s not top-shelf liquor or craft beer, don’t complain. Nobody likes a negative person,” said Gimbel.

Stay away also from bringing up topics that may make others uncomfortable, such as sex, politics and religion. Political discussions can quickly turn ugly, especially when alcohol is in the mix.

Instead, stick to neutral subjects, such as vacation plans, movies or current events, proceeding cautiously when it comes to the latter. One way to overcome anxiety about making cocktail-party conversation is to think about some possible topics in advance, said Pachter.

Dress appropriately: Don’t dress too provocatively or underdress. It’s best to err on the side of caution and overdress, noted Gimbel. That doesn’t mean wear a tuxedo, but don’t go to the other extreme and show up in jeans and a t-shirt, even if the invitation calls for business casual, he said.

If you’re tempted to don an ugly Christmas sweater, go for it, said Gimbel. Your boss and co-workers will probably appreciate your enthusiasm.

“There is always one person wearing the ugly Christmas sweater. That’s fine. People laugh at that,” which makes things festive, he said.

Mind your manners: If you’re ordering from a menu at a restaurant, don’t get the most expensive item, said Pachter. Also, be polite to your servers and use good table manners, which, among other things, means not talking with your mouth full and knowing the difference between the salad and dinner forks.

“Say ‘thank you’ and ‘yes, please’ to your servers. How you treat the servers is a reflection on how you may treat others,” said Jenkins, a partner at Long Beach, California-based Bravo Productions.

If you’re standing the entire time, make sure to keep one hand free, said Pachter. “You can eat and drink, but don’t do both. Keep one hand free for shaking people’s hands,” she suggested. 

Don’t sneak out early or forget to thank the host: If the party is held at someone’s home, bring a small gift, such as a box of chocolates or a candle, said Pachter. Also, make sure to thank the host at the end of the party. A written thank-you note is also a nice touch.

“There is no rule that employers have to have a holiday party or spend a certain amount on one,” said Jenkins. “It’s not something that should be taken for granted.”

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